Congratulations to Coach Drew Black and his mighty men for winning the New England Wrestling Association Championship. The victory was a true team effort, with Kyle Roosa ’13, Jefferson Ajayi ’13, and Luke Erickson ’12 taking divisional crowns. It was a real nail-biter, as the Red and Black seized the title by the narrowest of margins from defending champions Springfield College.
It’s been an exciting winter sports season for our Wesleyan athletes. Squash and track are still competing in tournaments, and I’m already looking forward to spring!
This week the Supreme Court voted to hear a challenge to the ability of colleges and universities to shape the racial and ethnic demographics of their student bodies. Currently, schools are allowed to use race as a factor among many others in achieving diversity for educational reasons. When the Court hears Fisher vs. the University of Texas, we may find that the justices set strict limits on how universities can consider race in their efforts to create an educational environment in which all students learn — and learn from one another.
Here at Wesleyan, we have for many years emphasized creating a diverse student body because we believe this results in a deeper educational experience. In the late 1960s President Victor Butterfield led the school away from cultivated homogeneity and toward creating a campus community in which people can learn from their differences while forming new modes of commonality. This had nothing to do with what would later be called political correctness or even identity politics. It had to do with preparing students to become lifelong learners who could navigate in and contribute to a heterogeneous world after graduation.
In our classrooms, students and teachers see the value of diversity throughout the semester. As David Kelley of IDEO and the Stanford Design School has noted time and time again, homogeneity kills creativity. The key to successful brainstorming and innovative teamwork is to have a multiplicity of perspectives. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman makes a similar point in his recent Thinking, Fast and Slow. Groups are beneficial for problem solving as long as they don’t degrade into following-the-leader; learning takes place when people bring a variety of perspectives to the issue at hand. If almost everyone is from the same background, you run the risk of substituting mere repetition for iterative cross-pollination.
At residential universities, homogeneity in the student body undermines our mission of helping students develop personal autonomy within a dynamic community. That’s why we are eager to welcome students from various parts of the United States and the rest of the world to our campuses. That’s why we ask our donors to support robust financial aid programs so as to ensure that our students come from a variety of economic backgrounds. A “dynamic community” is one in which members have to navigate difference — and racial and ethnic differences are certainly parts of the mix. All the students we admit have intellectual capacity, but we also want them to have different sorts of capacities. Their interests, modes of learning, and perspectives on the world should be sufficiently different from one another so as to promote active learning in and outside the classroom.
At Wesleyan our mission statement reminds us that we aim to prepare students “to explore the world with a variety of tools.” Diversity is an aspect of the world we expect our students to explore, turning it into an asset they can use. We expect graduates to have completed a course of study in the liberal arts that will enable them to see differences among people as a powerful tool for solving problems and seeking opportunities. We expect graduates to embrace diversity as a source of lifelong learning, personal fulfillment, and creative possibility. Selective universities want to shape a student body that maximizes each undergraduate’s ability to go beyond his or her comfort zone to draw on resources from the most familiar and the most unexpected places.
As the Supreme Court considers Fisher vs. the University of Texas, it is crucial that the justices continue to allow universities to consider race and ethnicity within a holistic admissions process that aims to create a student body that maximizes learning. University admissions programs are not the place to promote partisan visions of social justice, but they are the place to produce the most dynamic and profound learning environments. It would be an enormous step backward to force our admissions offices to retreat to a homogeneity that stifles creative, broad-based education.
For the last four years or so, we have been making a great effort to emphasize some of Wesleyan’s traditional strengths. For example, Wes students are known as having intense political concerns, and we have tried to find ways of making the curriculum more responsive to those interests. The Civic Engagement Certificate and many of the activities of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life, the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship and the Center for Community Partnerships are helping our students find ways to make a difference in the public sphere. Provost Rob Rosenthal often speaks of the “engaged university,” and we are making progress in linking engagement with educational content.
Wesleyan students also are known for great creativity. Whether in Film Studies or Biology, the study of religion or the practice of artistic performance, Wesleyan students are innovative and productive. Nowhere is that more apparent than in musical performance. On Saturday night Jubilee was inspiring an audience in the Crowell Concert Hall, while in Memorial Chapel Aaron Peisner ’12 led a terrific chorus as part of his senior thesis work. Aaron had prepared choral music that spanned four centuries and several languages. The singers joined together in a labor of affection, intelligence and joy.
I’ve wanted to make sure that our curriculum is responsive to this energy from the student body. Last year I asked Charles Salas, Director of Strategic Initiatives, to think about how we should pursue the objective in Wesleyan 2020 of spurring creativity and innovation across the university. He decided to focus on the disciplines represented in our curriculum. The term “creativity,” of course, can be vague. One department’s view can be quite different from another’s, so Charles met with a number of programs and asked them what creativity meant in their worlds and how they felt that they enhanced the creative capacities of their students. I hope many of you will read the full report, which gives a great sense of the discussions. Here’s the final paragraph, which gives a taste of what he found:
As for the discussions, I was struck by two things in particular.
(1) Regardless of how resistant faculty were to the subject of creativity in the beginning, it wasn’t long before that resistance dissipated. Faculty often remarked in the end that the discussions had been less predictable and more enjoyable than anticipated. It’s my estimation that faculty, in talking about their experiences in the classroom, found themselves in touch with their own passion for learning—itself a crucial if indirect contributor to student creativity. By modeling a passion for learning in the classroom, Wesleyan faculty spark the desire for such passion in their students—a desire that is necessary if students are to make use of the opportunity to develop their own creative capacities. And (2), many departments observed in passing that they viewed their seniors as more creative than their first and second-year students—observations indicative of the enhancement (purposeful or not) of student creativity across the curriculum.
This afternoon and through the weekend, our swimmers will be competing here in Middletown at the NESCAC championships. Cara Colker-Eybel ’13 and Alexa Burzinski ’15 are having a great season on a strong squad. Our track and field athletes are in Massachusetts for the Division III tournament. All-American Tommie Lark ’12 has been jumping his way to a great season, and Heidi Hirvonen ’15 has been legging it out as if she were a veteran. The men’s and women’s squash teams are heading to the big tournament. The skills displayed by Tanesha Jackson ’13 and Grace Zimmerman ’13 are stunning, as is the tenacity of John Steele ’14 and Alex Nunez ’14. The hockey teams are facing off against Trinity this weekend. The women take to the ice in front of star goaltender Ashleigh Corvi ’13. The men are home on Saturday at 3:00 pm, charged up by leading scorer Nik Tasiopoulos ’14.
Tomorrow the women’s basketball team heads north for the NESCAC tournament, led by three seniors, Sam LaCroce ’12, Eileen Gaffney ’12 and Emily Lippe ’12. Right here in Middletown, the men’s basketball team enters the tournament with a full head of steam. The game against Bowdoin begins at 3:00. Let’s fill Silloway Gymnasium with lots of Wes fans as we cheer on recent player-of-the-week Mike Callaghan ’13 and the squad.
The Freeman Athletic Center was Rockin yesterday. Hockey had a big win, and the basketball team was a joy to watch as they stormed through the first round of the playoffs. In Springfield, LaDarius Drew ’15 was a star in the New England Division III indoor track championships, winning the 60m dash!
Even in this mild winter, on Valentine’s Day with spring break still weeks away, I start thinking of summer. I know that the drop/add period just recently ended at Wesleyan, but it’s not too early to start thinking of the cool classes one can take at Wes and still have two credits completed before July 4th. The summer session here is a time to explore new subject areas or get some requirements completed in small classes with some of our great professors. The two Thematic Institutes this year are really exciting. These are two linked courses that tie different perspectives together on an important topic. Scott Higgins and Steve Collins are teaming up for an Institute on thematic storytelling. Scott will emphasize how Hollywood conventions enabled intense creativity by focusing on four classic directors: Frank Borzage, John Ford, Vincente Minnelli and Howard Hawks. Steve’s linked class will teach students how to write screenplays from the ground up, answering the question: “How do we write in pictures?”
The other Thematic Institute this summer is entitled Pathologies of the Mind. Matthew Kurtz’s class will be investigating the neuroscience of psychopathologies such as schizophrenia, bipolar illness, depression, attention-deficit disorder, and posttraumatic stress disorder. His class emphasizing the biology of these disorders will be complemented by Jill Morawski’s course on cultural-historical perspectives on psychological disorders of thinking, mood, and life experiences. Together, these classes give students interested in psychology an extraordinarily multi-faceted approach.
Whether you’re interested in these institutes or computer science, government or creative writing, the Wesleyan Summer session has much to offer. Even just thinking about it makes me feel a little warmer…
This past weekend a stellar group of Wesleyan alumni gathered in New York to celebrate Gilbert Parker,who graduated in 1948 and has gone on to a distinguished career in theater. They were also celebrating the creation of a scholarship in Gilbert’s honor. Tommy Kail ’99 and Claire Labine (Gilbert’s former client, creator/head writer of “Ryan’s Hope”) had the idea of creating a scholarship for Gilbert. Over 40 of Gilbert’s friends, many of them not affilated with Wesleyan, have contributed more than $100,000 to this fund. I couldn’t be in New York for the event, but I was able to send the following note: “The Parker Scholarship commemorates a rich history. You were the first graduate of our theater department. During your sparkling fifty-year career as an agent, the Wesleyan community took pride in your reflected glory. You made this relationship with our alma mater deeper and more personal, then and following your retirement, by closely mentoring Wesleyan graduates in the theater world like Tommy Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda, John Buffalo Mailer, and Bill Sherman, among others. It’s wonderful that a group of your friends and protégés initiated this scholarship fund (and typical of your generosity, Gilbert, that you have contributed to it).”
It’s wonderful to honor the creative and generous spirit of an alumnus like Gilbert Parker. And I’m so grateful that we honor him by establishing a scholarship to support future Wes stars!
I’ve recently had a series of talks with education officials, journalists and families about liberal arts education. There are international dimensions to these conversations that are exceptionally interesting to me, and I want to return to those in some future blog postings. Some of these discussions have concentrated on contrasts between a broad liberal arts education and a focused, technical study of STEM fields. This has struck me as odd because broad liberal learning also serves these fields so well. Today I am thinking about the ways in which the sciences are linked to the other liberal arts. In some contexts, people talk about the liberal arts and the sciences, as if biology and chemistry, physics and astronomy weren’t already part of the liberal arts. Even at Wesleyan there had been a tendency to make this two cultures mistake, which risks separating the sciences from our liberal arts mission. Regardless of which disciplines come to mind when we hear “liberal arts,” the fact is that almost all our science majors take classes in the social sciences, arts and humanities, and that there has been increasing interest among humanists, artists and social scientists in scientific research practices.
Many of our scientists have been interested in the intersection of their work with the broader community. Peter Patton, long-time faculty member in Earth and Environmental Sciences, recently led a field trip with students to study changes to some deep-rooted ecosystems in Puerto Rico. Last week biologist Janice Naegele spoke with a group of faculty from across the curriculum about her lab’s stem-cell work on brain seizures, and she also teaches classes that emphasize writing about science — translating research into clear terms for the generally educated reader. Suzanne O’Connell, a scientist now directing our Service Learning Center, has a similar concern about the dissemination of research. You can tune in to her “Science on the Radio” class. And there are plenty of other science faculty I could mention in this regard, as well as students who are helping to teach science to youngsters in Middletown.
Wesleyan’s Science in Society Program is at the heart of our efforts to maintain robust interconnections between the sciences and all the other fields on campus. For example, for many years philosopher Joe Rouse (who heads the program) has explored how scientific legitimacy is achieved, and how specific disciplinary practices in the sciences create modes of understanding. Laura Stark, a sociologist who also teaches in the SiSP program, has just published Behind Closed Doors: IRNs and the Making of Ethical Research. Laura’s work explores how institutional review boards come to approve some experiments and not others, and how their criteria for decision making reflects conceptions of what it means to be human and to have rights. In history, Bill Johnston, Paul Erickson and Jennifer Tucker all connect the sciences to their cultural contexts, as does Gillian Goslinga in anthropology. Jill Morawski, another member of SiSP and a psychologist who has been directing the Center for the Humanities, has been linking the topics at CHUM with issues in the sciences that intersect with philosophy, history, gender studies and ethics. Speaking of ethics, philosopher Lori Gruen’s work in animal studies has been very much influenced by her team teaching over the years with scientists. She has been at the forefront of the university’s curricular development in ethics.
Last year I joined the board of the Hastings Center, a non-partisan research institution dedicated to bioethics and the public interest. The president of the organization asked me to address the links between its mission in bioethics and the mission of universities and colleges dedicated to liberal arts education. The founders of the Hastings Center knew that science was too important to leave in the hands only of specialists, and over the years the staff has developed a robust research organization that connects advanced scientific work with ethical and policy issues. In a similar vein, I think it’s crucial that liberal arts colleges and universities ensure that higher education isn’t left in the hands only of specialists. We are connecting our schools to the worlds of public life, the economy and the broader culture. These connections will make for healthier and more successful scientific and educational institutions.
It’s been more than a little depressing to listen to debate performances over the last couple of months, in which candidates seem to gain in popularity by refining a formula of indignation and hostility. “How dare you,” says the candidate, puffing out his chest, wondering how any questioner could sink so low to ask about a character flaw. The same candidate then dives even lower to cast aspersions on anyone who might be considered a rival.
The research tells us why the candidates “go negative.” It works. SuperPac donors know where to invest, and they are investing in negativity in a big way. The Wesleyan Media Project research shows outside money “went from about 3 percent of total ad airings in the 2008 race to almost half, about 44 percent, in 2012.” As we leave Florida and head out to Nevada, I’m afraid we can only expect more of the same.
I’m embarrassed to say that one of the key places where candidates and citizens acquire a taste for — and skills in — negativity is higher education. For decades now, we have promoted a culture of criticism in which you show how smart you are by tearing apart somebody else’s ideas. That’s a lot safer than showing how you might build your own set of ideas into something meaningful. In my recent book, Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living with the Past, I urge my colleagues to go beyond this culture of criticism to practices of creative exploration. The first off-campus reviewer of the collection couldn’t resist bringing up my dust-up with Zonker Harris. Here is an excerpt from one of the essays in the book, “Beyond Critical Thinking.”
I doubt that this [cultivation of negativity] is a particularly contemporary development. In the eighteenth century, there were complaints about an Enlightenment culture that only prized skepticism and that was only satisfied with disbelief. Our contemporary version of this trend, though, has become skeptical even about skepticism. We no longer have the courage of our lack of conviction. Perhaps that’s why we teach our students that it’s cool to say that they are engaged in “troubling” an assumption or a belief. To declare that one wanted to disprove a view would show too much faith in the ability to tell truth from falsehood. And to declare that one was receptive to learning from someone else’s view would show too much openness to being persuaded by an idea that might soon be deconstructed (or simply mocked).
In training our students in the techniques of being critical, we may be giving them reasons to remain guarded — which can translate into reasons not to learn. The confident refusal to be affected by those with whom we disagree seems to have infected much of our cultural life: from politics to the press, from siloed academic programs (no matter how multidisciplinary) to warring public intellectuals. As humanities teachers, however, we must find ways for our students to open themselves to the emotional and cognitive power of history and literature that might initially rub them the wrong way, or just seem foreign. Critical thinking is sterile without the capacity for empathy and comprehension that stretches the self.
But the contemporary humanities should do more than supplement critical thinking with empathy and a desire to understand others from their own point of view. We should also supplement our strong critical engagement with cultural and social engagement by developing modes of teaching that allow our students to enter in the value-laden practices of a particular culture to understand better how these values are legitimated: how the values are lived as legitimate. Current thinking in the humanities is often strong at showing that values that are said to be shared are really imposed on more vulnerable members of a particular group. Current thinking in the humanities is also good at showing the contextualization of norms, whether the context is generated by an anthropological, historical, or other disciplinary matrix. But in both of these cases, we ask our students to develop a critical distance from the context or culture they are studying.
Many humanities professors have become disinclined to investigate with our students how we generate the values we believe in, or the norms according to which we go about our lives. In other words, we have been less interested in showing how we make a norm legitimate than in sharpening our tools for delegitimization. … If we humanities professors saw ourselves more often as explorers of the normative rather than as critics of normativity, we would have a better chance to reconnect our intellectual work to broader currents in public culture. This does not have to mean an acceptance of the status quo, but it does mean making an effort to understand the practices of cultures (including our own) from the point of view of those participating in them. This would include an understanding of how cultures change. For some, this would mean complementing our literary or textual work with participation in community, with what are often called service-learning courses. For others, it would mean approaching our object of study not with the anticipated goal of exposing weakness or mystification but with the goal of turning ourselves in such a way as to see how what we study might inform our thinking and our lives.
The fact that language fails according to some impossible criterion, or that we often create misunderstandings in our use of it, is no news, really. It is part of our finitude, but it should not be taken as the key marker of our humanity. The news that is brought by the humanities is a way of turning the heart and the spirit so as to hear in the languages people use the possibilities of various forms of life in which we might participate. When we learn to read or look or listen intensively, we are not just becoming adept at exposing falsehood or at uncovering yet more examples of the duplicities of culture and society. We are partially overcoming our own blindness by trying to understand something from another’s artistic, philosophical, or historical point of view. … Of course hard-nosed critical thinking may help in this endeavor, but it also may be a way we learn to protect ourselves from the acknowledgment and insight that humanistic study has to offer. As students and as teachers, we sometimes crave that protection because without it we risk being open to changing who we are. In order to overcome this blindness, we risk being very uncomfortable indeed.
My humanities teachers enriched my life by showing me details and patterns and relations. In so doing, they also helped me to acquire tools that have energetically shaped my scholarship and my interactions with colleagues and students. It is my hope that as guides, not judges, we can show our students how to engage in the practice of exploring objects, norms, and values that animate diverse cultures. In doing so, students will develop the ability to converse with others about shaping the objects, norms, and values that will give substance and character to their own lives. They will develop the ability to add value to (and not merely criticize values in) whatever organizations in which they participate. They will often reject roads that others have taken, and they will sometimes chart new paths. But guided by the humanities they will increase their ability to find together ways of living that have meaning and direction, illuminating paths immensely practical and sustaining.