Dance, Democracy and Devoted Service

As we move into the final week or so of classes, the pace of work has picked up markedly. Among the many great performances that come toward the end of the semester, this weekend we were able to attend the faculty dance concert. Dance has always been a key part of the arts at Wesleyan, and this weekend I was reminded of why that’s the case. I was particularly struck by the boundary-crossing nature of the work presented. Nicole Stanton performed a piece, “Castle of My Skin,” in collaboration with Gina Ulysse (what a voice!), a recently tenured professor in Anthropology and African American Studies. And Katja Kolcio worked with composer Julian Kytasty to create a “living archive” of Ukrainian music and dance. Katja’s students performed the piece with dynamism and sensitivity. The creative collaboration of teachers and students is one of the most exciting aspects of a Wesleyan education.

Another exciting aspect of the Wesleyan experience is the practice of politics. Our student chapter of the Roosevelt Institution will be holding a conference on that subject on Saturday, May 3. The Roosevelt Institution challenges chapters to consider “how to restore government of the people, and for the people.” How can students play a role in creating a more effective and equitable democratic political practice? There will be a series of workshops on Saturday, and I am looking forward to hearing Richard Berke, Assistant Managing Editor at the New York Times, close out the afternoon.

On Tuesday of this week there will be a reception to honor of the service of Peter Patton to Wesleyan. Peter, a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, has worked in various administrative capacities for many years at Wesleyan. As I look back over the history of the last decade or so, I can see that whenever there was a strong need for a capable, sensitive leader, Wesleyan turned to Peter. Whether it was to be the Dean of the College, or, to help create the Green Street Art Center, to direct the improvements to the central part of the campus (and the construction of the Usdan University Center), or, more recently, to oversee athletics and public safety, the university was able to enlist Peter’s vision and hard work. Over the years of administrative service, Peter continued to teach his science classes, and our reception this week in no way signals his retirement. On the contrary, Peter will now devote his energies full time to teaching and research. A grateful university community will express our gratitude to Peter at reception in his honor this Tuesday, April 29, from 3:30 to 5:00 in Beckham Hall.

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Productive Idealists

For many years I would tell friends that Wesleyan entered the 1960s well before the decade really started and continued in the sixties spirit decades after the official end of that turbulent time. I meant that Wes was already exploring uncharted, radical territory in the 1950s, and with Norman O. Brown, Carl Schorske on the faculty, along with the impact of John Cage and Buckminster Fuller, there was a willingness to defy convention and explore new boundaries in culture and society. This was complemented by curricular innovations under Victor Butterfield, and especially with the university’s commitment to affirmative action and diversity long before other schools recognized their importance. When I was a student here in the mid-’70s this legacy was active and creative, with strong feminist and environmental movements that were exploring intellectual as well as political alternatives to the status quo.

It is easy to treat these trends with irony or cynicism. Were they romantic and idealist? Sure they were, and that was part of their ability to inspire many to go beyond what had been expected of them. Recently, I was asked to review a new book that trashed both the spirit and the accomplishments of that time, Gerald DeGroot’s The Sixties Unplugged. Although the author has an easy time of showing how much of the romantic rhetoric of the day was not in accord with what was really happening, his book makes no effort at understanding why people were in fact committed to political and cultural change, to social justice. You can read my San Francisco Chronicle book review at:
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/04/18/RV4GVQU5M.DTL&type=books

At Wesleyan today it is worth trying to understand the value of idealism and the productive role of imagining radical alternatives to the status quo. When I spoke with prospective students and their parents this weekend, I emphasized how Wesleyan students become innovators, intelligent risk takers whose ideals are cultivated rather than punctured by the education they receive. At a time in our history when technological and cultural change will continue to accelerate, we need people who can continue to learn, to adapt and to become leaders of innovation. We need the courageous creativity of Wesleyan grads in the sciences, arts, business world, education and politics. And we need those grads to remember their commitment to justice even when those around them seem to have forgotten the victims of change. Wesleyan graduates have long been productive idealists, and they will continue to play that role in the future.

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Having seen the small but vocal rally for Wesleyan’s physical plant employees this weekend, I can well imagine some reading this thinking: “Well, Roth, if you are so concerned about justice, why don’t your physical plant employees have a contract?” We continue to negotiate with the union representing these employees, but it has been a frustratingly slow process. Nevertheless, we compromised on our initial proposals many times and reached an agreement with the union representative and the union’s bargaining committee more than a week ago when Wesleyan accepted the offer made by the union. To our great surprise, after we reached this tentative agreement on the proposal, the members of the union rejected the proposal their own representatives had made! We are back at the negotiating table, but it is disturbing to see students enlisted in a protest (“No contract, no peace!”) that seems aimed to make up for the failure of the physical plant employees to agree with their own representatives. It is hard to miss the irony of physical plant employees having extra work to do as they clean up the scrawled messages of their student supporters.

Let me be clear: We are and have been negotiating in good faith throughout the bargaining process, and I am committed to see that those who work for Wesleyan are fairly compensated for the good jobs they do. I hope very much we soon reach a fair and economically sustainable agreement.

On a lighter note, when Sophie saw “contract now!” scrawled on our driveway, she thought we were suddenly to become smaller…

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WesFest

Over the next few days our campus will be filled with visitors checking out Wesleyan as a place to spend their undergraduate years. WesFest combines parties and seminars, musical performances and athletic events, music and fashion shows to celebrate Wesleyan and (finally) the arrival of spring.

I met with a group of pre-frosh and their families this morning in Beckham Hall. They want to know if Wesleyan is the place where they will truly thrive; they want to know if Wesleyan will inspire them to expand their horizons while providing them with a community in which they will develop close friendships that go beyond the circles of relationships they began forming in high school. Students want to sense if faculty truly care about mentorship (they do), and if their fellow students are truly welcoming and supportive (they are). Parents want to understand that the liberal arts education being offered their students will help them know themselves better, navigate in the world more effectively, and remain a resource for life-long learning. I tell them that the liberal arts curriculum at Wesleyan does all these things because I’ve seen it happen time and time again. I’ve also experienced it in my own life. Ours is a challenging community, one that expects much from students, faculty and staff. But it is also a community that pulls together when faced with difficulties, and that celebrates (with gusto) achievement in athletics, scholarship, artistic endeavors and scientific research.

Wesleyan is a joyful place to learn. Now that it is April, I am reminded of this each day when I look from my office in South College over to Foss Hill. If you are here on campus, Welcome to WesFest!! If you are reading this far away from Middletown, just remember the happy music that drifts across Andrus Field as students ask their teachers if they can have class outside, and as we welcome spring to New England.

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Innovation: Economy, Theater, Education

At a breakfast meeting of the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce on Friday, I was invited to talk with approximately 500 guests about Wesleyan’s role in our region, and about the relevance of a liberal arts education today. It was interesting in the context of that meeting to underscore our university’s place in the economy of the region. Not only are we emphasizing (and buying) local food for our dining facilities, but we also hire local artisans, contractors and construction firms for the greatest percentage our facilities projects. Moreover, our graduates have founded cultural enterprises, businesses, and public service organizations that continue to improve the lives of people in our region.

But Wesleyan’s contribution goes far beyond the money we spend and the organizations we support. Our model of liberal arts education emphasizes freedom and experimentation as tools for students to discover what they love to do, and then to get a little better at it. We believe that when students are passionately engaged with their education, that they will be better able to develop meaningful ways of working after graduation. Wesleyan students, as I have been emphasizing since I returned to campus, become innovators and productive risk takers, and I do think this is exactly the right time for our alumni to have a role in shaping our economy and culture. Wesleyan students, long known for our idealism, are also figuring out how to translate ideals into effective, productive work in the world.

After I got down from the soapbox, Kari and I went to see Big Love — a production of Charles L. Mee’s play by the Wesleyan theater department. It was directed by Visiting Professor David Jaffe, with a theater collective (called “the Company”) made up of very talented actors, musicians and other theater artists. The play was performed in the round, with the ancient themes of battles between the sexes brought very much into a contemporary idiom. The acting was superb, and we were so impressed with the ways in which music and physicality were integrated with the powerful plot themes concerning freedom, sexual attraction, violence and control.

Big Love reminded me that Wesleyan’s grand tradition of theatrical excellence remains strong. The student-run Patricelli ’92 Theater (there I was able to catch this weekend only a part of the very funny My Kingdom for a Whore), as well as the academic department and a variety of informal groups, bring challenging theater experiences into a liberal arts context.

Last night I learned that one of our seniors, Max Rose, is a finalist in an essay contest sponsored by The Nation. Reflecting on the legacy of FDR’s New Deal, Max calls for a new social contract, at the center of which should be education. He stresses the importance of innovation in education and recognizes that, “The most potent resource of the 21st century is a nation’s intellectual capital.” I’d like to think that Wesleyan has a role to play in the development of that resource, and in enhancing access to it through a robust scholarship program. You can read his essay at: http://www.thenation.com/doc/20080414/rosen
Congratulations, Max!

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April Visitors

It’s admissions season, and several hundred happy high school seniors recently got a thick packet from Middletown. After considering thousands of applications, poring over transcripts, studying reports of interviews, and reading letters of recommendation, the team in our Admission Office is gearing up to explain Wesleyan to young men and women trying to decide which school to attend. Over the next few weeks, many will visit our campus. What will they be looking for?

Students who make their way to Middletown will want to meet faculty to get a sense of whether they will have a rapport with teachers who could become their mentors. They will also want to meet current students, trying to envision whether they could be happy members of the various communities that make up our student body. I suspect that our recently admitted prospective students will be looking for that sense of fit that gives one a feeling of belonging, of being able to find friends and to make discoveries that will expand one’s intellectual and personal horizons. Many getting ready to begin college want to find a place where they will feel “comfortable.” I’d like to think that would-be Wesleyan students are also looking for an adventure that will alter their comfort zones — that will challenge them to discover more fully who they are, and what they love to do.

I’m told that for the last several years Wes undergrads have been expressing the fear that the student body is changing, and that the university is becoming more like some of the other highly selective liberal arts schools. This is such a Wesleyan concern! We pride ourselves on being different: more creative, more independent, more experimental and more progressive than many of our peer institutions. I think there is much truth in this, actually. Wesleyan continues to attract an applicant pool full of talented men and women who can celebrate difference, who have an exuberant attitude to learning (and much else in life), and who can make use of their freedom to develop qualities of originality in a rigorous, highly demanding context. Of course, the university has changed, and it will continue to do so, but in ways that make us more distinctive. That’s why it’s so cool to be part of the Wesleyan family. What hasn’t changed is the expectation of being able to learn about oneself and the world, and to develop strong personal relationships within an affectionate, open-minded community. And we maintain the expectation that as Wesleyan alumni we will continue to learn, and to have a positive impact on the world around us.

We welcome our visitors in April as they try to discover what Wesleyan is really like, and whether they can see themselves being engaged, creative and happy here. This has long been a very special place, but also one that is always changing in response to the contributions of our students, faculty and staff.

—————

April brings theses, final exams and papers, recitals and a flurry of theater productions. It also brings senior art exhibitions, and this week I had a chance to meet some of the artists and their teachers. The student work in the Zilkha Gallery this time of year is really stunning, and it is a tribute to our seniors and to the art faculty. BRAVO!!

Thirty years ago I wrote my own senior thesis on psychoanalysis and politics. I’m still going back to those themes, as you can see in a book review I recently published: http://www.bookforum.com/inprint/015_01/2249

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Multi-Sensory Wes Weekend

 

At the end of the week I was privileged to hear an established scholar and an undergraduate full of enormous promise. The distinguished sociologist Richard Madsen was on campus to help the Freeman Center for East Asian Studies celebrate its 33rd anniversary. He gave an interesting lecture on contemporary religious movements in China, with special consideration given to their connection to economic growth and social mobility. The Freeman Center was packed with students and faculty. The next day I went to Hartford to hear Wesleyan senior Noah Hutton talk about a contemporary art exhibition he and some other students of John Paoletti’s had curated at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Noah gave a lucid and thoughtful description of some very challenging works. We’d met before because he is also a gifted jazz musician who plays at different Wes events.

Busted RosesThis has been an exceptionally busy weekend on the Wesleyan campus. Friday night started off with a graduate students’ retreat, at which I just stopped by to escort one of the main speakers, Joshua Boger ’73 (a Wesleyan trustee, scientist and CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals). Later that night Kari and I went to hear the Wesleyan-based geezer rock band, BUSTED ROSES, which was playing down at La Boca on Main Street. Dean Louise Brown was in great voice, and the rest of the band was cookin’!!

After a week sitting behind desks, I decided to spend as much of Saturday as possible out of doors. This meant that I would miss Social Justice Day, which the WSA had organized for Saturday. The program looked strong, and I hope those who chose to attend found it worthwhile. Out on the fields there were plenty of athletic contests at which one could cheer on the red and black. The men’s baseball team split an exciting double-header against Amherst. After watching Wes mount a great comeback rally in game one, I saw the mighty men’s lacrosse team have a wild second half against a tough Bowdoin squad. It became a rout. Sophie and I headed up to watch the Cardinal women overwhelm the softball team from Hamilton. It was cold out there on Long Lane, but watching softball made me feel that spring must be on the way.

While I was enjoying the sunshine and cheering on the home teams, a group of scholars were gathered together to consider multi-sensory art experiences and their history. Smith College and Wesleyan organized this art history conference with some leading scholars from around the country. I was lucky enough at the end of the day to hear Professor Katherine Kuenzli discuss her exhibition on Wagner and the visual arts, currently on display at the Davison Art Center. It’s a fine example of how our print collection can support and enhance innovative scholarship.

Last night Kari and I had a delightful dinner with some colleagues and Hayden White, who had been a teacher of mine some thirty years ago here at Wesleyan. Hayden is the most important philosopher of history in the United States, and one of the most original thinkers in the humanities that I have ever encountered. I was so pleased to be able to tell my former teacher that the university he remembered as a hotbed of new ideas and deep community was still inspiring great work in a context that is challenging yet deeply humane.

This week I have office hours Monday at 4 p.m. Students who don’t want to wait should call extension 3500 to sign up for a time.

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Back in the Swing of Things

Our students have come back to Middletown, and those who have been here all along (internationals, thesis writers, athletes, and yes, graduate students) are realizing that now there is just one long sprint until the end of the semester. There is almost a frenzy of activity from now until Commencement. This week the letters from admission go out announcing who will be admitted to the Class of 2012. Meanwhile, seniors are busy finishing their projects and, in many cases, looking for jobs that begin post-graduation. Midterms and research papers are being prepared, and faculty are busy grading. The easy rhythms of spring break are already distant.

From my office window I see the athletic grounds crew preparing the baseball field for upcoming contests. Men’s baseball and women’s softball are returning from trips to sunnier climes, and this week we have games but we also expect a little snow. Men’s and women’s lacrosse have already been busy after their spring break trips, and the tennis teams are also in full gear. Our student athletes add a great dimension to our campus, and there will be many great opportunities to cheer on the Red and Black.

In addition to their normal duties, several faculty members are working in small committees to refine ideas for curricular innovation that I wrote about in a previous entry. I am so impressed by the professors’ willingness to consider how we integrate the academic and the co-curricular, and to think creatively about what interdisciplinary study will mean in the future. From creativity to civic engagement, our teachers find ways to integrate their own scholarly and artistic work into a vibrant undergraduate curriculum.

Over the break there was a controversy on campus concerning whether Wesleyan should post on its Web site an op-ed piece published in the Hartford Courant by Melanye Price, an assistant professor in our Government Department. We publish links to many popular press articles by Wesleyan people, but we are specifically forbidden (because of our not-for-profit tax status) from participating in election activity in support of a candidate. Would posting a link to Professor Price’s op-ed piece, which is very sympathetic to Barack Obama, violate this IRS rule? Or would we just be providing a link rather than an endorsement? Surely, we also could post a link to another article by Wesleyan faculty backing John McCain or Hillary Clinton.

Our legal adviser thought we shouldn’t post a link, but some faculty wondered if we were avoiding politics in ways that distort who we really are as an institution. The IRS rules have to do with candidates during an election year – not just taking sides on issues. We didn’t post the link on the home page, but I am not confident that we shouldn’t have done so. Here’s the link to Professor Price’s interesting article You can decide for yourself.

[the link is now down, so here is the article from the Hartford Courant, March 16, 2008, downloaded the text from Lexis-Nexis.]

WHAT OBAMA MEANS;
DARING TO HOPE: CANDIDATE POSES STARK TURN FOR PERCEPTION OF RACE IN
AMERICA

BYLINE: MELANYE T. PRICE

Media pundits and supporters claim Barack Obama is at his best when viewed in person, so I went to the recent Obama rally at the XL Center in Hartford to see for myself. Ultimately, I came away convinced that Obama actually could succeed. I found myself both embracing and eschewing the conflicting meanings of an Obama presidency.

The most audaciously hopeful aspect of an Obama rally has to be the attendees, who represent every demographic imaginable. Waiting with me were professors, white suburban mothers, Obama gear-clad teenagers, an older African American couple, and a group of young black and Latino men.

As we waited with thousands, we became unlikely allies, holding places for bathroom breaks, scouting the best entrance and seats and discussing Obama’s appeal. Were we a “grand coalition for change” as Obama suggested? Moreover, could he translate our differing versions of change into coherent policies?

Seeing the diversity of people gathered had a strong effect, which was augmented by the fervor of his youngest supporters. When the rally began, I cheered for them as much as for Obama. Their enthusiasm made his success more urgent, if only to sustain this youthful energy and burgeoning community. In one sense, Obama was right: America’s promise is the potential for citizens to unite across differences.

Despite this, I was plagued by the precariousness of having Obama become the definition or model of black behavior for African Americans and ultimately all Americans. His is an engaging and captivating message, but not the only one that other blacks would deliver.

At the rally, a young black girl wore a button with Obama dressed as Superman that read “Super Obama.” This image resonated with me because like the comic book hero, Obama comes with his own Kryptonite. First, like other contenders, Obama cannot be all things to all people when concrete policies supplant grand concepts. More disturbing, however, is my fear of what Obama’s candidacy – win or lose – means for race in America.

We saw in Iowa how self-congratulatory many whites were of their ability to overcome America’s racist history to endorse an African American. Obama’s initial success signaled to many that the racism of the past had greatly dissipated. Should he actually secure the nomination or the presidency, would it provide conclusive evidence that the nation has finally entered a color-blind future?

This is the danger of a deracialized (or “transcendent”) campaign strategy. While racial inequality remains a central feature of American life, black candidates who directly attack that inequality are sure to repel many white voters and candidates like Obama will be more successful.

Likewise, protest-oriented (read “angry”) black grass-roots advocates may find it difficult to gain political traction in post-Obama America. If Obama is the new prototype for black political activity – less focused on race, less angry, more hopeful, “clean, articulate” and so on – what will this mean for focused efforts to combat racial inequality?

Furthermore, listening to Obama, I wondered if the greatest danger for me and other blacks is that if he loses it will confirm enduring fears that despite public rhetoric, when the votes count, whites will not endorse or accept blacks as leaders. If the most hopeful and non-angry (and maybe the most educated and prepared) African American candidate cannot crash the privileged gates of political power, who will? Put simply, I am not sure that blacks can take this kind of rejection.

That little girl with the Super Obama button cannot, and I fear for others. Blacks are told “no” in myriad ways in life, and it would be especially painful to have Super Obama rejected as well. This is an implicit concern, I believe, of many blacks, which explains increased black support for Obama after Iowa. Many blacks withheld judgment and support as they waited to see whether Obama could truly attract white support in sufficient numbers.

In the same way, the Clintons knew repetitive emphasis on his blackness could hurt his potential with many white voters.

Leaving the XL Center, I was afloat on the crowd’s enthusiasm, the community it embodied, and partially Obama’s words. I also remembered the power of hope. Not hope for an Obama presidency. Not even Obama’s brand of race-neutral, bipartisan hope.

Instead, I remembered the hopes of voting rights advocates, the freedom riders, and my own single mother at the bus stop too many cold mornings. I remembered that blacks have lost over and over again, but they got up and kept moving. I thought about how we might have described other ragtag coalitions like those in line with me. Only these coalitions were facing bigger odds – slavery’s abolition or Jim Crow’s defeat – and marshaled varied and unusual allies.

I could not be complicit in the loss of hope or reinforce the jaded expectations. I could not let past losses rob them or me of this victory. I knew when I entered that arena that I would be voting for Obama, but when I left I knew with greater clarity why.

Melanye T. Price is an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University.

Copyright 2008 The Hartford Courant Company
All Rights Reserved

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Spring Break

Foss sunsetSpring Break at Wesleyan is unusually long – a two week vacation from classes. The campus is eerily quiet at night, and looking across Andrus Field from my office the snow is gone and the baseball field fences have gone up. It really is a break into spring!

Although the campus is quiet, it is certainly not empty. There are many international students who stay in town. Two weeks may seem long, but it is too short for students to justify a trip across the globe. I also bump into the seniors making their way to science labs or to the Olin Library to continue work on their theses. The subjects range from ideas of the French intellectual to politics and religion in Ireland; from problems in micro-economics to issues in Asian art history. Our students complete these independent research projects with close faculty supervision, but it is often the professors who learn so much from the collaboration with these young scholars, scientists and artists. Most of the work is due in about a month, so it’s getting to be crunch time.

Of course, many of our seniors are interviewing for jobs or waiting to hear from graduate schools. There are two very happy Wesleyan students who recently heard from The Thomas J Watson Foundation that their international research projects will be funded during the next year. Cedric Bien will be doing a project entitled, “Documenting the Chinese Diaspora: A Photographic Ethnography of Chinatowns” in Peru, Paraguay, Brazil, Italy, Ethiopia, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia. Rebecca Littman will be investigating the plight of child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal and Guinea in her project, “Victim and Perpetrator: Reintegrating the Former Child Soldier.” Congratulations to Cedric and Rebecca!

Some of our Masters of Liberal Studies students are spending their spring break on a research trip through some of the important sites of the civil rights movement in Alabama. I have heard already that this was a deeply moving and richly educational experience that complements the work done in the classroom.

Some of our undergraduates have made their way to Washington, D.C. to protest the war in Iraq on the fifth anniversary of the start of the conflict. American college campuses today often seem to feel immune from the fact that our country is fighting a war in the Middle East. Although we don’t always agree on political tactics or foreign policy frameworks, I am grateful to these Wesleyan activists for reminding all of us that a military conflict is being waged in our name.

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From Wesleyan to Broadway

Lin-Manuel MirandaWhat a great event! Wesleyan alum Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, In the Heights, is a triumph on Broadway!! This is a play that started out at Wesleyan and has now worked its way to rave reviews at the Richard Rodgers Theater. I can hardly wait to see what the critics are crowing about. Maybe before the end of spring break… For now, congratulations to Lin-Manuel, director Thomas Kail ’99, and the whole crew.

Check out some of the reviews:

New York Times
Los Angeles Times

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Social Justice Day

Matt Ball, the president of the Wesleyan Student Assembly, sent me a message about plans for Social Justice Day. Here is some of what he said:

Social Justice Day will be a collaboration of students, student groups, faculty and staff. Students can discuss issues that they are particularly passionate about, faculty members can hold a discussion on an issue outside their specialization, and staff members can present on an area of expertise that they don’t work with every day.

Social Justice Day should help build community at Wesleyan. To be sure, Wesleyan has a sense of community, but the unfortunate truth is that serious issues can become isolated within self-selecting groups. It’s very hard to expand the reach of your message, and it’s equally difficult to be introduced to concerns and debates in which you hadn’t an initial interest. Social Justice Day should also address the gap that can exist between students and faculty; collaboration outside the classroom is more rare than it should be, and faculty members should have a chance to discuss issues that might not immediately relate to their academic research.

Anyone can apply to put on an hour session in which they have a discussion, give a lecture, or do something else creative. Because they’ll all be organized together, there will be spillover from event to event, bringing in different people into different sessions in order to foster the kind of “message outreach” that we’d like to achieve. There will also be a lunch with a directed discussion, perhaps splitting into smaller groups to discuss different issues. The WSA has some funds to bring speakers to the event.

The website to apply is (http://www.wesleyan.edu/wsa/sjd/), and the deadline is this Friday, March 7th. The event will be held on Saturday, March 29th. Please apply!

This sounds like a great occasion to bring faculty, students and staff together around important issues. Check out the website for more information, and have a great spring break!

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