CSS — Still Going Strong

Earlier this week I wandered over to the Public Affairs Center to participate in an evening seminar of the College of Social Studies. I am working with a senior in the program, Jeremy Isard ’11, who is writing a fascinating thesis that deals with issues concerning memory, narrative and trauma in a Uganda refugee camp, and I was to hear his presentation to his fellow students. Professors Joyce Jacobsen (Economics) and Peter Rutland (Government) were the teachers leading the group. The mood in the room was serious but also very energetic. When I arrived, Vernie Chia ’11 was finishing up her discussion of “envisioning gender equality,” and she was explaining the challenges of her choice to use contemporary Sweden as her case study. This had followed Guangshuo Yang’s ’11 discussion of how Chinese academics had yet to create stable norms for intellectual work in the social sciences and humanities, and Jeff Breau’s ’11 consideration of the relationship between agriculture and obesity in contemporary Europe. What a range of topics!

Even though it was late, the conversation was animated and rigorous. Joyce and Peter had clearly developed a great intellectual atmosphere. The students seemed to know each other well, having gone through this rigorous program together over the last several semesters. Their topics were diverse, but they had in common a drive to understand complex issues and to connect that understanding to a wider set of concerns that extended far beyond academia. The professors were able to offer helpful suggestions and constructive criticism, but it was clear that they knew these seniors were ready to take the lead in making the seminar successful.

I was reminded of the great CSS thesis I read last year about Francis Fukuyama by Chan-young Yang ’10, who is now at Yale Law School. As I walked back to the president’s house, I thought back to my own philosophy teacher Louis Mink, who devoted so much of his intellectual energy to this young innovative program. And then I remembered the stories I’d heard about President Victor Butterfield, whose vision and talent helped launch Wesleyan’s interdisciplinary colleges. It is clear that after more than fifty years the College of Social Studies continues to attract gifted students and devoted faculty who team up to create an imaginative and rigorous educational experience. President Butterfield would be proud of them. I know I am!

Freeman Travels 2010

For the last week I’ve been in Japan and Korea with Graeme Freeman from the Freeman Foundation and Terri Overton from Admissions interviewing students for our Freeman Scholarship program. The program has now been going for 15 years, and it has brought to Wesleyan many exceptionally talented young people from 11 different Asian countries. Year in, year out they arrive on campus with a thirst for learning, faith in a liberal arts education, and an extraordinary capacity for focused, challenging work.

This was my first trip to Tokyo and Seoul, and it also included a number of alumni gatherings. I had the pleasure of meeting Katsuhiko Hiyama ’60 (Kay) who is hoping to come back for his 50th reunion this year. Kay described to me how his Wesleyan education has been a lifelong resource for him as he worked in four different continents, and he also shared with me his love of jazz. I also met some recent alums, including Joyce Haejung Park ‘04, who majored in math and is now working for Chartis in Seoul. Although Sam Paik ‘90 and Professor Jung-Ho Kim ‘85 are frequent visitors to campus, it was great to see them on their home turf. And I met with alumni working in media, finance, education and public service. All described to me how they continue to draw on their Wes education.

Interviewing Freeman finalists is a great cure for cynicism. These high school seniors display a love of learning and a devotion to education that is truly inspiring. Although in many cases they have already registered significant success in school (I’ve never met as many perfect 800 scorers in a short period of time), the dominant theme was the desire to explore new areas of inquiry and to encounter a variety of cultural experiences. They were interested in CSS, COL and the new College of the Environment, in addition to our offerings in music, science, philosophy, and, yes, even East Asian Studies. One young woman was led to her interest in the liberal arts through reading Aristotle on her own; another student was passionate about break dancing and religion. All in all they are an amazing group!

In my first year as President I set a goal of doubling the number of international students at Wesleyan. The financial crisis has slowed this down, but after a trip like this one, I am more convinced than ever that bringing students from outside the United States is a great benefit to them and to the entire Wes community.

Here are a couple of pictures of my recent alumni guides, who also helped out with interviews.

Alumni guides in Tokyo
Kohei Saito ’09 & Toshihiro Osaka ’09
Seoul Alumni Guides
Hyung Jin Choi ’07 & Sunho Hwang ’05

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Supporting Student Research

Faculty have been holding open meetings, organized on a divisional basis – Humanities and the Arts, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences and Mathematics — to discuss the framework for planning, Wesleyan 2020. Over the next month I will blog from time to time on some of the themes that emerge in these conversations. Today it’s support of student research.

In each of the meetings so far, faculty have called for more funding for student research. Wes professors (in all Divisions) feel that an emphasis on independent research projects is one of the important characteristics of the academic experience here, and they want to give ambitious undergraduates the opportunity to bring serious projects to a successful conclusion. Our graduate students receive support while they are here, but they, too, do their best work when given the freedom to focus on their dissertations and journal articles.

I’ve talked with a group of seniors this year about their senior theses, and I look forward to reading them.  Chan-young Yang is writing for CSS on the idea of the end of history; Emily Rasenick is exploring the relation of history and memory in films that deal with WWII for Film Studies and History; and Katie Boyce-Jacino in intellectual history has been investigating a group of theory driven French intellectuals who tried to situate themselves in relation to but outside of Communism. Other students are writing stories, conducting experiments or planning recitals as their capstone experiences. At this time of year students are  feeling both the pressure and the pleasure of pulling together complex, substantial projects.

The faculty have let us know that they would like to see students be able to draw on funds that would support their need for research trips, equipment or collaboration to bring their projects to fruition. In addition to our efforts to raise endowment for financial aid, we will be seeking donors who will make it possible for our students to conduct their scholarly and creative practice at the highest level.

This is one part of the framework for planning on which there is an enthusiastic consensus.

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They’re coming home!

Just a quick note to say how wonderful it is to see the campus beginning to fill up with the smiling faces of Wesleyan parents and alumni. This morning I met with the Athletic Advisory Council, a group of dedicated alumni who have helped us to raise the profile of our sports programs at the university and to strengthen the quality of the students’ experience on all our teams. This afternoon I met with a group of parents and alumni who talked with me about Wesleyan 2020. It was most interesting to hear from this group about the distinctiveness of the Wes experience, and how to make its lifelong learning aspects more visible and compelling. One of the key ingredients emphasized by all the participants is the extraordinary quality of the faculty-student interaction. Our Scholar-Teacher model inspires new ways of thinking that permanently and positively affect our community.

The link on the Wesleyan homepage shows the full range of alumni programs this weekend. Of course, there is big game in football against Williams tomorrow, and we are hosting the NESCAC Conference Championship in men’s soccer. There are great seminars, screenings and exhibitions. I am particularly excited about Majora Carter’s talk tomorrow at 4 pm in Memorial Chapel. Majora has been a force for good things since graduating from Wesleyan in 1988, and her work on sustainable community development has been widely celebrated. Given our plans for the College of the Environment and for Civic Engagement, she is the perfect speaker for the Dwight Greene Symposium.

The College of Letters and the College of Social Studies are celebrating their 50th anniversaries this weekend. These great, innovative programs have introduced students to literature, philosophy, and history, economics, political science and social theory. The demanding comprehensives, the expectation of independent thinking, and the forging of close personal ties have been hallmarks of these programs that helped to define the very meaning of interdisciplinarity. HAPPY 50TH to COL and CSS!

If you are not able to get back to Middletown for Homecoming, I hope that our webcasts, videos and blogs give you a taste of what its like to be here on this beautiful Fall weekend.

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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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This past week Wesleyan held a dinner in New York to celebrate the creation of the Zilkha Chair in the College of Social Studies. Professor Donald Moon, who has been inspiring students in Government and CSS for decades, will hold the chair. Don is a political theorist who has had a particular focus on community building and diversity, and he has contributed to recent efforts to develop a reformulation of liberalism. The Zilkha family has had three generations of students at Wesleyan, and their generosity contributes to our ability to continue to educate and challenge students interested in philosophy, history, economics and political science.

We celebrate great teaching through endowed chairs, and we also celebrate it with the Binswanger Prize. For almost 15 years we have received nominations from students and recent alumni to honor outstanding work in the classroom. The Binswanger family, too, has had generations of students here at Wesleyan, and with their help we pay homage to those who help create transformative experiences for our undergraduates. Lucidity and passion are among the qualities we look for, and you can learn more about the prize at: http://www.wesleyan.edu/alumni/binswanger/

I have been thinking a lot about teaching over the break between semesters, as I try to find time to prepare the course I am about to teach. Although I have given the class for many years, I find myself often in Wesleyan’s magnificent library to check out recent scholarship or older works on philosophy, film and history that I may have missed in the past. I see my faculty colleagues hard at work doing similar kinds of reading and research. Although I have been teaching for more than 25 years, at the beginning of each term I have butterflies of nervousness and excitement. The anticipation of working with our gifted and hard-working students is tremendous.

I am finishing this post as Martin Luther King Day comes to a close. Perhaps it is fitting to end with two quotes from Dr. King (Brainyquote.com). When reading them, I thought about the professors I’ve known here who continue their efforts with “painstaking excellence,” and who now probably share my anticipation (and butterflies).

All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.

The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education

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Beginning Conversations: The Board Retreat, A CSS Lecture

The past few days have been extraordinarily busy. On Friday (9/7) we dedicated the new Usdan University Center, and there were many alumni, former trustees, and other friends of Wesleyan in town to help us celebrate. We were able to recognize a variety of contributors who made the planning and construction possible over the last ten years (!), and for me it was an opportunity to connect to many people who care about our school and who help move things forward. Standing on the third-floor terrace of the Usdan Center (or “the Suze,” as I’m told students call it) and looking across Andrus Field and Foss Hill, I am very grateful for the work of Doug Bennet and the trustees who envisioned this building at this location years ago.

Now, I know from reading the parents’ listserv and by talking to students, that our operation of the building has had some bumps in the last couple of weeks. As was true with MoCon, lines at the beginning of the year can be long, and we are still fixing issues in the building and in our getting food to students in a timely way. I can see progress, and we will continue to try to improve service to students, faculty, and staff who use the facility. Indeed, we expect “the Suze” to become a friendly hub for eating, conversation, and student committee meetings. Someone wrote in, concerned about it being “bland” and ordinary. This is a very traditional concern at Wesleyan, and often it is an expression of a desire to see things stay the way they used to be (for whomever is waxing nostalgic). I don’t share this concern myself, as I see students making the place their own, inventing their own education even as they learn from others.

The Wesleyan Board of Trustees begins the academic year with a retreat, which means here a day and a half of meetings focused on strategic issues facing the university. This was an occasion for me to talk with the Board (which includes representatives from the faculty and students) about my first impressions of coming back to Wesleyan, and to lay out some of the planning and research work we are taking on. There were three major areas of focus: endowment growth to make possible more robust financial aid and exciting innovations in the curriculum we offer our students; facilities enhancement, especially in the life sciences; communication effectiveness to clarify what Wesleyan stands for in the world of progressive liberal arts education. We discussed many other topics, but we kept returning to these key themes. I am sure to be writing about them again and again in the months to come as we consult with students, alumni, faculty, and staff about these priorities.

On a very different note, yesterday I had the great pleasure of giving a lunchtime talk for the College of Social Studies. It was wonderful to discuss my academic work in intellectual history, philosophy of history, and political theory – rather than the administrative side of my life. I focused on my work on contemporary French philosophy, psychoanalysis, and American pragmatism. At the beginning of the summer, I published a piece in Bookforum about the work in aesthetics of Jean-Luc Nancy, and I am now trying to finish a piece about my teacher, the great American pragmatist, Richard Rorty. Recently I sent off reviews of Mark Edmundson’s new book on Freud’s final year and of John Brenkman’s on political theory since 9/11. Today, of course, is the anniversary of that awful day. My remarks were about how my recent short writing is connected to my long-term intellectual interests.

The students at CSS are as tough minded and engaged as I remember them. In this program they learn to connect the kind of philosophical issues I was talking about with contemporary social, economic, and policy issues. They seemed engaged with one another and with the issues I brought up. It was only an hour, but it was a great sign to me of the energy and curiosity that have been the hallmarks of this program. We were fortunate last week to announce in The Wall Street Journal the Zilkha Chair in CSS, which is a wonderful way of enhancing the quality of this interdisciplinary program.

Here is the link to my Bookforum review of Nancy. I’ll post the links to the other reviews when they are published.

Thanks again to those people who have commented on what I’ve posted thus far. As I said initially, I won’t be able to respond to individual messages, but I do connect those posts that offer suggestions and criticism to the appropriate offices. I will try to find some time to introduce some more visual interest to the blog, but it may take a little while as I learn my way around the university.

My introduction to Wesleyan continues. THANKS FOR ALL THE HELP!

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Classes Are Underway…

I want to thank the folks who so generously expressed their support and welcome in their comments on my first entry. I am new to blogging, and undoubtedly I will make some mistakes. I guess that’s part of the drill.

Classes are now underway, and it is exciting to see the returning students mixing with our new frosh. Of course, there are the frustrations of the beginning of the semester. Not everyone gets the classes they want on the first try, and advisors are scrambling with their students to put together a rewarding collection of courses for every student. I remember my own disappointment long ago, when the creative writing professor discovered that I wasn’t in the “Junior or Senior” category and had to kick me out of his class. As a frosh, I was very annoyed (and even a little offended by the idea of class entry hierarchy), and I wound up sitting in a philosophy class taught by a visitor. I was very fortunate, and it turned out to be a life changing class. I loved the course, and I still study the philosophers I began reading that semester.

I know not everyone will be that fortunate, and that’s why we will closely monitor our ability to deliver courses that meet students’ needs as early in their careers as possible. We’ve enhanced our advising work this year so that we can meet the needs of our students more efficiently and intelligently. We will study the results of the enhancement to see if it is working.

Walking through the bookstore, I enjoy just perusing the shelves to see what my colleagues are assigning. It has been thirty years or so since I’ve been in the Wesleyan bookstore, but in some ways the experience is very familiar. The store itself seems spiffier, and there are certainly more items for sale to remind us of alma mater. But the textbooks still offer wonderful examples of continuity and change. I see classics that I studied (or wish I had studied!) in my youth, and intriguing new titles that remind me of how much more there is to learn. There are courses, like one in political theory, with many books (one per week, I suppose). Others, like a frosh seminar I wish I could take, with a single slim (and endlessly deep) volume. There are the fat, up-to-date science textbooks, and the skinny poetry paperbacks – each promising measures of insight and mystery. Religions of the world are represented through their sacred texts and commentaries, and the philosophical critiques of faith are there, too.

I am reminded that a great university, like Wesleyan, has an obligation to be innovative, cutting edge, and experimental. And it has an obligation to take care (to understand, appreciate, sometimes preserve) of the cultures that cannot be so easily integrated into our contemporary ways of thinking.
This weekend is my first meeting with the Board of Trustees since assuming the presidency. I have been very impressed with the individual conversations with board member over the last few months. They are all alumni or parents of students, and they care deeply about Wesleyan. Like the alum who posted a comment on this blog, they are reasonably skeptical. They are not satisfied with what is going on at any particular moment because they want, as I do, Wesleyan to remain self-critical, ambitious, and demanding. Next week I’ll be able to relate some of the major issues that get discussed at the retreat. But being at the trustee retreat means I’ll miss the first sports events of the season. Even the president can’t be everywhere!

Besides blogging and learning the presidential ropes, last week I sent off book reviews to the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. It is important for me to continue to write about topics independent of my administrative work. In this case, the books had to do with Sigmund Freud, on the one hand, and contemporary political theory, on the other. I’ll post the links to the reviews when they are published. On Monday, I am to give a lunchtime talk at the College of Social Studies about my recent scholarly work. I am eager to meet the CSS community, and I’ll be able to report on my impressions of this unique aspect of the Wesleyan community.

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