Wesleyan at the Emmys

Did you notice that Emmy Award nominations were recently released?  Of course, Game of Thrones came up big, receiving 23 Emmy Award nominations. Perhaps you didn’t know that there is a Wesleyan alumnus very much at the center of things on this show. D.B. Weiss ’93 has nominations for Outstanding Drama Series (executive producer), and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series (along with David Benioff).

Our super loyal alum and former trustee Bradley Whitford ’81 was nominated for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series (Transparent). Thomas Kail ’99 has been collecting accolades on Broadway for Hamilton and other directorial triumphs. On the small screen, he was nominated for Outstanding Direction for a Variety Special (Grease). Sasha Alpert ’82 received two nominations as a producer: Born This Way (Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program), and Project Runway (Outstanding Reality-Competition Program). Matt Senreich ’96  is an executive producer on Robot Chicken, which was nominated for Outstanding Short Form Animated Program.

We are a small school, but do we ever have a big impact on how folks tell visual stories!

Sharing Ideas at the Aspen Festival

At the beginning of this month, Kari Weil and I made a brief trip to Colorado to participate in the Aspen Ideas Festival. This brings together a few thousand curious and thoughtful people to hear talks from artists, academics, politicians, writers and activists. The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic magazine put together the program, and we were both invited to talk about our work.

Kari was interviewed about her research in animal studies, starting from the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo with the gorilla Harambe. You’ll remember that a small child fell into the gorilla enclosure, and after his panicked parents alerted the zoo’s staff, Harambe was shot. The boy (whose name I still don’t know) was saved—though it will always remain unclear whether his life was really in peril. As Kari said in her Aspen conversation, the aftermath of this event tells us much about key issues in animal studies.

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I was put on different panels with college presidents and others to talk about online international educational exchanges, the challenging issues in the future of higher education, and current tensions between a commitment to free speech on campus and calls for safe spaces and trigger warnings. That last topic was considered by a rather large group of lawyers, professors, administrators, faculty and students. You can watch the session here, though I warn readers that it is long.

During that panel discussion I found my commitment to free speech challenged because I am unwilling to declare myself an “absolutist” in this regard. I have a substantial and broad commitment to freedom of expression, and, as I have written on more than one occasion, it is a fundamental value of education and democracy. I just recognize it’s not the only value at the core of these enterprises.

There are some things I don’t think a university should legitimate or dignify under the rubric of protecting speech. When we make a subject part of a debate, we legitimate it in ways that may harm the educational enterprise. Moreover, there are always things that an institution or a culture doesn’t dignify by debate. Hate speech and harassment fall into these legal or procedural categories at many places now, but there are always some things that are deemed beyond the borders of legitimate debate in a given setting. Speech is never totally free.

This is not an excuse for political correctness, nor is it a cover for censorship. I only want to recognize that we have real borders for discussion, no matter what our abstract commitment to freedom. Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter and I took different approaches to this question, as reported here.

Today, we see an accelerating coarsening of political discourse, as topics that inspire hate and violence are legitimated by political candidates and would be revolutionaries alike. To refuse to dignify discourses of despicable racism and terror with an educational platform is not an abdication of one’s commitment to speech but a recognition that speech always takes place in a context, in a culture.

These are complex matters, to be sure, and I certainly do recognize that the best way to think them through requires freedom of expression. It also requires a recognition of the rights of those who participate in the conversation. Happily we are able to protect all these things at Wesleyan.

One of my favorite moments at Aspen was saying hello to Governor John Hickenlooper ’74, MA ’80, Hon. ’10. This great force for good things has just published a memoir, The Opposite of Woe, with plenty of interesting stories about Wesleyan in the 1970s and politics over the last 20 years. A wonderful read! (Learn more in this interview with Hickenlooper in Wesleyan magazine, and this Careers by Design podcast).

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Celebrating Chevalier Andrew Curran on Bastille Day

It’s July 14th, the perfect time to celebrate Andrew Curran, Wesleyan’s most recently honored Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académique. The Order of Academic Palms was founded in 1808 by Napoleon Bonaparte to award  devotion and accomplishment in the areas of teaching, scholarship and research. Andy is the William Armstrong Professor of the Humanities, and a valued member of the Romance Languages and Literature Department. He also works in the history of science and cultural history more generally.

Below are the remarks delivered at the French Embassy earlier this year when Andy was honored. Happy Bastille Day!

 

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I believe that when we confer on you an award that recognizes and celebrates knowledge, the significance is twofold. There is, on one hand, your status as an eminent Professor of French Literature at Wesleyan University, where you have been the Dean of Arts and Humanities as well. With a long list of awards and fellowships, ranging from Mellon Foundation grants to the James Clifford Prize, your remarkable credentials would certainly be enough to merit the Palmes Académiques honor.

But we must also consider, on the other hand, the frequent subject of your study.

You have spent much of your academic career researching and analyzing one of the greatest champions of knowledge and education. This is, of course, Denis Diderot. The founder of the modern encyclopedia, Diderot strove to make comprehensive knowledge accessible to the everyman. He believed that education was essential for distinguishing human from animal, and that knowledge was key for liberating man from the narratives imposed by authority.  Even today, this message is enormously meaningful.

Your study of Diderot is vast, uncovering his rich philosophy and his prolific writings. Through your work, Diderot is shown to be a distinctive voice in an age of many great thinkers. You highlight Diderot’s secularism and challenge to the political establishment, which predated later phenomenon in French society.

You publicly advocated for Diderot’s legacy in 2013 when you voiced your support for his remains to be relocated to the Pantheon. In an Op-Ed for the New York Times, you defended the singularity of Diderot’s philosophy, writing that, “More so than the deists Voltaire and Rousseau, Diderot embodied the most progressive wing of Enlightenment thought, a position that stemmed from his belief that skepticism in all matters was ‘the first step toward truth.’ ” Your engagement with Diderot continues into the present: you currently sit on the review board of the academic journal Diderot Studies, and you have a forthcoming book entitled Diderot: The Art of Thinking Freely.

As much as you admire the Enlightenment, you are not blind to the problematic and contradictory theories sometimes espoused by the philosophes. You have written several papers and a book on the concept of “monstrosity” in Diderot’s world, and its physical, moral and even literary forms. Indeed, the “otherness” and imperfection of monstrosity creates many questions for the Enlightenment, because it raises the issue of the laws of nature, and how these laws can be reconciled with things that appear to violate them. In your study, you show how this contrast fits into Diderot’s materialist vision, and the problems it raises.

The categories and classifications in Diderot’s encyclopedia, and the subject of “otherness,” have also led you to an unorthodox yet fascinating topic: how Enlightenment thinkers conceived of “race”. You highlight the fascination with Africa during the Enlightenment, and the fixation on what was called “blackness.” Through your research, we can understand the results of this interest, including the violent history of racial classification.

You uncover the very impetus behind the interest in racial difference. Through comprehensive and critical study, you reveal the intense racial biases among our progressive philosophes, caught between a belief in the universal rights for all men and the perceived inferiority of some men compared to others. Your work sheds light on the contradictory ideas on race that became widespread even among the greatest intellectuals, and for some, created a justification for slavery. In a world still grappling with race relations and its colonial legacy, your work has been justly noted for its relevance. In 2013, your book The Anatomy of Blackness won a Choice Outstanding Book Award, and received the recognition of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in 2012.

As a professor, you have created opportunities for students to pursue their own cutting-edge research. On two occasions, you served as resident director of the Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Paris, an immersive program that helps students encounter French academic institutions as well as French life. At Wesleyan, you have taught classes on everything from the French nineteenth-century novel to Diderot to exoticism, and you do not hesitate to point out overlaps between the different fields.

Diderot once said, “Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things.” Dr. Curran, your passion for knowledge and discovery has led you to complex and unprecedented work on Diderot and beyond. It is my honor to present you with this award.

 Andrew Curran, au nom du Gouvernement Français, je vous fais Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académique.

UPDATE:

By now, we all know something about the horrific end to Bastille Day in Nice. We have checked in with our Wesleyan students in France, and we share the grief and outrage of those affected by the attack. Along with the compassion for those victimized by these and other atrocities, we must find the will, courage and intelligence to defeat those who would use murder to create terror.

 

On What Matters

Too often I have written blog posts about tragedies, violence, injustice. From attacks in other parts of the world to devastation right here in the USA, I have expressed sorrow, anger—and often a feeling of solidarity with those who have suffered, are suffering. Readers have pointed out that my compassion, like other forms of attention, is selective. There are plenty of injustices that have gone unremarked in this space, either because of my own ignorance or my judgments about what I should be writing about in this Roth on Wesleyan blog.

I have followed the news reports and commentaries closely over the last week. What horror unfolds before us! The brutal killings by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana and the vicious murders of police officers in Dallas that followed have underscored how violence can destroy individual lives while shaking communities to the core. I don’t have any wisdom of my own to offer at this painful, confusing time, but I thought I’d pass along a few of the thoughts I’ve come across recently that seemed helpful.

Michael Eric Dyson, professor and social critic, writes searingly in “Death in Black and White“:

The nation as a whole feels powerless now. A peaceful protest turned into the scene of a sniper attack. Day in and day out, we feel powerless to make our black lives matter. We feel powerless to make you believe that our black lives should matter. We feel powerless to keep you from killing black people in front of their loved ones. We feel powerless to keep you from shooting hate inside our muscles with well-choreographed white rage.

Former police captain and Brooklyn borough president Eric L. Adams writes:

I hear those saying the time just for talk is over—and I agree. Talk, and the greater freedoms of speech and expression that it encompasses, are national imperatives that should deliver a more righteous tomorrow. But the next step after talk is not violence, it is concrete action.

Action means common-sense gun reform. Time and again, this has been stonewalled by a do-nothing Congress, which has helped turn a ban on high-capacity assault weapons into a controversial issue. This has to change.  Action means urgent attention to the mental health epidemic that plagues our nation. This epidemic is blind to a person’s background and profession, yet unattended it can distort the honest, passionate rhetoric of protest into the delusional hate of dangerous radicalization.

Wesleyan professor, anthropologist, and performer Gina Athena Ulysse, as usual, gives us much to think about in her Pedagogies of the Traumatized:

We can’t keep running away from the past. Besides, social media has assured we can only run so far; the brutality that used to happen in private is now ever so public. My optimism wanes and my patience continues to be tried with each new extra judicial killing, each exoneration. Each one is more confirmation of the deep rootedness of our inequality. We bear the weight of history so unequally. It is written on our bodies and etched in the color of our skin. Human chattel. Property. Slaves. That is the undue burden, the inequity we live with, that simply cannot be undone unconsciously. Its transformation, if that (I am not naïve), requires so much more than will. To bring about a modicum of change we must not only intentionally attempt, but also be determined, to shift. It will not happen par hazard. Because history has seen to it that the exchange, use, and sign value ascribed to Black lives remains unequal to that of Whites. We are differentially positioned and invested.

Yale philosopher Chris LeBron recently noted that the differences among us have less to do with the facts of any specific encounter than with our will to change how we live. Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen asks whether we can hold ourselves together as a people—”we cannot be a people and be at war with ourselves.” And Gina Athena Ulysse ends her post by asking: “Where is your outrage as we all bear witness to this moment?”

We can turn our witnessing and our outrage toward justice, justice informed by education as well as generosity and care. This will mean making our own campus a place of greater equity and inclusion as we engage as citizens to end this awful cycle of racism and violence.

On Rankings and Recognition

I was standing at a bus station in Great Barrington, Massachusetts a few days ago when an email arrived with the subject “congratulations!” Trustee Leo Au ’71 was sending me a link to Forbes magazine, which had just published its list of America’s Top Colleges. Wesleyan was featured in the top ten, along with research universities like Stanford, Princeton and Harvard, and liberal arts colleges like Williams, Pomona and Swarthmore.

Despite knowing that ranking schools is more magazine public relations than science, and despite the tendency to reward the wealthiest schools with the highest rankings (all the schools in the Forbes’ top 10 except Wesleyan have endowments way over a billion dollars), I have to admit I was tickled to see alma mater get this recognition. This magazine (unlike U.S. News) paid more attention to outputs (how our alumni and faculty are doing) than inputs (how much do we spend per student, how many applicants do we reject), and I couldn’t help but think that we did well here because of the impact our grads are having beyond the university.

Speaking of impact, earlier this summer the World Economic Forum reported that the Princeton Review again named Wesleyan one of the best colleges for “making an impact.” Once again, on this scale Wes ranked in the top 10. We have long known that our school is energized by many who want to use their education to make a positive difference in the world, and it was good to see this recognized. On this subject, folks might want to check out my online class How to Change the World, currently running on Coursera.

I still think that all college rankings are pretty artificial, and that prospective students should find the right fit with a school rather than choose a place on which a magazine has conferred prestige. There are hundreds of great schools out there for students who want to work and learn. As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni puts it “where you go is not who you’ll be.”

But it’s gratifying to see Wesleyan faculty and alumni recognized for the great work they do every year—whatever the rankings.

 

Remembering Elie Wiesel

Like many young Americans, I was introduced to Elie Wiesel in middle school by reading his harrowing Night. The deep darkness of the death camps, the permanent pain in survival, was seared into my consciousness. More than a decade later, I read his Hasidic Tales while living in Paris as a graduate student. I especially remember this story:

When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and misfortune averted.

Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Magid of Mezritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayers.” And again the miracle would be accomplished.

Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient, and the miracle was accomplished

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and that must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.

I met Elie Wiesel as a young professor in Claremont, California, and then had the pleasure of hosting a talk he gave at Wesleyan about six years ago. At dinner that night, our daughter Sophie asked him why he and other Jews didn’t flee from Nazi persecution. I was surprised (and maybe a little embarrassed) by her boldness. How many times must he have been asked this kind of question! Patiently, kindly, he told her “we had no idea, we could not even imagine what was to come.” I then told him that Sophie was to be bat mitzvahed later that spring. Taking her punim in his hands, he kissed her on the forehead as her eyes filled with tears. Mazel tov, mazel tov, he said.

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Elie Wiesel at Wesleyan Photo: AP

That night, at his lecture Elie Wiesel told his story—as he did countless times over more than 60 years. He made every place he spoke that special place in the forest; he made every speech a kind of fire, maybe even a kind of prayer. I don’t know if his telling the story is sufficient, but I am so grateful to have heard him. May his memory be for a blessing.

SCOTUS Affirms Affirmative Action

I was delighted today to learn that the Supreme Court has upheld the ability of colleges and universities to practice a holistic admissions process that includes attention to race.  This will provide opportunities to historically marginalized groups while giving the whole campus culture the benefits of diversity. Grades, or test scores, or any one ranking would not produce an educationally worthy outcome.  A key passage in Justice Kennedy’s opinion, quoted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, put it this way:

A system that selected every student through class rank alone would exclude the star athlete or musician whose grades suffered because of daily practices and training. It would exclude a talented young biologist who struggled to maintain above-average grades in humanities classes. And it would exclude a student whose freshman-year grades were poor because of a family crisis but who got herself back on track in her last three years of school, only to find herself just outside of the top decile of her class.

For education to play a role for social mobility and against entrenched inequality, we need affirmative action as part of a holistic admissions process. This allows schools to build classes that give students powerful learning experiences and individuals opportunities to convert their academic experience into empowerment beyond the university.

As pleased as I am with this court ruling, I am dismayed that the deadlocked  SCOTUS has stymied President Obama’s efforts to make use of more humane immigration policies for people who have already built lives in communities across the United States. In the coming years, Wesleyan will consider as domestic applicants the undocumented students who have had the great bulk of their schooling in the USA. But I am so sorry their families will continue to live with the threat of deportation because of this ruling.

It’s up to all of us to make what Carol Geary Schneider, outgoing president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, has called “constructive engagement with difference.” I’ll end this post with her good words:

Even as we celebrate this important Supreme Court decision affirming campus diversity as a compelling educational interest, therefore, I urge educators across the country to recommit to the hard work of holding our institutions, our students, our faculty, and ourselves responsible for helping students achieve this essential capacity—constructive engagement with difference—that a quality college education includes. Creating a diverse campus community is the first step to achieving this goal; preparing students to work productively across difference—whatever their major—is the next critical frontier in higher education’s long-term efforts to make excellence inclusive.

 

 

Wesleyan Announces “Hamilton” Prize

Colleges and universities love to celebrate successful alumni. The most compelling stories about the value of the undergraduate years are built on the connections between what one studies on campus and success beyond the university. At Wesleyan, we do whatever we can to shine a bright light on the achievements of our graduates—in the sciences and in the public sphere, in sports, in the business world and in academia. A few years ago we had a field day when In The Heights won Tony Awards and thrust its star, Lin-Manuel Miranda ’02, into the spotlight. He had originally produced the show on campus as a student, and then with director and Wesleyan alumnus Tommy Kail ’99, and playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes (now on the Wesleyan faculty), made a sparkling Broadway debut.

Even after the great success of Heights, nobody was really prepared for the truly revolutionary musical Hamilton. But given the liberal education that Miranda and Kail received at Wesleyan, maybe we should have seen something like this coming. Steeped in history and uncannily responsive to contemporary culture, it is an extraordinary artistic achievement at once traditional and experimental. That’s the kind of synthesis that those of us working in liberal arts colleges are always hoping for: making the past come alive in ways that expand possibilities in the present. Hamilton’s source is a deep historical biography by Ron Chernow, which Miranda somehow transformed into a hip-hop opera that draws on Broadway traditions to make something profoundly original.

As we thought about the best way to honor this achievement, we decided to create a major prize to recognize creative potential in a student beginning her or his academic career at Wesleyan. This week we are announcing the Hamilton Prize: awarded to the incoming student (class of 2021) who has submitted (with the application for admission) a work of fiction, poetry, song, or creative nonfiction judged to best reflect originality, artistry and dynamism. The Hamilton Prize includes a full tuition scholarship at Wesleyan for four years. The winner of the prize will be selected by a panel of distinguished faculty and alumni.

Hamilton is a major event, and this is a major prize.  Wesleyan has had a strong history of great writing. From poet laureate Richard Wilbur back in the days when I was a student to novelist Amy Bloom, biographer Lisa Cohen and playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes today, dynamic writers have made our campus their home. The tension between the traditional and experimental continues to energize students here—from the graphic novelist finding new audiences to the slam poet or songwriter wowing fellow students, bold writing is often combined with performance on campus. With the Hamilton Prize, we mean to signal our pride in a diverse array of creative endeavors.

When Hamilton’s generation considered higher education, many believed it was crucial that students not think they already knew at the beginning of their studies where they would end up when it was time for graduation. For all those who have followed on this American path of liberal education, learning was all about exploration – and you would only make important discoveries if you were open to unexpected possibilities. W.E.B. Du Bois was on that path when he argued a century later that a broad education was a form of empowerment that must be open to those disenfranchised by the economy or by legacies of discrimination. Lin-Manuel Miranda was also on that path when he created a musical of revolution that shows how the proverbial “dead white men” can be re-imagined for our time.

As some schools succumb to fears of being left behind and choose vocational shortcuts for their curriculum, we who believe in the power of pragmatic liberal education must develop broad, contextual learning that enables our graduates to pursue meaningful work and lifelong learning. Yes, ours is a merciless economy characterized by deep economic inequality, but that inequality must not be accepted as a given; the skills of citizenship and the powers of creativity enhanced through liberal learning can be used to push back against it.

At a time when many worry about the fate of the creative humanities at American universities, Hamilton reminds us, at many levels, that education can help enlarge the power of engaged citizens to overcome traditional hierarchies. Wesleyan University has created the “Hamilton Prize” to reflect our commitment to educating young people who, after all, have the potential to revitalize our economy, animate our citizenry and energize a culture characterized by connectivity and creativity.

Defending Against Terror and Hate

How awful it is to write messages that begin with “my heart goes out to…” This morning’s attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando is a repulsive act of hatred and terror, already embraced by ISIS. I learned of this atrocity when my plane landed in New York a short time ago. At moments like these we are reminded of our vulnerability, of the awful frequency of mass shootings. We should also be mindful of the crucial work of the struggle against terrorism and the protection of freedom.

As I make my way back to Middletown, I am also reminded of our solidarity, and of our shared commitment to creating a campus culture free of violence and hate. May we redouble our efforts to stand against enmity and cultivate a climate of equity and inclusion.

And may the memory of those massacred this morning in Orlando be a blessing to their friends, family, and all of us who struggle against hatred and violence.

Wesleyan in London

Kari and I are in London for a few days. She gave a paper at a conference on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, and I hosted an event with about 50 Wesleyans who live on this side of the Atlantic. There was a great mix of folks at the event. Alumni from each decade since the 1960s, and current students studying abroad—and even a few pre-frosh from the Class of 2020.

I had the great pleasure of meeting up with a few of my old students who have settled in London. I love hearing about the variety of ways their education continues to resonate in their lives and work.

We’ve seen some great art and have marveled at the new buildings that seem to be sprouting is this incredibly busy city. Think I’ll head over to the Freud Museum to get my bearings…

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Tomorrow, back to Middletown!