Sundance Champ, National Academy Selection

Last night my old friend Joe Wallace ’79 sent me a message to say that Benh Zeitlin ’04 won top honors at the Sundance Film Festival. Check it out on the Huffingtonpost.  Benh is no stranger to awards, having won the Grand Jury prize at Slamdance just a year after graduation for his senior thesis film. Check out the Argus story on that one. Joe himself is a wonderful writer, whose novel Diamond Ruby continues to collect fans young and old.

The recognition keeps coming! Professor Jeffrey Schiff, who has taught sculpture here for many years, has had his work  selected as part of the National Academy Museum’s annual exhibition.

Speaking of recognition…Women basketball players from the last 40 years came back to campus this past weekend. They got to see the Wes Women grab a victory against Connecticut College, and to reminisce with one another and our super coach, Kate Mullen. It was great to see all this Cardinal Spirit…even if I did take a lot of ribbing about not seeing enough b-ball when I was a student (“Roth,  you were such a nerd!”)

Congratulations All!


A Tale of Three Alumni

Last night the folks on Wesconnect were all a-twitter because Bill Belichick ’75 during one of his many press conferences picked out a reporter wearing a Wesleyan University sweatshirt. It’s not unusual for the smartest coach in the NFL to acknowledge alma mater. Bill has great affection for Wes, and has been supportive of our efforts in athletics and financial aid. Kimberley Martin ’03, a reporter from Newsday, was wearing the red and black.

This week the Middletown Press named Izzi Greenberg ’05 “Person of the Year.” Izzi has been a force for good things in Middletown’s North End for many years. Along with her organization NEAT (North End Action Team), she helped Wesleyan start the Green Street Art Center, and she has worked on behalf of her neighborhood every chance she gets. As The Middletown Press puts it: “Greenberg said her biggest success in 2011 was perhaps the North End Farmers Market, where NEAT saw visitors from 42 different municipalities. The North End Farmers Market doubled the value of federal benefits, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, essentially giving families on assistance 50 percent off their purchase, she said.”

This morning’s New York Times featured Lael Brainard ’83, U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Under Secretary for International Affairs. The Times described Lael, also a former Trustee at Wes, as our chief financial diplomat. At Davos this week she is playing a crucial role in negotiating with European countries as they struggle with debt relief. According to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner: “They trust her, they reach out to her, they talk to her for ideas and to get us to engage.”

Three very active alumni in three very different spheres of public engagement. If I had enough time, I could list hundreds more..

Time Passes, Classes Begin (and so do exhibitions)!

Today classes get underway, and for me that’s always an exciting time. I re-tooled the Past on Film quite a bit this semester, and I am eager to see how the course develops in its new incarnation. I know many of my faculty colleagues have been developing new versions of old favorites, or developing new courses that address issues that have recently come to the fore. We are building a syllabus library, and you can check out some examples of what’s being taught at Wes here.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of greeting Wesleyan’s graduate students as they finished a day long symposium exploring career options in the sciences and music. Graduate students are not always very visible at our small university, but they play a vital role in our educational ecology. MA and Ph.D. students in ethnomusicology, chemistry, liberal studies, biology or experimental composition (to name just some of their fields) are all developing as scholars and teachers even while still being students. James Ricci, the head of the Graduate Students Association, heads up a vibrant, diverse and dedicated community. Bill Herbst, astronomer and Director of Graduate Studies, and Cheryl-Ann Hagner, who is in charge of graduate student services, are providing greater visibility and support to this important area at Wesleyan.

As classes get underway, there is a most interesting exhibition set to open in the Zilkha Gallery. The show is entitled “Passing Time,” and it features some extraordinarily gifted contemporary artists. Here’s a description of the show from the Center for the Arts: “The multiple and converging meanings of the phrase “passing time”–spending time, time to die–are explored in the evocative imagery of recent art by fourteen international artists working in video, photography, sculpture and works on paper. Some artists turn to sport, some to music; some refer to nature and its rhythms to explore concepts of time–short term, long term and terminating. Others partner with time itself in their making of art. Time is a concept that philosophers and physicists ponder. Time provides a framework that orders, measures and defines. We spend time, we waste it, we keep it; time flies, it drags. It is elastic in its perception–long when we are young, gaining momentum as we age. This exhibition explores the relationship between the time of our life and the time of the eons. The exhibit features works by Rineke Dijkstra (The Netherlands), Shaun Gladwell (Australia), Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Stefana McClure and Bill Viola (United States), among others. The exhibition is curated by Ginger Gregg Duggan and Judith Hoos Fox of c2—curatorsquared. Faculty members from six disciplines have written reactions to the show: Lutz Huwel (Physics), Bill Herbst (Astronomy), John Seamon (Psychology), Sara Croucher (Anthro), Uli Plass (German) and Janne Hoeltermann (Studio Art). Check out the website, or better yet, see the work at Zilkha.

The doors of Zilkha open on Friday, and the official opening celebration is Tuesday, January 31, from 5-7 pm.

Best wishes to all as the new semester begins!




Deb Olin Unferth Nominated for National Book Critics Circle Award

Deb Olin Unferth, Assistant Professor of English, was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for her memoir, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War. Deb’s book recounts how as a teenager in 1987 she and her boyfriend headed to El Salvador and Nicaragua to join the revolutionary forces fighting against military and paramilitary groups. Deb has also written a novel, Vacation, and a collection of short stories, Minor Robberies. She publishes lots of “short shorts” and has been working on a graphic novel. Deb teaches creative writing and contemporary literature at Wes.

Congratulations, Deb!

Book Review: “The Castrato and his Wife”

Yesterday the Washington Post published my review of this wonderfully interesting book of European history. In my Modern and Postmodern class we kept coming back to what it means to talk about the “really real.” So did Ms. Tenducci in the 18th century, and the historian Hellen Berry today.
In 1775, Dorothea Maunsell and her new husband, William Long Kingsman, went to court to show that they were indeed legally married. They had already had two wedding ceremonies (one in Italy, the other in England), but there was a problem: a long, public record of Dorothea already being married to opera singer Ferdinando Tenducci. Those two had eloped in 1766 and had lived as a couple in England and then Italy. But Dorothea and William went to court to argue that the earlier liaison was in fact no real marriage. Tenducci had been castrated as a boy so as to preserve his pure voice. As a eunuch, he was deemed physically and legally incapable of being married.
Helen Berry, a gifted historian with a great story to tell, relates that the intentional removal of testicles was banned by the pope in 1587, as was the marriage of eunuchs. But the surgical mutilation continued for the next two centuries because, as Berry writes, “The fully trained castrato voice epitomized everything about Baroque style — artifical, sensuous, luxurious, and exotic.” As a youngster Tenducci was singled out for his lovely voice, and “someone in authority” probably suggested that having him castrated could lead to some money for his poor family.


(Oxford University Press) – ’The Castrato and His Wife’ by Helen Berry

Tenducci became a well-known singer in Italy, and his fame grew as he sang opera and more popular material in London and Dublin. He excited admiration and affection from men and women alike, and he was known to boast that he could satisfy women without risk to them. Berry describes him as having become a “celebrity pin-up,” and she explores how women who flirted with him (and other castrati) “found a loophole that was an escape from the sexual double standard.” Women could intimately associate with castrati, since these were not supposed to be “real men” who could ruin their reputations.

Dorothea had been one of these women. She studied music in Dublin with Tenducci in 1765 when she was about 15 years old, but not too long afterward asked him to take her away as his wife. Their elopement was scandalous, but the notoriety didn’t hurt Tenducci’s career. They eventually escaped the wrath of Dorothea’s father (and some of Tenducci’s debts) by moving to Italy. There the young woman was sometimes described as the singer’s student, often as his wife. In early 1768 Dorothea published in London a 68-page pamphlet, “The True and Genuine Narrative of Mr. and Mrs. Tenducci.” Of course there was gossip, but Dorothea accompanied Tenducci to his concerts and even sang with him to critical acclaim. Dorothea had escaped her Dublin family and was a part of Tenducci’s operatic life. Berry reports the astonishment of the famous Casanova, a man not easily shocked, at meeting Tenducci and his wife. Casanova even remembers them having children. How was it possible for a castrato to be a husband, let alone a father? What was a real husband, anyway? In any case, the couple seemed happy. They were on stage.

The sources are silent on why Dorothea left Tenducci. We know that she was alone in Florence, and she may have resented being left behind while her famous husband went away on tour. Perhaps the reports of her being a mother indicated that her relationship with Kingsman was longstanding. In any case, in November 1771 she sneaked to Naples to meet up with Kingsman, who had just received his inheritance. The following spring she married him in an Anglican ceremony in Rome. She begged her father’s forgiveness and asked to return to Dublin. He sent money for the trip, and the couple had another marriage ceremony in the summer of 1773. They wanted their child to be granted legitimacy retroactively — not an unusual occurrence in the 18th century.

In early 1776 the court ruled that Dorothea had never been married to Tenducci because the singer was incapable of being a husband. The judge had considered much detailed testimony on the opera star’s anatomy, including a salacious report that Tenducci carried his surgically removed testicles with him in a red velvet purse. Dorothea’s legal marriage was to Kingsman. He, a normal man, eventually died in a debtor’s prison. We have no records of Dorothea continuing to write or sing.

Tenducci is reported to have lamented the loss of his wife, but he did not contest the verdict. He went on to a distinguished if tumultuous late career, including concerts with J.C. Bach at Versailles and Paris in 1778, where Mozart composed a piece for him. When the French Revolution raged, the singer retired to Italy, where he gave music lessons and the occasional concert as “Count Tenducci.” Upon his death, a mass featuring “the finest musicians” was celebrated in his honor in Genoa.

In the 18th century, questions about identity, freedom, love and nature were inflected by the beauty of performance made possible by mutilation. Are the contemporary versions of these questions so different? Berry’s meticulously researched yet very readable story of Tenducci and Dorothea resonates across the centuries to our own time. What makes a marriage real? Do we want our celebrities (or spouses) to be “natural” or eccentric?The Castrato and his Wife is a fascinating account of how masculinity, femininity and marriage were being reshaped in 18th-century Europe just when modernity was taking shape.

Re-Accreditation Thoughts

This week I met with staff at a convocation for the new semester. We shared the good news that the Old Squash Building has been beautifully reconstructed (on time and on budget!) as the new home for the Career Resource Center, the College of Letters and the Art History department. We also talked about the continued growth in our application pool and the flurry of generous giving that came at the end of the calendar year. The Physical Plant team, the Admissions Office and the University Relations Office have been awfully busy during this long winter “break.”

I shared with the staff some quick thoughts about the re-accreditation process now underway with the Northeast Association of Schools and Colleges. During our self-study, we are asked to assess and reflect on our progress on 11 “standards”. We are using this process to find places where we can improve the university’s operations, and in that spirit I mentioned a challenge for each of NEASC’s standards.

Mission and Purpose

In a joint community effort we created a Mission Statement about two years ago. This is it:

Wesleyan University is dedicated to providing an education in the liberal arts that is characterized by boldness, rigor, and practical idealism. At Wesleyan, distinguished scholar-teachers work closely with students, taking advantage of fluidity among disciplines to explore the world with a variety of tools. The university seeks to build a diverse, energetic community of students, faculty, and staff who think critically and creatively and who value independence of mind and generosity of spirit.

Planning and Evaluation

How do we plan with data? How do we maintain tradition without carrying dead weight?

There are many things we do at Wesleyan because we’ve “always done them this way.” We must use data in order to plan programs that will give maximum support to learning and research.

Organization and Governance

How do we involve faculty and staff in planning for the future of the organization when contemporary needs are so pressing?

We have seriously reduced annual spending and the size of the support staff. This makes day-to-day operations more challenging. In this context it is imperative to involve faculty and staff in planning the long-term future of the university.

Academic Program

How will the liberal arts remain relevant for the future? What is curricular coherence?

In 2007 we were challenged by NEASC to articulate our view of the coherence of the curriculum. We believe that students at Wes should own their own education, but to do so requires serious advising and mentoring. By giving students the tools to develop their own education, we strive to provide intellectual cross-training –liberal learning that will shape the future.


How do we support a scholar-teacher model in a world increasingly concerned with immediate results?

We believe that students learn from the example of dedicated scholar-teachers. But much of scholarship is not immediately relevant to the classroom, and we know that deep research is not best judged by popularity. Our challenge is to maintain the subsidy for advanced research as a vehicle for first-rate undergraduate education.


How do we maintain vibrant student life in the face of a culture of entitlement and excessive drug and alcohol use?

Wesleyan has long been known for its progressive, creative and productive student culture. Like most colleges and universities, we also have a student culture plagued by abuse of alcohol and drugs by people who feel that this is “their time” to do whatever they please. How can we balance the forces of creativity and our responsibility to maintain a safe, educational environment?

Library and Info Resources

How do we maintain vibrant up-to-date access to the best information across a wide variety of fields?

The Wesleyan Library is one of the jewels of the campus, and it remains a great study space and intellectual resource. It is also part of a network of resources that connect student and faculty to the materials they need for study. Increasingly, this means access to information rather than ownership of materials.

Financial Resources

How do we rebuild our endowment base while competing right now?

For the last few years we have been focused on building our endowment, so that the financial strength of the university will be at least as great 25 years from now as it is today. We must balance that long-term building with the needs of the students, faculty, and staff today.

Public Disclosure

Can we maintain a culture of transparency in a highly political environment?

Since the financial crisis, we have been making all our financial and planning materials as public as possible. We must continue to do so, even in a context of competition and critique.

Physical Resources

We have a beautiful campus that thousands consider home. It is aging. How do we maintain it and modernize it?

Many say that Wesleyan’s campus has never looked more beautiful, and the new buildings work well side-by-side with our historic structures. We must continue to maintain our history even as we modernize our physical plant to become more energy efficient and networked to the wider world.


How can we be honest about our challenges and forthright in our commitments?

I am very proud of the achievements of our university — from staff and faculty members who go far beyond the call of duty to students who achieve focused excellence while broadening their educational experience. I am also proud of the ways that our community prods us to do even more, pointing out where we fall short and encouraging us to live up to our mission to: think critically and creatively and… value independence of mind and generosity of spirit

In a few weeks, new drafts of our accreditation self-study will be posted online. I hope many of you will comment on our work thus far. Together, we will make Wesleyan a university that can be an ever deeper resource for its students, alumni, faculty and staff — a university that can be an admirable example of the best in American progressive liberal arts education.

MLK Day: Now is the Time

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty.”

Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1967.

I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for the law.
Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963

If the cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. . . . Because the goal of America is freedom, abused and scorned tho’ we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.
Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. –Strength to Love, 1963

We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy, and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.” Letter From Birmingham Jail, 1963


Big Wesleyan Sports Weekend: Go WES!!

It’s still winter break, but the athletes have been working hard and are already competing in important games and matches. This weekend all the winter sports squads will be matching up with tough opponents. Tonight (Friday), for example, the women’s and men’s basketball teams will be matching up with Little Three rival Williams college. The women’s and men’s hockey squads are away at hockey powerhouse Bowdoin. All our squads will be at it again tomorrow, with Middlebury meeting the hoopsters in Middletown while the hockey Cardinals head to Colby. Swimming and track are at home tomorrow, and wrestling and squash are on the road. Come to Middletown to cheer on the Red and Black!

You can find the schedule for upcoming athletic events here.

I am on the road myself, and am sorry to miss these contests. Last night I interviewed Carter Bays ’97 and Craig Thomas ’97, the creators of How I Met Your Mother in front of an audience of a couple of hundred Wes folks in Los Angeles. It was a great evening, and I’m sure we’ll have some pics to post soon. California is certainly Wesleyan country. I run into alumni, students and their families everywhere I go!


Wesleyan men win big over Williams! GREAT victory!



Opportunity, Engagement and Confidence: Cures for the Civic Recession

Reading about a new civic engagement initiative announced at the White House this week made me think of all the powerful ways that Wesleyan students use their education to engage with the world. The Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship is the latest incarnation of the university’s commitment to connect liberal learning to making a positive difference. Here’s a short piece I wrote on this topic yesterday for the Huffington Post.

The news about the American education system has been bleak over the last year — from elementary schools that seem “designed to fail” to for-profit universities that are scooping up borrowed tuition dollars without providing their graduates with much hope of gainful employment. No surprise then that the American public has grown increasingly suspicious of educators and their institutions. Once widely respected college programs are criticized for raising tuition in excess of inflation, despite the fact that they are giving significant financial aid and satisfying the demands of students and their families for (increasingly costly) support services. There is a growing lack of confidence in American education – one that mirrors the general crisis of confidence in the future. Of course, there are the pundits who feed on this crisis, having found a market niche for their cultivated pessimism.

But as the new year has gotten underway, I’ve been encouraged by some more optimistic and thoughtful notes amidst the nasty, noisy cacophony of negativity. One is the continued confidence that students outside the United States place in our higher education sector. Hundreds of thousands of students around the world are doing their utmost to get into American universities because they perceive them to be the best in the world. They are not driven by federal support for loans, or by illusions of an “education bubble.” They want a great education that can create value and opportunity. This is not the same thing as guaranteeing a particular career path (when did a diploma ever do that?), but these students know that a broad and rigorous liberal education increases one’s capacities for shaping one’s own future.

A second optimistic note that I heard sounded this week was that the Newman’s Own Foundation had just made a grant of $750,000 to an organization called Shining Hope for Communities. Shining Hope, founded by a group of university students, has built an elementary school for girls in Kibera, Kenya, one of the largest slums in Africa. The organization has already built the Johanna Justin-Jinnich Community Health Clinic adjacent to the school, and the grant will facilitate the construction of clean water and sanitation facilities. There are hundreds of examples each year of students at American universities putting their education to work to create a positive difference in this country and around the world. I have a soft spot for Shining Hope, since two Wesleyan students created it and dozens of their fellow undergraduates have been part of the work. These young men and women became social entrepreneurs by building on a broad educational base.

A third note of optimism this week came from the White House, where a group of education leaders spoke about how universities could reclaim their civic mission. Carol Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, and Martha Kanter, US Under Secretary of Education presented findings and recommendations from a new report, A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, authored by the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement.

Carol Schneider has identified what she calls a “civic recession,” but she and her colleagues aren’t satisfied with just coming up with another nicely pessimistic label. They actually have some recommendations for how to strengthen the connections between education and civic engagement:

1. Reclaim and reinvest in the fundamental civic and democratic mission of schools and of all sectors within higher education
2. Enlarge the current national narrative that erases civic aims and civic literacy as educational priorities contributing to social, intellectual, and economic capital
3. Advance a contemporary, comprehensive framework for civic learning–embracing US and global interdependence–that includes historic and modern understandings of democratic values, capacities to engage diverse perspectives and people, and commitment to collective civic problem solving
4. Capitalize upon the interdependent responsibilities of K-12 and higher education to foster progressively higher levels of civic knowledge, skills, examined values, and action as expectations for every student
5. Expand the number of robust, generative civic partnerships and alliances locally, nationally, and globally to address common problems, empower people to act, strengthen communities and nations, and generate new frontiers of knowledge.

I’d like to think that these optimistic notes are just part of a chorus of efforts in higher education that reconnects us to key trends in the world: opportunity, engagement, and civic confidence. International students who are competing for places at American universities see our educational system as offering opportunity. We must demonstrate to our own citizens that this is indeed the case. The young men and women who are creating free schools and clean water in Kenya are using their broadly based education to engage specific and important issues out in the world. They are pragmatists steeped in liberal learning. The authors of A Crucible Moment see our own recession – economic and civic – as the BEST time to invest in America’s future. By embracing civic learning and partnerships that strengthen communities, we can do the hard work of restoring confidence in the future. That is a core responsibility of education.

It’s easy to be a pessimist, and some writers get a lot of pleasure from showing how they are too smart to have faith in the future. As educators, we can’t afford these simplistic rhetorical moves. We need instead to join together to do the hard work of making our educational system truly a sector of opportunity, engagement and civic confidence.


WESU, Youth Radio and the Engaged University

Most folks in the Wesleyan world know about the deep roots that radio station WESU has in the community. WESU has been an important part of our engaged university for decades. I recently heard about a very cool project in our Middletown Youth Radio program led by students Harry Bartle ‘12, Maddie Neufeld ‘12, Aditi Shivaramakrishnan ‘12, and Ben Fitzelle ‘12,

Here is a synopsis based on a message from Harry Bartle sent before the break: “We submitted a pitch to Generation PRX about working with our kids to create a sort of sound profile about bullying in Traverse Square, the community adjacent to Hi Rise/Lo Rise. A few of our kids, Anthony (DJ Funny Bones) Jordan (DJ Skullkid) and Nyala (DJ Youngster) who are 13, 12, and 7 respectively, all residents of T-Square, will be working together to conduct interviews and gather material in the field that we’ll be editing together for a five minute piece due January 20th. Generation PRX has generously given us state of the art professional audio equipment to help us put this together, and we’ve just had our first “webinar” online meeting session. We’re all very excited (!) and we’re hoping to get as much material as we can in the coming weeks. And as a quick side note, we’re all seniors so we are looking for recruits who might be interested in keeping MYRP alive after we graduate, so anyone interested in helping out should email or Maddie Neufeld at to get in touch.”

The Wesleyan connection to the children of Traverse Square is longstanding, and the connection through Middletown Youth Radio is powerful (and fun). I know these seniors would like to see even more students get involved!