Women’s Tennis: Little 3 and NESCAC Champs!!

I had the wonderful experience today of watching the Wesleyan Women’s Tennis Team play in the conference championship against Tufts. Both teams were undefeated throughout the season, and many of the matches were very close. As someone who likes to play a little tennis myself, I was so impressed by the incredibly high level of play. The spirit from all the athletes was intense yet comradely. Watching with Athletic Director Mike Whalen, I was able to cheer on one of my students, Polina Kiseleva, as she clinched the championship for the Cardinals. Congratulations to the entire team and Coach Fried. You can read more about the matches here.

 

Student Art for All to See

As many of you already know, these are the weeks of the Senior Thesis Art Exhibitions. WOW! Kari and I have caught the first two weeks, and we are mightily impressed by the creativity, engagement and power of the work across a variety of media. Just today we saw installation, video, architecture, painting, drawing and mixed media.

Zilkha Gallery

Last week we were surprised and delighted by this Amy Schapp installation.

Amy Schapp installation

 

As one of my Wesleyan teachers used to tell me, “Don’t deny the pleasure any longer.” Next week’s exhibition opens on Wednesday, and you can reserve a time to see the work here.

Standing Firmly for Justice and for Change

Five years ago, Brian Stevenson delivered a powerful Commencement Address upon receiving an honorary doctorate from Wesleyan. He shared his decades of work fighting racial injustice and discrimination in the criminal justice system and told the Class of 2016 that changing the world requires four things: getting closer to the places “where there’s suffering and abuse and neglect”; “changing the narrative” about race in this country; staying hopeful; and being willing to do uncomfortable things.

Over the last year, many of us have felt uncomfortably close to the places where suffering, abuse and neglect are part of daily life. That proximity can be painful, but it is through this closeness, with hope for a better future, that we create change, that we pursue justice. This is a tradition of secular society and of the major faith traditions. “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” it is written in the Book of  Deuteronomy. And the Qur’an tells us to “stand out firmly” for justice — and to be its witness. We rededicate ourselves to this task.

Today Alison Williams (Vice-President for Equity and Inclusion) and I sent the following message to the Wesleyan community. 

Many of us breathed a sigh of relief when the Chauvin trial ended in guilty verdicts. But before we took our next breath, we remembered that acts of hate and injustice remain an ever-present reality for so many in our society. We acknowledge the fear, pain, and outrage over not only the terrible murder of George Floyd, but also over the racism, religious bigotry, transphobia and misogyny that continue to plague our country. We are not, of course, immune from these forms of injustice. The impact on our campus community is very real.

Advancing racial equity, inclusion and justice for people of all races and ethnicities is critical to achieving the safety and security of everyone. We will work collectively to stand against everything that perpetuates and fuels hatred, discrimination and violence against any members of our community.

To that end, we want you to be aware of the following virtual events hosted by the Office for Equity and Inclusion:

4 p.m. on Wednesday: An open Community Conversation and Reflection

https://wesleyan.zoom.us/j/2575792363

Password:  inclusion

Noon on Thursday: BIPOC Community Space

https://wesleyan.zoom.us/j/2575792363

Password:  inclusion

Both of these events will present opportunities for sharing and healing. In addition, students have organized a vigil for students of color on Friday afternoon, April 23.

If you are in need of well-being resources or support, students may reach out to CAPS at 860-685-2910 and faculty and staff may contact the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) at 800-854-1446.

Also, you may go on-line to Report a Hate Crime or Bias Incident at Wesleyan (you may remain anonymous if you wish) or incidents can also be reported directly to Public SafetyThe Office for Equity and InclusionHuman Resources, or the Office of Dean of Students.

The Office For Equity & Inclusion serves as a resource for and leader in equity initiatives on campus. As we continue to develop programming and advocate for initiatives that center equity and inclusion, we welcome the insights and ideas of all members of the Wesleyan community. We invite folks to reach out to any of us, or to send an email to inclusion@wesleyan.edu.

We continue to mourn those lives lost to violence, and we continue the work toward a more just future.

How to Choose A (Our) University

Throughout the spring, high school seniors with the acceptance letters in hand normally visit campuses as they try to decide where to attend college. They are trying to envision the school at which they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, and form friendships that will last a lifetime? How to choose? As I do each spring, I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on choosing a college, with a few revisions for this season of pandemic. The most important issue this year for many will be that they cannot visit schools to get a feel for the campuses where they might live. Schools are offering online substitutes, but it’s hard to pick when one doesn’t get to feel one’s reactionI invite you to visit our Admitted Students website to learn more about Wesleyan.

Many students today are wondering what campus life will be like in the fall, and I can say that we at Wesleyan are planning for a normal university year. Sure, we expect to continue to take health precautions, including ensuring that all students are vaccinated before they begin the semester. And we will monitor the pandemic’s course throughout the coming months.

For many, the decision about where to attend college will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low, and we have replaced them with grants for high need families. We also offer a three-year program that allows families to save about 20 percent of their total expenses, while still earning the same number of credits.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, are popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. If one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Pomona?

As students scan the Wesleyan website, go to chatrooms and listen to current students talk about their experiences, I hope they feel the brave exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I would like prospective students to get a sense of our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life. Our students have the courage to find new combinations of subjects to study, of people to meet, of challenges to face.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out of their education: discovering what they love to do; getting better at it; learning to share it with others. I explain a little bit more about that in this talk to admitted students a few years ago:

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into, but even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping their disciplines. At Wesleyan, we know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will appeal to many of those who are still in the process of getting to know our extraordinary university.

Critical Feeling

In March I published this piece on “Critical Feeling” in Inside Higher Ed

 

With the recent proliferation of conspiracy theories and claims of hoaxes and stolen elections, educators have been asking why so many people so easily find themselves misinformed or downright deceived. Is it the human need to belong to like-minded groups? The power of social media to accelerate the filtering of information to suit preconceived ideas? We should have by now recognized the bottomless ability of those in power to lie with impunity, but the signs are not encouraging. So many Americans continue to rush off to seek the comfort of like-minded groups, heedless of whether those groups misinform or mislead.

Educators often insist that in order to strengthen our ability to resist being misled we should become better at critical thinking. And that’s understandable. For more than 50 years, educational theorists have stressed that colleges should help students determine what kinds of information are most reliable, what makes a good argument and which kinds of fallacies are associated with particular contexts of persuasion and enforcement. The Foundation for Critical Thinking points to “universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth and fairness.” Even if one has one’s doubts about the universality of how these values take shape in in particular situations, teachers can enhance students’ appreciation of these values and, in turn, their resistance to being misled.

Yet as I think about my own students, I find myself at least as concerned with critical feeling as with critical thinking. The Norwegian psychologist Rolf Rieber has argued that “critical feelers can interrupt inappropriate feelings, use feelings to extract information about the state of another person or of the environment, and are able to change the external environment and internal states in order to be able to spontaneously perform appropriate actions by following the lead of feelings.”

It’s the “following the lead of feelings” that interests me most, given that we have been so misled due to the manipulation of emotions over the last several years. The previous presidential administration corrupted the news media with alternative facts, to be sure, but it also damaged the very soul of the public sphere by manipulating emotions — by stoking racism, xenophobia, mistrust and, perhaps most of all, resentment.

More thinking alone isn’t an antidote to this manipulation of feelings. As theorists as different as Judith Butler and Bryan Garsten have pointed out, Trump used resentment to fuel the revenge of the shamed — arousing a sense of empowerment in those who felt deplored, condescended to, dismissed. The tendency to find scapegoats for one’s misery isn’t confined, of course, to Trump supporters. Rejecting another person as being beyond the pale — be it called “canceling” or labeling someone “the enemy of the people” — provides pleasures of righteousness across the political spectrum.

Critical thinking alone will not turn us from such pleasures; reason alone never supplants sentiment. We need critical feeling — practiced emotional alternatives to the satisfactions of outrage. Outrage today is braided together with self-absorption, with the tendency to intensify group identification by finding outsiders one can detest. The outrage of many Trump supporters, often fueled by racism, targets enemies in elaborate conspiracy narratives. Among the intellectual set, outrage is sublimated into irony, allowing the chattering class to police the borders of its in-groups without overtly subscribing to their norms. One can humorously dismiss outliers without seeming to hold any beliefs of one’s own.

How to use critical feeling to dislodge these tendencies? Teachers do this all the time when we enthusiastically introduce works that students find foreign or offensive, when, as Mark Edmundson puts it, we teach what we love. We do this by using Shakespeare to expand their capacity for empathy, or when we use James Baldwin to deepen their understanding of racist betrayal. When we help students to appreciate a character in a novel who is not wholly sympathetic, or to admire an argument even when it runs counter to their own assumptions, we are expanding their emotional registers as well as intellectual ones. When our teaching invites students to occupy identities and ideologies they would never encounter in their own curated information networks, we are enhancing their consideration of the power of emotions.

When my students try to understand why Aristotle made his arguments about habit, why J. J. Rousseau saw inequality linked to the development of society, what Jane Austen meant by vanity as an obstacle to love or why Toni Morrison’s Sethe holds what haunts her, they are exercising their empathy and strengthening their power of generous insight. Whether or not they are engaging in what Merve Emre has called critical love studies, they are becoming more aware of how their feelings are aroused or redirected. In being willing to make emotional as well as intellectual connections to ideas and characters who disturb where they are coming from, they broaden where they might be willing to go. If we want our students to learn discernment and not just critique, we must give them more opportunities to consider ideas and emotions that they wouldn’t encounter on their own.

Expanding the repertoire of feelings has long been a goal of liberal education. Through history, literature and the arts we make connections to worlds of emotion, creativity and intelligence that take us beyond our individual identities and our group allegiances. The exercise of critical feeling should make us less susceptible to demagogic manipulation and to the misleading politics of resentment. It should make us more understanding of why other people care about the things they do.

By exploring the complexities of the world, our students practice making connections that are intellectual and affective. And in a political and cultural context that encourages crude parochialism under the guise of group solidarity, helping them do so through increasing their powers of critical feeling is more important than ever.

Announcing New Presidential Compound at Wesleyan

You’ve probably been wondering what the construction work on the field near the CFA (formerly Jackson Field) is all about.

I’m delighted to announce today that crews are preparing the new WESLEYAN PRESIDENTIAL COMPOUND. This will be a state of the art housing and office complex that will showcase the power of the central administration at the university. Full design plans are forthcoming, but here is the inspiration:

 

We’d love to hear your comments. Please leave a message on the blog (and be sure to note the date).

Say It Again: Stop Violence Against AAPI People

Yesterday many Wesleyans attended a vigil to stand against hate directed towards our Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander friends, colleagues and neighbors. The vigil called attention to the damage done by recent street attacks, like the heinous crime in mid-town Manhattan just a few days ago when an AAPI woman was brutally assaulted, while others looked on with seeming indifference. Later yesterday, one of our students reported being the object of drive-by racial slurs and spitting as he walked home. I am disgusted and dismayed by these efforts to intimidate and marginalize the AAPI community.

Let’s say it again: Hate and violence have no place here. We will stand against racist and xenophobic violence, and we will do our best to protect and support all members of the extended Wesleyan family. We embrace the AAPI community in solidarity against this latest wave of attacks.

The Other Pandemic Returns: Gun Violence

In the last week, we have been reminded again what “normal” looks like in America—18 people gunned down in two incidents separated by many miles but linked by the all-too-familiar presence of weapons of mass killing in the hands of angry young men. A policeman and a masseuse, a small business owner and a young worker are among the many people who left home one morning to go about their business and then encountered deadly violence unleashed on them without reason.

Atlanta and Boulder are cities to add to the sad list of places where ordinary Americans paid the price for the cowardice of politicians in the pocket of a gun lobby that sees any restrictions on access to lethal weapons as an infringement on….its business interests and the Second Amendment with which they shield those interests. We need sensible gun safety legislation, and most Americans support this. As Wesleyan historian Jennifer Tucker has been showing for many years now, basic gun regulations have been seen as fundamental to a healthy society at least since the founding of the republic. As Prof. Tucker argued in a 2015 op-ed with Matt Miller:  “Firearm violence is a public health crisis no less serious than those associated with automobiles. Our experience with autos and pollution shows that, along with other measures, sensible gun regulations could save lives.

Many societies have angry young men, and many have been plagued by combinations of hatred and mental illness that seem to afflict too many Americans. But the United States fuels a pandemic of violence with the business of gun access, creating a pandemic which shows no sign of abating. We could slow it down, however. All we have to do is pass gun safety regulations that would make it more challenging for those filled with rage to inflict harm on innocent people trying to go about their lives.

 

Stop the Violence Against Asian-Americans!

We learned with horror of the killing of eight people in the Atlanta area, and we are now once again moved to wonder at how hate and guns are combined in mass killing. The facts in this case are still being sorted out, but it is clear that six of the victims were Asian-American women. It is also clear that there has been a horrific increase in violence against Asian-Americans, especially seniors, in various part of the United States. Racism has many forms in this country, we know. When it turns so deadly, we must renew our efforts to stand together to combat it.

Wesleyan stands in solidarity with those who reject the politics of fear and hatred that fuels this latest form of racist violence. Let us defend our Asian and Asian-American brothers and sisters living in this country, let us pass sensible gun safety legislation, and let us condemn these attacks and all attempts to sow fear and division.

We must do better.

 

 

One Year In: Loss and Learning Together

Looking back at some of my blog entries in March 2020, I was struck by the rapidly increasing urgency of my communications to the campus community, and the evolving understanding of the seriousness of the situation in which we all found ourselves. On March 1st I actually posted a book review I wrote on ruins, and little did I know how apt that would seem just a short time later. On March 31st I wrote about our Design and Engineering program making face shields for first responders. In between there were many messages about how we were moving classes online and striving to protect the most vulnerable members of our community.

A year later, I am filled with sadness for all of us who have suffered losses over the last twelve months, and I am filled with gratitude for the many contributions of our students, staff, faculty and alumni as we navigated the crisis. As I say in this video message, we must remain vigilant and strive to limit opportunities for virus transmission, but we can also see in the not-so-distant future a return to campus life of supportive intimacy rather than social distancing. It isn’t here yet, but with lots of hard work, cooperation, and some good luck, we should get there.