Virtuous Circle of Teaching and Research

Over the last thirty to forty years, higher education in America has viewed contributions to research as an essential part of its mission. Professors are expected to participate in shaping their scholarly fields, and students are expected to learn not just the wisdom of the past, but how to produce knowledge in the present. At large universities, though, the research function often seems to dwarf the dedication to undergraduate education. At several of the Ivies and other schools that compete for academic prestige, senior faculty often have little to do with teaching those preparing bachelor degrees, and graduate students or other part-time instructors wind up taking on the bulk of college teaching. The tenured professors work mostly with graduate students, preparing them for careers that, too, are expected to center on research.

In recent years the folly of this system has become increasingly evident: there are few tenure-track jobs for the graduate students being trained to work in the most specialized domains, and undergraduates are often left to wonder how courses taught by these narrowly trained specialists are supposed to connect to their lives after college. As smaller institutions emulated the research universities, the publish-or-perish mentality became a core part of faculty culture, with specialized journals publishing for small groups of colleagues offering the most professional prestige.

There has recently been plenty of strong criticism of the cultivation of esoteric research in higher education. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus have argued that universities are wasting resources and failing students, in part because of the premium put on faculty research rather than teaching. Hacker and Dreifus have been teaching in New York for decades, and they have also been prolific authors. But in their recent book,  Higher Education? they argue that schools have been distracted from their core educational mission by adding on the obligation to contribute to scholarly fields.

Mark C. Taylor, Wesleyan graduate, long time professor at Williams and now Chair of the Religion Department at Columbia University, has recently published what he calls a bold plan to respond to the contemporary crisis on campus. Noting how the focus on research has driven a wedge between faculty and student interests, he diagnoses “the identification of specialization with expertise.” Narrow specialization should be the great enemy of educators because it leads to silos of inquiry with little opportunity for surprising intellectual exchange. But specialization has gone hand in hand with professional prestige, something that schools have been chasing for decades.

Taylor’s main argument is that our overspecialized colleges and universities are increasingly divorced from the hyper-connected world defined by “webs, not walls.” Networks of interconnectivity rather than isolated expertise are defining our world, and higher education will become obsolete if it doesn’t plug into these new forms of knowledge creation. (I’ve taken my comments here from my review of the book in the LA Times.)

How are these critiques relevant to Wesleyan? To be sure, our university prizes research because we believe that it informs and enlivens pedagogy. I often talk about the “virtuous circle” of teaching and research, and many of my Wesleyan colleagues have been deeply affected in their scholarly work by what they learn from students in the classroom. Similarly, our students know that we continue to learn with them through the work we do in our fields…we are not just imparting information to them that somebody else imparted to us.

Some of Wesleyan’s best teachers are also our most serious and original researchers, and all of us remain dedicated to undergraduate education even as we produce scholarship for specialized audiences. So, even though I think Hacker, Dreifus and Taylor are right to worry about severe overspecialization (with its associated bureaucracy) in certain fields, I think they might say more about the positive feedback loop that can connect the classroom and the archive, the science lab and the lecture hall. And we should note that these contemporary critics of education are themselves also researchers, and this hasn’t seemed to undermine their professed love of teaching.

I just attended part of the Molecular Biophysics and Biological Chemistry retreat, and I saw great evidence of how well the scholar teacher model is working here at Wes. This year’s gathering honored David Beveridge, Joshua Boger University Professor of the Sciences and Mathematics. David’s pioneering work in computational biology and biophysics has had a powerful influence in the classroom and the research lab, and I saw several fine examples of Wes student research in the poster session. Sure there is specialization, but there is also an understanding of what is at stake in the experiments and an ability to describe the work for the non-expert. Showing a wonderful talent for translating their efforts to this layman, students explained to me their work on RNA, on modeling the structure of particular carbon based molecules, and on the translation of proteins. My head is still spinning!

There are plenty of things in American higher education that can be improved, but we must be careful to preserve our ability to educate students broadly and deeply by engaging faculty in projects that are both scholarly and pedagogical. Specialization without the capacity for translation (without “intellectual cross-training,” as Wes trustee Geoff Duyk calls it) does undermine effective teaching at many schools, but Wesleyan professors who remain active scholars, scientists and artists exemplify a love of learning that can be made powerfully relevant to their undergraduate students.

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Wesleyaning into the Future!

Last weekend the Wesleyan Board of Trustees was in town for its annual retreat. The trustees, almost all alumni along with several parents of Wes students, gathered this year to focus on two major topics: building the long-term economic health of the university, and imagining how Wes will look 30 or 50 years from now. We were joined by faculty, staff and students, and the discussions were animated and productive.

On Saturday we looked at the general profile of the endowment — past, present and future. There are three key ingredients to building an endowment strong enough to provide annual revenue for the operations of the school: gifts, spending, and investment performance. Over the last three years we have shifted our fundraising priorities so that we now invest more of the gifts we receive rather than spending them, and we have reduced the percentage that we draw from the endowment. Finally, we have hired Anne Martin, formerly a Director in the Yale Investment Office, to provide wise stewardship of our investment portfolio. Anne led the retreat participants in some exercises that explored how we choose the asset classes in which we invest, and how we choose managers within those classes. Everyone left with a greater understanding of how our investment operation works.

We also discussed endowment fund raising at some length, since all trustees are active friendraisers and fundraisers for the university. Chair Joshua Boger led us in some creative exercises in which we thought about our highest aspirations for Wes and how we might envision taking steps to act on them. One trustee suggested that we find a way over the next decades to do so much good for our students and the world that Wesleyan becomes a verb!

This week we had our inaugural faculty meeting of the year. Department chairs introduced more than a dozen new professors who are joining our ranks across all divisions. These are extraordinary scholar-teachers who have already begun making their mark. Listening to the descriptions of their research and the classes they are teaching filled me with confidence in the ongoing rejuvenation of our curriculum and of our ability to shape scholarly fields through original contributions.

I was Wesleyaned!

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Sharing our Loss: Nora Miller

Late this morning I sent the following message to the campus community:

Dear Friends,

It is with great sorrow that I inform you that Nora Miller, a Wesleyan student from the class of 2012, died late Monday afternoon. Nora was a film major of great talent and energy, an athlete of distinction, an engaged contributor to our community, a devoted friend and a loving daughter and sister. Her parents, Jeff and Patricia Miller, are former Wesleyan employees close to many here. We have offered to help the Millers in any way we can.

Our hearts go out to Nora’s family and friends in this terribly painful moment. When someone takes her own life, the entire community is shaken. I have no doubt we will be more mindful than ever of those who are suffering around us, and, I trust, we will console one another and take care of one another. Student Affairs staff have been providing support to some of Nora’s friends. I encourage anyone who is seeking help to speak to the Office of Behavioral Health for Students (always available via the 24 hour on-call system 860-685-2910) or to one of our class deans.

We will soon begin working with Nora’s friends and teachers on an appropriate service on campus.

We grieve for Nora, and we grieve with her parents, sisters, friends. May we find some consolation in making our memories of her gifts and her contributions a blessing for the future.

Sept. 17, 2010 Update: Monetary donations to Middletown’s Amazing Grace Food Pantry can be made in Nora’s memory by visiting the following site.


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Fall Breezes, Turning to the Future

There is a cool breeze today and the weatherman tells me it’s a harbinger of fall.  I can see the excitement of students checking out new classes, and faculty are being re-energized by the thoughtful questions posed in seminars or in sessions with advisees. This week also marks the beginning of the fall sports schedule, and we start off by hosting Williams in men’s and women’s soccer and field hockey on Saturday. Come out and cheer the Cardinals!

But the air is also filled with mixed messages. On the faculty list-serve this week Wesleyan’s Muslim Chaplain, Marwa Aly, sent a thoughtful, heartfelt message deploring the hate speech being directed at Muslims in many parts of the country. She asks for something as basic as it is important: that we act with care and understanding toward members of our community, and that we stand up to hate when it is expressed around us. At Rosh Hashanah services yesterday Wesleyan’s Jewish Chaplain, David Teva, reminded us of some of the many intersections of Jewish and Islamic rituals. He spoke of the importance of taking care of one another, and of taking a stance against injustice. As we turned ourselves toward the gates of the new year, we also remembered the work for peace and understanding that must continue as we enter 5771.

The ideals of peace and understanding aren’t just large abstractions to which we pay lip service. They can be part of our everyday lives, part of our community. Want an example? Check out the celebration of Wesleyan’s Green Street Art Center’s new North End Mural this evening at 5:30.  For new students, this will be an opportunity to get to know the great programs at GSAC. For old timers, it will be an occasion to celebrate the arts and education (and delicious food!) with friends and neighbors.

Cool fall breezes, to be sure, and they carry lots of hope for a great year.

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Labor Day and the Start of the Semester

This year our first day of the semester is also Labor Day, which has certainly caused grumbling among some of us who have to show up for class on Monday rather than enjoying the last long weekend of summer. And of course it’s not just a matter of showing up Monday. Syllabi need final preparation, lectures must be written, and advisees are looking for guidance.

But on this Labor Day we should remember those who won’t have to report this week at all because there aren’t enough jobs. With official unemployment stubbornly remaining between 9% and 10%, there are many around us who are suffering from the poverty and despair of not being able to find work. Bob Herbert’s column in the New York Times on September 4 underscores the plight of a group of custodians recently laid off from their jobs at a luxury office building in Los Angeles. Closer to home, the Middletown food bank Amazing Grace reports a red alert because of the low level of supplies on their shelves. Right here at Wesleyan, we have made a small number of position reductions over the last 18 months. Each job is personal not just institutional, and each position elimination was painful.

As students plan their courses for the fall, and as faculty plan their curricula, how should we connect the reality of labor and unemployment to the broad liberal learning we so value? It can be done very specifically, as with Claire Potter’s Frosh History Seminar on Poverty in the United States, and it can be done more generally by thinking through how a liberal arts education is related to how one will support oneself. As I have said many times now in various venues, I believe a liberal education has never been more relevant to work in the world than it is today. This has little to do with the specific choice of concentration by an undergraduate. I was recently talking to a Wes parent who told me that in interviewing over a thousand people for jobs over the years he has never asked what somebody majored in during college. Instead, he has been looking for the ability to think creatively and critically, to imagine possibilities and to solve problems. This is the kind of ability cultivated by liberal learning.

A liberal education teaches that rigor and innovation, far from being in tension with one another, can often go hand in hand. Patience and diligence — practice and method — are qualities developed across a liberal arts curriculum. The American pragmatists celebrated inquiry as a mode of experience, and teachers and students today continue to believe that we must reflexively look back on our own inquiries to assess the learning process and whether the results are relevant to life beyond the specific questions being pursued. Self-criticism need not be navel-gazing. The practical is not the enemy of the true.

For years I have been saying that an undergraduate education should help students to discover what they love to do, and to get better at it. I’ve recently realized that it is important to emphasize a third goal: to develop the capacity to share what one loves to do (and has gotten a little better at) with others. This third goal, let’s call it “engagement,” connects what one has learned with what one can do with the communities to which one belongs.

The education that our students begin on Labor Day doesn’t promise a specific kind of job, but it does promise to expand one’s possibilities for meaningful work after graduation. Learning to learn also means learning to work, to engage with others in getting things done, creating opportunities and solving problems. Engaging with others also means being aware when we can be helpful to those in need, those who may not have the same opportunities we are enjoying while at the university.

My hope for Labor Day and the beginning of the semester is that through study and engagement we will eventually learn to create more jobs so that the perils and anxieties that mark this year’s holiday won’t become permanent parts of our economy and culture.

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Making Wesleyan Their Own

This morning Kari and I will greet first-year students and help them move into residence halls around the campus. The class of 2014 was culled from over 10,600 applications (a 29% increase over just two years ago), and it promises to be a talented, caring, creative and hard-working group. We’ve already been meeting some of the international students who are part of the frosh class. Most Internationals arrived Sunday, and at our dinner the following night we talked with folks from India, Turkey, Japan, China, France and Thailand (to name only a few of the countries from which our new students hail).

Fall athletes are also back, and from the look of some of the folks I’ve been running into on campus, many spent at least some of the summer getting in shape for an intense season. I’ve met with the families of the football team, along with the new coaching staff, and they seemed poised for an exciting fall. Over the summer I learned that volleyball and swimming garnered national team academic honors. I take great pride in the scholarly accomplishments of so many of our athletes.

Faculty are also back on campus, and they will soon be meeting with advisees to talk about schedules, choices of major and generally how to get the most out of one’s time at Wes. Professors have been working during the summer on research, much of which will inform their thinking as they begin the semester. The virtuous circle of intellectual work that connects teaching and scholarship will be in evidence throughout the term, as the classroom becomes a place of inspiration for student and teacher alike.

Today I will be greeting many parents who will be filled with mixed emotions as they drop off their students. I look forward to checking in with them again with shared pride as their sons and daughters make Wesleyan their own.

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