Feed on

Over the years I’ve occasionally given a seminar called Photography and Representation. We examine how photography has affected how we remember and forget, how we tell the truth, how we lie and how we make art. I started teaching it when I worked at the Getty Research Institute, and we were able to use its extraordinary collection to shed light on how great photographers have changed our relationship to the past and to the present.

Historical events can change one’s relationship to history; so can personal traumas. These came together for many people in the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Those who were in New York that day, and those connected to the people present were marked — in many cases indelibly. In the wake of the attacks a photographic archive began to form, and it was exhibited and then published under the title here is new york. Everyone was invited to submit their pictures — from little kids and tourists with disposable cameras to accomplished professionals. It was labeled a “democracy of photographs.” This is from the Introduction to the massive volume:

What was captured by these photographs — captured with every conceivable kind of apparatus, from Leicas and digital Nikons to homemade pinhole cameras and little plastic gizmos that schoolchildren wear on their wrists — is truly astonishing: not only grief, and shock, and courage, but a beauty that is at once infernal and profoundly uplifting. The pictures speak both to the horror of what happened on 9.11 (and is still happening), and to the way it can and must be countered by us all. They speak not with one voice, but with one purpose, saying that to make sense of this terrifying new phase in our history we must break down the barriers that divide us.

Charles H. Traub and Aaron Traub recently gave Wesleyan a large selection of these images, in honor of Professor David Schorr and David Rhodes ’68, President of the School for the Visual Arts in New York. The collection is one of only a few deposited with universities or museums, Wesleyan’s Curator of the Davison Art Center Clare Rogan told me.  This is an important addition to our photography holdings, and I look forward to working with the pictures alongside students next time I teach that seminar.

Photographs have grown increasingly ubiquitous, so much so that it is difficult to determine which images will retain meaning over time. But history and trauma have elevated some photographs beyond the ordinary such that they become scars of memory — marking their own times and connecting to those of future beholders. Such is the case with the collection here is new york.


Our expectations were high this week when Kari and I headed into New York to catch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s (’02) new musical Hamilton. We had seen In the Heights with a raucous Wesleyan crowd several years ago when the show was having its Tony awarded season on Broadway — and we were blown away. Now we’ve been hearing all the great buzz about the new show. The New York Times ran a substantial article about it on Sunday, and The New Yorker published a long profile of Lin last week. My favorite line in this piece about his days at Wes: At Wesleyan, you can find resources for whatever cockamamie idea comes into your head. Lin will deliver the Commencement Address when he receives an honorary doctorate on May 24.

The show is spectacular — I never realized American history could be so cool. An early song, “I am not throwing away my…shot” knocks you back in your seat. The musical plea for forgiveness near the show’s end makes you want to drop down on your knees. Tickets for the Public Theater performances are now sold out, I’m told, but we’re rooting for a return to Broadway!

Who Tells Your Story?

Who Tells Your Story?

Theater and music around campus this weekend: In the Patricelli ’92 Theater Friday and Saturday you can find  “Almost, Maine” and at Crowell tonight you can hear “Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars” raising the roof.

For decades faculty and students at Wesleyan have been interested in critical theory and a few years ago that interest led to the development of a Certificate in Cultural and Critical Theory. This program “aims to facilitate a coordinated, inter-disciplinary program of study that encourages students to seek out theory-intensive courses in a wide range of disciplines with the aim of developing proficiency in the study of critical theory.” Thanks to the leadership of Assistant Professor of English Matthew Garrett, next week begins a series of lectures on some of the major concepts behind work in these fields. Here are some of the theory talks this semester on Wednesdays at 4:30 in Downey 113 (Hobbs):

ALIENATION- Ulrich Plass, Associate Professor of German Studies (2/11)
MEANING – Joseph Fitzpatrick, Visiting Assistant Professor of Letters (2/18)
HARMONY – Stephen Angle, Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the College of East Asian Studies (2/25)
DIFFERENCE – Amy Tang, Assistant Professor of American Studies and English (3/25)
UTOPIA –  Eirene Visvardi, Assistant Professor of Classical Studies  (4/8)

The Center for the Humanities has been a home for Critical Theory since the 1960s. On Monday night the Center begins its lecture series on mobilities, focused on “a new approach to the study of mobilities [that] has emerged involving research on the combined movement of peoples, animals, objects, ideas, and information. This can be viewed through the lens of complex networks, relational dynamics, and the redistribution or reification of power generated by movement.” You can read more about the theme here. Lectures take place in the Daniel Family Commons on Monday nights at 6 p.m. The first talk is scheduled for February 9 by Professor Enda Duffy, University of California at Santa Barbara, and is titled “Rush: Adrenaline, Stress, and Modernist Velocity.”

The title above is the one The Daily Beast gave to an essay I published earlier this year. Over the last several months I’ve been arguing that the increasing focus on narrow, vocational education is a crucial mistake, one that neglects a deep resource of pragmatic liberal learning. I have been talking about liberal education at various venues around the country since the publication of my book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press, 2014). I wrote the book, and several op-eds since, because I believe that the kind of education we offer at Wesleyan is more relevant and compelling than ever before. I have argued that the current push for narrow, utilitarian forms of learning are part of the forces legitimating trends toward inequality in our country. The American tradition of liberal education has been a resource to combat inequality, and it can be again.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, February 3 at 7 p.m. in Memorial Chapel, I will be talking about these issues at Wesleyan. I am particularly delighted that my Wesleyan advisor and mentor Henry Abelove, who retired just a few years ago, will come back to campus to introduce the talk.

We’ll be selling and signing copies of Beyond the University (all my royalties are contributed to financial aid at Wesleyan).

I hope to see many of you tomorrow night.

It’s that time of year again. The university is soliciting nominations for Wesleyan’s Binswanger Award for teaching excellence. Here’s a little history:

The Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching was inaugurated in 1993 as an institutional recognition of outstanding faculty members. One to three Binswanger Prizes are presented each year and are made possible by the generosity of the Binswanger family that counts numerous Wesleyan alumni, alumnae and parents in its ranks. The standards and criteria for the annual prizes shall be excellence in teaching, as exemplified by commitment to the classroom and student accomplishment, intellectual demands placed on students, lucidity, and passion.

Recommendations may be based on any of the types of teaching that are done at the University including, but not limited to, teaching in lecture courses, seminars, laboratories, creative and performance-based courses, research tutorials and other individual and group tutorials at the undergraduate and graduate level.

Juniors, seniors, graduate students and alumni from the last decade are eligible to nominate up to three professors. Nominations are made through Wesconnect here. GLS students can use their e-portfolio to make nominations. Professors who have taught at Wesleyan for at least a decade are eligible.

You can find out more about the Binswanger Prize, as well as watch or listen to interviews with some previous winners here.

Speaking of great teachers, I was so pleased to see my teacher Victor Gourevitch, William Griffin Professor of Philosophy Emeritus, and his wife Jacqueline Gourevitch in the audience for a conversation about liberal education in New York recently. I studied philosophy with Victor, and we edited a book together with the letters of Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojève a few years after I graduated (On Tyranny). Jacqueline taught painting at Wesleyan for years, and my office benefits from having one of her extraordinary cloud paintings in it.

My undergraduate advisor, Henry Abelove, Wilbur Fisk Osborne Professor of English, Emeritus, has kindly agreed to come back to campus next week to introduce my talk on Tuesday, February 3 at 7 p.m. in Memorial Chapel. I am calling the talk “How to Destroy Higher Education,” and it is open to the public. Henry is a truly remarkable teacher (recognized with a Binswanger Prize early on), and it will be so lovely to have him back on campus. I’m hoping to see lots of current students, alumni and friends of the university there.



Earlier today the university sent out the following announcement to the campus community:

Due to the expected arrival of a major storm, the University will close at 6 p.m. today and remain closed tomorrow. The University will not reopen until Wednesday morning. All classes and events are cancelled from 6 p.m. today until Wednesday morning. Only essential personnel should report for work.
Tomorrow at 4 p.m. we will make another announcement about when on Wednesday the University will reopen.
By 6 p.m. today, most faculty/staff parking lots will close. Faculty and staff who have permits to park in these lots and who would like to remain on campus beyond the closing time, are asked to relocate their vehicles to the V Lot on Vine Street or to the 56 Hamlin Street parking lot (former Physical Plant building).  Faculty and staff who are traveling out of town should park in the Vine Street parking lot as a courtesy to colleagues. Faculty and staff may call Public Safety for a ride to and from the Vine Street lot at night if necessary.

An email addressing faculty concerns is forthcoming from Academic Affairs. Dean Mike Whaley will send an email presently to students about food service and other matters.
Please call Public Safety for help with storm-related matters, (860) 685-2345. For emergencies, call (860) 685-3333.

Stay safe and warm!


I received an email today from my friend David Knapp ’49 who tells me he is participating in Wesleyan’s Week of Service by reading to a group of first grade students in New Haven tomorrow. This reminded me of all the great things students, faculty, staff and alumni are doing in support of their communities.

Of course, the Wesleyan engagement isn’t confined to one week. The Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship, to take just one example, has seed grants that are offered on a competitive basis. Applications are due this week and you can find out more here. Information on Davis Projects for Peace Grants (all students are eligible; applications due 1/25) can be found at that same link.

And here’s a link to photographs of Wes folks joyfully participating in community service activities.

Congratulations to those who successfully completed the intensive January classes. The semester is now underway, and I know many students are eager to be back in the classroom after the long break. Some folks are still checking out course possibilities, and I thought I’d mention the listing of classes that develop Digital and Computational Knowledge across a variety of subject areas. We also recently added a class,  Constructions and Re-Constructions of Buddhism (RELI 483/CEAS245). Mary-Jane Rubenstein reports that it “was wildly successful last time it was taught, and would be a great course for students looking either to gain a fast-paced and carefully theorized introduction to Buddhist traditions, or to dive more deeply into them.”


Colleagues have pointed out that our recent designation by the Carnegie Foundation as an “engaged campus” is very much related to the service activities mentioned above. Just check out these recent and forthcoming community engagement efforts by Wesleyan faculty, staff and students:

  • The United Way campaign, which raised $111,000 for the community.
  • The Center for Community Partnership’s upcoming High School Humanities program, which brings 80 local students to campus to hear faculty lectures.
  • Green Street’s Discovery AfterSchool program for local children, and Intel Math Institute, which provides intensive professional development for public school teachers from Meriden and Middletown.
  • And the Office of Community Service’s support of over 600 students each semester doing volunteer work locally.

I took the above from Wesleyan news article on engagement.

To stay informed about all civic engagement opportunities at Wesleyan, email scapron@wesleyan.edu to sign up for the weekly ENGAGE newsletter.

Last week in Washington I ran into alumni teaching at American University and nearby schools. I was there to talk about the deep tradition of liberal education in the United States and also about the long history of criticism of this current way of thinking. Our tradition is stronger because of these criticisms. I was encouraged by the faculty’s interest in broad, integrative learning, no matter the discipline in which they were working.

On Monday this week I participated in a panel on similar themes at the New York Public Library with Beverly Tatum ’75 and Anthony Marx (who spent a year at Wesleyan as an undergraduate). There were many Wesleyans in the audience, including current students, trustees and at least one professor emeritus. Bev has been president of Spelman College, a historically black women’s college in Atlanta, and has thought deeply about the psychology of race, prejudice, separation, and inclusion. Tony Marx was a major force for higher education opportunity as president of Amherst, and he has continued to work on behalf of literacy and access to learning at NYPL. It was an honor to share the podium with both.

Anthony Marx, Beverly Daniel Tatum '75 and Michael Roth at the New York Public Library

Anthony Marx, Beverly Daniel Tatum ’75 and Michael Roth at the New York Public Library

I’m now on my way to Miami to participate in a discussion about education with Joel Klein (former Chancellor of New York City Schools) and Mitch Daniels (president of Purdue and former governor of Indiana). We are likely to have very different approaches to education issues, and I look forward to a spirited discussion. When there are differences of opinion, the potential for real learning grows. Vigorous criticism, not echo chambers in which “correct” views are repeated, is essential for improving education.

Before heading back to campus, I’ll visit my mother, my first teacher. She’s become a great Wesleyan supporter, although she’s still ready to offer her son plenty of vigorous (and affectionate) criticism.

And I’ve got to put the finishing touches on the syllabus for The Modern and the Post-Modern. Classes will be starting before I know it!


My Mom shared this picture from my Wesleyan graduation in 1978

Lila and Michael Roth Wesleyan Graduation '78

Lila and Michael Roth Wesleyan Graduation ’78






Freedom of Expression

I am in Washington, D.C. today, where I gave a talk on “why liberal education matters” to the faculty, students and guests of American University. Most of the audience had been in conference sessions all morning while I sat glued to the TV watching events unfold in Paris. I lived in Paris for a few years, and I looked with horror at these familiar streets as they filled with the almost familiar sight of terrorism response teams. At another level, I was anxious for the Wesleyan students (and their families) who’d just arrived for their study abroad semester. A city I love was under siege.

The attacks in Paris remind us that those willing to destroy freedom of expression in the name of their own totalitarian commitments can wreck havoc in a society determined to maintain openness and tolerance within the rule of law. I feel immense sadness for those who were slain by the terrorists, and I also feel admiration for those who have taken to the streets of Paris to express their compassion, solidarity and courage.

I began my talk at American University by acknowledging the victims of these heinous attacks. There can be no liberal education today worthy of the name without freedom of expression, without open-ended inquiry and the potential for aversive thinking. That’s the kind of thinking that will often rub some people the wrong way — it will seem to some people “disrespectful” and “uncivil.” That’s the kind of thinking we must protect — even more, that we must stimulate.

Let us cultivate the spirit of satire and of critique, but also of reverence and of affection, in ways that challenge the conventions of the moment. Let us remember the journalists, police and other brave souls who were killed by those who could not abide difference and challenge without resorting to murder.

Let us be worthy of the freedom of expression that came under attack this week in France.



Je Suis Charlie

We are less than a week into 2015, and terror has already raised its ugly head. The attack on Charlie Hebdo is an assault on freedom of expression, a vicious act aimed to destroy the possibilities for a culture with a place for provocation. Without the spaces cleared by provocative writers and artists, none of us would have the freedom to read, write, view or listen. The killings in Paris today were meant to terrorize those who would challenge the status quo with their drawings and words. Instead, this shameful act should inspire us to cherish freedom of speech and to support the artists and writers courageous enough to challenge us.

As writer Neil Gaiman tweeted today: “How important are free speech and satire? Important enough that people will murder others to silence the kind of speech they don’t like.”

Je Suis Charlie

Je Suis Charlie

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