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.