Weekend Warriors (and actors, singers, dancers)

Wesleyan opens its home football season tomorrow. I hope to see a big crowd at Corwin Stadium as the Cardinals match up against Hamilton. Last week, the Wes squad started the season with a big 35-14 win over Tufts. Quarterback Jesse Warren ’15 had an outstanding day, as did the running attack behind fellow-sophomores LaDarius Drew and Kyle Gibson. Jake Bussani ’14 had a great game on defense, earning NESCAC defensive player of the week honors. Come on out to Andrus Field tomorrow for a 1 o’clock kickoff.

Both women’s and men’s soccer are home tomorrow against Middlebury, with the women starting off at 11 am, and the men taking the field at 2:30 pm. Both teams have been superb on defense, with the goalies being particularly strong. Jessica Tollman ’15 and Rachel Hobert ’16 are impressive — not to mention intimidating — in net. Adam Purdy ’13 continues to add to his storied career this year, having already notched four shutouts this season. The mighty field hockey team plays Middlebury at noon, having just been victorious against Williams and Mount Holyoke. Tori Redding ’13 has been outstanding in goal for Wesleyan!

After all the excitement on the playing fields, there will be plenty more in the theaters and concert halls. Zach Libresco ’13 presents Sam Shepard’s True West at 8 pm in the Patricelli ’92 Theater. And Voices of Afghanistan will be at Crowell. Dance, you ask? Do you really have to ask? Go to Westco, or just twirl, just twirl.

Fall Plans, Hopes, Hard Work

This past weekend the Wesleyan Board of Trustees was in town for its annual retreat. The Board’s 32 members – plus representatives from students, faculty and staff – discussed two topics in particular: online education and the plans for the fundraising campaign. We spent the first hours of the retreat listening to reports from two of the top officials from the Harvard-MIT-UC Berkeley collaboration: EdX.  They described how the three universities planned to disseminate knowledge through free, open courses and through this venture to better understand online learning and its potential – an understanding they expect to inform the evolution of education on their campuses. We also heard from a partner at McKinsey and Company, who spoke with us in broader terms about the promise and the challenge of online education. He placed online education in the context of the growing demand from around the world for higher education in the United States and also of the growing demand for skilled employees likely to be needed by companies in the coming decades. He had no doubt that online education will grow exponentially to meet those demands.

During the afternoon of our retreat, Professors Michael Weir, Lisa Dierker, Manolis Kaparakis and Eric Charry introduced us to courses that use technology to teach large numbers of students. The trustees had been given homework, freeing up their “class time” for a lot more than just listening to the sage on the stage. Of course, the great majority of classes at Wesleyan are very interactive, and our trustees were reminded (by the performance of our four professors) that no matter how great the use of technology, a great teacher makes all the difference in the world. The strength of our faculty has been and will continue to be key to the power of the Wes experience in the classroom and in research collaborations.

In the second day of the retreat, we discussed plans for our fundraising efforts over the next few years. We are focused on raising endowment funds while maintaining robust annual giving each year. We have already raised over 260 million dollars, and our highest priority in this campaign is financial aid. Recent changes to our budgeting for scholarship only put more emphasis on that priority. Financial aid: Now more than ever.

After the student and faculty representatives left the Board meeting, a group of Wes undergrads concerned about our financial aid policy interrupted the session to make the point that they, too, should be part of that conversation. This interruption could be seen, I suppose, as a sort of prelude to the open forum on financial aid that Wesleying had planned with me for the following day. Monday night we did, in fact, have that conversation, and the students had many good questions about how to mount a sustainable scholarship program that preserves access, enhances diversity, and contributes to the quality of the educational experience on campus. You can watch a recording of the webcast of the hour-long conversation here.

At Wesleyan we have myriad interests and different opinions about liberal arts education now and in the future, but I’m confident that we can all agree on the importance of raising money for scholarships. Financial aid: Now more than ever!

Wesleyan Joins Coursera Partnership

Earlier today Coursera announced that Wesleyan is joining its partnership of schools offering MOOCs — massive, open, online classes that often enroll tens of thousands of people. MOOCs are not uncontroversial. Some see them as triggering watershed changes in higher ed, while others see  basic contradictions in how they work. Founded by two computer science professors at Stanford, Coursera envisions reaching millions. Co-founder Daphne Koller’s TedTalk provides a good sense of the organization’s mission.  It was launched with classes offered by professors from Stanford, Michigan, Princeton and Penn; and this summer a number of fine schools joined the partnership, among them Duke, UVA, Johns Hopkins and CalTech. This week another dozen are signing on, including Wesleyan, and we will be the first liberal arts institution to join that has an undergraduate focus.

The idea that Wesleyan will be offering free, massive online classes will strike some as paradoxical. We are a small university at which almost three quarters of the courses are taught in an interactive, seminar style. How is that related to online learning? In important respects the classes offered through Coursera are very different from the ones we teach here in Middletown. Although MOOCs start off with huge numbers of enrolled participants, a small percentage do the assignments, and an even smaller percentage finish. The retention rate at Wes, by any measure, is very high. Our residential liberal arts education depends on the ongoing interaction of students with one another and with faculty. MOOCs encourage interaction of a different sort:  through social media and chat rooms. Nonetheless, we want to understand better how students learn in these contexts, precisely because they are so different from our own. And we think it is simply a good thing to share versions of our classes with the wider world. The Wes educational experience does not scale up — but we can make available online adaptations of our classes so that those with a desire to learn have access to some of what we have to teach.

Our work with Coursera will be an experiment with online education from which we are sure to learn. The courses we are developing now are not for Wesleyan credit — they are vehicles for teaching subjects we care about to a (very) wide audience. Professors don’t grade in MOOCs, but we do create assignments that are either machine graded or peer evaluated. We’re starting off with classes in classics, economics, film, and statistics. I’m working on an online version of my interdisciplinary humanities course, The Modern and the Postmodern. Even though I’ve been teaching this class for many years, I really don’t know how this will translate to the MOOC context. That’s why it’s an experiment.

Will online teaching have an impact on our education here on campus? It already has, with several professors using either a “flipped classroom” or a “blended” approach. Of course, our students and faculty use technology every day for research and teaching, and they are connected with others around the world who share their interests and from whom they learn.

Wesleyan has long been a champion of educational innovation, and this partnership with Coursera is just the latest step in that tradition. I think it’s an exciting one. Stay tuned (or should I say, “stay connected?”).


Performance! Now!

Yesterday afternoon I stopped by the opening of the new exhibition in Zilkha, Performance Now. What a wonderful show! The entire gallery space seems transformed, and there is so much to look at, listen to, laugh with, and be absorbed by.  The exhibition is a collaboration between Wesleyan, Independent Curators International, and Performa. Roselee Goldberg, who has long championed adventurous performance art, curated the exhibition, and was on hand yesterday to make some remarks. She’ll be back on November 17th to lecture. A group of alumni who are making performance based work (check out Liz Magic Laser ’03 in this show) will be speaking on campus October 20. Here’s a brief summary of the show from the website:

Performance Now is an exhibition that will debut at Wesleyan, and show how performance has come to be at the center of the discussion on the latest developments in contemporary art and culture. Bringing together some of the most significant artists working today, this exhibition surveys the most critical and experimental currents in performance over the last ten years from around the globe. Segments of the exhibition featuring video, film and photography, by artists including Marina Abramovic, William Kentridge, Clifford Owens and Laurie Simmons, will be showcased in Zilkha Gallery.

Throughout the semester there will be seminars, talks, and performances. And check out the very cool Film Series on Thursday in the Powell Cinema at the Center for Film Studies.

There is plenty of performance on campus every year, but there is a strange synergy brewing this term. The Center for the Humanities is focused on temporality this semester, and performance is certainly a time-based medium. I heard historian Lynn Hunt’s great talk on Monday night, and it got the series off to a strong start.  And, of course, the Music and Public Life program continues all year with great performances and reflections on them.

As I meet with folks on campus, it seems that scores of students are auditioning for plays, dances and musical groups in these first weeks of the semester.  Here’s to “call backs!”

Education, Public Life…Freedom and MUSIC!

This morning the New York Times ran an opinion piece I wrote on education as freedom. Earlier in the summer I’d posted on Jane Addams, and on the debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. All this comes from the book I am writing, Why Liberal Education Matters. I believe more strongly than ever in pragmatic liberal learning, and it’s good to have a chance to kick these ideas around in the public domain.

This year Wesleyan continues the “Creative Campus” initiative we got underway some years ago now. We believe that our form of education stimulates innovation and develops habits of mind that lead to regular participation in (and appreciation for) creative pursuits. Pam Tatge, director of the CFA, and Provost Rob Rosenthal are in New York today to discuss how our work in this area might be helpful to other colleges and universities.

I’m particularly excited about one of this year’s Creative Campus initiatives, the Music and Public Life program chaired by Mark Slobin. There are many great events, and tomorrow (September 7) we start off with The Mash — lots of campus bands performing with time for open, spontaneous performance. It all kicks off at noon in the Huss Courtyard (behind the Usdan University Center) with The Mattabesset String Collective — Barry Chernoff, Marc Eisner, Rebecca McCallum, Gil Skillman and Kevin Wiliarty.

Marc is away from campus presenting a paper, and I will have the great pleasure of sitting in with the group. They are actually going to let me play some guitar, keyboards, and harmonica. I even get to sing a little Dylan!  Later in the afternoon there will be performances by great student bands in front of Olin, WestCo, and… I hear Bear Hands is playing at Foss Hill late in the afternoon. It should be quite a day!!!

Classes Begin to Celebrate Labor Day

Last night Kari, Mathilde and I walked by the Huss Courtyard behind the Usdan University Center where hundreds of Wes students were gathered to take in the sounds of an amazing variety of a cappella groups. The cheers rained down, whether we were listening to old college tunes, Slavic folk songs, radio pop, and the occasional show tune. Did I really hear some Psi U brothers sing a bilingual version of La Vie en Rose? It was wonderful!! I felt like we were all getting in tune for the semester.

And now we are underway. Profs are putting the final touches on their syllabi, students are checking out lots of classes to see if they should keep the schedules chosen months ago, and the staff is making sure that the support structures are working — from library reserves to equipment in the fitness center. I meet with my Modern and Postmodern class in a few hours, and (like every year) I am both excited and nervous. I’ve been teaching for decades now, but each fall it’s the same mix of anticipation and worry. I’ve even had the traditional anxiety dreams about showing up unprepared… Sometimes, you don’t need Freud to discover a dream’s meaning…

Happy First Day of Classes!  Happy Labor Day!