Blurry Disciplines, Clear Learning

In the last week I attended two meetings worth travelling to.  The first (in Washington D.C.) dealt with the intellectual-financial challenges facing American higher education, and the second (in Princeton) examined the role of the humanities in the public sphere. I was in Washington for a meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, on whose board I now serve. We began with a very interesting talk by environmental scientist James P. Collins of Arizona State University. Jim talked about the changing face of scholarly inquiry today, when pressing questions just aren’t fitting into distinct disciplinary borders. His particular interest is in the intersection of biological, geological and social sciences, and we were asked to consider synthetic biology, restoration ecology and how engineering and “big data” analysis could be added to the mix. I thought of how Wesleyan’s College of the Environment is also working in this sphere under Barry Chernoff’s direction, and how Lisa Dierker’s work in the Quantitative Analysis Center also blurs the boundaries among disciplines in powerfully productive ways.

In Princeton I was part of a conference that focused on the “ethics of reading.” Peter Brooks, the organizer of this great gathering, asked speakers to consider how the ways we are taught to read in the humanities might foster modes of attention that have positive impact on the public sphere. To whom or to what are we responsible when we learn to read well? How is the exercise of the imagination in reading a narrative related to empathy, and to the desire to reduce harm to others? Literary critic Elaine Scarry gave a powerful presentation on how increases in literacy might be linked to efforts to reduce violence, and she returned to her theme of how the pleasures of beauty might create “opiated adjacencies.” By this she means that the pleasure we take in beauty might stimulate us to make the world more fair, more just. Yale law Professor Paul Kahn talked about teaching humility when we cultivate wonder in the classroom. The practice of creativity and interpretation give us an experience of freedom. Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah noted that when we betray that practice, it is less a betrayal of an author than a betrayal of our community.

I’m more skeptical about the positive “adjacencies” to aesthetic delight than are some of my colleagues, but the conference gave me much to think about. I am convinced that work in the increasingly blurry disciplines of the sciences, arts, humanities and social sciences provides us with an increased ability to navigate within contexts of ambiguity and change. As I noted in a recent blogpost, “liberal learning can help our students unplug from the inputs they have customized to reinforce their own tastes, expectations and identities. We get to introduce them to stories and poems, historical events and paintings, scientific experiments and political debates that they might not have attended to, even googled, on their own. And then we get to learn with them about how these complex cultural artifacts can be understood in relation to our present. In this way, we develop a richer sense than our little devices can give us of who we are. More important, we develop a deeper sense of who we might become.”

A Wesleyan education helps us develop this deeper sense of who we might become. Happily, this occurs in a context of supportive community in which the treasures of continuity find their balance with the pleasures of change.

Thinking Food, Thinking Animals

This weekend Michael Strumpf from Bon Appetit and I signed the RealFood Commitment. Thanks to Manon Lefevre (who also signed the document) and her comrades in WESFRESH, I came to see that we can do more to bring more locally grown, healthy, humane and sustainably produced food to our campus. We all know that this isn’t a panacea: signing this commitment doesn’t solve all the problems with our food supply. But it is a step in the right direction – a step we were proud to take.

I’ve arrived pretty late at any consciousness at all about these issues, and my receptivity to the students in WESFRESH was due almost entirely to my wife Kari, whose work in animal studies has intersected with environmental issues in general and food production in particular. This has been an exciting week for us because the first copies were delivered of Kari’s new book Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now?

The book examines “real and imagined confrontations between human and non-human animals, and “unseats the comfortable assumptions of humanist thought and its species specific distinctions.” Kari started off as a professor of French and comparative literature, but over the last several years has been increasingly involved with the burgeoning field of animal studies. The College of Letters has been a great interdisciplinary home for this wide variety of interests. Philosopher Lori Gruen and Kari co-direct a research institute at Wesleyan sponsored by the Humane Society that begins just after graduation. Lori’s Ethics and Animals is a key text in applied ethics and animal studies.

At the signing of the RealFood commitment, we were serenaded by a wonderfully inventive band, Ratched and the Lunatics, led by singer-songwriter Raechel Rosen.

The other members of the band are fabulous Wes students Shourjya Sen, Dylan Awalt-Conley, Robert Don, Jacob Masters, Rachel Pradilla, and Annie Maxwell. Their wonderful music was powered by a group of energetic cyclists, pedaling energy into batteries and generators (thanks to the College of the Environment).

Wesleyan renews energy every day. Go Wes!

Two Guggenheims and Now a Pulitzer!

In my previous post I congratulated Professors Elizabeth Willis and Magda Teter on their recent awards from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Today I learned that Visiting Theater Professor Quiara Alegría Hudes was just awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her play “Water by the Spoonful.” Professor Hudes (who also wrote the book for the Wes originated musical “In the Heights”) is here this semester teaching advanced writing for theater with Claudia Nascimento, and we hope she will be returning next year. CONGRATULATIONS!

I should add accolades to those already received by Noah Korman ’14, Greg Faxon ’14, Adam Keller ’14, Mark Nakhla ’13 and Sam Choi ’12 for their ASL music video of No Church in the Wild. Greg wrote to me to sing the praises of our sign language professor, Sheila Mullen. I’m sure she’s very proud!

Wes Students Sign “No Church in the Wild”

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So Much Accomplishment! Congratulations to Thesis Students and to Professors Willis and Teter

On Thursday, April 12, Wesleyan seniors will be handing in their senior theses, or the written components of their capstone projects. These often begin as labors of love, but over the course of the year they also become labors of craft, diligence, creativity and care. In an earlier post, I commented on some of the many erudite, original and exciting projects. This week the celebrations of all that hard work begin. Congratulations to all those seniors who have brought these projects to fruition.

And let’s not forget the faculty who have worked side by side with the theses writers (and artists, experimenters) all year. Now these advisers join outside readers on each project in providing critical feedback. This is an enormous amount of work that our faculty take on each spring. I am very grateful for their efforts!

As we celebrate the completed theses, we also offer congratulations to two of our faculty members who have been awarded the prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. With the support of the Guggenheim Elizabeth Willis, Shapiro-Silverberg Professor of Creative Writing, will be focusing on her next book of poems. Just recently her last book, Address, was acknowledged with the 2012 PEN / Laurence L. & Thomas Winship Poetry Award.

Magda Teter, is also a recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim award (she had already received a Harry Frank Guggenheim award earlier year!). Magda, Jeremy Zwelling Professor of Jewish Studies, writes on the history of Jews in Early Modern Poland. Her Sinners on Trial: Jews and Sacrilege after the Reformation was published in 2011 by Harvard University Press, and her new project examines the Papal power in relation to the “blood libel.”

Elizabeth and Magda have been teaching at Wes for many years, and have legions of devoted students (and colleagues). We are happy to add laurels to those being bestowed on this generous, challenging and graceful poet, and on this gifted, creative and incisive historian. Congratulations!

How to Choose Your (Our) University

It’s that time of year again: the time when high school seniors previously anxious about whether they would get into the college of their dreams, now get to worry about choosing the college that is just right for them. In the last few weeks applicants have found out where they’ve been accepted, and now they are trying to envision where they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, find friends that will last a lifetime? How to choose? I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on this, with a few revisions.

For many high school seniors, the month of April is decision time. Of course, for many the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. There are some schools with larger endowments that can afford to be even more generous than Wes, but there are hundreds (thousands?) of others that are unable even to consider meeting financial need over four years of study.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. But if one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

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

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

I hope our visitors get a sense of the personality of the school that I so admire and enjoy. I hope they feel the exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I hope our visitors can sense our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life.

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into (even more difficult this year!). But even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping the fields in which they work. Earlier this week, Henry Abelove gave a stirring lecture at the Center for Humanities call “What I Taught and How I Taught It.” I was Henry’s student in the mid 1970s, and members of his first-year seminar from a few years ago were also in the audience. His care for students and his dedication to the material being taught were everywhere in evidence. How proud and grateful I am to have been his student and colleague!

The commitment of our faculty says a lot about who we are, as does the camaraderie around the completion of senior theses this week. We know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will enchant many of our visitors, too.

Artful Weekend, Artful Weeks Ahead (don’t forget to THINK BIG!)

It’s the season for senior thesis writers to be burning the midnight oil. In a couple of weeks these projects will be handed in to advisors and multiple readers, and then it will be the faculty burning the oil as we carefully read through the arguments, stories, proofs, and poems on which  students have been working for the last several months.

Many students preparing recitals, plays and exhibitions have already had to complete their work so that it can be scheduled for performance and display. Yesterday I checked out the student senior exhibitions in the Zilkha Gallery, and boy was I impressed! My first impression was of Sienna Perro’s subtle yet disturbing photographs of funeral homes. Her sober approach to the material only heightened the emotional power of the work. I had a chance to chat with Kuan-lin Huang about his wonderful installation. Kuan-lin used sculpture, sound and projected images to call to mind the tension between individuality and submergence in the group. I didn’t meet the other artists, but I was mightily impressed by the architectural installation (Gil Sunshine), the magically realist painting of family correspondences (Elizabeth Chabot), and the minimalist cartography installation (Johnny Tan). I think the work will be up for a short part of Sunday afternoon (April 1). The next wave of senior exhibitions opens on Tuesday.

My afternoon on Saturday was enriched by a marvelous concert that was part of Sam Long’s senior thesis in music and environmental studies. Sam’s band, The Honey and the Sting, played original music composed in response to the Connecticut River Valley.

The music was gorgeous, and the lyrics were smart, funny and evocative. Jess Best 12, Mel Hsu ’13, Howe Pearson ’12 and Gemma Smith ’12 gave heartfelt and compelling performances. Although I know the band members had originally wanted to perform outside (with bike-generator powered amplification), the vibe in the Chapel was just right.

Some mighty vibes these days in Memorial Chapel. Last week’s Think Big lectures featuring an all-star faculty line-up was exciting, provocative and fun. Joshua Levine ’12 and his comrades Hannah Vogel ’13, Jack Hoskins ’12, Max Nussenbaum ’12 and Maxwell Hellmann ’13 did a fabulous job organizing the event.

Don’t they look like they are thinking BIG? Pictured here are Leah Wright, Rich Adelstein, Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Matt Kurtz, Jeanine Basinger and John Finn. In their 9 minute talks, the profs talked about what engages them most as researchers and teachers. I had a great time moderating the event. There will be more pics and videos posted soon.

Taiko drumming seems to be happening at various places on campus this weekend. And last night I also got to hear a staggering performance by Dylan Griffin ’12 of Schubert’s Impromptus and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Listening to Dylan play, I was so happy to be at a university at which student performance is so seriously accomplished and so highly valued!