We Miss the Campus Amplification of Liberal Learning

I recently published this piece in the Hechinger Report.

“Nothing ever changes in academia,” the refrain goes. “Universities still teach the same way they did in the Middle Ages!” Usually I hear this tune from folks in the business world.

Trustees at Wesleyan University, where I am president, have for years been singing the siren’s song to professors about the benefits of online teaching, and usually the answer they get is: “It just doesn’t work.” Well, things in academia are changing now! The coronavirus has upended our plans and our prejudices. Students have left their campuses, and entire curricula have shifted into distance-learning mode.

“Things will never be the same in higher education!” is the refrain of the moment, and not just in the business world. Those who expected radical disruption in the wake of the Great Recession now seem to believe that it’s the coronavirus that will lead to a massive migration of students away from in-person learning and toward the promised land of tech-infused distance education.

Of course, millions of students had already moved to online courses over the last several years, in programs that were either aimed at specific skill-building or in programs that offered greater flexibility (and affordability) than can typically be found in on-campus settings. But despite growth in the numbers and sophistication of online options, high school seniors continue to apply for the opportunity to learn with one another on a college campus. Will the 2020 coronavirus pandemic change that?

I myself was teaching a class on campus, “The Modern and the Postmodern,” that I am now teaching remotely. I’d already adapted this class in 2013 as one of Coursera’s free online humanities offerings. In our current stay-at-home period, more than a thousand people have joined the pre-recorded version of this class each week. For me, it was pretty easy to imagine how I’d supplement the online pre-recorded lectures from my MOOC with discussions with Wesleyan students on the Zoom platform. Although we record these discussions, almost all of my 50+ undergraduates attend class together. We’ve been talking about Sigmund Freud, Virginia Woolf and Michel Foucault in our first weeks online, and the students have been as insightful as ever in connecting these texts to their own situations.

My colleagues report similarly positive experiences. Even those who used to chide me about leaving intimate education behind in offering MOOCs seem to be finding real value in teaching remotely on a platform that allows for discussion as well as lectures. Professors all over the country have been sharing tips on making their online educational environments as interactive and potent as possible.

I’ve been particularly impressed by suggestions that lead to more active learning (or project-based learning) among students who are scattered across great distances. I never found the right way to do that in my MOOCs because there were so many students enrolled and they were not moving through the material together. But I see now there are many more ways to do this than I’d imagined — from collaborations on science problems to coordinating music ensembles. I recently “attended” a fabulous pipe organ class recital, now displaced onto the various kinds of instruments student have at home. The problem wasn’t just the platform, it was my own limitations as a creative teacher.

At this point, undergraduates seem able to get hold of the material and address the tasks assigned on the syllabus. Seminar discussions on Zoom, Teams or Google Hangouts can be lively, lectures can be understood, and breakout sessions and team projects can be completed. Still, many students want nothing more than to be back on campus.

A cynic might say that the entitled young people miss their climbing walls and their beer pong, their lazy rivers and their bar-hopping, and surely some do miss the social bonds that form in the recreational dimensions of the college experience. But students are finding they miss a lot more than that. They miss the opportunities that campuses provide to amplify the straightforward instruction from classes via serendipitous encounters, informal discussion and collaborative discovery.

Sure, classes convey information about molecular biology or World War II, macroeconomics or social psychology, but the lessons are amplified and become resonant as students talk about them in the cafeteria, before sports events, in the library or in the dormitory lounge. Campuses provide homes for students, to be sure, but they also are environments in which the specifics that one learns are integrated into who one is as a person and into what one comes to think and believe as a member of a community.

On a campus, students encounter other people learning, and even when the subject of discussion isn’t a class, the lessons of a liberal education resonate into multiple dimensions of their lives. For faculty, too, the opportunity to talk with colleagues and with students outside of class amplifies the continuous learning that is their calling.

We are unlikely to see a massive migration away from campuses as a result of more students and teachers having “discovered” distance learning. But professors are likely to use a wider array of digital tools so as to make their in-person teaching on campus as compelling as possible. Tools in liberal education may be changing, but its essential mission — its core task of empowering the whole person — is not.

We Americans can sometimes gravitate toward efficient transactions, but education is impoverished — not made frictionless — when it is reduced to isolated exchanges among people in predetermined boxes (even when those boxes are on a computer screen).

Our goal as teachers should be to facilitate the amplification of what we teach so that what students learn resonates more fully in their lives. In this way, the skills that students build will strengthen them not just in building successful careers but also in searching for meaning and connection in their years beyond the university.

Choosing Your (Our) University

Throughout the spring, high school seniors with the acceptance letters in hand, normally visit campuses as they try to decide where to attend college. They are trying to envision the school at which they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, and form friendships that will last a lifetime? How to choose? As I do each spring, I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on choosing a college, with a few revisions for this season of pandemic. The most important issue this year for many will be that they cannot visit schools to get a feel for the campuses where they might live. Schools are offering online substitutes, but it’s hard to pick when one doesn’t get to feel one’s reaction. I invite you to visit our Admitted Students website to learn more about Wesleyan.

Many students today are wondering whether campuses will be open in the fall, and I am hopeful that Wesleyan (like other schools our size) will have a normal academic year. Sure, we expect to take more health precautions than ever before, and we will be building our capacity to test members of our community, to provide supportive isolation to those who fall ill, and to minimize opportunities for the spread of any illnesses. In the months ahead we are preparing to provide a safe, robust and holistic education to our students come the fall semester.

Of course, for many the decision will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low and to maintain only moderate (very close to inflation) tuition increases. We also offer a three-year program that allows families to save about 20 percent of their total expenses, while still earning the same number of credits.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, have become increasingly popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. But if one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Pomona?

As students scan the Wesleyan website, go to chatrooms and listen to current students talk about their experiences, I hope our they feel the brave exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I would like prospective students to get a sense our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life. Our students have the courage to find new combinations of subjects to study, of people to meet, of challenges to face.

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

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into, but even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping their disciplines. At Wesleyan, we know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will appeal many of those who are still in the process of getting to know our extraordinary university.

Two Wesleyan Lives: Victor Gourevitch and Andrew Stuerzel

This past week I had the experience of mourning two Wesleyan friends in very different circumstances. The first was my beloved teacher Victor Gourevitch, who died on April 14 at the age of 94. The second, devastatingly unexpected loss was my colleague and friend Andrew Stuerzel, Wesleyan Class of 2005, who passed away after a medical emergency on April 17th. Andrew was 37.

 

I studied ancient philosophy, political philosophy and, most memorably, Hegel with Victor from 1976-1978. He was intense and challenging, and he cared deeply about opening his students’ thinking to enduring questions and problems. He was a student of the German-Jewish philosopher Leo Strauss, and he remained dedicated to what Victor called the zetetic dimension of Strauss’s thought. A few years after I graduated, we worked together on publishing the letters between Strauss and the Russian/French Hegelian Alexandre Kojève (in Strauss’s On Tyranny). While many other American students of Leo Strauss went on to a pious celebration of conservatism and the market economies of modern democratic regimes, Victor was a lifelong opponent of this reductionist approach to political philosophy. He was also an opponent of both the naive and the authoritarian forms of what’s called progressive thinking. A man of immense learning, Victor could be ruthlessly critical of the cliches we use to get along (or to bring others along), and he could also be enormously generous to those who were willing to open their minds and hearts to inquiry. Some of his great friends were artists and musicians devoted to experimentation and creativity, or philosophers with whom he strongly disagreed. Along with his wife Jacqueline (who taught painting at Wesleyan for many years), he was among the most hospitable, gracious people I’ve known. I am so grateful for his teaching and his friendship.

 

A day after Victor’s burial, I received the shocking news that Andrew Stuerzel ’05 had collapsed and passed away during a visit to Middletown. Not long after graduating from Wesleyan (and traveling in Asia), Andrew joined our Office of Admission. In 2012 he moved over to University Relations, first as a Major Gift Officer and then as Associate Director for International Advancement. As an undergraduate at Wesleyan, Andrew played baseball, rugby, and earned the NESCAC All-American Award for football. Andrew’s major was East Asian Studies and, following graduation, he completed Stanford University’s advanced Japanese Language Program. After 10 years at Wes, Andrew decided to pursue a new position this past January with Boston Children’s Hospital.

I got to know Andrew when we traveled together in Asia. He seemed to me indefatigable—always ready for a new adventure, taking on a new assignment, curious about some new place to visit. He was enormously helpful as a colleague, and he established deep and lasting friendships with alumni and parents of Wes students all over the world. We enjoyed many a meal together (and suffered together with food poisoning) as we sang the praises of alma mater in order to raise support for its programs. His easy smile and authentic exuberance made him a cherished colleague to so many of us.

Andrew was a devoted husband to his wife, Adriana Rojas ’07, and loving father to children, Reese and Marco. He will be sorely missed by many. Family and friends have created a Gofundme page in his honor.

There are so many losses these days, and they are even harder to bear in our isolation from one another and our traditional rituals of mourning. If you are grieving, I hope you remember there is a community of Wesleyan support. Reach out, take care of one another, and take care of yourselves.

 

Post updated with corrected dates.

A Quiet Campus as April Blooms

We are now in the third week of remote learning, physical distancing and trying to maintain community while keeping apart. My class’s reading this week includes a critique of science and reductive, quantitative thinking from the early days of critical theory. One of my students asked if our theorists from the 1940s would today reject stay-at-home rules because they were based on data-based, probability modeling. It was a question I hadn’t expected, and it did point to the limitations of some humanistic critiques of science when faced with biological threats. When is conformity a threat, and when is it life-saving? When is it both? Whether we are in a Zoom conversation or in a classroom, my students always provoke me to think harder about enduring questions.

After class yesterday I took a stroll around Wesleyan. The few students I encountered were appropriately social-distancing (and reading). I waved to men’s lacrosse coach John Raba and family. I wonder if we were all thinking, “Wait until next year!” It was a lovely day, but I’m used to an increasingly boisterous April campus, and it was so, so quiet! The bushes and trees are expressing themselves in lovely bouquets, but almost nobody is here to take them in. I miss our colleagues and students!

In front of President’s house

Making Face Shields in the Crisis

This morning I was directed to the following by Professor Francis Starr, who heads up our initiative in Design and Engineering (IDEAS).

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” -Fred Rogers

At a certain point, it’s not enough to look for the helpers. We need to be the helpers. It has been difficult for many to sit idly in quarantine while watching this tragedy unfold. When the call came out for all makers to mobilize their capacity in an effort to protect our medical personnel, we were compelled to respond.

In partnership with the Digital Design Studio, our 3D printers have been running at full speed. We are producing copies of the Verkstan Protective Visor, linked below, and are ready to ship our first 200 pieces to New York Presbyterian Hospital in Queens on Tuesday night. After that, it’s on to the next one.

While on-site volunteer opportunities are scarce due to the social distancing measures in place, there’s no reason you can’t help too. Below is a list of PPE that you can produce at home. Whether you have access to a printer, a sewing machine, a laser cutter or a simple pair of scissors, you can make a difference too. At the end of the page is a list of Connecticut hospitals that are advertising for donations. If you’re not in CT, chances are very high that you can locate gaps close to home.

On this same webpage you’ll see different designs and various hospitals that are accepting donations. Check first: “Some places won’t take equipment that is not from a reputable manufacturer, while others are actively seeking anything they can get, from hand-sewn to 3D printed.”

So proud to be among colleagues and friends who are also helpers!

Remote Classes and a Quiet Campus

There is an active discussion among faculty members about their first week of classes teaching remotely. Some are finding it very challenging to manage a series of discussions in real time with “breakout sessions” and the like, while others miss the immediate cues a teacher gets from watching the reactions of students right there, face-to-face, in a classroom. Many of my colleagues express concern about students who live in places where it’s inconvenient to join at regular class times, and we all worry about those whose internet connections aren’t robust enough for the material one wants to present. But after one week, I am very pleased to say that most of the folks I’ve heard from are feeling more optimistic than when we started. That includes the students who have been surveyed already in a few of the classes. There will be bumps in the road, to be sure, and there will also be happy surprises that increase learning beyond what we would have thought possible.

Yesterday I chatted with some students on Foss Hill on what was a beautiful spring day.

People were keeping their distance, but still we managed to commiserate about our lonely campus during what should be a very exciting time of year. We dreamed of better days to come and urged one another to stay healthy.

Yesterday, I was down at the boathouse, but the crew teams are scattered around the country. Athletes accustomed to perfect timing together must wait until it’s safe to be in the same boat. The river was beautiful, but the quiet was sad. We are all in the same boat, one of hunkering down.

 

A Quiet Citrin Field from Pine Street
Sunrise as seen from in front of Boger Hall

 

Early morning, College Row

Today, Kari and I walked by the tennis courts, into Indian Hill cemetery, and then around the athletic fields, the farm and back toward campus. We saw just a few other walkers, and we waved and kept our distance. I wished I could hear the chanting of the softball and lacrosse teams as they celebrated teammates, could marvel at frisbee players leaping in air, or could watch baseball in good company just behind the library. Instead, I was at my computer writing to all the spring Wesleyan athletes. We must be patient. And we will be.

Stay safe, stay healthy. And, please, stay in touch!

 

 

 

 

 

Classes Online Begin

I conducted my first class yesterday since moving to an online format for the rest of the semester. I have to admit that I was pretty nervous about the transition to Zoom, even though I’ve offered lectures online before. My class, The Modern and the Postmodern, is available on Coursera for free, and more than a hundred thousand people have participated in it over the last few years. I’ve asked my Wesleyan students (52 of them) to sign up for those recorded lectures.

But this morning at 10:50 (Eastern time) we were all online together, and I have to say I found it moving to see all those familiar faces — even if they were in little boxes on my screen. And they seemed glad to be together, even if their togetherness was merely virtual.  At first, I tried to reassure them that we were all aware of the stress of the moment, that we would try our best to learn together, that deadlines were flexible and anyone could choose to switch to a Pass/Fail mode. I saw nod and smiles…and then we got started with the text of the week, Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. I wish I had a more optimistic text for them, but perhaps reading about recurrent patterns of conflict, guilt and aggression will put our current predicament into a broader perspective. In any case, next week we look forward to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

I’ve heard from other Wesleyan professors that their classes also started out well. A colleague in the languages told me that her students, too, were so happy to be re-connected. She reported that “various pets that might walk in front of the camera or bark at inopportune times” were introduced to the group.   “We shared their names and a fun fact about them. Again, in the target language.” A relatively new member of our teaching corps wrote me to say that he found the online meeting with students “wonderfully therapeutic for my own soul.” Another long-term faculty member wrote (with some surprise, I think) that a department meeting via Zoom went smoothly, and that he was in touch with students all over the world. “This is going to work out,” he said.

Like the students in my class, these colleagues and students all expressed the desire to be back home at Wesleyan — back in their classrooms, Usdan, the gym, their libraries, houses, labs and dorms. We are all looking forward to that. Meanwhile, here’s a picture I took yesterday as an early spring snow began to fall on Foss Hill.

Early spring snow on a lonely Foss Hill

 

Working Ever More Closely Together

We need to physically isolate from one another; that much is very clear in these uncertain times. And in uncertain, stressful times many of us crave connecting with one another. We crave a friend’s embrace, a colleague’s pat on the back, a warm introduction to someone we are eager to get to know. Stopping the spread of this virus is hard because we must stop doing some of those things that really enhance our lives. These things are core to why we believe a residential educational experience is so enriching. They are the things that our students are already missing as almost all of them depart from campus, often tearfully.

They will also miss the kinds of activities that offer deep learning through physical practice. I’m not just talking about sports (which folks already miss), but also about playing in the gamelan orchestra or raising one’s voice along with the Ebony Singers. We are working hard on finding virtual ways to provide learning experiences that usually come from physical practice – whether with instruments, lab equipment, bodies or voices – and we are excited about the prospects. I have been so impressed by (and grateful to) my colleagues on the faculty who are figuring out how to match online learning pedagogies to the content of the courses and their own pedagogical practices. Teachers and students will learn a lot about what can (and cannot) be done at a distance – and things to be grateful for (once taken for granted) when normal classes resume.

It’s only been about a week since we announced that Wesleyan would suspend normal operations, and already so much has happened. After the initial shock and disappointment, there followed daily examples of sacrifice, cooperation and mutual understanding. Our friends and colleagues across the University have been stepping up in a big way. The Student Life and Equity and Inclusion teams have gone so far beyond the call of duty as they support students from an extraordinary range of circumstances. Public Safety officers, Investment staff, and Bon Appetit workers, Physical Plant, Technology, Library and Advancement and Finance colleagues…so many have found ways to contribute to student well-being while also planning for the future. Communications folks are working overtime to keep all our constituencies informed, and HR is looking after the welfare of all our employees. Admission and Financial Aid staff members, on top of everything else, are crafting the class of 2024 and planning a virtual WesFest!

Wesleyan University has weathered crises before, and we have done so by coming together to support one another. We begin with our most vulnerable students. We will ensure that work-study funds and other forms of financial aid are distributed for the remainder of the semester, and we have raised significant monies for the Emergency Fund. There is an application process for this support, but it is simple and straightforward. We are already distributing money. And for those who can, it’s easy to make a donation! (Kari and I just did.)

I feel the sadness of those whose college experience has been so rudely interrupted. I see some of those students on Foss Hill (6 feet apart) early in the morning, catching a last sunrise over the Connecticut River. I see others getting a grab-and-go meal at Usdan, or having one more WesWings delight, before sorrowfully waving goodbye to friends. We’ll do our best to keep the students safe who must remain on campus. Seniors, we’ll figure out how to celebrate your accomplishments, whether as planned in May or, if need be, at some later date.

We’ll miss all who had to leave, but we’ll be ready to welcome students back when the threat of the pandemic recedes. What a joy that will be! Meanwhile, be safe and stay well!!

Students Heading to Physical Isolation, Faculty Re-Tooling Classes

These are strange times, indeed. It’s the middle of spring break, but the campus is emptying out for the rest of the semester. Friends are saying goodbye in Middletown, or expressing sadness at already being so far apart. Anxiety hovers over us all as we deal with the disappointment of finishing our school year through distance learning while we yearn for connections with one another. But it’s the connections that put us at risk.

Well, it’s physical connections that put us at risk. We can — we must — connect with one another in other ways. In the coming weeks, we will share academic work through various platforms online, and we will talk to our friends, share music, photos and stories through our lively networks. In addition to the new materials we will generate, there are many videos, works of art and music already available through the Wesleyan website. We can watch them together, and we can find ways to talk about them — even at a great distance. It won’t be the same as sitting around Usdan, or chatting by the gym, or hanging in a wood frame, but it will preserve some of our connectivity. We don’t have to be isolated from one another in spirit.

Many of you will keep journals during this period — some in notebooks, others in podcast form, while others in videos. We will find ways to connect people registering their experiences. We want to hear from you. More on this soon.

Students are stepping up in big ways to help one another, and faculty and staff are finding ways to support those who need it the most. There are various efforts underway to give assistance to those at risk. No surprise, I prefer using official channels to ad hoc, if well-meaning, private projects.  Students who need emergency funding are asked to contact Dean Mike Whaley (mwhaley@wesleyan.edu). Members of the extended Wesleyan family who want to donate to the fund can do so here.

It’s a frightening time, to be sure. But we will depend on one another, deepen our connections with one another, so that when we come back to campus, we will be the stronger for having gone through all this.