Full Swing

Although we are not quite through the first week of classes, it feels as though the Wesleyan campus is already in full swing. Over the weekend my daughter Sophie and I watched men’s basketball, women’s hockey, a large track meet and some swimming competitions. I heard the parties from a distance in the early morning hours, and I know somewhere CSSers are already writing papers. I haven’t even had my first class meeting (that’s tomorrow), and it seems like everybody is racing along with the winter break a fading memory.

On Thursday, January 31 many here will participate in Focus the Nation, a massive teach-in to draw attention to the various effects of global climate change. Many faculty will add modules to their classes concerning environmental issues, and there are several formal and informal discussions planned around campus. We want to promote the consciousness of the possibility of positive environmental change, something I think Wesleyan students will be particularly interested in. Check out a list of events at: http://www.wesleyan.edu/wsa/eon/ftn/

As I think about ‘possibilities of change,’ I can’t help but consider the upcoming primaries. This is the first time in many years that votes across the country will mean something in the presidential primaries. Young voters have played an important role in some states already, and this is a great time to get involved. Why not help stimulate voter turnout for the candidate of your choice? This is a powerful tool of local participation in a national process.

One of the great delights of the Wesleyan campus is the vibrant art scene produced by faculty, students and invited guests. On February 1 we are lucky to be hosting one of the great American string groups, the Turtle Island String Quartet. This week they are playing with Stefon Harris and focusing on the music of Duke Ellington. What a wonderful way to kick off a great series of concerts and recitals at the Center for the Arts!

I’m looking forward to meeting my students tomorrow morning to talk about film, philosophy and history. It will be a treat to step out of my administrative role for a few hours and return to the issues I’ve been teaching and writing about for many years. I’ll be having office hours for the class, but I’ve also decided to have open office hours for students. You can stop by February 4 between 4:00 pm and 5:30 pm, and I’ll be scheduling this every other week afterwards. I’ll make a more formal announcement on this soon.

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This past week Wesleyan held a dinner in New York to celebrate the creation of the Zilkha Chair in the College of Social Studies. Professor Donald Moon, who has been inspiring students in Government and CSS for decades, will hold the chair. Don is a political theorist who has had a particular focus on community building and diversity, and he has contributed to recent efforts to develop a reformulation of liberalism. The Zilkha family has had three generations of students at Wesleyan, and their generosity contributes to our ability to continue to educate and challenge students interested in philosophy, history, economics and political science.

We celebrate great teaching through endowed chairs, and we also celebrate it with the Binswanger Prize. For almost 15 years we have received nominations from students and recent alumni to honor outstanding work in the classroom. The Binswanger family, too, has had generations of students here at Wesleyan, and with their help we pay homage to those who help create transformative experiences for our undergraduates. Lucidity and passion are among the qualities we look for, and you can learn more about the prize at: http://www.wesleyan.edu/alumni/binswanger/

I have been thinking a lot about teaching over the break between semesters, as I try to find time to prepare the course I am about to teach. Although I have given the class for many years, I find myself often in Wesleyan’s magnificent library to check out recent scholarship or older works on philosophy, film and history that I may have missed in the past. I see my faculty colleagues hard at work doing similar kinds of reading and research. Although I have been teaching for more than 25 years, at the beginning of each term I have butterflies of nervousness and excitement. The anticipation of working with our gifted and hard-working students is tremendous.

I am finishing this post as Martin Luther King Day comes to a close. Perhaps it is fitting to end with two quotes from Dr. King (Brainyquote.com). When reading them, I thought about the professors I’ve known here who continue their efforts with “painstaking excellence,” and who now probably share my anticipation (and butterflies).

All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education

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2008: Where Will You Stand?

Wesleyan has been a key part of the political education of students for generations. We embraced diversity and affirmative action long before the words “political correctness” became a slogan to defend bad habits. When I meet alumni who graduated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there are still residues of the conflicts that raged on campus in those years. For some, those years opened up a lifetime of learning about and participating in politics. For others, those years made politics synonymous with manipulation, violence, and a destruction of community. When I was a student in the mid-1970s, issues connected with feminism, environmentalism, and anti-apartheid were the subject of much discussion on campus. Of course, we didn’t change the world. But we did learn more about it by engaging with some of its most pressing issues.

In the last week or so the landscape of presidential politics has gotten more uncertain, more interesting. We should be ready for months of debates on issues from the war in Iraq to health insurance, from global warming to unemployment rates. Political organizing – mobilizing activists and helping people get relevant information – will be an important part in the decision-making process, and I imagine that Wesleyan students will play a role in this process. Here are just a few examples of activities being planned on campus: Ashley Casale, a Wesleyan student who marched across the country last year to call attention to how we can work for peace, is organizing a group of speakers on the war in Iraq for early February. This is in preparation for a major protest in Washington, D.C., during spring break marking the five-year anniversary of the war. An organization of Republican students at Wesleyan will bring in speakers to illuminate national and international issues from a perspective they feel is too often lacking on our campus. On Jan. 31, many of the faculty and students will be participating in Focus the Nation, which creates a myriad of teaching opportunities concerning global warming.

There are plenty of local opportunities for civic engagement. The Center for Community Partnerships at Wesleyan is a great vehicle for finding out how to get involved in our community. Middletown is very receptive to having its student citizens participate in local political issues, and there are many areas where the university can make a positive contribution.

Eight years ago some of my activist friends told me they thought it didn’t make a difference what happened on the official political scene. They were wrong. In 2008, we have an opportunity to make a difference. Let’s not waste it.

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Recollecting, and Building the Future

Many students, parents and alumni have sent in their sympathies to the Wesleyan community and to the family of Chase Parr ’10, who was killed late last month in a car accident that also claimed the lives of her parents. Some of Chase’s friends will be working with the Dean of the College staff to prepare a memorial service in the new semester. A family member this week told me that Chase’s sister Katy is recovering well with a strong support network. Family friends in the Denver area have started a memorial website: http://johnsandychase.muchloved.com/. Our Wesleyan community deeply values recollection, and Chase’s impact on her friends and teachers has made her part of our common memory.

It’s a new year, the temperatures in Middletown are in the single digits, and I am in Texas to meet with alumni. Today I had lunch with Wes alum Herb Kelleher, a founder of Southwest Airlines and a legendary figure in American business. Herb was a member of the class of 1953, and he continues to value the liberal arts education (with a focus on English and philosophy) that he received at Wesleyan. I’d read a lot about Herb’s leadership skills and accomplishments, and I’d also heard much about him from a common friend in Los Angeles. This is a man who helped revolutionize the airline industry, who continues to show a concern for his now broadly national workforce, and who is as friendly and engaging as a person can be. I wanted to learn from Herb how you maintain and enhance the capacity of an organization to be innovative, to be able to seize opportunities and also to have fun working in teams. We talked of lifelong learning, of the culture of organizations, and of maintaining a clear sense of purpose in competitive environments. He told me about a book he was reading on chaos theory, and how some of the science classes he had at Wesleyan have been the most valuable to him over time.

We agreed that one of the most important attributes of a successful liberal arts education was the development of a capacity for judgment. In whatever position we find ourselves, we seldom have all the information we would like, but we have to make a decision or a choice. The habits of mind that develop in a liberal arts context often result in the mixture of focus and flexibility that allow for responsible, intelligent, and sometimes courageous judgment. At least that’s what we strive for.

In these first days of 2008 it is inspiring to meet with Wesleyan graduates who still use their liberal arts education every day, and who believe in its practical, transformative power. It’s our job to build a university today that will continue to be a vital resource to our alumni looking back on their education from, say, 2058. And as we look forward to building an institution for the future, we also recollect those who have been a vital part of our past.

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