Cardinals (and other Birds)

As students were packing up their rooms, distributing good-bye hugs and posting final papers to Moodle, I had the great pleasure of meeting Oliver James ’14. Professor Barry Chernoff, the founding director of the College of the Environment, brought him by to show me the wonderful work Oliver did on his senior thesis.

Oliver James '14, Prez, Barry Chernoff

Oliver has many interests, and as a senior he wanted to combine his study of the environment with his interest in birds. How to represent the many birds he sees on campus? Oliver learned the great art of watercolor and used his observational skills to produce A Field Guide to Birds of Wesleyan. Artist, scientist, environmentalist? Why choose? THIS IS WHY.

birds of wesleyan cover

Making a Difference in the Environment — Natural, Political and Cultural

This evening I read an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times describing how efforts to increase forest density have led to a cascade of negative effects on local and regional eco-systems.  Well meaning attempts to “save the trees” have depleted water reserves and changed weather and soil dynamics. “As temperatures rise,” the authors conclude, “too much forest strangles too many watersheds.” Although the op-ed is brief, its arguments are built on serious research and analysis. I was delighted to see that the authors are Helen M. Poulos and Jamie G. Workman, who have been working together at Wesleyan’s College of the Environment. Helen is a post-doctoral fellow and Jamie is a Visiting Professor in the COE’s think tank. Both have been working with students this year on issues concerning water. Indeed this week they are hearing seniors present their own research, work that usually links environmental science with at least one other field. Barry Chernoff, Schumann Professor of Environmental Science and COE founder, conceived of the think tank as place for rigorous critique and generous collaboration. It’s also a place where scholars can think together about how to translate their research into interventions in the public sphere.

This week has also seen scores of media outlets using the data provided by the Wesleyan Media Project. The WMP’s latest report deals with heavy-duty pollution — the sharp rise in negative ads as compared with the 2008 presidential campaign. Project Director and Assistant Professor of Government Erika Franklin Fowler says that in addition to the rise in negative tone, “60 percent of all ads are sponsored by interest groups, which is really, truly a historic number.” Erika leads a team of student researchers in Middletown who code and analyze data from across the country. This research will become ever more important as the campaign churns along.

Maybe I should close with an example of Wesleyan folks attending to more positive aspects of the environment: all writers on campus working to improve the cultural world we breathe. This past weekend, Amy Bloom ’74, Kim-Frank University Writer in Residence, led Foodstock, a celebration of food and writing about it. From all accounts, the participants had an enlightening, nourishing day — and they also collected quite a bit of money and food for the Amazing Grace Food Pantry.

On Wednesday, May 9 student writing prize winners will read from their poetry and prose at Russell House, starting at 8:00 pm. The student writers who will be reading this evening,  in the this order (thanks to Anne Greene for the information):

Marina Reza ’13 (Herbert Lee Connelly nonfiction award co-winner, along with Jessica Jordan ’13 , who’s abroad)

Katherine Gibbel ’15 (Sarah Hannah Prize, poetry)

Aditi Kini ’13  (Horgan Prize, fiction)

Corey Dethier ’12  (Sophie Reed Prize, poetry)

Anna Swartz ’13  (Wesleyan Fiction Award)

I’m sure that this will be a contribution to our cultural environment that our writers will sustain!

Blurry Disciplines, Clear Learning

In the last week I attended two meetings worth travelling to.  The first (in Washington D.C.) dealt with the intellectual-financial challenges facing American higher education, and the second (in Princeton) examined the role of the humanities in the public sphere. I was in Washington for a meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, on whose board I now serve. We began with a very interesting talk by environmental scientist James P. Collins of Arizona State University. Jim talked about the changing face of scholarly inquiry today, when pressing questions just aren’t fitting into distinct disciplinary borders. His particular interest is in the intersection of biological, geological and social sciences, and we were asked to consider synthetic biology, restoration ecology and how engineering and “big data” analysis could be added to the mix. I thought of how Wesleyan’s College of the Environment is also working in this sphere under Barry Chernoff’s direction, and how Lisa Dierker’s work in the Quantitative Analysis Center also blurs the boundaries among disciplines in powerfully productive ways.

In Princeton I was part of a conference that focused on the “ethics of reading.” Peter Brooks, the organizer of this great gathering, asked speakers to consider how the ways we are taught to read in the humanities might foster modes of attention that have positive impact on the public sphere. To whom or to what are we responsible when we learn to read well? How is the exercise of the imagination in reading a narrative related to empathy, and to the desire to reduce harm to others? Literary critic Elaine Scarry gave a powerful presentation on how increases in literacy might be linked to efforts to reduce violence, and she returned to her theme of how the pleasures of beauty might create “opiated adjacencies.” By this she means that the pleasure we take in beauty might stimulate us to make the world more fair, more just. Yale law Professor Paul Kahn talked about teaching humility when we cultivate wonder in the classroom. The practice of creativity and interpretation give us an experience of freedom. Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah noted that when we betray that practice, it is less a betrayal of an author than a betrayal of our community.

I’m more skeptical about the positive “adjacencies” to aesthetic delight than are some of my colleagues, but the conference gave me much to think about. I am convinced that work in the increasingly blurry disciplines of the sciences, arts, humanities and social sciences provides us with an increased ability to navigate within contexts of ambiguity and change. As I noted in a recent blogpost, “liberal learning can help our students unplug from the inputs they have customized to reinforce their own tastes, expectations and identities. We get to introduce them to stories and poems, historical events and paintings, scientific experiments and political debates that they might not have attended to, even googled, on their own. And then we get to learn with them about how these complex cultural artifacts can be understood in relation to our present. In this way, we develop a richer sense than our little devices can give us of who we are. More important, we develop a deeper sense of who we might become.”

A Wesleyan education helps us develop this deeper sense of who we might become. Happily, this occurs in a context of supportive community in which the treasures of continuity find their balance with the pleasures of change.

The Semester Begins! Celebrations and Classes

This week is the 100th anniversary of the  birth of one of America’s great film directors, Elia Kazan, and Wesleyan will mark the occasion with a series of films. We begin on Saturday, September 12th at 8:00 pm with Boomerang! (1947). Kazan, whose work with theater was also of decisive importance, presented his papers to Wesleyan in 1968, and for some time he had an office in Olin Library. For decades scholars have been using the papers in their research, one of the many extraordinary collections in the Wesleyan Cinema Archive. You can hear more about Kazan and the Archive on Saturday when Jeanine Basinger, Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, introduces Boomerang! at 8 pm. For more information on the Kazan festival, see http://www.wesleyan.edu/filmstudies/specialevents.html.

In conjunction with the Kazan celebrations Mark Longenecker is teaching a film studies class based in the archival holdings. This is one of the dozens of classes added to the curriculum this year, most of them with enrollments under 20. I remember as a student feeling frustrated when I didn’t get the class I most wanted, but then I wound up in another course and it turned out to be the best thing that happened to me that semester. Perusing the course catalogue, I’ve seen offerings that combine science and service learning, politics and history, literature and music. Barry Chernoff, who is leading our efforts for planning the College of the Environment, is teaching “Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems.” This a science class that requires students to devote a few Saturday mornings to fieldwork to complement lectures and labs. Fieldwork in a boat sounds like a great way to spend a Saturday.

Leah Wright, who has just joined the history department, is teaching a class on Black Conservatism. The class examines how black conservatism shifted, transformed, and evolved over the course of American social and political development. Lynn Westling teaches an introductory Physics course for non-majors called “Physics for Presidents.” It examines “mathematical and physical models that explain quantitatively how our world works.” The course discusses issues in the political sphere that depend on an understanding of physics, from nuclear weapons to alternative energy.

I’m teaching a new class this term: Topics in the Philosophy of History. It’s a small seminar to complement my large film class in the spring. We’ll be working on issues connecting memory and history, psychoanalysis and trauma, and photography and representation.

I had lunch today with Howard Needler, who has been teaching in the College of Letters since the late 1960s. We talked about Wesleyan old and new, sometimes emphasizing the great changes and at other moments marveling at the continuities. The College of Letters (like CSS and CHUM which all celebrate their 50th anniversaries this year) has always attracted talented, creative students interested in ideas and how they take shape over time. Professor Needler is teaching Dante’s Divine Comedy this year: a full year on this landmark text. The class is fully subscribed. Lucky students, I thought!

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Musical Competition — Rock On!

Dean Louise Brown tells me that there will be a great musical competition between classes on February 19. Wesleyan has been known for a long time as the “singing college of New England,” and more recently as the fertile soil for adventuous rock bands to grow in. I’m told the acoustics in the bathrooms at West College are particularly good…

So, submit your musical entry and participate in what should be a great evening. The music will be judged by Rob Rosenthal, Barry Chernoff and Sarah Lazare, and there will be prizes! The promised (threatened) opening act is “Lou and the Blues,” and I may join in to see if my harp lessons have worked….

A more detailed description of all this can be found on the entry form at:  www.wesleyan.edu/deans/music.pdf.

Come make some music. Entries are due on Feb 12, so get busy.

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