Classes Begin to Celebrate Labor Day

Last night Kari, Mathilde and I walked by the Huss Courtyard behind the Usdan University Center where hundreds of Wes students were gathered to take in the sounds of an amazing variety of a cappella groups. The cheers rained down, whether we were listening to old college tunes, Slavic folk songs, radio pop, and the occasional show tune. Did I really hear some Psi U brothers sing a bilingual version of La Vie en Rose? It was wonderful!! I felt like we were all getting in tune for the semester.

And now we are underway. Profs are putting the final touches on their syllabi, students are checking out lots of classes to see if they should keep the schedules chosen months ago, and the staff is making sure that the support structures are working — from library reserves to equipment in the fitness center. I meet with my Modern and Postmodern class in a few hours, and (like every year) I am both excited and nervous. I’ve been teaching for decades now, but each fall it’s the same mix of anticipation and worry. I’ve even had the traditional anxiety dreams about showing up unprepared… Sometimes, you don’t need Freud to discover a dream’s meaning…

Happy First Day of Classes!  Happy Labor Day!

Thinking Food, Thinking Animals

This weekend Michael Strumpf from Bon Appetit and I signed the RealFood Commitment. Thanks to Manon Lefevre (who also signed the document) and her comrades in WESFRESH, I came to see that we can do more to bring more locally grown, healthy, humane and sustainably produced food to our campus. We all know that this isn’t a panacea: signing this commitment doesn’t solve all the problems with our food supply. But it is a step in the right direction – a step we were proud to take.

I’ve arrived pretty late at any consciousness at all about these issues, and my receptivity to the students in WESFRESH was due almost entirely to my wife Kari, whose work in animal studies has intersected with environmental issues in general and food production in particular. This has been an exciting week for us because the first copies were delivered of Kari’s new book Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now?

The book examines “real and imagined confrontations between human and non-human animals, and “unseats the comfortable assumptions of humanist thought and its species specific distinctions.” Kari started off as a professor of French and comparative literature, but over the last several years has been increasingly involved with the burgeoning field of animal studies. The College of Letters has been a great interdisciplinary home for this wide variety of interests. Philosopher Lori Gruen and Kari co-direct a research institute at Wesleyan sponsored by the Humane Society that begins just after graduation. Lori’s Ethics and Animals is a key text in applied ethics and animal studies.

At the signing of the RealFood commitment, we were serenaded by a wonderfully inventive band, Ratched and the Lunatics, led by singer-songwriter Raechel Rosen.

The other members of the band are fabulous Wes students Shourjya Sen, Dylan Awalt-Conley, Robert Don, Jacob Masters, Rachel Pradilla, and Annie Maxwell. Their wonderful music was powered by a group of energetic cyclists, pedaling energy into batteries and generators (thanks to the College of the Environment).

Wesleyan renews energy every day. Go Wes!

Creativity Works at Wes

What follows is a book review I published this weekend in The Washington Post of “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” by Jonah Lehrer. For years people have said that Wesleyan is a place for creative students, and recently we have tried to define more specifically how the work on our campus helps students develop their capacities for innovation.

A few days ago, applicants to Wes found out whether they have been invited to join the class of 2016. The competition for spots was very intense this year. With more than 10,000 applicants, most of whom are highly qualified, the process of putting together a class is increasingly difficult. We are looking for students who will thrive in the engaged, collaborative and imaginative campus culture here. Over the next four weeks many of the prospective pre-frosh will be visiting Wes, trying to determine if this will be their home and their launch pad for the next four years. The students who choose Wesleyan will likely be those who find that the dynamic student and faculty culture stimulates their own imaginative capacities. Creativity works at Wesleyan.

UPDATE:

Check out these recent articles on the student music scene at Wes:

http://www.usatodayeducate.com/staging/index.php/ccp/student-and-alumni-musicians-bring-wesleyan-wave-to-the-national-scene

http://www.billboard.biz/bbbiz/industry/backbeat/backbeat-fort-lean-rocks-santos-party-house-1006320752.story

 

Here’s the review, crossposted from washingtonpost.com:

Not many writers can make plausible links among musicians Bob Dylan, Yo-Yo Ma and David Byrne, animators at Pixar, neuroscientists at MIT, an amateur bartender in New York, entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and Israeli army reservists. Not many reporters do research about an expert surfer who has Asperger’s, information theorists, industrial psychologists and artists. But Jonah Lehrer is such a writer-reporter, who weaves compelling and surprising connections based on detailed investigation and deep understanding. He says that working memory is an essential tool of the imagination, and his book is an excellent example of how a dynamic storehouse of captivating information feeds creative thinking and writing.

Lehrer begins with the story of a pop-culture breakthrough, the artistic reinvigoration that Dylan experienced when he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan was finishing a grueling tour schedule that had left him increasingly dissatisfied with making music. He decided to leave behind the madness of celebrity culture and the repetitive demands of pop performance. But once he was ensconced in Woodstock, N.Y., once he decided to stop trying to write songs, the great song came: “It’s like a ghost is writing a song,” he said. “It gives you the song and it goes away. You don’t know what it means.” Lehrer adds, “Once the ghost arrived, all Dylan wanted to do was get out of the way.”

Many of the stories that Lehrer recounts in the first few chapters stress the benefits of paying attention to internal mental processes that seem to come from out of the blue. We can learn to pay attention to our daydreams, to the thoughts or fantasies that seem nonsensical. Sometimes this attention must be very light, so that the stream of ideas and emotions flows, as when Ma feels his way into a new piece of music. Sometimes the attention must be very great, as when W.H. Auden (assisted by Benzedrine) focused on getting the words in a poem exactly right.

Lehrer explains some of the neuroscience behind these different modes of attentiveness. Making use of the power of the right hemisphere figures in, as does activating more energy from the prefrontal cortex to “direct the spotlight of attention.” He discusses experiments that explore which parts of the brain seem most active in different kinds of pursuits. For example, as the brain develops in childhood, the power to inhibit our flights of fancy grows. But as inhibition and focus increase, the capacity to improvise seems to diminish.

Lehrer notes that modern science has given new names to ideas that philosophers have been exploring for a very long time. Despite the fancy terminology, I found the anecdotes about scientific experiments less interesting than the anecdotes about poets, artists, surfers and inventors. That’s partly because the science stories seem to overreach, pretending to offer explanations for creativity by finding precise locations for the multitudinous connections that the brain generates. In an organ with the networking plasticity of the brain, location might not explain so much.

The last three chapters move from individuals to contexts. Lehrer offers fascinating accounts of why cities generate intense creative work and why certain urban-planning principles that emphasize heterogeneity (think Jane Jacobs) are so powerful. He shows us why teams that “are a mixture of the familiar and the unexpected,” such as those at Pixar, are the most innovative. Too much strangeness, and things fall apart. Too much closeness, and the generative spark is never struck.

Lehrer shows why brainstorming usually fails to result in real innovation because nobody is pushing back on bad ideas. “The only way to maximize creativity . . . is to encourage a candid discussion of mistakes. . . . We can only get it right when we talk about what we got wrong.” Or, as Lee Unkrich, a Pixar director, put it: “We just want to screw up as quickly as possible. We want to fail fast. And then we want to fix it. Together.”

Lehrer concludes with a discussion of why certain epochs seem to be more creative than others. Culture, he says, determines creative output, and it is through sharing information and making connections that we maximize that output. He quotes Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, who emphasizes that “even in this age of technology, we still get smart being around other smart people.”

Glaeser and Lehrer are showing why cities remain so important, but as the president of a university, I can also see how this applies to our campuses. Students and faculty seek the inspiration that is available all over campus, and that’s why so much learning happens outside the classroom. Sitting by yourself with your computer, even if you have access to thousands of Facebook “friends,” just isn’t the same as being in a creative, cosmopolitan culture in which new connections are continually (and surprisingly) formed.

“Imagine” doesn’t offer a prescription for how we are to become more imaginative, but it does emphasize some key ingredients of a creative culture: taking education seriously, increasing possibilities for human mixing and cultivating a willingness to take risks. Lehrer practices what he preaches, showing an appetite for learning, a determined effort to cross fields and disciplines, and a delight in exploring new possibilities. Reading his book exercises the imagination; the rest is up to us.


Celebrating Wesleyan Music

At the end of last week I was in New York City with a great group of Wesleyan alumni to celebrate the long tradition of musical innovation at Wesleyan. We gathered at the Thalia Café to salute Mark Slobin, whose book, Music at Wesleyan: From Glee Club to Gamelan was published last year by Wesleyan University Press.

 

The evening was great fun, and it followed the trajectory of the book. A subset of the Cardinal Sinners were up first. This women’s a cappella group started us off with the beautiful alma mater, and their set also included a Bob Dylan tune. As a long-time Dylan diehard, I was just delighted. The singers were followed by a great experimental trio of bassoon, saxophone and percussion. The group started from an Anthony Braxton composition, and took off.

 

The Gamelan closed the evening with beautiful sounds both serene and uplifting. Alumni joined newly named University Professor Sumarsam in an all-star group of devoted players.

Thanks to Mark Slobin and all who attended. I almost forgot, you can get a copy of Music at Wesleyan (it makes a great gift!) here.

Musical Contagion at Wesleyan

This week Sophie and I had dinner in Middletown and ran into a group of Wesleyan students and parents who were celebrating the end of the semester concert by the Mixolydians at the Memorial Chapel. Their laughter was contagious, and they greeted the two of us with verve. I was reminded of the joyful, adventurous singing that sweeps across our campus on a regular basis.

Speaking of joyful, adventurous music…on Tuesday I had lunch with Mark Slobin and Anthony Braxton, longtime professors of music at Wes. I’ve gotten to know Prof. Slobin over the last few years, and I wonder at his endless curiosity about the viral intersections of music with other forms of cultural production and with local traditions. He has written on music in northern Afghanistan and on klezmer, on Hollywood and on folk music, and lately authored Music at Wesleyan: From Glee Club to Gamelan. Mark is tireless in his efforts to strengthen both study and performance at Wes (and was recently appointed as the Richard K. Winslow Professor of Music).

I hadn’t met Prof. Braxton before, but I have heard him play. His pathbreaking work as a soloist, composer and teacher has been attracting audiences and students for decades. He is devoted to Wesleyan, and we spoke about the special “radiance” of the creative students who come to school here. Prof. Braxton’s energy and dedication to his craft are legendary, and I find deeply admirable his willingness to go beyond conventional musical borders. If you haven’t heard him play, you might just check out these two Youtube videos for a taste of what Anthony Braxton has to offer.

One of the joys of my job is getting together with faculty who are enlivened by the work they do. It is contagious for students…and for presidents, too!

Eclectic

For generations of students, the Eclectic Society has been a home for adventurous and ambitious students with an independent streak. At times the society has been highly intellectual, often with an artistic slant. In recent years the grand house on High Street has also been a place to hear popular yet original contemporary music. Eclectic has long been an important part of the social life of the Wesleyan campus and beyond.

Eclectic’s role in campus social life has also led to problems over the years. There have been concerns about the health and safety of residents, and about social events that have gotten out of control. The intense party atmosphere that had recently characterized Eclectic scared off many older alumni who felt that the great House at 200 High Street (designed by Henry Bacon and owned by Wesleyan) was being compromised. When I started as president several alumni asked me to protect the House from too much wear and tear. I found that when I met with current members of the society that they, too, wanted to protect the house. They also wanted to maintain the feisty, creative spirit of the society, and we agreed that with some effort we should be able to do both. I was impressed by the devotion of the Eclectic members, and I went to a great rock band senior thesis performance at the house last spring. How to balance the legitimate community concerns with artistic freedom and campus social life?

If you follow news of Wesleyan, you already know that there has recently been disciplinary action taken by the Student Judicial Board against Eclectic because of an incident at the house in December. The student board that heard the case found that the society had been guilty of violations of the party and noise policies and a failure to comply with requests from Public Safety. They thought a proper penalty for this would be to forbid Eclectic from hosting social/musical events at night through the end of April.

Many students have been very upset about this ruling because it doesn’t only affect Eclectic but the whole musical culture of Wesleyan. I understand the basis for this concern: the society does provide a vital function for the presentation of music in a distinctive setting. Much of the great musical culture we prize at Wesleyan passes through Eclectic. However, if the society can not present music in a way that is safe and that recognizes the rights of the neighborhood, then Eclectic won’t be able to play that role in the future.

I am confident that the SJB and Dean Backer acted in accordance with our procedures, and that their findings in regard to the events of December 8, 2008 were correct. However, based on communication with Eclectic since that time, and my belief that the society is committed to acting as responsible hosts for events, I have reconsidered and modified the sanction in this case.
I take seriously (and appreciate) Eclectic’s desire to host events in a way that works for the artists, is safe for those who attend, and respects the rights of neighbors. This is also my intention and the intention of Student Affairs. So, rather than ban events for the remainder of the semester, I have asked Marshall Ball, Eclectic’s President, and Dean Rick Culliton to work together on a written agreement that delineates Eclectic’s responsibilities for events going forward. If they can reach the agreement quickly, events can resume under the specific guidelines. As long as the events continue according to those guidelines, the ban will remain lifted.

At the end of the semester representatives of Eclectic and Student Affairs can discuss what went well, and where we need to pay more attention to run the kinds of events we all want. If we are unable to run events this term in accord with the principles with which we all agree, then we will not plan any social or musical events at 200 High Street going forward. Thus, this is a probationary period that should allow us to move to a better platform for events in the future.
I very much appreciate the difficult work that the Student Judicial Board did in sorting out the facts in this case. I also am grateful for the thoughtful responses from many in the Eclectic Society, and others who cherish the vibrant music scene on campus. I hope that by developing a framework for hosting events at 200 High Street we will continue to have interesting artists perform in a context that is exciting and safe for those who attend, and that is respectful of the community in which we live.

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