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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Full Swing

Although we are not quite through the first week of classes, it feels as though the Wesleyan campus is already in full swing. Over the weekend my daughter Sophie and I watched men’s basketball, women’s hockey, a large track meet and some swimming competitions. I heard the parties from a distance in the early morning hours, and I know somewhere CSSers are already writing papers. I haven’t even had my first class meeting (that’s tomorrow), and it seems like everybody is racing along with the winter break a fading memory.

On Thursday, January 31 many here will participate in Focus the Nation, a massive teach-in to draw attention to the various effects of global climate change. Many faculty will add modules to their classes concerning environmental issues, and there are several formal and informal discussions planned around campus. We want to promote the consciousness of the possibility of positive environmental change, something I think Wesleyan students will be particularly interested in. Check out a list of events at: http://www.wesleyan.edu/wsa/eon/ftn/

As I think about ‘possibilities of change,’ I can’t help but consider the upcoming primaries. This is the first time in many years that votes across the country will mean something in the presidential primaries. Young voters have played an important role in some states already, and this is a great time to get involved. Why not help stimulate voter turnout for the candidate of your choice? This is a powerful tool of local participation in a national process.

One of the great delights of the Wesleyan campus is the vibrant art scene produced by faculty, students and invited guests. On February 1 we are lucky to be hosting one of the great American string groups, the Turtle Island String Quartet. This week they are playing with Stefon Harris and focusing on the music of Duke Ellington. What a wonderful way to kick off a great series of concerts and recitals at the Center for the Arts!

I’m looking forward to meeting my students tomorrow morning to talk about film, philosophy and history. It will be a treat to step out of my administrative role for a few hours and return to the issues I’ve been teaching and writing about for many years. I’ll be having office hours for the class, but I’ve also decided to have open office hours for students. You can stop by February 4 between 4:00 pm and 5:30 pm, and I’ll be scheduling this every other week afterwards. I’ll make a more formal announcement on this soon.

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