Why We Teach

I noticed on the calendar today that this week there are some “Pre-Select Interviews” for students planning to apply to Teach for America this year. Teach for America was a popular choice for Wes grads even before other jobs after graduation became so scarce, and it continues to attract some of our most thoughtful and engaged students. For many years, Wesleyan has contributed a disproportionate share of teachers to schools at all levels, and our Graduate Liberal Studies program has provided hundreds of teachers in central Connecticut with advanced degrees. There is currently a task force of faculty and administrators investigating whether we should re-start a program of study for undergraduates intending to pursue careers in education. We certainly need new ideas for improving our schools — and a better understanding of how our education system now reproduces inequality rather than offering an escape from it.

Wesleyan faculty are celebrated for their devotion to their students, and some have been recognized nationally for their extraordinary work in the classroom. I’m thinking of Richie Adelstein in Economics and Andy Szegedy-Maszak in Classics. And I’m thinking of a film prof of whom Joss Whedon said, “I’ve had two great teachers in my life — one was my mother, the other was Jeanine Basinger.” Not every prof gets to see things like that in print, but we all take pride in them.

I’d like to think that one of the core reasons so many of our students go on to careers in education is that they are inspired by the energy and dedication of their teachers at Wesleyan. Whether they are studying computational biology or ethnomusicology, postmodern Christian thought or microeconomics, our students are enlivened by the work of their professors. And as their teachers, we are enlivened by the creativity, inquisitiveness and intellectual verve of our students. My colleagues tell me that I’m happiest just after I come back from the classroom. Now as our fall term comes to an end, I’m already beginning to wonder who will be in my spring course…

Emerson wrote that colleges “serve us when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.” That’s why we teach. To see those fires and to feel their warmth.

Taking a Breath and Giving Thanks

As students begin to pack up for visits to family and friends, the campus itself seems to take a deep breath. On Thanksgiving morning the bleachers will be filled for the annual Xavier vs. Middletown High School football game, and then there will be a few days of unusual quiet (he writes, hopefully). I met with my class yesterday, and when they return there will only be a couple of weeks left in the semester. The term flies by so quickly! This brief pause in the semester’s frenetic activities gives us the opportunity to remember the things for which we are grateful. I’ll just mention a few here:

Students: When I met with a group of sons and daughters of Wesleyan alumni this weekend, I told them that the key aspect in finding the right school is to get a feel for the student culture that has developed on campus over the years. Wesleyan continues to attract marvelously creative, hard-working, fun-loving and civic-minded young people who make the most of their time in Middletown. I am grateful to be able to teach them, learn from them, and cheer as they strive to perform at the highest level.

Faculty: During the Thanksgiving “break” professors here will be grading exams, commenting on papers, or writing their own articles and books. The scholar-teachers at Wesleyan are remarkable for their dedication, their caring and rigorous approach to students, and their consistent ability to shape the scholarly fields in which they work.  I am proud to be their colleague, and grateful to work side by side with them.

Staff: Often the unsung heroes of the campus are the hundreds of employees who make the place run. From planning events for prospective students to making sure graduation and reunion go smoothly, our staff have impressively high standards for the work they do. And they consistently meet those standards even in difficult times. Wesleyan benefits so much from the support and creative problem solving abilities of its staff, and my family and I are lucky to live and work in a place where dedication and hard work are built into the fabric of the campus.

Alumni and Parents: Meeting alumni and parents from around the world who are active in a wide array of endeavors has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of being president here. They are proud of alma mater and eager to be helpful to current students beginning to make their way in the world. I am so thankful for the generosity and thoughtfulness of the extended Wesleyan community.

Above all, I am grateful for the patience, support and affection of my family. They make everything else possible, and I’m looking forward to having a little extra time with them during this break.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Inspiration Not Contamination

This weekend the College of the Environment is co-hosting an important conference on Carbon Pricing. We are welcoming scientists, public policy experts, and elected officials (including 4 representatives from Congress) who will be discussing a broad range of topics. Wesleyan students will also be participating with the more than 500 registrants. It’s inspiring to see the COE already participating at a level that will advance our understanding and our capacity for action.

This weekend the Theater Department is mounting Shakespeare’s  The Tragedy of Richard III, directed by David Jaffe, and I had the great pleasure of seeing it last night. As part of their honors theses in Theater, Emma Sherr-Ziarko and Ben Vigus both played the diabolical Richard. They were marvelous, as was the rest of the cast. The play is dipped in blood and paranoia, and part of its tragedy is the failure of almost all the characters to see the murderous rage that has contaminated their lives. The rage is self-consuming in Richard, as paranoia must be. The paranoia is Richard’s but so is the murderous intent. He must be defeated.

I’m not sure I should draw any connections between the conference and the play except to say that they both represent work at the highest level. Some people I respect see fear about climate change as paranoia or worse. Others I admire see murderous intent or lethal apathy in our failure to confront looming environmental disaster. In any case, it’s my hope that this weekend at Wes you can find inspiration not contamination, whether you spend your time with Shakespeare’s villain or with friends in search of ecological understanding and responsible action.

How are the Humanities?

Last week I met with many faculty members from Wesleyan’s division of Arts and Humanities. We had an interesting conversation about some of the challenges facing teachers and scholars in these areas, which have found themselves under increasing pressure around the country as schools cut budgets. Recently, the State University of New York at Albany eliminated some foreign language programs, and that is only one dramatic example of many that seem to show that humanities-based education is in deep trouble. Recently, Stanley Fish critically considered many of the contemporary Cassandras predicting the collapse of the liberal arts, but he also noted the founding of a new (and traditional) liberal arts college in Savannah, Georgia.

At Wesleyan we have much to be proud of with respect to the humanities. Our faculty regularly inspire students and readers in subjects ranging from the most traditional to the most avant garde, and they continue to create scholarship that shapes their fields. Russian Professor Susanne Fusso, for example, has written powerfully on Dostoevsky’s exploration of sexuality, deviance and the young person’s encounter with the adult world. Joel Pfister, of English and American Studies, has for years helped reconfigure our understanding of the relationship of Native American and White American culture, and he recently published a study of Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) Henry Roe Cloud, entitled The Yale Indian. Like Susanne, Joel has been an active member of the university community, and he currently chairs the English department. Andrew Curran, of the Romance Languages and Literatures Department, has just finished a major study of ideas of race in the Eighteenth Century, and this spring he is organizing a Shasha Seminar on race in conjunction with a class he is teaching. There are so many examples I could cite of humanities scholar-teachers here working at the highest level! They are attracting some of our best students and launching them toward a lifetime of learning.

One of the confusing aspects of our curriculum at Wesleyan is how we define our academic divisions. At Wes, some disciplines commonly thought to be key to the humanities, like Philosophy, History and Religion, are located in the social science division. Many courses within these programs are labeled as humanities classes, though there are also several surprises. Over the next several months I hope to better understand how we have organized the curriculum, and talk to faculty and students about how this organization supports their educational goals.

This week the Board of Trustees are here for the fall meeting. I’ve asked our board members to let me know how their humanities  college education has remained relevant to their lives after graduation. They have written at some length about critical thinking, communication skills, and the expansion of their powers of empathy. How do we understand the narratives of those around us, and how to we learn to shape our own story? Many of our trustees trace their love of music, art and literature to encounters in the arts and humanities here.

Professor of Italian Ellen Nerenberg recently shared with me the self-study conducted last year by Romance Languages and Literatures. The department discusses the humanities as a crossroads of the world, as a gateway to interculturalism, and as a constructive engagement with tradition. These are certainly crucial dimensions of humanistic study, which provides students with an orientation to traditions, cultures and creativity. An education in the humanities also offers enormous pleasure, expanding one’s capacity for delight and wonder.

Students are now choosing their classes for the spring. As I look at the rich array of offerings, I can only imagine the joyful discoveries that await them. How are the Humanities at Wesleyan? Self-questioning, as always, but also alive to both tradition and the contemporary world in ways that continue to benefit our students.


CSS — Still Going Strong

Earlier this week I wandered over to the Public Affairs Center to participate in an evening seminar of the College of Social Studies. I am working with a senior in the program, Jeremy Isard ’11, who is writing a fascinating thesis that deals with issues concerning memory, narrative and trauma in a Uganda refugee camp, and I was to hear his presentation to his fellow students. Professors Joyce Jacobsen (Economics) and Peter Rutland (Government) were the teachers leading the group. The mood in the room was serious but also very energetic. When I arrived, Vernie Chia ’11 was finishing up her discussion of “envisioning gender equality,” and she was explaining the challenges of her choice to use contemporary Sweden as her case study. This had followed Guangshuo Yang’s ’11 discussion of how Chinese academics had yet to create stable norms for intellectual work in the social sciences and humanities, and Jeff Breau’s ’11 consideration of the relationship between agriculture and obesity in contemporary Europe. What a range of topics!

Even though it was late, the conversation was animated and rigorous. Joyce and Peter had clearly developed a great intellectual atmosphere. The students seemed to know each other well, having gone through this rigorous program together over the last several semesters. Their topics were diverse, but they had in common a drive to understand complex issues and to connect that understanding to a wider set of concerns that extended far beyond academia. The professors were able to offer helpful suggestions and constructive criticism, but it was clear that they knew these seniors were ready to take the lead in making the seminar successful.

I was reminded of the great CSS thesis I read last year about Francis Fukuyama by Chan-young Yang ’10, who is now at Yale Law School. As I walked back to the president’s house, I thought back to my own philosophy teacher Louis Mink, who devoted so much of his intellectual energy to this young innovative program. And then I remembered the stories I’d heard about President Victor Butterfield, whose vision and talent helped launch Wesleyan’s interdisciplinary colleges. It is clear that after more than fifty years the College of Social Studies continues to attract gifted students and devoted faculty who team up to create an imaginative and rigorous educational experience. President Butterfield would be proud of them. I know I am!

Monday is W-E-S-U Day!

Last night I attended a small celebration of a pretty big event. Wesleyan’s community radio station, WESU, recently expanded its broadcast range by installing a more powerful transmitter. Tens of thousands of additional listeners will now be able to tune into the station’s eclectic mix of music, cultural and political talk shows, and to hear information about what’s happening in Central Connecticut. Along with station manager Ben Michael, students direct the organization. Community volunteers help guide the programming and are involved in all levels of the station.

Last night Sonia Manjon, VP for Strategic Partnerships and Chief-Diversity-Officer, sang Ben’s and the radio station’s praises. She emphasized how important WESU is for generating even more community partnerships. Mark Masselli, founder and director of the Community Health Center, spoke eloquently about how the station has helped community organizers for decades. “For a long time WESU has spoken truth to power,” Mark said, and he was looking forward to its ability to do so for years to come. Mark’s generosity is one of the key reasons we have this new transmitter, and he was already advocating for digital upgrades that would extend our radio presence even further. Middletown’s Mayor Sebastian Giuliano joined in the chorus of congratulations last night, and presented a proclamation declaring that Monday, November 8, 2010 would be “W-E-S-U Day” in Middletown.

I learned about the storied origins of the station last night. In 1939 a small group of students got things going in Clark Hall. They used the water pipes as rudimentary antennae, eventually getting their AM sound almost across the campus. Over time the station grew in range and sophistication, and in the late sixties students had acquired a license for regular FM presence. When I was a student here in the 1970s, WESU offered music and news you wouldn’t get elsewhere, and that’s still the case. I told a story about John Woodhouse’s strangely stimulating classical music late night show, and I could have talked about the great jazz or political shows that expanded the sounds one could hear on the airwaves. When I joked last night that I wanted more bluegrass, a student told me about his Tuesday show, Hardly, Strickly Bluegrass. It shares the early Tuesday night time with Acoustic Blender. Check out all the programs.

Now with 6,000 watts of broadcast power, WESU is stronger than ever. If you start listening, I’m sure you’ll find something offensive, delightful, and mind expanding. It’s independent radio — small station with the big sound. CONGRATULATIONS WESU!

Alumni Elected to Office

Here is a probably partial (but not partisan) list of our distinguished alumni who have been declared the winners of their elections last night:

John Hickenlooper ’74  – elected Governor of Colorado

Michael Bennet ’87  – elected Senator from Colorado

Peter Shumlin ’79 – elected Governor of Vermont

Kathleen Clyde ’01 – elected to the Ohio State House of Representatives

Matt Lesser (in-process) – re-elected to CT House of Representatives

Dan Wolf ’79  – elected to state senate in Massachusetts representing the Cape and Islands

If you know of other Wesleyan alumni elected last night, please let me know

Go Wes!!

Wes-Tech celebrates Dana Royer

Not long ago I wrote about Wade Hsu, a recent grad who was honored as having done the best undergraduate physics work in the country. This past weekend Dana Royer, an assistant professor in the Earth and Environmental Science department received the Donath Medal from the American Geological Society. The award recognizes young scientists (aged 35 or younger) for outstanding original research marking a major advance in the earth sciences. I’m delighted to cite the press release announcing the award.

“Dana is a true innovator who successfully tackles extremely important questions in paleoclimatology and paleoecology, in part using paleobotanical proxies calibrated with a remarkable series of careful modern analog studies,” said Peter D. Wilf of Pennsylvania State University in nominating Royer for the honor. “He often connects the deep-time climate and CO2 record to the present day in highly societally-relevant ways that are widely cited in the ‘modern’ climate change literature.” Wilf also said, “Without Dana’s contributions we would know much less about Earth’s climate history and its great importance to today’s world.”

“In the rapidly developing field of plant paleoecology and ecophysiology, Dana Royer stands out in terms of innovation and sheer breadth and depth of knowledge. He is truly an emerging leader in the geological sciences,” said Leo Hickey, professor of geology and Curator of Paleobotany at Yale University.

Dana is also part of our new College of the Environment. He describes his research as exploring “how plants can be used to reconstruct ancient environments and the (paleo-) physiological underpinnings behind these plant-environment relationships.” This basic research about our deep past is very relevant to understanding our contemporary ecological context. Isn’t that what our scholar-teacher model is all about? A dedicated teacher doing advanced research that opens onto pressing issues relevant to all of us.

And Dana received his award in Colorado, where a former Wesleyan geology student is the mayor of Denver and (today!) collecting votes in hopes of becoming the state’s next governor. How cool is that!