Wes Faculty: Scholars, Scientists, Artists…Mentors All!

As our semester winds to a close, and as students prepare experiments, performances, papers and presentations, I often see my faculty colleagues literally running across campus. They are racing to  lectures and seminars, committee meetings on the curriculum or the budget, or advisory meetings  with students. This last activity is often the most rewarding part of what they do as faculty at Wesleyan.

On Tuesday I taught my penultimate class for The Past On Film. We talked about a British film, Distant Voices, Still Lives, and I suggested to my rather skeptical group of undergraduates that this film offers a serious perspective on the painful construction of desire inside the modern family. After class,  I ran to the faculty meeting  where there were at least 100 professors eager to take part in a serious discussion of a possible summer session at Wesleyan for 2010. I marveled at their energy. The chemists, fresh from their labs, were focused on the educational and financial issues, as were the historians who had just finished their seminars. The artists and the social scientists, after working with students throughout the day, were eager to lend a hand in crafting an approach to a new program that would have educational integrity and be economically sustainable.

Recently I blogged about a poster session in which undergraduate science majors presented research that was sophisticated and professional. Last night I attended part of an event at the College of Letters where students presented brief summaries of their theses to their teachers and to sophomores and juniors. I’ll mention just a few examples to give a sense of the diversity of subjects. Chris Patalano wrote a novella and Benjamin Sachs-Hamilton translated and directed a play – both projects were grounded in premodern texts. Sofia Warner examined changing modes of psychiatric worldviews from the patient’s perspective.  Russell Perkins, whom I had gotten to know because of his important work on bringing classes into prisons, had his thesis on art and philosophy described to the audience by another senior, Jason Kavett (recent winner of Fulbright and DAAD scholarships). Russell returned the favor by providing an account of Jason’s thesis on romanticism.

As I walked home with Sophie, I marveled at how wonderful these projects were. And then I thought that each and every one of them – like all thesis projects at Wesleyan — – had been supervised individually by a faculty member. In conversation and in their presentations, students show that their theses are often labors of love as well as of worldly investigation and self-discovery. In each case they are guided by a faculty member who takes the time and care to help them along the way. Truly, these are labors of love!

There is a long tradition of this kind of faculty devotion at Wesleyan. While individual professional rewards are often given for other kinds of “production,” our entire community is the beneficiary of this ongoing, thoughtful generosity.  As we come to the end of the spring term, it is such a joyous experience to see our graduating students exemplify the creative intellectual virtues that their teachers also embody.

I still remember my feelings of anxiety and pride as I finished my own thesis here. As a student, I was profoundly grateful for the mentoring (and editing!) I received. As a teacher, I know how gratifying it is see these strong examples of mature, independent work. BRAVO!

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Science (and other things) to Cheer About

I had written most of this blog before last night’s fire in the Hall Atwater Chemistry Building. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries, and thanks to the dedicated work of the Fire Department, Public Safety and our Physical Plant staff, we are preparing for the re-occupancy of most of the building very soon. We are currently rescheduling classrooms. For more information about Hall-Atwater, check:


WesFest is over now, and it was a great weekend for introducing prospective students to the campus, the academics, and the special culture of Wesleyan. I described this as best I could each morning as I welcomed parents and their (recently accepted to Wes) students gathered in Beckham Hall. Our visitors acquired a more meaningful feel for the university from panels, from classes, from the vibe on Foss Hill as the spring sun finally arrived, and from the great music emanating from WestCo or even from interlopers on Andrus Field.

Courtesy of Olivia Bartlett

Mad Wow Disease – Foss Hill

Almost every time I go around showing the campus to others, I myself discover something about our school that deepens my appreciation of what goes on here. This weekend there were plenty of athletic contests to look in on. I watched tennis, track and lacrosse, and in each case the students put forth impressive efforts. This was no surprise to me because I’d met the coaches and many of the players already.  On Saturday I also discovered the dynamic wonder that is Nietzsch Factor, Wesleyan’s Ultimate Frisbee team. Peter Lubershane ’10 had let me know that the team had organized a multi-school tournament at the Long Lane fields. Even from my brief visit to the sidelines, I could see that Wes is a real powerhouse in this sport. And have athletes ever had more fun? I often talk about the exuberance of our students, and it was in full flower Saturday in that competition.

On Friday I stopped in at the Science Center and saw some student work displayed in the lobby. The students were holding a poster session on their research projects — from computer science to astronomy, from physics and earth science to neuroscience and mathematics.  I was struck by how conceptually sophisticated and empirically grounded the work was. In short, there was plenty to cheer about.

Jan Naegele introduced me to a few of her students, including Keith Tan ‘09, who gave me a fine description of his work on cell death. It seems that cell death is something at times to be encouraged, and Keith’s research explored some of the biochemistry that made the process possible.

Courtesy of Olivia Bartlett

Listening to Professor Naegele and Keith Tan ’09 @ the poster session

Hannah Sugarman ‘09 talked to me about her thesis research, through which she discovered more than a dozen new black holes in our “local universe.” Who knew? Certainly not I. The collaborative nature of the work across the sciences was especially impressive.  As I was I checking out the astronomy project of Anna Williams ’09, I noticed some printed papers appended to the poster board and asked about them. She cheerfully replied that she and some astronomy colleagues had already published some of the results in a scientific journal. It was the reprint that was hanging from the poster, and there are more publications to come!

Courtesy of Olivia Bartlett

Hannah Sugarman ’09 and Professor Laurel Appel

Scientific research at Wesleyan is one of the distinctive aspects of the university. Our students are not just spectators of science; they are active participants in it. Our small graduate programs allow our undergrads to establish working relationships with more experienced students while they continue to do research with faculty engaged with projects of international import. Wesleyan has shown for decades that a small liberal arts institution can contribute to advancing scientific fields. The poster session during WesFest underscored how vital that contribution continues to be.

All photos courtesy of Olivia Bartlett

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How to Choose a (our) University

I’ve just spent a day meeting with the presidents of the schools in our athletic conference (NESCAC): Amherst, Bates, Bowdoin, Colby, Connecticut, Hamilton, Middlebury, Trinity, Tufts, Williams. Fine schools every one. Although we all believe in the virtues of a well-rounded liberal arts education, we also each think that we offer this education in distinctive ways.  Often students who visit Wes on their campus tours have already seen or are on their way to see some of the other NESCAC schools.  Do the distinctions that are so important to the students, faculty and staff who are already part of the schools come through to visitors?

This question seems especially germane now when graduating high school seniors are trying to decide among the colleges to which they have been accepted. The thick envelopes (or weighty emails) arrived a couple of weeks ago, and the month of April is decision time. Of course, for many (especially this year) the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given me the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that admits students irrespective of their ability to pay, and which meets the full need of students, according to a formula developed over several years. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting financial need over four years of study.

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. In recent years, campuses in New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular. But if one seeks out small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing cultural and social life 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 of the liberal arts colleges, but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to have 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 teacher/scholars, 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 Middlebury?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective students are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — and they wonder whether they will be happy in that particular context. Hundreds of visitors will be coming to Wesleyan this weekend for WesFest (our annual program for admitted students). They will go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they will ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors get a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and for which public service can become part of one’s education and approach to life.

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into (especially this year!). 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 celebration of senior theses completions at the library this week said a lot about who we are. 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 strike many of our visitors, too.

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Small Class Initiative

Not long after becoming president I noticed that Wesleyan did not have as many small classes as I had expected given the close relationships between faculty and students that have always existed here. I had fond memories of a class I had taken in 1977-1978 on Hegel taught by Victor Gourevitch to just myself and two other hard-working undergraduates. And at the Center for Humanities I took a number of other small classes on topics that likewise wouldn’t have won any popularity contests. I always assumed that my own experience was not untypical and that many of my classmates also took courses with few enrollees. Of course, I also had fond memories of my larger classes, such as Nat Greene’s introduction to modern European History. These survey courses were engaging and informative in different ways, and the mix of small classes with the occasional large lecture class has always seemed to me to be the way to produce an especially stimulating educational experience.
At Wesleyan today there are still many classes with somewhere between ten and 20 students. Nevertheless, given the size of the student body and the number of classes we offer each term, I would have expected the percentage of seminars to be higher. Admittedly, small classes also create frustration for students when a certain topic or professor is very popular but the teaching style is built around a restricted enrollment. If too many of these sought-after classes are small, too many students don’t get the classes they most want. Thus, if we were simply to restrict the class size of existing courses, we would create significant course access issues for students. Better to add small classes to our existing offerings. Noting that several of our professors proposed each year to offer extra classes for the program in Graduate Liberal Studies for a modest stipend, I thought I might find interest among the faculty in teaching additional, small classes. However, in my second year as president we’ve been grappling with the economic crisis, and for a time it has seemed that my ideas about adding a group of seminars and other small classes would have to wait.

Happily, we have recently received a commitment for 1 million dollars over four years to proceed what we’re calling the “Small Class Initiative”. Beginning this coming fall, we will be able to divide some of our mid-size classes into two sections (each with fewer than 20 students) and to add small seminars (around 15 students) in a variety of fields. The instructional budget for these additional courses will be on a scale similar that of our current GLSP classes. We can now offer our faculty the opportunity to teach these extra classes, which in many cases can be tied to their current research. The idea is that many of those who volunteer for this kind of teaching will do so because the small research seminar will contribute to their own ongoing projects. Depending on the level of interest and the fields of participating faculty, we may also hire visitors to complement these offerings. The result will be an increased number of small classes available to Wesleyan students.

Some have wondered whether this is an attempt to increase the required teaching load among faculty. Not at all. It is very important for faculty teaching here to have significant time and support for their research. This research time is also a great benefit to students, who get to work with teachers who are actively advancing their fields. Students learn to shape the culture of the future themselves by working with teachers doing just that in their publications and performances. Adding a few dozen small classes (many tied to the research of faculty) should complement – not detract from – the research environment on campus.

A good thing all around, I think!

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