Epicenter of “Brooklyn Surrealist Pop”

I have often marveled at the extraordinary musical adventures offered by the Wesleyan campus. Having helped inaugurate the field of ethnomusicology, Wes has been a home for the most traditional and the most avant-garde musicians for decades. Gamelan concerts are packed, and the environmental sound experiments from students and faculty push the boundaries of how we listen to and discern the sounds around us. Senior theses might involve a rock band performance at which professors expected to give grades can’t help moving their feet and smiling broadly.

Just now I read a link from the Village Voice that declares Wesleyan the “epicenter of Brooklyn surrealist pop.” You know about MGMT, but there’s also Amazing Baby, Das Racist, and Boy Crisis. Wesleyan has clearly been both a home to and a launching pad for creative musicians for decades now. This is a vibrant part of our student culture.

Check out the article at: http://www.villagevoice.com/2009-08-04/music/the-wesleyan-mafia-mgmt-boy-crisis-amazing-baby/

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Summertime, and the Living is…Scholarly

How many times do professors hear “how lucky you are to have the entire summer off!” Off? As August has replaced July and the Wesleyan “summer send offs” are well underway, my colleagues and I can hear in the distance the hum of the oncoming semester growing louder and louder. How are we likely to react? Read more, write more, recalibrate that experiment or crunch those numbers! Summer is an essential time for faculty to make progress on the research that often plays a key role in the courses they will be teaching.

Kari and I have been away from campus for a few weeks now, and we often hear from friends how important it is to “take time and relax.” Sure, but we both also have book contracts and spend every day reading and writing (and rewriting!) in hopes of making progress on the manuscripts. She is critically exploring how writers and philosophers have re-framed “the animal” so as to describe what “the human” might be with the goal of reconceptualizing how humans and non-human animals might relate to one another. I am wrestling with how photography has changed the ways we make sense of  the past. Both of us will use the research we are doing now in the classes we will teach this fall.

Intensive summertime research is very common at Wesleyan. Historian Phil Pomper, with whom I studied when I was an undergrad, is in the office daily writing a biography set in the Russian revolutionary period, philosopher Lori Gruen is completing a book on animal morality, while German Professor Krishna Winston (whose translation of Werner Herzog’s memoir was twice recently reviewed in the New York Times) has multiple translation assignments underway. Chemist Stew Novick leads an amazingly prolific team studying “exotic molecules” with microwave spectroscopy that can create super low temperatures.  Having just finished her term as Chair of FGSS, Jennifer Tucker, is putting the finishing touches on a volume about photography and history, while the indefatigable Jeanine Basinger writes a new book on marriage in the movies. Biologist Dave Bodznick can be found at the Cape for a good part of the summer, but that’s because he has a lab at the Marine Biological Laboratory Woods Hole where he studies the electroreceptors in skates. French Professor Andrew Curran has been finishing his book on concepts of race in the 18th century, while sociologist  Alex Dupuy is doing research on parallels and disconnections between key figures in the American and Haitian revolutions. Finally, COL Director Ethan Kleinberg explores the concept of forgiveness in his book about French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.

I should probably ask forgiveness for leaving out scores of faculty research projects in this tiny sample! But I trust this gives some small idea of how faculty are actively advancing their fields in ways that will come back to inform the classroom.

Ah, the sun will soon be setting on another beautiful summer day…  so I better get back to work!

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Live Biology!

From my windows at South College, the campus looks very quiet. The young students from the Center for Creative Youth and other programs stroll across Andrus Field for meals in Usdan, but on the whole it’s just too calm. So just before leaving for some time away from Wesleyan, I stopped into the Hall-Atwater labs to check out the action there

The pace changes completely when you cross Church Street and visit the science labs. There dozens of undergraduates and graduate students are busily working with faculty on sophisticated research projects in chemistry, molecular biology, physics and neuroscience (to cite just a few of the examples). There are countless examples of interdisciplinary work in fields like neuroscience, biophysics and environmental science. Much of the research going on during the summer month is funded by the Hughes Summer Research Program — http://www.wesleyan.edu/hughes/summerprogram.html — as well as funding from departments and faculty research grants. Many of our students will turn this work into theses projects, and some will be fortunate enough to become co-authors with faculty on articles in the best scientific journals. Graduate students play a crucial role in the ecology of research in the sciences. They bring experience and a depth of learning that allow them to help mentor younger students, and they complete independent projects that launch their own careers after receiving their degrees. Grad students don’t substitute for faculty at Wesleyan, but they are an essential complement to them. One of the reasons our science faculty is extraordinarily productive compared with our peer institutions, is that they have great collaborators at different levels. This benefits everyone, and it helps advance the fields in which our faculty work.

My final stop in my little tour was at Prof. Janice Naegele’s lab. Jan‘s work is in neuroscience and stem cell research, and several of her students are working on problems related to epilepsy. I was so impressed by the students’ presentations of their specific projects. They were able to explain their specific investigations and also give this non-scientist a sense of the context for their advanced work. Fludiona Naka ’11 and Raghu Appasani ‘12 gave concise yet informative descriptions of their lab activities. It also helped me that senior Efrain Ribeiro is a joint philosophy-neuroscience major, and so he could put things in terms even I could understand! All were clearly excited about their independent experiments, and they also had an impressive ability to describe how it fit into the work of the team. Other members of the lab are Debra Hall, Xu Maisano, Jia Yang and Sara Royston.

You can learn more about the exciting work of the biologists at Wesleyan by visiting the cool new website: http://www.wesleyan.edu/bio/

The sciences at Wesleyan exemplify the success of the scholar-teacher model that has long been key to our school. Long live Biology!

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Through the Eyes of Visitors on Independence Day

July 4th weekend in Middletown has been a wonderful time to show off our town and campus to some relatives visiting from Norway. It’s always interesting to see where one lives through the eyes of visitors. We grow accustomed to the beauty of the campus, with its impressive array of facilities — from the Freeman Athletic Center to the Center for the Arts. Kari’s cousins’ reactions to seeing Wesleyan for the first time was a reminder of how special university environments are. As the gloomy weather lifted, Middletowners came out in force to enjoy a perfect 4th. Check out recent posts by biology professor Steve Devoto and by alumna Jennifer Alexander ’88 on the Middletown Eye. http://middletowneyenews.blogspot.com

I had the curious task of leading my weekly Torah study group on the 4th of July, pinch-hitting for our vacationing rabbi. This week’s texts included the famously paradoxical purification ritual of the “red heifer.” I didn’t attempt to solve the enigma that is said to have stumped even Solomon but instead used the coincidence with the American holiday to talk about how a people achieves “independence.” In the case of the Jews wandering in the desert, this has to do with independence from the experience of slavery (without forgetting that experience). In the case of America, one might say that we are still working out what independence means in a dynamic, multi-polar world.

American Studies has been at the forefront of interdisciplinary academic work at Wesleyan, for years inspired by the popular culture analysis of Richard Slotkin. His work in film studies along with Jeanine Basinger’s has been fundamental to establishing film studies here. Recently, American Studies at Wes has been in a “post-national” key, exploring social and cultural formations that go beyond national borders. I’ve learned about that trend from Professor Claire Potter, who recently stepped down as Chair of the program. Claire writes about pornography, the FBI and has a very active blog: http://tenured-radical.blogspot.com . Wesleyan’s government department is home to prolific and influential scholars of American law and politics who are also great teachers. Here are just two examples: John Finn, an expert on law, civil liberties and political violence who has just published a new edition of his co-authored American Constitutional Law; and Elvin Lim, whose incisive work on the American presidency and politics has been getting enormous attention (check out his blog: http://www.elvinlim.com ).

Although I am a European historian, I’ve often written on American topics, especially in the press. In some of my classes we read Emerson’s take on self-reliance, or Stanley Cavell’s essays on the “unfinished project” of freedom for Americans. A few years ago I was asked to review a French philosopher’s take on the USA in American Vertigo, by Bernard-Henri Levy. Like many other reviewers, I thought the book shallow and self-serving. Today the San Francisco Chronicle published my view of Simon Schama’s new book, The American Future: A History. Although the book has its faults, I thought this British historian (now a long-term US resident) provided an interesting perspective on recent American politics in relation to some long term historical themes:  http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2009/07/03/RVMH17MMII.DTL&type=books

Well, my Norwegian guests are ready for the next round of activities. I wonder what else I’ll learn about Middletown from them!

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New Plans and Old Connections

Today is the first day of Wesleyan’s 2009-2010 fiscal year, a time for planning and also for a continuing review of how we performed in the year just coming to an end. That’s characteristic of summer work here: evaluating past performance and working on plans for the future. Glancing out my window at a rain-soaked Andrus Field, I look forward to summers when we will have more students on campus. As soon as faculty return for the fall semester we will brief them on our plans for a pilot for a Wesleyan Summer Session in 2010. We expect to have classes across all three divisions of the university, giving students an opportunity to pursue studies they haven’t been able to get to in the regular semester framework. I’ll be writing more about the summer program as we continue our consultations with faculty.

photo12As is often the case, as we think about new programs we are also reminded of our past. In the final days of the fiscal year Wesleyan was the beneficiary of a significant bequest. John Pallein graduated with an English major in 1950, and spent the next two years in the US Army, serving in Japan and Korea. He began working as a technical writer, first for Pratt and Whitney and later for Beckman Instruments. I met John in California just before I moved back to Middletown, and it was clear that he felt a strong loyalty to alma mater. We talked about his work in the President’s House for Victor Butterfield’s family, and his enthusiasm about recent Wes students he had met. A gentle and amiable person, we spoke about the difficulties of leaving the West Coast after so many years. John had settled in one of the most beautiful spots I’d ever seen, Dana Point, but it was clear that Middletown was a locus of cherished memories for him.  John’s bequest of more than $3 million will endow financial aid packages for Pallein Scholars in perpetuity, so that deserving students can also have access to the kinds of transformative educational experiences that served him so well.

New plans and and old connections. Early July at Wesleyan.

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Promoting Access through Partnerships

Yesterday Sonia Manjon and I went to an exciting ground-breaking ceremony across the street from Wesleyan’s Green Street Arts Center. We first gathered at the GSAC to hear remarks from community organizers, bankers, businessmen, housing activists, federal, state and local officials, and the head of our Chamber of Commerce. It was a very impressive coalition of groups that has worked together with Nehemiah Housing to plan for 16 new owner-occupied units in the North End of Middletown. Access to affordable housing, all the partners agree, will enable residents to become stakeholders in their neighborhood thereby promoting the momentum for further improvements. Wesleyan has become an important part of this dynamic with our project at Green Street, and working with neighborhood groups (some of which are led by alumni) has been a great learning experience for our students, staff and faculty. Here’s a photograph of the groundbreaking from an article by recent honorary doctorate recipient Jennifer Alexander ’88 from the Middletowneye blog.

photo by Jennifer Alexander
photo by Jennifer Alexander

As we come to the end of our fiscal year this month, we are eagerly promoting the Wesleyan Fund as a way to enhance access to a great education. Be a stakeholder in our scholarship program by making a gift! We need the partnership of the extended Wesleyan family to keep our financial aid offerings strong. We  are making a big push to increase participation, so please make a contribution — no matter what size!

PLEASE GIVE BEFORE JUNE 30 TO BE ELIGIBLE FOR THE TRUSTEE MATCH. In another great example of partnership, the Board of Trustees will  match every gift up to $10,000 until June 30th.

Access to a Wesleyan education regardless of one’s ability to pay is key to who we are. Please become a partner in this effort! Here’s a link to make a donation on line.

THANK YOU!!!

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Happy Father’s Day from Alma Mater!

Summer time brings different rhythms to campus, and toward the end of June we are busy closing out the books on 2008-2009 while planning for the future makes progress. The north end of campus is quiet, awaiting the CCY students to animate things in July. I’ll soon write more about the busy researchers across Church Street, for whom summer just offers the opportunity for very focused experimental work in the sciences. On the south side of campus, undergraduates, graduate students and faculty are making the most out of time away from courses to pursue their independent research projects.

This Father’s Day will be mostly a relaxing one for me with my family, after a wild 12th birthday celebration for Sophie. My father, Joe Roth, died more than five years ago now, and of course I think of him often. I wonder how surprised he would be to find me in the president’s office at Wesleyan. I recently wrote something about his graduation advice that was broadcast on NPR (sorry for the duplication of website references!): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104938799

The writer Thomas Matlack ’86 has been thinking a lot about fathers, sons, and the changing roles for men in our culture. His “good men project” makes for fine Father’s Day reading: http://www.goodmenbook.org/about-the-book.html


We talk always of alma mater, but fathers have something to do with the educational nourishment at Wes, too. To all the Dads (and people who have dads) out there, happy Father’s Day!

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Summer Planning

This past week we welcomed back to campus a group of distinguished alumni with experience running large organizations – both profit and not-for-profit. We were discussing some of the ways that the University has responded to the current economic crisis and our plans for strategic initiatives going forward. It was good to check in with people who care deeply about the future of alma mater, but who are not invested in the specifics of how we are operating today. In this way, we can gather helpful criticism and discover opportunities for further improving Wesleyan.

There were three main areas of discussion at this meeting. The first was focused on the distinctive aspects of the Wesleyan liberal arts experience and what Wesleyan stands for in American higher education. We talked at some length about how we characterize the university’s personality. Boldness, a desire for intellectual adventure, independence and the ability to be a self-starter….these were some of the qualities that our group thought had characterized the Wes students and alumni. We discussed the importance of Wesleyan’s science programs in advancing the school’s reputation for research and rigor, while also re-iterating how key our vibrant arts scene and efforts to enhance creativity have been.

The second topic that we talked about at some length concerned the economic model underpinning our programs. About 16% of the general budget comes from endowment support – a percentage far lower than many of our peer institutions. Our reliance on tuition revenue and on generous annual support from the Wes family has allowed us to maintain a high quality program, but we must become more efficient in our use of resources while building a stronger endowment over time. We talked at some length about this year’s successful efforts to balance the budget in the face of the economic crisis, and underscored the importance of building the long-term fiscal health of the institution.

The third topic on which we spent considerable time was communication. How are we keeping alumni, students, families, prospective students, faculty, and staff informed? Are there new technologies we should be using to allow members of our community to share work, ideas, and opportunities? Should we be phasing out some of our more traditional publication vehicles, or devoting fewer resources to them?

Effective communication will undoubtedly be crucial for making more and more people aware of the great work done by the Wes family. It will also be important for raising additional support during our fundraising push over the next several years. Some at our meeting asked what we would do with additional support, and I went through the seven areas that many readers of this blog will recognize from past postings.

1.    Enhancing Financial Aid. Promote access to Wesleyan by making it possible for students to attend regardless of their ability to pay.
2.    Investing in Science. Support researchers and the equipment they need even with the delays in building Molecular and Life Sciences complex.
3.    Enriching Undergrad Experience.  Review first and last years of the student’s experience. Support for “intellectual cross-training” through porous programs.
4.    Internationalization. Continue to make the curriculum more reflective of advances in global research and international cultural developments. Recruit more students from beyond the US.
5.    Creativity across the curriculum. Ensure that our reputation for attracting creative students is linked to a curriculum that enhances innovation.
6.    Civic engagement. Build on the tradition of activism at Wes to develop a curriculum that allows students to become more effective citizens.
7.    College of the Environment. Develop the new “linked-major” in environmental studies into one of our multi-disciplinary Colleges.

The combination of traditional strengths and new initiatives should help Wesleyan maintain our leadership position in progressive liberal arts education in the coming decades. Over the next several months we’ll be talking with students, faculty, alumni, trustees and staff to determine what we want “progressive” to mean in the future.  We will help ensure that “what Wesleyan stands for” in American higher education will be matched by the experience we provide our students on campus.

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The Old Normal

The crowds are gone, the tents are coming down in front of College Row, but there isn’t anyone dancing on the lawns. After a productive Board of Trustee Meeting, a boisterous series of Reunions, and a grand Commencement (sandwiched between thunderstorms), the campus is settling into its summer calm. This is, I hope, the last summer for which I can say that. Next year we hope to have at least a few hundred students here taking classes, but now it’s time to catch our breath and plan for the future.

I was sorry to be only able to catch glimpses from time to time of old friends from my student years at Wes. I was busy in the early part of the weekend listening to tales of Wesleyan traditions, meeting recent alumni and giving my share of toasts and speeches. Happily, there was plenty of great music to be heard, as is usually the case on our campus. Commencement was lovely, and I was especially moved by the speeches from our honorary doctorate recipients. You can hear them all at:

http://wesinthenews.blogs.wesleyan.edu/2009/05/24/commencement-ceremony-broadcast-online/

At our board meeting, some trustees spoke about finding the “new normal” in the wake of the financial crisis. That’s something we are already working on, but looking out the window now I see the “old normal” of Foss Hill partially eclipsed by the remaining party tent. Late spring at alma mater.

Hollywood goes Wes, Again

Many of you probably saw that the most popular movie at the box office this past weekend was Angels and Demons, which narrowly displaced the most popular movie from last week, Star Trek. But do you know what the two films have in common? Wesleyan alumni played major roles in writing both films, with Akiva Goldsman ’83 behind Angels and Demons, and Alex Kurtzman ’95 penning Star Trek. Akiva appears as a Vulcan council member in Alex’s film…

Maybe we can get Vanity Fair (http://roth.blogs.wesleyan.edu/2008/09/12/wesleyan-vanity-fair/) to do an update….

GO WES!

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Angels & Demons: Imagine Entertainment, Sony Pictures & Columbia
Pictures
Star Trek: Paramount Pictures, Bad Robot & Spyglass
Entertainment

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