In Theory….

Last year the faculty approved a new “certificate” in Social, Cultural, and Critical Theory.  The website for the program proudly announces that “the commitment to critical theory evidenced in the scholarship and coursework of the Wesleyan faculty is one of the university’s greatest and most distinctive strengths. The Certificate allows students to identify and leverage these curricular assets.” The number of departments that offer classes  that fall under this program is staggering: English and sociology, music and religion, film, history and philosophy — just to name a few.

What are “certificates” anyway? I used to refer to this Wesleyan mode of academic certification as “interdisciplinary minors.” But since we don’t currently have minors at Wesleyan (although the faculty is working on this now), perhaps that’s not the most helpful label. The Educational Policy Committee put it this way in 2010: certificates “organize curricular resources to structure a coherent interdisciplinary course of study independent of established majors.” That’s why the program in Social, Cultural and Critical Theory draws on so many different disciplines. Its “independence of established majors” allows the program to draw on work that examines religious belief or scientific knowledge (Mary-Jane Rubenstein and Joe Rouse, respectively); work that explores health care and ethics (Laura Stark) or diasporic communities (Khachig Tölölyan). All the classes aim at a broad based and critical understanding of how culture and society function (and for whose benefit).

This semester the program has been sponsoring lectures most Wednesday afternoons at 4:30 in Downey House (113). I began the series with a talk on Freud, and there have been discussions of  Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt and Max Weber. No, this isn’t just a German-centric series. Historian Gary Shaw spoke on George Herbert Mead and this week and next the organizers dare to cross the Rhine with lectures from College of Letters faculty members Kari Weil and Ethan Kleinberg. Prof. Weil will be speaking on French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, and Prof. Kleinberg will talk about Jacques Derrida. My schedule doesn’t usually allow me to attend the talks, but I’ve been very impressed to hear that more than 50 people each week get together to discuss some of the most important thinkers of modernity and postmodernity. I catch up on some of the talks via the podcasts.

If you are on campus and haven’t attended the lectures yet, there are still two Wednesdays left in the semester! Be there, at least in theory….

Finding Those Times to Feel Thankful

“The last few weeks have been especially hectic,” I told my older son recently, when we had our regular phone conversation to bridge the distance between West Coast and East.  “Do I say that every week,” I wondered. He, too, is increasingly busy, as are so many of the people around us. When do we take the time to stop and think? During this period of economic frustration and limited political horizons, when do we allow ourselves to feel gratitude for what we do have? For example, I am so grateful for those conversations with my son, and for knowing that he is having similar conversations with my mother. I am so grateful for my family.

Sometimes feelings of gratitude are bound up with feelings of vulnerability. When we realize how fragile life can be, we can be more open to experience that spirit of thankfulness. This season my family has faced some health challenges, and as we’ve gotten through them, I realize more than ever how lucky I am to have a caring, resourceful and loving family.

Sometimes feelings of gratitude are bound up with feelings of accomplishment. As we work hard on things that matter to us, we can be more open to experience a sense of gratitude and belonging. I work side by side with a very talented team, and I work on a campus infused with the energy of faculty, staff and students. I recognize how fortunate I am to work among people who aim to make a positive difference in the world.

Sometimes feelings of gratitude are bound up with feelings of hopefulness. When we realize how lucky we are to have family and friends who care for us, when we recognize how fortunate we are to be able to accomplish significant goals through cooperative work, we can be more open to feelings of hope for a meaningful future.

As we find the times to be thankful (especially in these tough periods), may our gratitude for present blessings be bound up with a sense of caring purpose.

Choosing Classes, Choosing Majors (Certificates? Minors? Clusters?)

Wesleyan students are busily deciding on the classes they intend to take next semester. It’s an exciting and sometimes frustrating time. Students may have heard since their first term about Don Moon’s government class on the moral basis of politics (a top choice since I was an undergrad), while others will be eager to learn about the history of architecture from Joseph Siry (whose classes have also been popular for a very long time), or from Katherine Kuenzli, (whose class on Wagner and Modernism is cross-listed in 5 depts!). If students want to take a very popular course with limited enrollments, then they may well be frustrated. But a good antidote to this is to go to Wesmaps and search for classes with free seats (just check that box). You are likely to discover some real gems — be they classes in data analysis or biology, to classes in religion or a brand new new one on the history of the European novel.

As students plan for the spring term, sophomores in particular are thinking through how they will focus their studies. Choosing a major can seem very difficult, especially if one has diverse interests. It’s crucial that students talk this through with their advisors. I remember not being able to choose among philosophy, psychology and history — and then a dean asked me why I thought I had to choose. I wound up creating a university major that combined these fields. Today, many students double major, while others add certificates (much like an interdisciplinary minor) or other points of focus. I always suggest that students worry less about how their major(s) will look to others after graduation and focus more on what they are most interested in. What is it that generates your greatest intellectual passion? Your major will let you deepen that passion and discover how it might be relevant to what you do after graduation.

Professors are busy too, of course. Not only are we grading exams and papers from the fall, but we are thinking about those spring courses and how to make them as compelling as possible. I’ve been teaching the Past on Film since the Ice Age, but next term it will be very different than in previous years — we are going discuss how photography makes a difference in our cultural and personal recollections. We’ll also be looking at several films that hadn’t made it onto the syllabus in prior years.

We professors also look forward to seeing where our intellectual passions lead us. Our journeys are informed by the engagement with the interests of our students as we continue learning together.

Exercising “a degree of freedom which rarely exists”

On Sunday our faculty forum listserve received an email forwarded by Prof. Donald Moon from colleagues at the University of California at Berkeley. The message described the excessive use of force by UC Berkeley police in their attempt to dismantle tents in Sproul Plaza. I was in that plaza a couple of weeks ago, speaking nearby at Berkeley’s Townsend Center for the Humanities. I was shocked to read that one of my hosts, Celeste Langan, the director of the Center, was arrested and manhandled along with several students, staff and faculty who were protesting peacefully. Here’s the beginning of Prof. Langan’s comment on what happened:

I participated in the Occupy Cal rally on Sproul Plaza on November 9 (my sign, “We’re Afraid for Virginia Woolf,” made it to the Daily Cal’s top 10) and stayed for the general assembly. The organizers of Occupy Cal asked those who were willing to stay and link arms to protect those who were attempting to set up the encampment; I chose to do so. I knew, both before and after the police gave orders to disperse, that I was engaged in an act of civil disobedience. I want to stress both of those words: I knew I would be disobeying the police order, and therefore subject to arrest; I also understood that simply standing, occupying ground, and linking arms with others who were similarly standing, was a form of non-violent, hence civil, resistance. I therefore anticipated that the police might arrest us, but in a similarly non-violent manner. When the student in front of me was forcibly removed, I held out my wrist and said “Arrest me! Arrest me!” But rather than take my wrist or arm, the police grabbed me by my hair and yanked me forward to the ground, where I was told to lie on my stomach and was handcuffed. The injuries I sustained were relatively minor–a fat lip, a few scrapes to the back of my palms, a sore scalp–but also unnecessary and unjustified. You can read more at:

Here’s a YouTube video that includes her arrest:

As indicated in the email from Berkeley, the absurdity of the university’s  response is best summarized by Steven Colbert:

Berkeley, like Wesleyan, has a long and proud tradition of protest. As a student here I participated in protests, and now as president I have been (and likely will be again) their object. I can imagine (with dread) extreme situations in which force would be required to preserve campus safety and our ongoing operations. As students, staff and faculty make their voices heard, however, the university’s responsibility is to protect their rights, even as it ensures that the educational mission of the school continues. Our joint responsibility is for the future of an open and safe campus environment where learning, grounded in freedom of thought and expression, continues.

Prof. Langan wrote that she was defending liberal education in Sproul Plaza — that she was defending an idea of the university that is being dismantled by political and education leaders who support only the most narrow forms of instrumental training. Prof. Langan’s idea of the university emphasizes the links between the practice of free thinking and the cultivation of freedom in the years after graduation. She is a teacher and a student of Thoreau, the author of  Walden and of Civil Disobedience, who understood how our American emphasis on the bottom line can make us blind to the world before our eyes and to our possibilities for change. Thoreau wrote: We should seek to be fellow students with the pupil, and should learn of, as well as with him, if we would be most helpful to him. But I am not blind to the difficulties of the case; it supposes a degree of freedom which rarely exists.

At Wesleyan we believe strongly in this degree of freedom as we build a home for learning. And our colleagues on the West Coast, the faculty and staff who stood shoulder to shoulder with students at Berkeley, were exercising “a degree of freedom which rarely exists.” Their peaceful efforts to protest the dismantling of a once great university deserve our respect. The violent response to these efforts deserves our condemnation.

Theater Dept Presents THE GREAT GOD BROWN

This week Wesleyan’s Theater Department presents The Great God Brown by Eugene O’Neill, directed by Yuriy Kordonskiy. The expressionistic play explores the intersections of art, identity, desire and public meaning. Check out the preview:

I know the week before Thanksgiving is crunch time for many Wes students, but you shouldn’t miss this production in the CFA Theater. It runs from Wednesday night through the weekend. Tickets are available by phone (860-685-3355) or online at


Flash: Men’s Soccer Wins in First Round of NCAA Tournament

Far from home in Camden, New Jersey, the Wesleyan men’s soccer team defeated Misericordia last night in the NCAA tournament, 1-o. Rory O’Neill ’13 scored the game winner for the 5th time this season, off of an assist from the indefatigable Walter Rodriguez ’13! And Adam Purdy recorded his 11th shutout of the year, adding to his tally in the Red and Black record books.

The Cardinals continue into the next round this evening at 5:00 pm when they play Rutgers-Camden (the home squad). We are all sending good vibes to Coach Wheeler and the entire team. GO WES!!!

Out West (so far that it was East)

In the week of Fall Break (before the storm and the power outage), I was in Berkeley and then Beijing giving lectures and attending a colloquium. At the University of California at Berkeley, I spoke to a group interested in the intersection of arts and humanities research with liberal learning, and with another research group focused on critical theory. Here are the video links through UC Berkeley:

The  scholarly meeting in Beijing was jointly organized by the Chinese Academy of Social Science and Wesleyan, with special leadership from our journal in the philosophy of history, History and Theory.

The theme of our discussions was “tradition,” and the meeting was structured around twenty essays, half written originally in English and half in Chinese. Translators did yeoman’s service in preparing the written materials in advance and in providing simultaneous translations throughout our discussions. Here in this photo is our great translator Guofei with philosophy professor Stephen Angle:

I was very interested to learn that the question of traditional culture has become an important topic for Chinese humanists and social scientists. People start talking about tradition when it is being put under pressure, and the extraordinarily rapid economic growth and social changes in China have led many in the scholarly and political worlds to reflect on what is being lost during the recent push towards modernization. There was much discussion by our Chinese colleagues of the resources available to the present from the long history of Confucianism, now coupled with varieties of what they referred to as dialectical thinking. Our host, Prof Gao, gave a fascinating presentation on how during the Ming dynasty there was a current of liberalization that took classical traditions as its enemy. Today, though, this current is itself a tradition that can be reactivated.

We discussed, thanks to Debra Satz (a philosopher from Stanford), how market forces often undermine traditions even as they depend on them to work properly. Wesleyan faculty Steve Angle, Joe Rouse, Ethan Kleinberg and Phil Pomper all contributed essays that examined historical and philosophical aspects of the topic — from neo-Confucianism to Russian state power, from science to critical theory. We missed having Vera Schwartz with us, though she provided invaluable planning advice.

In conversation with our Chinese colleagues, we all learned about specific issues in intellectual history, and I certainly became more alert to how our usual frames of reference are very much situated in a particular American context. And you can see from the photo that our Wes context as represented in China was too male.

My presentation at the meeting dealt with what I called “the tradition of anti-tradition in American views of education.” I focused on views that linked education and freedom, and on the Emersonian notion of self-reliance. I was surprised and delighted when Prof. Gao quoted Emerson in his concluding remarks at the conference.  I also lectured about liberal arts education at Beijing Normal University. The group of faculty and grad students there were especially interested in breaking away from narrow, vocational forms of higher education. I learned so much from their thoughtful questions and concerns. Here are some links to news reports in China about the meeting:

1. Xinhua,
2. China Daily
3. Netnews
4. Hexun news
5. China Academy of Social Science (notes)
6. 21CN

The China social science press billed this the first high-level Sino-American Research Exchange. We plan to have the next meeting in Middletown, probably in 2013. The theme, Unfinished Enlightenment, will build on the work we did for this meeting, and I am confident it will make the Middletown-Beijing axis a powerful one in the humanities and social sciences.

Coming Home, Finding Family

The extended Wes family has gathered together this weekend, celebrating scholarship, athletics, teaching and all things Red and Black. The seminars were often full and always lively, and they brought together the great energy that characterizes the classes here. I ran into Orin Snyder  ’83, who had just come from a packed discussion, led by the Wesleyan Lawyers Association, of the changing legal network for social media. And Alberto Ibarguen ’66 P’97 HON’11 was equally enthused about his session celebrating 50 years of the Peace Corps. The history of the Peace Corps at Wesleyan spills naturally into our new PATRICELLI CENTER FOR SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP. We cut the ribbon on the new Center on Saturday morning. Later in the day on Saturday I ran into some starry-eyed parents who were quite in awe of the presentation by Wes film faculty Jeanine Basinger, Scott Higgins and Steve Collins on “what makes movies great”! Jeanine was quoted extensively in this morning’s New York Times on Leonardo diCaprio (and a few days ago could be found in the Wall Street Journal). Our film folks are everywhere, but there’s nothing like seeing them on the home turf!

This weekend saw a grand celebration of the extraordinary work in experimental music by Alvin Lucier. Lucierfest brought out artists, musicians and writers who have been inspired by this pioneering composer and teacher. And speaking of things musical, I was delighted to catch Randy Newman’s benefit performance in the chapel on Friday night. We veered from ironic complicity to emotional commitment as he sampled his catalogue.

The efforts of our student athletes were so impressive this weekend, even if they left us saying, “wait ’til next year!” The cross country teams had very strong showings: the women were 6th of 40 teams  and the men were 9th of 44 teams. The women’s soccer team played well but fell to Amherst in the semi-finals of the NESCAC tournament. Our great goalie Jess Tollman ’15 kept the Lord Jeffs at bay for the first half, a fitting end to her strong first year. Our star forward Laura Kurash ’13 was named District Academic All American. This was our first time advancing this far in the tournament, and we are very proud of the women who battled all semester.

And speaking of a battle…our football team put up a mighty effort against the Purple Ephs in front of an enthusiastic homecoming crowd. We came very close to pulling off a great upset against Williams, thanks to a strong team effort. Matt Coyne passed for 192 yards, and star freshman running back LaDarius Drew ’15 was a workhorse despite the cast on his injured hand. Seniors Brett Bandazian and Jordan Greene had 10 tackles apiece, and our punter Jesse Warren ’15 had a world-class game. Coach Mike Whalen ’83 and the entire team are working together to build a great program. We are very proud of them!

All our athletes today are inspired by the great achievements of Wes students in the past. On Saturday night we inducted an all-star group into the Wesleyan Athletics Hall of Fame. When Moira James ’78, along with Dennis Robinson ’79 and the Athletics Advisory Council, came up with the idea of the hall of fame, I knew it would be a way of recognizing and reconnecting with our alumni greats. They also probably figured it would inspire contemporary success. And they were right!

I wish I were able to attend all the events, and it’s been a joy to welcome so many back to campus after a challenging week. Go Wes!


Late Afternoon A Cappella
Late Afternoon A Cappella

UPDATE: What a great thing to hear the many a cappella groups at the First Annual Stone A Capella Concert, celebrating Chip Stone ’49, p’79, P’82, GP ’11, GP ’15. A highlight for us was Chip and daughter Sarah Stone Maynard ’79 P ’11 singing a duet about the dangers of drugs to start things off.


Power Update: Classes Resuming…Homecoming/Family Weekend on the Horizon

11/2/11 6:30 PM

Dear Friends,

Life at Wesleyan is returning to normal, but the aftermath of the storm is still very much with us, including lack of power and heat for a significant number of students on campus – and for many faculty and staff in the region. Connecticut Light and Power states on its website that power will be restored to all of Middletown by the end of the day Sunday; we’ve been told that power along Church and High streets may be restored as early as tomorrow.

I’d like to reiterate what I said yesterday evening: We are making alternative sleeping quarters available for these students who need them. Those who want to bunk with friends in the residence halls are encouraged to do so. Those who would like the university to find them a place to sleep until power is restored should contact Residential Life at: 860 685-3550. We will use common spaces and lounges in our residence halls and will open other venues as needed.

The Science Library will be open 24 hours today and tomorrow for students, faculty, and staff needing a warm place to work. The Freeman Athletic Center now offers the Wes community the possibility of really getting warm by getting some exercise. After some initial difficulties with the water heaters, I think we can now offer decent showers, too! Faculty, staff and students in need of a hot shower (even if they don’t want to exercise) are welcome to use the Freeman facilities.

Some Wes students have had the good idea of asking what else we can do for employees who need a helping hand during this crisis. Much of this is already being done informally and effectively, but if faculty or staff have particular requests, they can address them to Human Resources. We will do our best to be helpful.

Classes resumed today, and I was very pleased to hear from some colleagues that the attendance was very good. In my own class, I was delighted to see the eighty-some-odd students ready to talk about Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I guess I am an old-fashioned teacher who can’t think of anything he’d rather do than talk about a great book with a group of thoughtful students.

To all the faculty, staff, and students who have pitched in to help in many ways, and to the many others who have provided us with essential support services — thank you! I also want to convey my gratitude to the families of students and to our alumni who have expressed their care and concern. I deeply appreciate your patience and the support you have been showing one another.  It is good to acknowledge that ours is a compassionate community, and that this becomes especially visible in times of need.

We are excited to be welcoming many visitors during Homecoming/Family weekend. There is a big football game against Williams, and many interesting lectures and programs. The Mighty Wes Women’s Soccer Team will be playing at Amherst in the semifinals of the NESCAC tournament. They have had a great run, and we wish them all the best. GO WES!

I don’t plan any further updates for now, but I do look forward to blogging about China, liberal education, theater and athletics. Anything but electricity.

Power Update: Classes Resuming Tomorrow, Power Returning

Power Update

11/1/11 6:50 PM

Dear friends,

As I wrote to you earlier today, Wesleyan is open and classes will be held on Wednesday. The situation with power and heat on campus remains fluid; there have been some power disruptions, and there will likely be more before everything is back to normal. But with the tolerance and goodwill of the Wesleyan community, we will find ways around obstacles and work together to resume our academic endeavors.

From a student perspective, we know these are not ideal conditions for resuming coursework. Student life has been disrupted, from access to the Internet to just having a warm place to sleep. From a faculty perspective, these have also been stressful times. Many professors still do not have power at home, and this has compromised their work and communications. Thus we resume classes in a context that is far from ideal. But we do think that having classes, even when assignments are not completed, is preferable to not having classes. We do expect that deadlines for work this week will be extended and examinations postponed into next week, while taking care not to then create an unrealistic compression of deadlines in the weeks to follow. Professors will be discussing particular arrangements with their students. Specific questions should be addressed to individual faculty members and, if need be, the divisional and class deans. I am so grateful for faculty who are finding ways to communicate with their students and plan their classes.

The Freeman Athletic Center now has electricity, and we will be bringing the facility online tomorrow. In regard to housing, the residence halls now have power. There will be a planned interruption overnight in some of the residence halls, but the impact should be minimal. Allow me to repeat what I said in this morning’s update concerning the wood-frames and program housing:

We realize that a significant number of our students living in program houses and in the wood-frames are still    without power. We are making alternative sleeping quarters available for these students. Those who want to bunk with friends in the residence halls are encouraged to do so. Those who would like the university to find them a place to sleep until power is restored (and those who want to offer to take in a student needing a warm room) should contact Residential Life at: 860 685-3550. We will use common spaces and lounges in our residence halls and will open other venues as needed.

The Wesleyan staff, many of whom have already worked so hard during this crisis, will be reporting to work in full tomorrow unless otherwise instructed by their supervisors.

Meanwhile, we fully expect that Homecoming/Family Weekend will take place November 4-6. We may be a little ragged around the edges, but we are looking forward to welcoming the entire Wesleyan family back to Middletown at the end of the week. Students will be especially delighted to greet their families, and alumni will join us to cheer on the Red and Black.

Thank you again for your patience and support. Unless there is more news to be reported earlier, we will issue the next update at the end of the day tomorrow.


A lovely sunset from South College after a hectic day.