So, You Wanna Make Movies (or TV shows)…

If you spend any time in the vicinity of Hollywood, you’re likely to hear about Wesleyan’s important role in the entertainment industry. Almost immediately after my appointment as president, I began hearing how our alumni “dominate the industry.” That may be an overstatement, but it is very clear that Wes folks wind up working at very high levels in all sectors of film and television.

The College of Film and the Moving Image sponsors many events to help students understand how they can use their education as a resource for careers in entertainment. And this summer, we are sponsoring a workshop at the American Film Institute (AFI) in Los Angeles for those wanting to learn more about the craft of TV writing. Led by Ed Decter, who has a LONG list of credits over many years, the workshop is for advanced students or recent grads who want a professional orientation to television writing.

C-Film has recently launched a podcast series, and the first interview is with Ed Decter. You can listen to it here.

You can find out more information about the workshop by contacting Scott Higgins, Chair of the College of Film and the Moving Image.

Theater, Sports, Senior Theses and Recitals Enliven Campus

What a lovely weekend it was! Friday night Kari and I were so happy to have the opportunity to see a student production at the Second Stage: La Violecion of My PapiYon, presented by Shades, written by Arline Pierre-Louis ’19 and directed by Ray Achan ’19 and Ruby Fludzinski ’20. The show was powerful and stirring.

On Saturday, there were sports aplenty on campus, as well as music drifting over from West College’s annual celebration of his Zonkertude. I saw some phenomenal tennis, a powerful women’s lacrosse team, track and field and frisbee high-caliber performances, and some thrilling softball and baseball. Away from campus, the men’s lacrosse team continued its winning ways in upstate New York, while our crew teams were racing through the still icy waters of New England. NietzscheFactor won its frisbee sectional playoff, and the women’s crew team captured the Little Three Title!

Today, I was reading two (really excellent) senior theses, and I strolled over to Memorial Chapel to hear some music in the afternoon. I was delighted to see some recent alums and current students there to join Conner Bennion’s [’18] most excellent recital. I was smiling ear to ear as I took in the a cappella tunes.

If you haven’t seen the remarkable senior theses art exhibitions that have been showing at the Zilkha Galleries, don’t deny yourselves one of the pleasures of spring at Wesleyan. The openings have been on Wednesdays, and you can catch the new group this week beginning at 4. Here are just a few images I’ve snapped when looking at earlier week’s work.

You can find more information and much better pictures here.



The following review of Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now appeared this past week in Inside Higher Education. 

Steven Pinker has become chief cheerleader for modernity. In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, he marshaled mountains of evidence to show that violence, both private and public, has significantly declined over the last 200 years. While atrocities naturally continue to draw our attention, they are actually less prevalent than ever before. If we avoid the “availability bias” of sensational headlines and study the broad spectrum of relevant information, we can see that, as a species, we are moving away from violence.

In his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Pinker expands his purview to include progress in everything from access to basic nourishment and health care to income and increased choices in how we spend our time. In every important area, Pinker sees robust improvement. The world is getting safer, more prosperous and less authoritarian. “Look at the data!” he cries again and again, and you will see that human beings have much to cheer about and much to look forward to. Evidence from surveys even suggests that we are happier — although not nearly as happy as we should be, given the progress we’ve made.

Pinker himself is not happy with colleges and universities, especially humanities programs, which, he claims, tend to emphasize the tragic, the negative, even the apocalyptic. He takes particular aim at Nietzsche and the streams of critical theory that flow from his thinking. Nietzsche’s antimodern polemics against smug, middle-class complacency especially rankle the Harvard University professor who can’t seem to imagine why anyone wouldn’t be grateful for the greater access to food, shelter and leisure that modernity has created.

There is plenty to criticize in Pinker’s historical portrait of triumphant modernity. He ignores any part of the Enlightenment legacy that doesn’t fit neatly into his neat, Popperian understanding of how scientific progress is made through disconfirming hypotheses. In describing progress in societies that behave more rationally, he says almost nothing about the social movements and struggles that forced those with power (and claims to rationality) to pay attention to political claims for justice. When science leads to bad things, like eugenics, he just dismisses the results as bad science. He criticizes those with whom he disagrees as being narrow-minded or tribalistic, but he seems to have no self-awareness of how his own thinking is plagued by parochialism. He writes that we have to cure “identity protective cognition,” but for him history is an effort to find figures like himself in the past so that he can write a story that culminates with people who have the same views as he. “There can be no question of which was the greatest era for human culture; the answer has to be today.” Maybe he thinks that the gesture of expecting an even better future is an expression of intellectual modesty.

But as much as Pinker’s self-congratulation may annoy anyone concerned with (or just curious about) the ways the achievements of modernity have been built through oppression, exploitation and violence, it would be a mistake to ignore the extraordinary accomplishments that he documents in Enlightenment Now. Take the astonishing reductions in poverty around the world. Over the last century, the portion of people living in extreme poverty has been reduced from 90 percent to under 10 percent. The acceleration of this progress in the last half century has been truly remarkable, and we can see similar good news in regard to decreased child mortality and increased life expectancy (to pick just two of the subjects Pinker covers).

And Pinker is right that many of us in the humanities and interpretive social sciences are loath simply to celebrate such gains when discussing the legacies of the Enlightenment or embracing contemporary critical thinking. Why? Part of the reason is that the story of those achievements should not be divorced from an account of how social injustice has made them possible. Humanists don’t dismiss the importance of reductions in poverty, but neither do they simply want to describe slavery, colonialism and other forms of exploitation as the price one has (always?) to pay for progress.

A judicious history of the dramatic increase in the powers of science and rationality should include chapters on the massive increases in the destructive power now in human hands. Those chapters are missing from Pinker’s book, and that’s important because of the asymmetric risks now facing the planet. Pinker’s caricatures of doomsayers of the past predicting environmental or nuclear disaster can be amusing, but his cheerful account of an ever more peaceful and prosperous world reminds one of the optimists writing in 1914 just before the outbreak of World War I. They, too, were quite sure that in their century war was a thing of the past and that economic development would go on more or less steadily.

Yet as Daniel Callahan recently showed in The Five Horsemen of the Modern World, the risks of massive destruction and deep ecological dislocation today have been greatly magnified by nuclear weapons, global warming and profound challenges in regard to food and water. These risks are not reduced because we’ve already made progress in regard to poverty and life expectancy. Some of the same forces that helped create the positive changes have also led to enormous problems. And past performance is, as they say, no guarantee of future results.

Pinker does spend time on contemporary challenges, seeing them as technical problems to be solved through inquiry and experimentation. That seems reasonable enough. We’ve produced nuclear weapons that could destroy millions of lives — we need mechanisms to make their use less probable. Economic development has put too much carbon in the atmosphere — we need to develop tools to take the carbon out while creating jobs and enhancing prosperity.

This story of progress begetting more positive change rather than intractable problems is, of course, very much end point dependent. Pinker’s claims for enhanced freedom around the world today run into the obstacles of authoritarian rule in Russia and China. So, he says, Putin and Xi are not nearly as bad as Stalin and Mao. And when he started writing Enlightenment Now, Pinker could not have predicted President Trump. He acknowledges the threats that Trump and other antiscientific populists pose to his idea of continual progress, but he suggests that demographic trends will naturally shrink the base of know-nothing authoritarians. And if we all just emphasized how positive things are, populists claiming only they can save us wouldn’t have as much to work with: “By failing to take note of the gifts of modernity, social critics poison voters against responsible custodians and incremental reformers.” Cheerleading as activism.

The Enlightenment was never just one thing, and its most serious exponents often thought long and hard about the negative consequences of reducing all thinking to the narrowest forms of the science of their time. Humanists in colleges and universities today can extend the legacies of the Enlightenment not by celebrating the virtues of science with unalloyed optimism nor by denigrating them with unadulterated nihilism. Instead, humanists today can acknowledge the gains of science and economic development while continuing to question both their premises and their unintended consequences.

Pinker writes that “none of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become.” But we don’t need cheerleading psychologists telling us we should be happier than we are. We need teachers whose broad-based thinking builds hope and inspires positive change by critically challenging complacency. That’s still the best bet for what Kant recognized as the goal of Enlightenment: freedom from self-imposed immaturity.

How to Choose a (Our) University?

It’s WesFest time again, and the crowds we’ll see visiting campus this week remind us that it is crunch time for many high school seniors. They are trying to envision the school at which they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, and form friendships that will last a lifetime? How to choose? As I do each spring, I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on choosing a college, with a few revisions.

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. Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low and to maintain only moderate (very close to inflation) tuition increases. We also offer a three-year program that allows families to save about 20% of their total expenses, while still earning the same number of credits.

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 Pomona?

Students who are visiting campuses this month are trying to discern the personalities of each school. They are trying to imagine themselves on the campus, to get a feel for the chemistry of the place — to gauge whether they will be happy there. That’s why hundreds of visitors come to Wesleyan each week and why there will be the great surge for WesFest. They go to classes and athletic contests, musical performances and parties. And they ask themselves: Would I be happy at Wesleyan?

I hope our visitors feel the brave 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. Our students have the courage to find new combinations of subjects to study, of people to meet, of challenges to face.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out their education: discovering what they love to do; getting better at it; learning to share it with others. I explain a little bit more about that in this talk to admitted students a few years ago:

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We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into, especially this year (once again) with a record number of applications. 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 their disciplines. At Wesleyan, 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.

C-Film Expanding Awareness

This week the College of Film and the Moving Image is sponsoring three events as part of its AWARENESS 2018 series. This series examines the intersections of film and some of the pressing social and political issues in our culture.

MONDAY at 8 p.m.–PAPER LANTERNS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICAN PRISONERS IN HIROSHIMA with a discussion featuring Peter Grilli of the Japan Society of Boston

TUESDAY at 8 p.m.–THE RAPE OF RECY TAYLOR with a discussion featuring Crystal Feimster, associate professor of African American Studies, History, and American Studies at Yale.



John E. Finn Lectures Tonight on the Constitution

John Finn taught in the Government department at Wesleyan from 1986-2017. For much of that time he taught Constitutional Law, and tonight the Wesleyan community has the opportunity to hear from him again when he delivers the Hugo Black Lecture at 8 p.m. in Memorial Chapel.

Having received a Ph.D. in political science from Princeton and a J.D. from Georgetown, Professor Finn became an influential scholar of constitutional interpretation. He also was a beloved teacher at Wesleyan, twice winning the Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching. In addition to his work on the American constitution, John also has a Grande Diplôme from the French Culinary Institute. He has published widely on citizenship, political participation and the law. He is also the author of The Perfect Omlet.

A powerful advocate for an inclusive constitution, Professor Finn’s lecture tonight is titled “Gun Nuts & Speech Freaks: A Guide to the Alt-constitution.”

Susan Lourie, Teaching, Dancing!

Susan Lourie

How do you honor a great teacher? You show you’ve learned from her example—her pedagogy, her practice, her generosity. How do you honor a great dance teacher? You begin to move and to show what you’ve absorbed and processed from her pedagogy, practice, and generosity. That’s what the Dance Department is doing NEXT weekend, APRIL 7th,  in honoring Susan Lourie. Here’s the announcement:

The Dance Department honors Susan Lourie‘s 40 years of teaching at Wesleyan with this tribute performance featuring invited alumni, guests, and current faculty and students.

Wesleyan alumni that will be performing or showing videodances include Wendy Blum ’87, Molly Rabinowitz ’87, Kim Sargent-Wishart ’87, Jessica Roseman ’90, Jody Sperling ’92, SheenRu Yong ’02, Intisar Abioto ’08, Nik Owens ’12, Stellar Levy ’15, Miranda Orbach’15, Nora Thompson ’15, Eury German ’16, and Nick Daley ’17.

This performance will be preceded from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. by informal movement-based activities and performance by alumni along with Susan Lourie in the Bessie Schönberg Dance Studio, located at 247 Pine Street in Middletown. Admission to the afternoon event is free and open to the public.

The ticketed evening performance will be followed by a reception with alumni and colleagues honoring Susan Lourie with their remarks.

In the Swim…

Wesleyan’s women’s swim team just finished a tremendous season of competition with some sterling performances at the NCAA National Championships. Here’s how Athletic Director Mike Whalen put it:

Wesleyan finished the final day of the NCAA Div. III Swimming & Diving Championships with an exciting performance in the 400 Freestyle Relays. The team of Zoe Kerrich, Caroline Murphy, Hannah O’Halloran, & Grace Middleton reestablished the varsity record for the 3rd time this season!! Their time (3:26.29) was the fastest time in the Consolation Finals and the 6th fastest of all the teams in the Championship Finals as well. Once again, Zoe Kerrich’s lead-off leg re-established her own 100-yard Freestyle varsity record.

In all, 5 varsity records were established this week in the 200 Medley Relay, 400 Free Relay, 50 Backstroke, 100 Backstroke, and 100 Freestyle.  Caroline Murphy (’20) finished in 4th place this evening in the Women’s 100-yard Backstroke earning her All-American honors and a new personal best time and varsity record. Her time, 54.97 is over a full second faster than her NESCAC winning performance (55.99).

Caroline Murphy has been an outstanding student-athlete in her first two years at Wesleyan, and we look forward to cheering her on in the second half of her career. Congrats to Caroline on earning All-American status, and to Coach Peter Solomon and all her teammates for an outstanding season.

Marching for Our Lives

Across America yesterday, students and their allies marched for legislation that would provide genuine gun safety — they marched for their lives and for ours. For many years the National Rifle Association has been able to motivate voters willing to vote on the single issue of protecting the unfettered sale of firearms, and though theirs is a minority position, there wasn’t enough political will behind the efforts to create common sense legislation to promote gun safety. This is changing.

Many Wesleyan alumni, faculty and staff have been supporting these efforts. Just this year, our Shasha Seminar for Human Concerns sponsored a symposium on the history of firearms in the United States. On average, 68 percent of murders and 51 percent of suicides in the United States today involve guns, with scores of school shootings occurring each of the last several years. The Shasha seminar asked a series of important questions: What is the current state of laws regarding gun possession and use in the United States, including on college campuses? What do we know, or think we know, about the gun debate in the country? Are there any areas of agreement among those on all sides of the debate who are concerned about the scourge of gun violence? What are the lessons from history? Are there paths forward to reduce the incidence of gun-related violence and death in the United States?

There are paths forward, and young people are forging them right now. There are many future Wesleyan students out there who are learning about civic engagement by taking to the streets to make their voices heard. We need their energy and their political passion. As Yolanda Renee King, the nine-year-old granddaughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King, called out from the podium during yesterday’s march in Washington:

Spread the word

All across the nation

We are
Going to be
A great generation.

 Enough is enough.