Arrival Day (Part Three)

Well, this isn’t really about arrival day, but about the “common moment” evening of orientation. The theme for the first year students followed our “Feet to the Fire” program concerning climate change, and this year students focused on issues about water. Readings, lectures and discussion groups examined the cultural, economic, and spiritual dimensions of water, with some important focus points on purification and distribution.

Friday night at least 500 of the frosh gathered at the base of Foss Hill to learn dances with a water theme from different cultures around the globe. The great Wes drummers and dancers led the event, and the rhythms were stirring. Prof. Barry Chernoff, who has been inspiring our efforts in environmental studies and our planning for the College of the Environment, helped stir up enthusiasm for the event with Pam Tatge, Director of the Center for the Arts. Dance professor Nicole Stanton was joined by grad students, faculty and staff in keeping the crowd moving. There was joyful participation (and great ice cream!). The program concluded with the fire dancing students of Prometheus. My camera phone isn’t adequate to capture the powerful scene, but here are a few snaps:

Fire Dance at Foss Hill
Fire Dance at Foss Hill
Fire Dance at Foss Hill (2)
Fire Dance at Foss Hill (2)

The frosh are now being joined by the rest of the students, with classes beginning Tuesday. This fall we will see the results of our small class initiative, which has added dozens of new classes to the curriculum. My own small seminar meets on Mondays, so I’ll have a bit more time to prepare, inspired by how Andrus Field and Foss Hill came alive Friday night.

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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.

Towards Commencement

The last finals are winding up, and the campus is quieting down. It’s a beautiful day, but Foss Hill welcomes only a few clusters of students. Perhaps even the seniors have gone off for the weekend before the days leading up to Commencement.

Yesterday I received word that the New England Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association named John Raba, the Head Coach of Men’s Lacrosse, Division III Coach of the Year. A well deserved honor! This spring many of our athletic teams had very strong seasons, with Baseball beating out Amherst for a playoff spot, Softball making it to the finals of the NESCAC tournament, and Men’s Lacrosse winning the NESCAC Championship.

Last night the Justin-Jinich family joined with the Wesleyan community for a memorial celebration planned by Johanna’s closest friends. There were beautiful words, pictures and stirring music. A deep sadness settled over our Chapel, but an even deeper love poured from it.

For the next several days we will be sprucing up the campus and preparing for Commencement. Endings and beginnings — this is a time of completion and renewal. Let’s hope for another beautiful day.

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Science (and other things) to Cheer About

I had written most of this blog before last night’s fire in the Hall Atwater Chemistry Building. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries, and thanks to the dedicated work of the Fire Department, Public Safety and our Physical Plant staff, we are preparing for the re-occupancy of most of the building very soon. We are currently rescheduling classrooms. For more information about Hall-Atwater, check:

http://www.wesleyan.edu/registrar/HallAtwater.html

WesFest is over now, and it was a great weekend for introducing prospective students to the campus, the academics, and the special culture of Wesleyan. I described this as best I could each morning as I welcomed parents and their (recently accepted to Wes) students gathered in Beckham Hall. Our visitors acquired a more meaningful feel for the university from panels, from classes, from the vibe on Foss Hill as the spring sun finally arrived, and from the great music emanating from WestCo or even from interlopers on Andrus Field.

Courtesy of Olivia Bartlett
Mad Wow Disease – Foss Hill

Almost every time I go around showing the campus to others, I myself discover something about our school that deepens my appreciation of what goes on here. This weekend there were plenty of athletic contests to look in on. I watched tennis, track and lacrosse, and in each case the students put forth impressive efforts. This was no surprise to me because I’d met the coaches and many of the players already.  On Saturday I also discovered the dynamic wonder that is Nietzsch Factor, Wesleyan’s Ultimate Frisbee team. Peter Lubershane ’10 had let me know that the team had organized a multi-school tournament at the Long Lane fields. Even from my brief visit to the sidelines, I could see that Wes is a real powerhouse in this sport. And have athletes ever had more fun? I often talk about the exuberance of our students, and it was in full flower Saturday in that competition.

On Friday I stopped in at the Science Center and saw some student work displayed in the lobby. The students were holding a poster session on their research projects — from computer science to astronomy, from physics and earth science to neuroscience and mathematics.  I was struck by how conceptually sophisticated and empirically grounded the work was. In short, there was plenty to cheer about.

Jan Naegele introduced me to a few of her students, including Keith Tan ‘09, who gave me a fine description of his work on cell death. It seems that cell death is something at times to be encouraged, and Keith’s research explored some of the biochemistry that made the process possible.

Courtesy of Olivia Bartlett
Listening to Professor Naegele and Keith Tan ’09 @ the poster session

Hannah Sugarman ‘09 talked to me about her thesis research, through which she discovered more than a dozen new black holes in our “local universe.” Who knew? Certainly not I. The collaborative nature of the work across the sciences was especially impressive.  As I was I checking out the astronomy project of Anna Williams ’09, I noticed some printed papers appended to the poster board and asked about them. She cheerfully replied that she and some astronomy colleagues had already published some of the results in a scientific journal. It was the reprint that was hanging from the poster, and there are more publications to come!

Courtesy of Olivia Bartlett
Hannah Sugarman ’09 and Professor Laurel Appel

Scientific research at Wesleyan is one of the distinctive aspects of the university. Our students are not just spectators of science; they are active participants in it. Our small graduate programs allow our undergrads to establish working relationships with more experienced students while they continue to do research with faculty engaged with projects of international import. Wesleyan has shown for decades that a small liberal arts institution can contribute to advancing scientific fields. The poster session during WesFest underscored how vital that contribution continues to be.

All photos courtesy of Olivia Bartlett

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Snowy Campus for the Holidays

Most of the students have left campus, which in the last days has been beautifully blanketed in snow. Foss Hill has become the center of sledding in Middletown, though Sophie and her friend Claire tell me that you get more “air time” on the terraced steps behind Olin.

Wishing you a wonderful holiday season and a great 2009!!

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Getting Ready

Perhaps it’s the cool breezes in the morning and evening, or perhaps it’s the student workers who have begun to settle in, but as I walk around campus I’m getting that “back to school” feeling that makes every fall so special. After bookending my summer with vacations in Norway and Maine, I am eager to see our Wes students and teachers trotting to classes, sharing a meal at Usdan, or simply taking in the late summer sunshine on Foss Hill. We are getting ready!

During the summer I’ve been able to work with colleagues on evaluating how we did last year, and to plan the next steps for enhancing the curriculum, supporting the faculty, and making our students’ experience as meaningful as possible. Last year we gathered proposals that have helped us establish working priorities for improving class access, stimulating research, and enhancing the integration of the curriculum in the first two years. This summer we have built on those ideas and also prepared a new initiative to improve co-curricular offerings that link residential life with what students are learning in their classes.

In addition to the regular cycle of planning and goal development, this summer we have also created a task force to examine our policies and procedures in light of the incident with the police that occurred at the end of last semester on Fountain Ave. This committee of students, faculty and staff — led by Mike Whaley (VP for Student Affairs) — will report to me by the end of the summer. I will be meeting with Middletown police and civic leaders after I receive this report. My goal will be to ensure the safety and freedom of our community in a context that promotes a positive relationship with our town and region. Wesleyan has long been known for civic engagement, and that starts right here in Middletown.

Speaking of civic engagement, I hope that many of our students will be returning to campus with thoughts of the upcoming national election. I expect that there will be robust dialogue on the issues raised by various campaigns, and that our students will play a role in stimulating political participation. This is a time to make one’s voice heard, and it is also a time to listen to different voices. Elections matter, and this election offers opportunities for education and action. The stakes are very high.

Since I’ll be teaching a course on photography and philosophy this fall, I’ve also spent some of my summer getting ready for my first Wes seminar in 30 years. Whereas my film course last spring was a large lecture format, this will be a small class focused on contemporary scholarship. I have long been interested in how photography has changed the ways we make sense of the past, and the ways we represent the world. At CCA I taught this class for students in the visual arts, and I am excited to see how Wesleyan students respond to these issues in a liberal arts context. It won’t be long now!

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WesFest

Over the next few days our campus will be filled with visitors checking out Wesleyan as a place to spend their undergraduate years. WesFest combines parties and seminars, musical performances and athletic events, music and fashion shows to celebrate Wesleyan and (finally) the arrival of spring.

I met with a group of pre-frosh and their families this morning in Beckham Hall. They want to know if Wesleyan is the place where they will truly thrive; they want to know if Wesleyan will inspire them to expand their horizons while providing them with a community in which they will develop close friendships that go beyond the circles of relationships they began forming in high school. Students want to sense if faculty truly care about mentorship (they do), and if their fellow students are truly welcoming and supportive (they are). Parents want to understand that the liberal arts education being offered their students will help them know themselves better, navigate in the world more effectively, and remain a resource for life-long learning. I tell them that the liberal arts curriculum at Wesleyan does all these things because I’ve seen it happen time and time again. I’ve also experienced it in my own life. Ours is a challenging community, one that expects much from students, faculty and staff. But it is also a community that pulls together when faced with difficulties, and that celebrates (with gusto) achievement in athletics, scholarship, artistic endeavors and scientific research.

Wesleyan is a joyful place to learn. Now that it is April, I am reminded of this each day when I look from my office in South College over to Foss Hill. If you are here on campus, Welcome to WesFest!! If you are reading this far away from Middletown, just remember the happy music that drifts across Andrus Field as students ask their teachers if they can have class outside, and as we welcome spring to New England.

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