Adrienne Rich: Writing as Social Practice

I read with sadness this morning that the great American poet, Adrienne Rich, died this week at her home in Santa Cruz. She was a brave and ardent writer, a gifted teacher and a powerful voice of conscience. This is no one quite like her in American letters.

Coming of age as a poet in the 1950s, she honed her craft within the formalist aesthetics of the day. Moving to New York in the 1960s, and soaking in its political and artistic transformations, she remade her poetics and critical writings in the service of reshaping consciousness and society.

Rich’s poetry was at once deeply personal and broadly political, and her essays throughout the 1970s and 1980s were sharp, precise instruments for unblocking thought. I remember reading “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” (as a young professor at a women’s college) and suddenly realizing how cruelly oppressive conventional assumptions could be. I also remember Rich reading poems at Scripps College that explored the tangled legacies of her father — a poetic exploration that brought me to tears.

My office was next to Adrienne’s at Scripps, and I was too intimidated by her fame and presence to approach her directly. Instead, after her reading I slid a note under her door — a fan letter, really. The next day, she knocked on my door and asked if we might chat. It was, for me, an exhilarating conversation. She listened to my questions with intensity, though she had surely heard these kinds of remarks before. She didn’t exude the certainty of dogma or the privileges of fame. Instead, in talking with her one felt that inquiry and creation had become everyday dimensions of her life.

Poetry, Rich wrote, “has the capacity … to remind us of something we are forbidden to see.” In dark times, poets continue to recollect visions of freedom, to offer “a journey to reclaim the fullness of the senses,” to restore a legacy that can give birth to new exchanges of energy. When I reviewed The Human Eye for the San Francisco Chronicle (which I’ve drawn on here), I was reminded of the “clarity and freshness” of the Rich’s thought and artistic practice.

Writers, readers, artists and citizens will miss that clarity. May we strive to build on her practice to “give birth to new exchanges of energy.”

Little Three Champs in Men’s Lacrosse!

Congratulations to Coach John Raba and the men’s lacrosse team for their stirring victory today over a very strong Amherst team, 6-3. This gives the Cardinals the Little Three Crown after a five year drought.

The victory was a strong team effort. Teddy Citrin ’12 had three goals (he’s our leading scorer), and Max Landow ’12 had three points, as the Wesleyan offense looked polished and powerful. The defense succeeded in containing an Amherst offense that has been on a tear all season, with Grant Covington ’12 (last week’s NESCAC player of the week) and Mike Robinson ’13 playing particularly well.

Women’s lacrosse is home tomorrow afternoon, and softball is at home Friday. Lots of action this weekend, including our crew teams on the river in Middletown, and the tennis squads on the courts. Come out and cheer the Red and Black!!

Cracking the Genetic Code: Genomic Science and Bioethics

Thanks, I suppose, to my friends Joshua Boger ’73 and Joe Fins ’82, I joined the board of the Hastings Center last year. At our last meeting, we saw a film that Hastings consulted on with PBS’s NOVA. It has to do with the tremendous advances in genomic science, and the ethical issues that have arisen as the clinical applications of the science become more accessible. Wesleyan’s strengths in science studies are really formidable, and some of those strengths fall into the bioethics category. The Science and Society Program, Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, the Center for the Humanities, the Sociology, History and Philosophy departments are just some of the areas where one can find sophisticated work on bioethics at Wesleyan. And in throughout the life sciences at Wes, one can find advanced work that depends on genomics.

I put his up today on the Huffingtonpost.

On Wednesday, March 28th (9 p.m./8c), PBS will broadcast an important film that explores some of the crucial ethical issues that are emerging from the life sciences: how to use our knowledge of personal genetic information; and who should have access to this information about our individual and familial genetic data? On the one hand, genomic science promises us an unprecedented look at the material sources of our lives, and on the other hand, this science may tempt some to think that we are nothing more than our genetic makeup.

Cracking Your Genetic Code is a joint project of PBS’s NOVA producers and the Hastings Center, a bioethics research center on whose board I sit. The film gives an insightful and moving portrait of how people who suffer from genetic disorders are investing their hopes in genomic science. Designer drugs, like those to combat some forms of cystic fibrosis, are shown to have enormous potential for patients who can get access to them early enough to reverse the ravages of disease. In addition to the patients’ stories, we hear from scientists eager to use their understanding of the genetic bases of disease to prevent symptoms from emerging in future generations. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, is particularly compelling as he describes the clinical potential of genomic medicine.

Cracking Your Genetic Code also describes the more troubling potential in our new understanding of our biological heritage. Will we want to know if our genes make it likely that we will develop a life threatening or debilitating disease? Will we want to tell our children, and, if so, when? Will the knowledge be helpful, or just a burden? Who else will know about our genetic destiny? Insurance companies? Advertising firms?

The Hastings Center’s Help With Hard Questions website provides a useful way of navigating in the new world opened up by contemporary genomic science. NOVA, too, has a website that complements the film. Both use social networking to bring together people concerned about what to do with the new knowledge that is available to us through science and technology.

It was not long ago that the goal of cracking the genetic code seemed like a wild ambition. Soon we will be able to get our own personalized genetic information almost anywhere for under $1000. The information tells us about our biological constitution; how will we relate that to our sense of self, family and destiny? Cracking Your Genetic Code raises more questions than it answers — perfectly appropriate as we strive to understand how to use and to protect these new modes of knowledge.

Here’s a clip from the film:


Creativity Works at Wes

What follows is a book review I published this weekend in The Washington Post of “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” by Jonah Lehrer. For years people have said that Wesleyan is a place for creative students, and recently we have tried to define more specifically how the work on our campus helps students develop their capacities for innovation.

A few days ago, applicants to Wes found out whether they have been invited to join the class of 2016. The competition for spots was very intense this year. With more than 10,000 applicants, most of whom are highly qualified, the process of putting together a class is increasingly difficult. We are looking for students who will thrive in the engaged, collaborative and imaginative campus culture here. Over the next four weeks many of the prospective pre-frosh will be visiting Wes, trying to determine if this will be their home and their launch pad for the next four years. The students who choose Wesleyan will likely be those who find that the dynamic student and faculty culture stimulates their own imaginative capacities. Creativity works at Wesleyan.


Check out these recent articles on the student music scene at Wes:


Here’s the review, crossposted from

Not many writers can make plausible links among musicians Bob Dylan, Yo-Yo Ma and David Byrne, animators at Pixar, neuroscientists at MIT, an amateur bartender in New York, entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and Israeli army reservists. Not many reporters do research about an expert surfer who has Asperger’s, information theorists, industrial psychologists and artists. But Jonah Lehrer is such a writer-reporter, who weaves compelling and surprising connections based on detailed investigation and deep understanding. He says that working memory is an essential tool of the imagination, and his book is an excellent example of how a dynamic storehouse of captivating information feeds creative thinking and writing.

Lehrer begins with the story of a pop-culture breakthrough, the artistic reinvigoration that Dylan experienced when he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan was finishing a grueling tour schedule that had left him increasingly dissatisfied with making music. He decided to leave behind the madness of celebrity culture and the repetitive demands of pop performance. But once he was ensconced in Woodstock, N.Y., once he decided to stop trying to write songs, the great song came: “It’s like a ghost is writing a song,” he said. “It gives you the song and it goes away. You don’t know what it means.” Lehrer adds, “Once the ghost arrived, all Dylan wanted to do was get out of the way.”

Many of the stories that Lehrer recounts in the first few chapters stress the benefits of paying attention to internal mental processes that seem to come from out of the blue. We can learn to pay attention to our daydreams, to the thoughts or fantasies that seem nonsensical. Sometimes this attention must be very light, so that the stream of ideas and emotions flows, as when Ma feels his way into a new piece of music. Sometimes the attention must be very great, as when W.H. Auden (assisted by Benzedrine) focused on getting the words in a poem exactly right.

Lehrer explains some of the neuroscience behind these different modes of attentiveness. Making use of the power of the right hemisphere figures in, as does activating more energy from the prefrontal cortex to “direct the spotlight of attention.” He discusses experiments that explore which parts of the brain seem most active in different kinds of pursuits. For example, as the brain develops in childhood, the power to inhibit our flights of fancy grows. But as inhibition and focus increase, the capacity to improvise seems to diminish.

Lehrer notes that modern science has given new names to ideas that philosophers have been exploring for a very long time. Despite the fancy terminology, I found the anecdotes about scientific experiments less interesting than the anecdotes about poets, artists, surfers and inventors. That’s partly because the science stories seem to overreach, pretending to offer explanations for creativity by finding precise locations for the multitudinous connections that the brain generates. In an organ with the networking plasticity of the brain, location might not explain so much.

The last three chapters move from individuals to contexts. Lehrer offers fascinating accounts of why cities generate intense creative work and why certain urban-planning principles that emphasize heterogeneity (think Jane Jacobs) are so powerful. He shows us why teams that “are a mixture of the familiar and the unexpected,” such as those at Pixar, are the most innovative. Too much strangeness, and things fall apart. Too much closeness, and the generative spark is never struck.

Lehrer shows why brainstorming usually fails to result in real innovation because nobody is pushing back on bad ideas. “The only way to maximize creativity . . . is to encourage a candid discussion of mistakes. . . . We can only get it right when we talk about what we got wrong.” Or, as Lee Unkrich, a Pixar director, put it: “We just want to screw up as quickly as possible. We want to fail fast. And then we want to fix it. Together.”

Lehrer concludes with a discussion of why certain epochs seem to be more creative than others. Culture, he says, determines creative output, and it is through sharing information and making connections that we maximize that output. He quotes Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, who emphasizes that “even in this age of technology, we still get smart being around other smart people.”

Glaeser and Lehrer are showing why cities remain so important, but as the president of a university, I can also see how this applies to our campuses. Students and faculty seek the inspiration that is available all over campus, and that’s why so much learning happens outside the classroom. Sitting by yourself with your computer, even if you have access to thousands of Facebook “friends,” just isn’t the same as being in a creative, cosmopolitan culture in which new connections are continually (and surprisingly) formed.

“Imagine” doesn’t offer a prescription for how we are to become more imaginative, but it does emphasize some key ingredients of a creative culture: taking education seriously, increasing possibilities for human mixing and cultivating a willingness to take risks. Lehrer practices what he preaches, showing an appetite for learning, a determined effort to cross fields and disciplines, and a delight in exploring new possibilities. Reading his book exercises the imagination; the rest is up to us.

Spring Travels, Vacation Thoughts

Kari and I have been on vacation this first week of Spring Break. We’ve returned to Paris, a city we both lived in when we were in our student years, and in which we have spent extended periods of time in the time since. Although this was not a Wesleyan trip, we spent a few hours at the Wesleyan-Vassar program here. It was great to meet some of the staff and talk with some students who are spending the spring semester in France. Studying in a foreign country, especially when you are immersing yourself in another language, can be such a powerful complement to a broad, liberal arts education. There are so many things you have to re-consider when you are living outside the US, not the least being your own views of home. One starts to see oneself and one’s culture through the eyes of others — usually a strong learning experience.

Our students in France are studying art history, politics, history and, of course, French literature. Some want to explore psychology, while others are attracted to geography, science studies and philosophy. All of these things are often grouped here under the rubic of “human sciences,” and recently there has been a reinvigoration of the term “humanities” in French. Kari and I went to hear the inaugural lecture of a new Humanities Institute in Paris, at the Diderot campus (Paris 7). The feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti made a strong case for a “post-anthropocentric,” integrative version of the humanities that would be as interdisciplinary as anything we have seen in the states.

We’ve spent much of the week seeing old friends, listening to music and looking at art. We heard about new trends in philosophy, and Kari was especially interested to learn about the important number of philosophers who are now investigating “the problem of the animal.” Her new book, Thinking Animals, is about to come out from Columbia University Press. We saw a wonderful exhibition on Matisse, in which the decisions the painter made when confronted with certain visual/cognitive problems were brought to the fore. This reminded me of how Tula Telfair has recently discussed her work. We also saw fantastic, disturbing exhibition at the Musée Branly, L’Invention du Sauvage. The English title for the catalogue is The Human Zoo, and the two titles together give a good idea of the subject matter: the creation and display of the colonial Other as exotic — even antihuman. This exploration of the genealogy of racialism and racism reminded me of Andy Curran’s recent book, Anatomy of Blackness. And I couldn’t help wonder what our dance faculty would think of the great exhibition on dance and the arts at the Centre Pompidou, Danser sa Vie.

It’s not as if I think only of Wesleyan when visiting Paris. I promise, nothing red and black came to mind when we saw the exhibition on Degas’ nudes!

We’ll soon be home to prepare for the rush of the second half of the semester. There will be music to hear, and exhibitions to see as the senior theses continue to unfold. And friends, new and old, to share stories of Paris with.

Lacrosse Openers a WOW!!

As most students left campus in the last couple of days to begin March break, the sports teams were busy preparing for their upcoming seasons. The lacrosse teams’ competitions began today with our important Little Three rival Williams. Both Wesleyan teams emerged victorious! The women put on an amazing display here at Smith Field. Kaylin Berger ’13 scored 6 goals for the Cardinals, and Kayla Ellman ’13 had three goals and an assist. Our goalie, Maggie Drowica ’12, was just amazing in net as we built a big lead, stopping 11 of the first 13 Williams’ shots.

The men were up in Williamstown for their opener, and they downed the Ephs 9-4. Graham Macnab ’14, Joe Porcelli ’14, and Teddy Citrin ’12 netted two goals a piece, and Grant Covington ’12 had a great game in goal.

Meanwhile in the Midwest, jumpin Tommie Lark ’12 placed fifth in the triple-jump competition at the NCAA Championships. Tommie repeats as an All-American this year.

Go Wes!!



Men’s Lacrosse, led another two goals from Teddy Citrin and two goals and an assist from Aidan Daniell, got by Hamilton 9-8. Grant Covington withstood a furious last quarter drive by Hamilton. The women’s lacrosse team gave nationally ranked Hamilton all it could stand, but fell 11-10 in overtime. Kaylin Berger added four more goals to her weekend total, and Liz Chabot ’12 added two scores.

Jefferson Ajayi ’13 was named an All-American wrestler at the Division III tournament this weekend. CONGRATULATIONS!

Listening to Wesleyan

This morning as I was preparing my class, I smiled as I heard yet another report on the impact of campaign spending on the primary elections. The ads in this election cycle, the NPR reporter stressed, have been among the most negative we have ever seen. So, why was I smiling? The analysis was based on reports from the Wesleyan Media Project. Erika Franklin Fowler and her colleagues and students have been busy coding and analyzing data from around the country, enabling us to better understand the impact of big spenders, especially from SuperPacs, on our civic discourse. I wonder if our guest Thursday night will speak to this topic, and to the role of the Citizens United decision in creating our current political climate.

Over the weekend I heard a radio report about Paul Weitz’s (’88) new film, About Flynn. Paul is a proud Wes alumnus who has remained very connected to alma mater. He made a splash not long after graduation with the comedy American Pie (and later Meet the Fockers), and he has worked on animation films (Antz), television (Fantasy Island), and now written and directed the drama About Flynn. Paul also has had a hand in independent movies, online shows, documentaries as well as theater. His play, Lonely, I’m Not, is currently being cast for a run in New York.

On campus the season for senior theses plays and recitals is picking up steam. Sophie and I enjoyed Mao The Musical recently, Alan Rodi’s (’12) opera. When we return from Spring Break there will be a great series of performances by our soon-to-be Wes grads.

On Thursday, March 8 at 3:15 and 4:15, Professor Neely Bruce will lead two performances of The Bill of Rights: Ten Amendments in Eight Motets for two performances in the Wesleyan’s Memorial Chapel. You can read an interview with Prof. Bruce about his music here.

And don’t forget about AuralWes, the website about student music events/concerts on campus. The website is looking for good listeners who are also good writers.


Antonin Scalia and Political Diversity

Next week Justice Antonin Scalia will be delivering the Hugo Black Lecture at Wesleyan. It’s been a long time since we’ve welcomed a Supreme Court Justice to Middletown. Justice Harry Blackmun visited the campus in 1993, giving the second lecture in this series. We’ve invited others, but given the busy schedule of the Court, we have not been able to arrange a visit. When Justice Scalia accepted the invitation, he said that he had heard positive feedback about the lecture series and Wesleyan from his former law clerk, Lawrence Lessig, who spoke here a couple of years ago.

I was very impressed by Justice Scalia’s comment. After all, everyone knows how far to the right Justice Scalia is, and Professor Lessig is pretty far along the opposite end of the political spectrum. It seemed to me a very good thing that these two men were in conversation about Wesleyan, and that Justice Scalia seemed to have respect and affection for a legal theorist with whom he undoubtedly differs on a slew of important issues.

Predictably, some faculty and students have objected to inviting to campus a public figure with whom they fiercely disagree. Less predictably, hundreds of Wesleyan students lined up to get tickets to the event (I wish we had more seats!). I suspect that this doesn’t mean they want to hear views they will find congenial. They want to hear a powerful advocate for a point of view that is having a decisive impact on the country. They want argument and disagreement — not an echo of their own thoughts. They want an educational environment.

Although as a citizen I have frequently found myself opposed to Justice Scalia’s views, as a professor and college president I am eager to hear them expressed in the setting of a public lecture. We need more vigorous debate on campus about political issues, and debate that does not just feature different views from the same sector of the ideological spectrum. We live in very polarized times, when differences of opinion quickly give rise to personal attacks on the one hand, and to retreats into like-minded groups, on the other. Sure, people may at first seek out others who share their strongly held views, but that kind of ideological and cognitive reinforcement is anti-educational.

Tucker Andersen ’63 is on the Wesleyan Board of Trustees. When I asked him to join, he expressed some hesitation because he did not know if his libertarian views and free-market advocacy would be welcome. He has been happy to support the university generously with his time and resources, and has often shared ideas with me on how to achieve our common goals for Wesleyan. But he was concerned that his political perspectives would create a distraction for the board as it pursued those goals. Despite the fact (maybe because of the fact) that we pretty frequently disagree on political matters, I told Tucker that we needed contrarian perspectives on the board. He has been a great board member, and I continue to benefit from his thoughtful point of view.

One of the questions Tucker asks me from time to time is how we can achieve more political diversity on campus. I haven’t found a good answer for him. It seems to many conservative observers that we are pretty homogeneous politically. We don’t seek out historians, critics, economists or scientists of one political persuasion or another, but we should be more aware of prejudices that might lead us to hire people whose political views reinforce our own. A certain amount of political prejudice is part of the culture of the campus — many take for granted that with education comes political commitment associated with the Left. This is a mistake. If we don’t recognize this mistake and try to correct it, we ourselves will be guilty of intolerance and anti-intellectualism. We will have no ground to stand on when faced with the arrogant, pseudo-populist ignorance we’ve been seeing recently on the campaign trail.

I often describe Wesleyan as representing the best in progressive liberal arts education. To truly be progressive, to develop programs that lead other institutions to learn from our example, we need to hear thoughtful voices from a variety of political perspectives. Although I consider myself a person of the Left, it is a serious error to think that all educated points of view will come from those who share our particular vision of critique, of progress, or of social justice. We should not welcome those who cannot tolerate difference, those whose views close down thinking and social interaction. But we should welcome dissent. Making the conservative or libertarian case at a liberal arts university like ours is a tough thing to do, and I admire those who try to do so.

By bringing intelligent conservative discourse to campus, we will increase our capacity to combat the idiot wind of know-nothing anti-intellectualism that is all too prevalent in our political culture. I am hopeful that Justice Scalia’s lecture and discussion will contribute to this capacity.