Roth to Headline Spring Fling!!!

I was very sorry to hear about the Wesleyan Student Assembly’s budget problems, and I perfectly well understand how economic challenges can force administrators (even student administrators) to come up with “creative solutions.” So, it was with mixed feelings that I received a call from the Spring Fling Music Committee this week. I thought they might be in search of funds (which I couldn’t provide), but no, they had something much more radical in mind.

Roth to Headline Spring Fling!
Roth to Headline Spring Fling!


Yes, I’ll be happy to get out there on Foss Hill to lead my fellow Wesleyans in song. Following in the footsteps of the Grateful Dead, Santigold and Kendrick Lamar before me, I am honored to headline Spring Fling 2016. #ThisisWhy

Talking With Faculty on Distinctive Wes Education

For the last several years the Provost and I have periodically hosted luncheons at which a professor gives a short talk about his or her research to dozens of colleagues.  I look forward to these events because I have the opportunity to break bread with faculty I may not often see and because the talks are always stimulating.  The faculty who attend do so, I think, for the same reasons.

Each year at one (or two) of these luncheons I share some of my thoughts on Wesleyan’s future, particularly with respect to the academic program and faculty mentorship of students. My goal is to solicit input on what we can do together to improve the distinctive educational experience of Wesleyan students. At our most recent gathering, I spoke in general terms about the importance of having enough faculty so that students can have a mentored research experience. David Westmoreland (Chemistry) pointed out that we already have effective programs that allow students to do summer research with faculty, but we don’t have the funds to support all the qualified students who want to do this. Finding more funds for these programs would be a quick, concrete and powerful way to enrich teaching and mentorship. I’m on it. We should be able to raise additional funds quickly for this purpose. Another, somewhat broader idea, was shared by Stephanie Weiner (English). She thought Wesleyan, already renowned for its creative writing, could be better known for writing in general.  Clarity of expression is so crucial to clarity of thought.  Writing could be emphasized more across the curriculum and become part of our identity in the academic marketplace. Stephen Angle (Philosophy) expressed interest in how the Center for Pedagogical Innovation might bring research on best teaching practices into productive conversations among faculty. Even professors who have been teaching for many years are eager to explore the data on how students learn in different settings.

This input from faculty complements what we have been hearing from students and alumni. Engaged education, intellectual cross-training, and understanding how what we learn in classrooms can be translated beyond the university remain high priorities as we plan Wesleyan’s investments in providing our community with a curriculum and pedagogy that is bold, rigorous and inspired by practical idealism.

Creative Performances

Yesterday I was thrilled to see Wesleyan senior Clara Pinsky‘s dance performance featuring members of our Physical Plant Department. It was spirited, fun, and at times inspiring. There are two additional performances today (Thursday) and tomorrow in Usdan’s Marketplace at 12:30 p.m.





In the afternoon I went to the first in a series of senior theses exhibitions at the Zilkha Gallery. On display were Rebecca Brand’s “ex situ,” Rachel Fox’s “Home Improvements,” Addison Rose McDowell’s “middle grey,” and Elissa Palmer’s “perspective.” The students have created subtle, moving and inquiring works of art.




Check them out at the CFA, and stay tuned most Wednesday afternoons for other openings—and many days of the week for performances of all kinds.

Speaking of openings, today there is a chance to see (starting at 5 p.m.) and hear from a world-class photographer. Philip Trager ’56 will be in conversation with Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak this afternoon (Thursday) at 5:30 at the Davison Art Gallery.

Ina, Rockport 2008 by Philip Trager
Ina, Rockport 2008 by Philip Trager

STEM vs. Liberal Education a False Choice

This is college admissions decision season — a time when many young people have traditionally looked forward to an educational experience quite different from what they had (sometimes just endured) in high school. The days of checking off boxes to prove their worthiness to some future gatekeepers would be over. In college there might be requirements, but there would also be much more freedom, much more relevance, and much more intellectual excitement.

But the discourse about colleges and universities today is undermining these hopeful expectations. Everywhere one looks, from government statistics on earnings after graduation to a bevy of rankings that purport to show how to monetize your choice of major, the message to students is to think of their undergraduate years as an economic investment that had better produce a substantial and quick return.

There are good reasons for this. One is the scourge of student indebtedness. When students graduate with mountains of debt, especially from shady institutions graduating a small percentage of those who enroll, they can fall into a vicious cycle of poor choices and ever more limited horizons. They are collateral damage in a world of rising tuition. While the wealthiest families have been benefiting from enormous tax breaks, many states have dis-invested in public universities, putting great pressure on these institutions to collect tuition dollars. Middle-class and low-income students often borrow those dollars to pay the bills. And the bills grow ever greater as colleges raise tuition in part to meet the demands of rich families for campus amenities so that their children can live in the style to which they have grown accustomed.

But even students without the pressure of loans are being encouraged to turn away from “college as exploration” and toward “college as training.” They hear that in today’s fast-paced, competitive world, one can no longer afford to try different fields that might improve one’s ability to interpret cultural artifacts or analyze social dynamics. Learning through the arts, one of the most powerful ways to tap into one’s capacities for innovation is often dismissed as an unaffordable luxury.

Parents, pundits and politicians join in the chorus warning students not to miss the economic boat. Study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, they chant, or else you will have few opportunities. Other subjects will leave you a “loser” in our not-so-brave new world of brutal change. College, they insist, should be the place where you conform and learn to swim with this tide.

As president of a university dedicated to broad, liberal education, I both deplore the new conformity and welcome an increased emphasis on STEM fields. I’ve been delighted to see mathematics and neuroscience among our fastest growing majors, have supported students from under-represented groups who are trying to thrive in STEM fields, and have started an initiative to integrate design and engineering into our liberal arts curriculum.

Choosing to study a STEM field should be a choice for creativity not conformity. There is nothing narrow about an authentic education in the sciences. Indeed, scientific research is a model for the American tradition of liberal education because of the creative nature of its inquiries, not just the truth-value of its results. As in other disciplines (like music and foreign languages), much basic learning is required, but science is not mere instrumental training; memorizing formulae isn’t thinking like a scientist. On our campus, some of the most innovative, exploratory work is being done by students studying human-machine interactions, using computer science to manipulate moving images to tell better stories, and exploring intersections of environmental science with economics and performance art.

Fears of being crushed by debt or of falling off the economic ladder are pressuring students to conform, and we must find ways to counteract these pressures or we risk undermining our scientific productivity as well as our broad cultural creativity.

I’ve heard it said that students today opt for two fields of study, one for their parents and one for themselves. Examples abound of undergrads focusing on: economics and English; math and art; biology and theater. But we make a mistake in placing too much emphasis on the bifurcation. Many students are connecting these seemingly disparate fields, not just holding them as separate interests. And they are finding that many employers want them to develop these connections further. Exploration and innovation are not fenced in by disciplines and majors. Students who develop habits of mind that allow them to develop connections that others haven’t seen will be creating the opportunities of the future.

When Thomas Jefferson was thinking through a new, American model of higher education, it was crucial for him 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 him, and for all those who have followed in the path of liberal education in this country, education was exploration – and you would only make important discoveries if you were open to unexpected possibilities. About a century later W.E.B. Du Bois argued that a broad education was a form of empowerment not just apprenticeship. Both men understood that the sciences, along with the humanities, arts and social sciences had vast, integrative possibilities.

This integrative tradition of pragmatic American liberal education must be protected. We must not over-react to fears of being left behind. 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 acquired through liberal learning can be used to push back against it. We must cultivate this tradition of learning not only because it is has served us well for so long, but because it can vitalize our economy, lead to an engaged citizenry and create a culture characterized by connectivity and creativity.

Cross-posted with Washington Post and the Huffington Post

Senior Thesis Writers Emerging from Spring “Break”

Every year scores of Wesleyan seniors work throughout their final year on senior projects that often earn them honors at graduation. They often have conceptualized their theses in junior year, and then spend several months researching their topics. Long hours in art studios or science labs, draft after draft of rewriting arguments…these are the joys of senior year for many of our students.

Senior projects can really be capstones—educational experiences that bring together various strands of a student’s undergraduate interests. My senior thesis, “Freud and Revolution,” was at the intersection of psychology, philosophy and history, and I learned as much in the process of working on it as I have in any other project I’ve taken on in the last four decades. Indeed, when I talk with Mark Edmundson about Freud at the 92Y in New York on Tuesday night, I will be drawing on the work I did way back when at Wesleyan.

I asked the Academic Deans about some of the senior projects they’ve heard about this term. Here’s what I’ve heard back:  Beth Alexion is a double major in classics and government, and she’s doing a thesis on “transitional justice in ancient Athens and modern Rwanda and Argentina.” It’s about how societies recover from trauma, as is Aidan Berkey’s thesis on “Recontextualizing and Interpreting the Memory of Violence in Medellin and Cape Town.” Claire Wright is also working on trauma issues, taking a cross-cultural approach in psychology. Gregory Goldstone is writing a thesis about three books about baseball. In each case, baseball provides a means for meta-generic meditations and for devising links between individuals and larger groups (especially families and neighborhoods), the past and the present, and fact and fantasy.

Matthew Kim’s thesis is about the ethics of Jane Austen’s comedy. Maybe that can be the working title: “the ethics of Jane Austen’s comedy.” Annie Dade is writing about Jean Rhys and early twentieth-century theories of madness and language. Juan Gallardo is working on a thesis called “Toward A Theory of Insurrectionary (Black) Motherhood,” while Monique Siaw is writing on “Using the Master’s Tools to Dismantle the Master’s House: The Art of Kara Walker and the Blues.”

Clara Pinsky is doing a community-based performance project with members of Wesleyan’s Facilities/Physical Plant staff members as collaborators and performers! She’s also organizing a home maintenance/renovation course which the staff is teaching for students, faculty and staff. Her thesis: “Rethinking Place: Community Based Performance in the Age of Creative Placemaking.”

Alexandra Ricks is working on the history of our univeristy in “When Workers Organized at Wesleyan University,” while Deren Ertas focuses on Turkey in “OccupyGezi: Confronting Hegemony & Radical Democratic Beginnings in Turkey.” Gabe Rosenberg is looking at music and politics in “Selling Soul: Racial Performativity and the Crisis of Crossover Music,” and Michael Greenwald examines the popular economy in Nepal, “Cracks in the Pavement: A Political Economic History of Nepal’s Street Populations, 1990-2015.”  Josh Byron has an intriguing title and an even more intriguing topic in “Favorite Spots: Negotiating Sex, Inhabiting Identity, and Forming Community in the Gay Public.”

Jesse Tarnas is developing a code to measure the properties of planets orbiting distant stars using working observations from NASA’s space telescope in “Transit, Secondary Eclipse, and Phase Curve Analysis to Characterize Kepler Exoplanets.” Jane Abolafia is taking a novel approach to protein transport across the plasma membrane in E. coli SecA ATPase. That’s right!

Mara Woods Robinson is making a film, Pharmaceutakillme, a black comedy about a daughter fighting her parents in a dystopian overmedicated future. Daniel Ramos is doing a history/theory thesis in C-Film on visual storytelling in Virtual Reality films.

Finally Aarit Ahuja has a thesis that might be relevant during this March Madness season: “Calling the Slots: A Study on Risky Choices in Gambling.” Aarit examines “the ways in which one can influence risky decision making in a gambling-type scenario, specifically through the use of environmental and neural manipulations.” I wouldn’t bet against this thesis!

I have a feeling that all thesis writers use spring break to get a lot of their work done. Their deadline is just weeks away. This blog entry only mentions a small number of the scores of interesting projects underway. You can begin seeing senior theses recitals and art shows through the rest of the semester. Cheer on our comrades—they deserve out support. And if you see folks laboring away to finish, give them a hug—or a doughnut and coffee!

Wesleyan Tennis Soars!

One of the highlights of my spring break (so far) was hanging out with the tennis teams for a bit in Claremont, CA. I used to play a little bit of tennis when I was an assistant professor at Scripps College in Claremont, and it was thrilling to watch the amazing points being contested by the players.



Under the superb direction of Coach Mike Fried, the men’s and women’s teams have climbed in the national rankings. Last year as a frosh, Eudice Chong ’18 won the national championship for Div 3 at the NCAA tournament! This week both teams had great success—probably the best day in program history. Both the men and women defeated top-10 opponents Monday. The 23rd-ranked men’s squad earned a 6-2 win over No. 5 Trinity (Texas), while the 17th-ranked women’s team claimed a 7-2 victory over No. 10 Washington (Mo.) University. That’s the headline, and you can read more about their successful western swing here.

Baseball, softball, the lacrosse teams and spring track squads are also using spring break to prepare for the short, intense seasons ahead. There will be plenty of opportunities to cheer on the Cards! Check out the schedules here.

Dinner with the tennis teams in California.
Dinner with the tennis teams in California.


What are universities for?

I recently reviewed two books on higher education for the Wall Street Journal, James Axtell’s Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University and Jonathan Cole’s Toward a More Perfect University.

Here are some excerpts from the review.

The claim is simple: Higher education is ripe for disruption. In recent years there has been a wave of publications expressing skepticism about the future of our colleges and universities—skepticism about the value of their educational outcomes, the deservedness of their social prestige, the sustainability of their business models. A sampling of titles tells the tale: “Academically Adrift,” “College Unbound,” “The End of College,” “Higher Education in Crisis.” No more, claimed the critics, would tuition costs continue to rise precipitously; no more would students accept packed lecture halls when they could watch star educators on their smartphones; no more would students clamor to get into a brand university without assurances that it would truly prepare them for life after graduation; no more would anyone assume that, just because a school was hard to get into, it must be worth a king’s ransom to attend. Economic, social and technological pressures, the story goes, will “disintermediate” traditional campus operations.

The titles of the two books under review here—“Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University” and “Toward a More Perfect University”—point to a different view of where higher education is today and how it got there… These two authors are not disruptors. Both believe that American higher education can be improved, but they are confident that this improvement will occur through the evolution of its capacity for producing new knowledge and disseminating it.

Mr. Axtell takes the long view, showing us the medieval origins of the university, beginning with the need of the Catholic Church for more men with advanced training in philosophy, mathematics and law. Twelfth-century Arab scholars in Spain inspired the rethinking of interpretative assumptions, leading to new specializations and to institutions that we can recognize as the forerunners of our colleges today…

“Wisdom’s Workshop” describes how Oxford and Cambridge became models that inspired advanced schools in colonial America. Henry VIII’s “bear hug” of Oxbridge “made it difficult for them to distinguish affection from coercion,” Mr. Axtell writes. Henry VIII protected his professors as long as they toed the line—a Cambridge chancellor who didn’t was beheaded. The two institutions grew in size, stature and social import. After visiting the impressive new Oxford library in the early 17th century, James I remarked: “If I were not a king, I would wish to be a University man.”

Mr. Axtell has much ground to cover, and he does so lightly…The author notes that our first six presidents favored the creation of a national university, but he doesn’t spend much time discussing the American aversion to an organized, central institution of higher education. By the middle of the 19th century, the United States had become a “land of colleges,” and Mr. Axtell emphasizes that all of them, “whatever their funding, fulfilled a public function, producing citizens of a democratic republic and responsive to multiple constituencies.”

…In the last part of the 19th century, higher education in the United States changed dramatically. American students flocked to Berlin and other academic centers to experience new methods of inquiry, learning there that specialized, published research was what set the modern educational institution apart from public opinion, religion and government. These students were mostly wealthy and white—though there were important exceptions, like W.E.B. Du Bois.

Led by Harvard, the older, prestigious American institutions would eventually follow the German model, and new ones, like Johns Hopkins, were created to bring modern Germanic productivity to higher education in the New World. The research university may have started off speaking German, but it would ultimately flourish in the United States like nowhere else.


Jonathan Cole’s last book, ​”The Great American University” (2009), argued that what has made our universities great is not so much the quality of their teaching (though he defends that, too) but the power of their research…In “Toward a More Perfect University,” Mr. Cole argues that we must restore trust among the government, the public and higher ed. He examines regulations imposed by Washington on universities and sees many of them as symptoms of the distrust between the public and those who value the free inquiry at the heart of the academic enterprise. As in the 16th century, today’s governmental interest in universities is often more about suspicion and coercion than affection and support. And, I would add, in the pursuit of specialization many universities have abandoned the tradition of pragmatic liberal education and failed to connect their academic mission to the public good.

Mr. Cole explains how, in the 19th century, the federal government’s two Morrill Acts—in the 1860s and 1890s—helped establish, with land grants, the great public universities that would educate large numbers of undergraduates while fostering high-level research. During World War II, universities saw funding soar for scientific inquiry that could aid the military effort, and after the Allied victory, the GI Bill of Rights ensured that schools across the country would be able to provide returning soldiers with access to higher education. In the 1950s, Cold War competition helped guarantee that Washington would continue to allocate extraordinary sums of money to maintain a scientific, even a cultural, advantage.

Today, Mr. Cole writes, “the federal government needs a plan as bold and ambitious as the Morrill Act and the GI Bill.” He proposes a “Morrill Act III,” with, among other things, coordinated academic efforts among prestigious universities to reduce duplication and to offer the best students increased access to the most powerful researchers—an Ivy League of academic cooperation.

Mr. Cole implores the great (and wealthy) schools to start playing more of a role in secondary education so as to model what kind of preparation would best serve high-school grads for advanced work in any number of disciplines. He also recommends expanding the number of students served by elite schools, reducing the number of graduate programs in fields where there are few jobs, and improving the curriculum and teaching in professional schools. Following on the work of Columbia economist Joseph Stiglitz, Mr. Cole writes that “unless Americans come to grips with the rising inequality of income and wealth among our citizens, we will fail to have the resources necessary for providing opportunity and access to higher education for many children of middle-class families.” Perhaps the greatest threat to universities today, in other words, is the inequality rampant in our society. And without the support of the middle class, public trust will never be rebuilt.

For all their faults, our universities have traditionally promised the possibility of social mobility through learning. They’ve served the wealthy, to be sure, but they have not just been about the accumulation of privilege. That is changing. In the beginning of the 20th century, Du Bois stressed that education was empowerment, especially for the disenfranchised, and pragmatists like Jane Addams and John Dewey described how teaching and research could be linked to the public good in ways that enhanced democracy rather than elitism. Mr. Cole is surely right that rebuilding the trust between the people’s representatives and great universities is essential—not just for the benefit of the happy few on campus but for the country as a whole.

In this time of anti-intellectualism—whether technocratic or populist—we don’t need more smug disruptors. We need more hopeful builders. They will remind us of the democratic aspirations of pragmatic liberal education while recalling that the ambitions of our finest universities help fulfill the dreams of our best selves as a people.

Professor Christina Crosby’s New Memoir

Wesleyan professors publish a lot of great books—from studies of germs to explorations of Germany, from novels and poetry to math textbooks. Every once in a while, I am startled by how members of our faculty combine personal insight with disciplinary expertise in ways that illuminate their own journeys as teacher-scholars. Christina Crosby (English and feminist, gender and sexuality studies) has written such a book with A Body Undone (about to be published by NYU Press), which I’ve been reading. The book charts how Christina has worked her way back from the disastrous bicycle accident that left her largely paralyzed several years ago. “Working her way back” is certainly an inadequate phrase for the long labor of returning to herself—which also meant returning to the life of the mind, to reading, to writing, and—eventually—to teaching Wesleyan students.

You can read an excerpt from the memoir in the Chronicle Review this week. Here is a link. Congratulations, Professor Crosby!


Wesleyan’s Eiko Otake

Pam Tatge, Wesleyan’s intrepid director of the Center for the Arts, recently sent out a note about Visiting Instructor Eiko Otake’s extraordinary project “Platform,” being seen this semester in New York. This work grows out of research and collaboration Eiko did for her piece “A Body in Places” at Wesleyan in the fall of 2015.

Eiko has a great team of Weconnected folks, as she told me in an email: “My current team includes dramaturge Mark McCoughan ’10, videographer Alexis Moh ’15, visual artist Megumu Tagami ’10, Lydia Bell (07, programing Director of Danspace Project, and my own sons, Yuta ’07 and Shin ’10.  In addition, I work closely with my life long advisor/producer/supporter Sam Miller ’75, and Paul Vidich ’77.”


eiko_otake_body_places_event(Photos by William Johnston, professor of history, professor of East Asian Studies, professor of science in society, professor in the environmental studies program)
Click here for an at-a-glance calendar.

We are hoping Wesleyan faculty, staff, students, and alumni who are in New York will attend the events below on Friday, March 11. The free talks include fellow Wesleyan faculty members William Johnston and Katja Kolcio. Please note that tickets are required if you’d like to stay and see the evening performance at 9 p.m.

You can read coverage of this project in recent articles from The New York Times here and here.

After Fukushima: A 24-hour Event
March 11 – March 12
March 11 marks the fifth anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Fukushima. A photo collaboration between Eiko and photographer/historian William Johnston will be on display in the St. Mark’s Church sanctuary for 24 hours. Singers and poets will mark each hour with a song and poem. The day begins with:

Conversation Without Walls: Bearing Witness:
4 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Marilyn Ivy (Columbia University Associate Professor of Anthropology) and William Johnston (Wesleyan University Professor of History, East Asian Studies, Environmental Studies, and Science in Society)
Respondents: Gabriel Florenz (Director, Pioneer Works), Harry Philbrick (former Director, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), and Julie Malnig (New York University Associate Professor and Chair of the Gallatin Interdisciplinary Arts Program)

5 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Karen Shimakawa (New York University Associate Professor and Chair of Performance Studies of the Tisch School of the Arts) and Ana Janevski (The Museum of Modern Art Associate Curator of Media and Performance Art)
Respondents: dance journalist Debra Levine and choreographer luciana achugar

6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Yoshiko Chuma (Artistic Director and Choreographer of The School of Hard Knocks and Daghdha Dance Company) and Katja Kolcio (Wesleyan University Associate Professor of Dance and Environmental Studies)
Respondents: choreographer Koosil-ja and dancer, choreographer, teacher, writer, and editor Wendy Perron

7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Q&A with all participants

Admission is free and you are encouraged to RSVP here.

Solo Performance by Eiko Otake
9 p.m.
$20 general public

All events are at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church, 131 East 10th Street, New York, NY 10003

The Workshop Opens

A group of very enterprising students, Isaac Schneider ’16 and Rachel Day ’16 among them, approached me about a year ago about developing a space on campus in which students could design and build projects, plan organizations, and, most generally, make things that advanced their ideas, actions….their education. I pointed out that we created the Digital Design Studio just a few years ago for just this purpose, and that it was currently reaching many students and launching several projects.

Yes, exactly, they said. That’s why we need more spaces—and student-run spaces among them.

With the great cooperation of our Physical Plant and Student Life Staff, and with the input from lots of students, we have now opened The Workshop in the basement of Hewitt 8. I very much look forward to seeing the creative work that comes out of this space, and I look forward to finding more ways to empower students to make things that matter to them and to others beyond the university.