Great News, Shining Hope

Many in the Wesleyan family may have seen the news this week that Jessica Posner ’09 won the VH1 Do Something! award. This brings $100,000 to the work of the organization Jessica and Kennedy Odede ’12 founded to improve the living conditions for women and children in Kibera, Kenya. The team has initiated the Johanna Justin-Jinich Memorial Health Clinic in Kibera, and so this support is especially welcome.

This has been an eventful summer for the team of Wesleyan folks. In addition to the VH1 award, Kennedy received an Outstanding Commitment Grant from the Clinton Foundation to help with the new clinic. On the ground in Kibera, the new Community Center has been completed, and 25 more girls have been admitted to the school. I’m told there is a team of Wesleyan students in Kenya working on these projects for a year, including Jessica, Ari Tolman and Leah Lucid, both class of 2010, and Inslee Coddington (’10) who will be joining them in the fall.

The Shining Hope for Communities website has lots more information and pictures. Check out the blog! Most importantly on the site you can find ways to support the work that the team is doing, including sponsoring one of the students!

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Summer Balance, Educational Balance

This summer Kari and I are spending a good deal of time away from campus on a “working vacation.” It’s a vacation because we get to play a bit of tennis, swim with Mathilde in a lake, attend lots of theater and concerts. It’s a working vacation because we spend most of each day hovered over papers and computers. We both have book projects to finish (Kari’s on Animal Studies, mine on [what else?] making sense of the past), and we also have classes and lectures to prepare. It’s been a great summer thus far (lots of writing that hasn’t yet been thrown in the waste basket), and we have been visited by, or in conversation with, several of our Wesleyan colleagues. They, too, appreciate the change of pace that summer brings, but they, too, are working on research projects, classes, scholarly presentations. The list is really impressive.

I’ve been putting together a collection of my essays on memory disorders, psychoanalysis, photography, and education. I wrote some of the pieces several years ago, and it makes me reflect on the strange pace of change in the humanities and social sciences. I’ve been focused on considering which research concerns from many years ago are still alive, and which ones were merely of the moment. Sometimes what seemed like a “cutting edge” turned out to be just a dead end, while in other cases new paths of research have been extraordinarily productive.  I believe in the importance of traditional scholarship, and I know that the research of our faculty enlivens their teaching. I also can see how much “traditional scholarship” has changed over the three decades I’ve been teaching. Whether we focus on social history or critical theory, cultural anthropology or film studies, deconstruction or the ethical turn, we can see that the shape of professional study is continually being reconfigured.  This is a good thing, and the Wesleyan faculty who participate in this reconfiguration of scholarship give their students a dynamic sense of the vitality of intellectual life.

One of the great challenges in higher education is how to manage the balance of traditional and cutting edge scholarship as forces that shape the curriculum. We want our undergraduates to develop a solid base of inquiry that will continue to inform their lives after graduation, and we also want them to experience active research on issues that matter to contemporary scholarship and cultural life. At Wesleyan we are committed to revisit this balance on a regular basis so that our students engage with deep traditions of learning while also working through key issues of current concern. Our alumni — whatever their chosen endeavors — tell me that they continually find that their education is informing their work and their lives. That’s another balance, of course, that we all strive to achieve.

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Wesleyan in Washington

Before heading off for some summer vacation, I spent the early part of this week in Washington, D.C.. The American Association of Colleges and Universities was hosting a gathering of presidents to discuss the impact of liberal learning on participation in the political sphere. This is a group devoted to the liberal arts experience, and led by President Carol Schneider AAC&U has presented very compelling information showing the public and private importance of the broad-based, participatory education offered at institutions like ours. Since I have been writing about these issues on the Huffington Post and elsewhere, I was glad to touch base with colleagues eager to make the case for liberal learning.

Since my stay in steamy DC was brief, I only had an opportunity to touch base with a few members of the Wes family doing interesting things in our nation’s capitol. We have alumni working in various sectors of government, but during this trip I met with a new Wesleyan parent, Mark Tercek, who is running The Nature Conservancy. TNC is one of the great international environmental organizations, and we talked about ways that this group might work together with our new College of the Environment. Mark was excited to hear about our plans for this interdisciplinary program, and I am confident we will find ways to make common cause. I also met with Dan deVise ’89, an education writer for the Washington Post. Dan and his wife Sophie ’88 met at Wes, and they have been pursuing journalism pretty much since graduation. I also had the chance meet with Col. Dunbar Gram and other members of the board of the James M. Johnson Trust. This foundation has generously supported Wesleyan’s financial aid program for many years, and I was delighted to report on our efforts to maintain need blind admissions in the face of all the economic pressures that challenge us.

I had interesting conversations about economic pressure, politics and education with our star Congresswoman, Rosa DeLauro. Rosa has been an energetic ally for educators for many years, and she continues to fight the good fight. I was so happy to see that she has a couple of Wes interns in her office this summer. Before returning home, Carol Scully and I had a productive meeting with a program officer from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Some say that the humanities are declining or are under siege, but I was pleased to share information on some of the real innovations going on at the Wes campus, especially at the Center for the Humanities.

During our time away Kari and I hope to finish a few writing projects, hear some great music and spend as much time outdoors as possible. That way we’ll be ready to greet the class of 2014 at the end of the summer!

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