I was a student here in the seventies, and this included more than a little protest and activism. Even then I knew I was participating in a Wesleyan tradition of engagement, and now, as President, I still take pride in that tradition. In the last few years, we’ve tried to integrate that concern for the good of the world with the curriculum – notably the College of the Environment, the Koeppel Fellow in Journalism, and the Civic Engagement Certificate Program.
A milestone in these efforts occurred in the fall of 2009 when Wesleyan celebrated the opening of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life. The plans for the Center grew out of the recognition that Wesleyan students and faculty had for generations been finding ways to connect what they study on campus to their lives as citizens and activists. As the Allbritton website puts it: University-based intellectuals have been rethinking their connection to the greater public and, consequently, are forging knowledge-seeking alliances with innovators and leaders in government and the corporate world. Social scientists are developing innovative and productive relationships with other sectors of the public, including artists, grass-roots activists, and independent scholars. And it’s not just social scientists who are developing these relationships. You can find faculty across the curriculum doing so.
Wesleyan demands a lot of its faculty. We want them to be scholar-teachers, deepening the positive feedback between their research and their efforts in the classroom. We also encourage them to connect their intellectual work with issues that matter to the world off campus — to Public Life with a capital P and a capital L. Recent success stories that come to mind include Erika Franklin Fowler’s Wesleyan Media Project, Elvin Lim‘s work on the presidency, Erica Chenoweth‘s studies of politics and terrorism and Peter Gottschalk‘s discussions of Islamophobia.
But does Wesleyan want ALL the research of the university to be responding to issues of Public Life? How about basic research in the sciences? Does our faculty have to justify this kind of specialization by looping the work back to some political or social issue? Does detailed research in literature and languages have to be public (read “popular”) in order to be considered “Wesleyanish?” In other words, has a connection to “Public Life” become a litmus test for research here?
I’ve been led to ask this question by some recent conversations concerning historians and the public stimulated by Anthony Grafton, a wonderfully gifted scholar (with whom I studied) who is now president of the American Historical Association. Grafton has rightly defended the importance of basic research in the humanities and social sciences, but he has also called on historians to fight back against those who manipulate the past without concern for fundamental notions of evidence, argument or honesty. In other words, he wants to ensure that scholars can continue to work on topics that might not appear to be immediately useful, but he also wants to see some scholars engage in questions in the public sphere on the basis of their academic work. Not all the scholarship has to be about civic engagement, but we need some scholars to engage in the public sphere to protect the right to do that basic research.
In addition to our tradition of engaged scholarship, at Wesleyan we are proud to have faculty and students working on topics generated simply from the intense desire to know more about something that has come to seem important. Grafton puts it this way: We’re modeling honest, first-hand inquiry. That austere, principled quest for knowledge matters: matters more than ever in the current media world, in which lies about the past, like lies about the present, move faster than ever before. The problem is that it’s a quest without a Grail. The best conclusions we can draw, scrutinizing our evidence and our inferences as fiercely and scrupulously as we can, will be provisional. We support a culture of inquiry on our campus, one that is willing to live with the provisional so long as we have the opportunity to work honestly, intensively and with the necessary tools (e.g., equipment, languages, documents).
A connection to the public, then, is not a litmus test for the scholarship we support, but there is such a test. It’s connection to the classroom, the “modeling” of inquiry. We expect all the research supported by the university to have a positive feedback loop with teaching. We are committed to sabbaticals, grants and other support because faculty research enlivens pedagogy and learning on campus. That’s what the scholar-teacher model is all about.
When asked about the most rewarding part of his distinguished, prolific career as a historian, Grafton recently responded “teaching.” I know that many of our colleagues at Wesleyan would echo that notion. The opportunity to connect our research with the education of our students is one of the joys of working on our campus. It’s the heart of the “public life” (small “p”, small “l”) of our university.