Wild Wesleyan, Peaceful Wesleyan

There’s a momentary break in the meeting, and I sneak a look out the office window at the  students heading for Foss Hill to take in (finally) the spring sunshine. Can’t we have class outside, I want to ask.  But I don’t ask (and I never take my own classes outside) because I know I’d never be able to concentrate; I’d just  lie down in the grass and enjoy the day. And so I wait for the last meeting to end before heading outside for a walk.

One of the joys of the season for me is just wandering around our beautiful campus as students emerge from their winter hibernation and  greet springtime.  Much credit is due to Dave Hall’s crew, who are marvelously attentive to keeping Wesleyan a home of which we can be proud. And students are joining this endeavor, too. Some months ago I was approached by Miles Bukiet and a group of Wesleyan students dedicated to sustainable landscape design. As they put it in their mission statement: “Pressing environmental problems compel us to question carbon intensive lawn care, inspiring us to instead imagine innovative landscape designs that use wildflowers, native plants, and edible fruit trees to knit our community together around a practical expression of our commitment to sustainability while simultaneously beautifying our campus.” At a  design charrette sponsored by the group, I was very impressed by the thoughtfulness and teamwork displayed by the projects I saw. Last week I met again with the group and was delighted to learn that they are working on a plan for the West College courtyard. I can’t wait to see the result!

As I meander about with Mathilde, thinking about intelligent landscape design, I come across professors starting their evening commute, or catching up with students, and then a wonderful African drumming and dance performance in the CFA courtyard.  I marvel at the skill and stamina of the performers.  Strolling back toward the President’s House, I see a group setting up for a Gamelan Concert on the labyrinth installed a few years back to honor Joe Reed and Kit Reed. No hurry. Why not take in some of this wondrous music and dance as the evening light fades?


Gamelan Concert on Reed Labyrinth


Writing and Education

This past Sunday I published a review in the Los Angeles Times on teaching writing. I cross-posted on the Huffington Post and have been surprised by the interest it has generated.

“Professor X” is teaching at schools very different from Wesleyan, and yet there may be lessons in his book for us. The first is that our students have the benefit of working with scholar-teachers who are dedicated to providing a bold and rigorous educational experience. The second is that our faculty have the benefit of working with students who are motivated to develop their capacities for critical and creative thinking. All of us know that this joint endeavor only works well when built on a foundation of trust, hard work and care. As we move toward the end of the semester, let’s make sure that foundation is as strong as possible.


In the Basement of the Ivory Tower

Confessions of an Accidental Academic

Professor X

Viking: 288 pp., $25.95

In fall 2008, the Atlantic published an anonymous essay on the awful conditions in the basic writing courses of many colleges. “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” told the story of Professor X, a part-time adjunct professor with a passion for literature and a dedication to upholding standards. “Professor X,” as the author called himself, penned a cri de coeur lamenting that we now encourage people to enter these courses without the preparation or ability to do college-level work. He compared contemporary inflated assumptions about the abilities of many non-traditional students to the inflated credit scores that helped fuel the housing bubble. Professor X had himself begun to teach, he tells us, because his family had taken on a mortgage they could scarcely afford, and he needed more than one job to make ends meet. He was stuck in “adjunct land” because the culture all around him refused to uphold its basic standards. The verve of his essay lay in Professor X’s refusal to give in to the hypocrisy of the system that victimized him.

One can imagine someone, seeing that the controversial essay was attracting attention online, trying to recast it as a book. Why not just inflate into chapters the points made in paragraphs, add a bit on reactions to the original essay, and presto! A book! The result is a volume with an embarrassing amount of rhetorical padding and an excruciating number of repetitions. As a writing teacher, X probably realizes this, but how could he resist morphing his successful essay into his first published book?

Teachers of a certain age often like to complain about students who just don’t get it. We all have stories of howlers committed by naive freshmen or of students who come up with lame excuses for not handing in work or who get caught plagiarizing. “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower” is chock-full of bonehead tales from the classroom. Some are amusing, but after a while they leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. Should a teacher be this condescending and still parade his virtuous upholding of true university standards?

Professor X was by his own account a student who loved to learn and who developed the noble ambition to be a writer. But his plans for a life devoted to what he repeatedly calls the very hard work of writing were derailed. “Meanwhile, my wife had gotten pregnant,” he tells the reader in a howler of his own, and he wants us to understand that this meant that he had to get serious. Further shocking disappointments would be coming: An agent didn’t like the book manuscript he finished. “I knew that I wouldn’t be able to start another book,” he writes. “I was on the road to forty years old.” Writing is so hard!

With debts piling up and tensions mounting with his wife, X becomes a part-time teacher. Now he can really show somebody how hard writing is! He doesn’t want to talk about race or class in his courses because these topics make him uncomfortable. He is surprised to discover that his nontraditional students are often indifferent to his pedagogical charms and that they are woefully unengaged. They don’t even seem to care about failing. X rails against a system that pulls them into college when they have no ability to work at the appropriate level. He wonders whether this is the fault of postmodernism or maybe of the increasing number of female teachers (with all that feminine compassion!).

Professor X sees a corrupt system in which community colleges succeed in attracting more and more students who will fail (but pay tuition) because more and more companies are using college certification as a job requirement. Why should nurses or computer programmers or cops have to learn about literature? he complains. He does not ask this question because he believes that literature is relevant only to those pursuing a life of writing. No, Professor X really does love literature and writing, and he believes with admirable passion that learning to read and write is enormously fulfilling whatever your job may be. X rails against the system of attracting all these students into courses they can’t pass because he despairs of their ability to learn (or his ability to teach them).

I wish we had heard more about the students who did learn from Professor X, and I bet there have been more than a few. The glimpses into his successes in the classroom don’t support his call for more restrictions on who should go to college, but it is moving to hear about those students who surprised him with their insights, honesty and desire to learn.

Professor X’s 2008 essay struck a chord because we were ashamed to be reminded that more than half of those who begin community college never finish and that the great majority of college students across the country are taught by woefully underpaid part-time instructors. We want to believe that all citizens should have the chance to develop literacy and the ability to think and write clearly. This cannot be reduced to job training. X is so frustrated by his classes because he wants his students to develop these capacities too. Despite his often cynical and pandering tone, Professor X does occasionally show that he cares about the welfare of those he is trying to teach. To his credit, he just wishes they cared more themselves.

WesFest Pics


Some (fuzzy) pictures from my WesFest wanderings. I saw some great softball action, including Dana Levy’s ’12 powerful pitching and towering home run, and some intense lacrosse competition as Grant Covington ’12 (the most aggressive keeper I’ve ever seen) defended the lead established by an offense led by Conor Malangone’s ’12 hat trick.  The women’s tennis team has put together a winning campaign, despite the challenges from the crazy weather we’ve been having. They are apt to continue their winning ways at home Wednesday afternoon against Holy Cross.

The pictures here are from Brighter Dawns’ mini 5k race to raise money for water purification efforts in Bangladesh; Long Lane Farmers getting the soil ready; and a wonderful senior recital by Yousry Benayoun, whose uplifting songs were the perfect coda to my wonderful WesFest weekend.

It’s Time to Choose Your (Our) School

Each April I enjoy seeing the increased traffic of visitors to campus who have come to see what makes Wesleyan such a magical place. Some are high school seniors who have already been admitted, others are juniors just starting their college search. They have heard about Wesleyan: its great faculty and its creativity, its activism and its research opportunities. They may have heard about the vibrant music scene at Eclectic, or the spring evenings on Foss Hill. They want to check us out.

Most of the students who visit Wes on their campus tours have already seen or are on their way to see other liberal arts colleges and highly selective universities. Last year I blogged about whether the distinctions that are so important to the students, faculty and staff of these schools come through to visitors. With WesFest (our annual celebration for admitted students) starting today [Thursday, April 14], I thought I’d reprise some of that post.

If a student has been admitted to Wes, then he or she probably has other fine options. How to choose? For some, the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given me the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that admits students irrespective of their ability to pay, and which meets the full need of students, according to a formula developed over several years. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting a student’s financial need over four years of study. I am proud of our financial aid program, and we work hard to strengthen it.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters. Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. Campuses in New York and Boston have become enormously popular. But if one seeks out small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing cultural and social life on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a “human scale” and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most of the liberal arts colleges, but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to have a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students. You can always meet new people, and you are unlikely to get lost in the crowd.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of teacher/scholars, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst, Yale and Wesleyan, or Tufts, Brown and Middlebury?

Knowing that these schools all provide a high quality, broad and flexible curriculum with strong teaching, and that the students all have displayed great academic capacity, prospective undergrads are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, among the people they see, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — and they wonder whether they will be happy in that particular context. Hundreds of visitors will be coming to Wesleyan this weekend for WesFest. They will go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they will ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors get a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and our commitment to civic engagement as a key part of one’s education and approach to life. Even in a short visit to campus, I want students to get a sense of the opportunities here for doing intellectual work at the highest level. Our students publish their undergraduate research projects, develop shows and make films that travel the country, create sustainable organizations that make a difference in the lives of people all over the world. And they do so with the enthusiastic support of their friends and teachers (and president!).

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into. And even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The celebration of senior theses completions at the library this week said a lot about who we are. We know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will strike many of our visitors, too.

“We pride ourselves upon a practical idealism”

This weekend I was re-reading John Dewey’s 1917 essay, “The Need for a Recovery of Philosophy,” in which he famously calls for a re-orientation of philosophy away from a focus on general problems of knowledge and toward human problems.  The essay is a pragmatist manifesto, urging us away from knowledge as a spectator sport and toward inquiry as an activist enterprise motivated by social and personal concerns. The goal of our intellectual endeavors should not be to mirror reality accurately, but “to free experience from routine and from caprice.”

As I read Dewey’s essay about recovering philosophy, I found myself substituting “education” for “philosophy” time and time again. Many of his points about pragmatism and inquiry reminded me of how we have been describing a Wesleyan education. As we spoke about civic engagement this year, we have been calling on students and faculty to enhance the relevance of their work. When I have written about the “translational liberal arts,” I have been emphasizing the importance of converting what one is learning in the classroom to what one is doing off campus. The point of a liberal arts education, I stress time and time again, has never been more relevant than it is today because this kind of education develops resources for lifelong learning. That sounds a lot like Dewey’s call to recognize how even our “imaginative recovery of the bygone” is in the service of our current needs.

At the close of his essay, Dewey wrote: “We pride ourselves upon a practical idealism, a lively and easily moved faith in possibilities as yet unrealized, in willingness to make sacrifice for their realization.” “Practical idealism” is a phrase used by a president of Bowdoin College in the early twentieth century as well as by Gandhi a generation later. We’ve used the same words to talk about some of the important ingredients in a Wesleyan education. But Dewey warns us not to get too comfortable with our highfalutin ideals: “all peoples at all times have been narrowly realistic in practice and have then employed idealization to cover up in sentiment and theory their brutalities.”

We must all be careful not to fall prey to merely covering over our brutalities with ideals and sentiment. We must develop the intellectual and moral capacities to imagine a future that is worth striving for, and we must enhance our ability to create the tools for its realization. This is, to paraphrase Dewey one more time, a sufficiently large task for our education.


Take Back the Night, Give Back to Community

Tonight (Thursday, April 7) is Take Back the Night, when members of our community gather to raise awareness about sexual violence and to create a safe, caring space for survivors to share their experiences. Just this week members of the administration participated in a conference call with White House officials and university leaders to discuss how we can reduce the most prevalent form of sexual violence on campus, attacks on women. We were helped in this conversation by the good work of the Sexual Violence Task Force, whose recommendations are currently being implemented. Come to the steps of Olin Library tonight at 7:00 to show your support!

Tomorrow night is Green Street’s Feast for the Senses auction fundraiser. The event, sponsored by Mary Beth and Stephen Daniel ’82, gets underway with a preview at 5:30. The monies raised will go to support our Summer Arts and Science Academy and the new Young Women’s Leadership Institute. Come on down to Green Street tomorrow, and be ready to bid!!

After marching with the Take Back the Night group last night I went to see Samantha Joy Pearlman’s senior thesis theater project, Devotedly, Sincerely Yours: The Story of the USO. My mother is a singer, and I grew up with the music of the 1940s featured in the show. It was such a treat! The band was great, and Samantha gave a funny, moving, FABULOUS performance. The show is at the CFA Theater tonight (Friday, 4/8) at 8 pm.

Preserve Excellence in Connecticut by Investing in College Students

This morning I met with some of our state legislators to talk about topics of importance for higher education. Wesleyan is a member of the Connecticut Conference of Independent Colleges, and our sector provides significant opportunities for students across the state. About a third of Connecticut undergraduates attend not-for-profit private colleges and universities, but we award about half of the degrees in the state. The students we enroll are much more likely to graduate! An educated workforce is one of our state’s great resources, and our sector is a large contributor to this environment.

One of the issues we are most concerned with these days is cut to the state’s support for students with financial need — the CICS program. Connecticut residents have been eligible for grants at private institutions, and for many this support has been crucial. Governor Malloy has deep fiscal challenges to meet, and I have a great deal of respect for his efforts to visit citizens throughout the state to hear their responses to his budget plans. He has rightly noted that all citizens will have to sacrifice in order to put Connecticut back on the right economic track. Unfortunately, the plans announced for CICS go beyond shared sacrifice. In just a few years they would decimate the program on which so many of our students depend. About 14% would be cut next year, and the proposal is to cut 50% in year two! That’s just taking a hatchet to a very successful program. We need a scalpel.

We have been making our case in Hartford, and this morning we made it again at breakfast. Support for higher education in Connecticut is a crucial investment in our long-term economic health, and helping state residents stay close to home to complete their degrees makes a lot of sense. I am hopeful that the governor and our state legislators will find a way to preserve more of the financial aid going to undergraduates. This aid pays real dividends in the long run by promoting excellence in Connecticut.

Speaking of excellence in CT: Congratulations to the Huskies on an amazing run to the National Championship!


Arts Advocate, Neely Bruce

It’s National Arts Advocacy Day, and one of Wesleyan’s own is being celebrated this evening in Middletown. Neely Bruce, Professor Music and American Studies, is being recognized for his lifetime commitment to the arts. Neely is a composer, conductor, pianist and scholar of American music, past chorus director for Connecticut Opera, and director of music at South Congregational Church. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg! He is a beloved teacher here at Wesleyan, and last year his re-imagining of the opera Flora was the hit of the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina. The combination of historical research, compositional originality and production savvy in that project have characterized his work over many years here in Middletown.

Please join me in congratulating Neely Bruce. You can shake his hand down on Main Street at the Shadow Room today at 5:30! — That was Monday, but if you see Neely on campus, please salute him!

Softball Champs and Other Spring Sports

It snowed a bit Thursday night, but spring sports are very much underway. The men’s crew team has started off with a series of great races, and the women rowers have also showed real promise. Women’s lacrosse is home on Saturday, April 2 against the always tough Tufts team, while the men travel north to meet their Tufts rivals. The tennis squads are busy competing, and the Cardinals travel to Maine (burrrrr) this weekend to face Bowdoin. Track athletes will try to stay warm while running circles around Coast Guard on Saturday. The golf team, in the civilized fashion befitting the sport, will wait until it warms up for their next official matches. Pete Taylor ’12 will be leading the group into competition. For hearty souls the baseball team will be right here at home this weekend, taking on Hamilton on Saturday and Sunday. It IS supposed to warm up a bit, so you can take in the game from Foss Hill or Denison Terrace.

The mighty Cardinal softball squad takes to the field against Middlebury on Saturday. Wesleyan’s women won the NESCAC championship last year, and they are looking ready to roll again. Come on out to the softball field just before noon to cheer them on!!

Let’s Reduce Bandwidth and Read More!

The Wesleyan Student Assembly seems to have no idea of what to do with its enormous surplus, and so its leaders have offered the money to the administration for co-curricular programs. Starting immediately, the funds from the Student Activity Fund will be devoted to buying texts for book clubs, and we will organize weekend discussion sessions in all the residence halls. I am happy to announce that the Greek Societies have stepped forward to create special late night book clubs on memoir, autobiography and quest narratives.

In order to encourage more reading at Wesleyan, I have directed Technology Services to cut the bandwidth to the university by 66%. Many students have complained about the slow internet speeds at Wesleyan because they want to watch videos and other forms of popular entertainment. Grow up! We are an educational institution! I have decided to cut the wireless to all dorms after 10 pm, and we will reduce the pipeline to the internet.

Students are encouraged to send their ideas for reading groups to their WSA representatives. Close your computers and unite around books, you have nothing to lose but your chains.