Outrage Takes our Breath Away

Yesterday I was in New York for Wesleyan meetings and was shocked when the grand jury there decided not to indict the police officer who killed Eric Garner with a chokehold. The streets were filled with folks demanding justice. The death was ruled a homicide, and through a video we could all witness the horrible attack on an African American man, who just asks to be left alone. Yet, the officer said he didn’t intend to hurt Eric Garner, and that seems to have been enough for the jurors.

Charles Blow put it this way in a column this morning:

Racism is interpersonal and structural; it is current and historical; it is explicit and implicit; it is articulated and silent.

Biases are pervasive, but can also be spectral: moving in and out of consideration with little or no notice, without leaving a trace, even without our own awareness. Sometimes the only way to see bias is in the aggregate, to stop staring so hard at a data point and step back so that you can see the data set. Only then can you detect the trails in the dust. Only then can the data do battle with denial.

Our desire to live in a world without racism, without prejudice and brutal bigotry, shouldn’t blind us to the realities of oppression all around us. Let this desire energize us to make change, to not only alleviate suffering but to fight injustice. Education should help us acknowledge the realities in the world — not simply to accept them.

Education should empower us to change the world. To make it a place where all can breathe more freely.

Wesleyan Media Project

For the past several years, Professor Erika Franklin Fowler has been conducting sophisticated research with her students on American electoral politics. This isn’t surprising; Prof. Fowler is in the Government Department, after all. Like many of her colleagues in that distinguished group, her work has reverberations far beyond campus. In this election cycle, journalists across the country are using analysis from the Wesleyan Media Project. Directed by Prof. Fowler with colleagues from Bowdoin College and Washington State University, the Wesleyan Media Project conducts quantitative and qualitative research to understand more fully the role of spending in races across the country. As the Knight Foundation puts it, “by tracking this data year by year, the project is establishing a reference point that journalists, scholars and citizens can rely on to trace the root of campaign funding and hold officials more accountable.”

More than 20 student researchers are providing real time analysis of spending patterns at a time when many are trying to hide campaign donations. In Sunday’s New York Times, for example the WMP’s work was cited in an article exploring how Democratic donors are coordinating their efforts on a few key messages while G.O.P. spending is far more diffuse. The goals of the WMP are as simple as they are important: “to develop a definitive database that tracks all advertising by source (corporation, union, interest group, party, or candidate), and to enhance the ability of scholars, citizens, and journalists to hold government accountable by providing public information on how special interests are attempting to influence American democracy in general and political campaigns in particular.”

Prof. Fowler was recently interviewed in or quoted on MSNBC, PBS Newshour, Wisconsin Public Radio, WNPR’s “Where We Live”, International Business Times, and Fox CT, among others. Other highlights include stories in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

This is engaged learning at its best! Stay tuned for more research from the Wesleyan Media Project on Oct 13. THIS IS WHY.

 

 

Shasha Seminar on the Novel

The novel has been at the core of lifelong learning for generations of students, and so I am delighted that this year’s Shasha Seminar will focus on the genre. Amy Bloom, who directs the Shapiro Creative Writing Center, is leading the event, which will take place on campus April 5-6. “The Novel is not only the form of fiction I love and know best,” she writes, “but also a form that is still enormously popular and evolving with readers, whether they are e-readers, fans of the turning page or creators and readers of novels that emerge Tweet by Tweet.  This will be a star-studded feast for readers and writers, a combination of pleasure, intellectual stimulation, with provocative questions, sublime readings and some unexpected answers.” Amy’s remarkable new novel, Lucky Us, is coming out this summer, and she has gathered together a most impressive group of authors to participate in the program.

A recent Philip Roth (no relation) interview in The New York Times underscored some crucial aspects of the genre. I particularly liked this: “The thought of the novel is embodied in the moral focus of the novel. The tool with which the novelist thinks is the scrupulosity of his style. Here, in all this, lies whatever magnitude his thought may have.”

In my Modern and Post-Modern course, students will soon have the pleasure of reading Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, and in the same class they’ve already read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. These novels are among a dozen or so I’ve taught over the years in my intellectual history classes, and the political, moral and aesthetic dimensions of the works have been key to my thinking about a wide range of issues. The Shasha Seminar will provide plenty to consider in relation to fantasy, history, politics, identity, desire and aesthetics…. It surely will be a feast for readers and writers!

The Shasha Seminar on The Novel begins Saturday, April 5, 2014 with a reception lunch.  Some sessions are open and free for students, and you can find out more about the event here.

 

Higher Education — Two Reviews

Over the summer I finished a short book called Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. It will be published in the spring.  I also reviewed two interesting books on American higher education, one that focused on teaching and the other providing a broad overview of the sector. You can find my review of Why Teach? here, and of Higher Education in America, from yesterday’s Washington Post, below.

Today classes begin, and I am delighted to head back to the classroom. Last night we heard some of the amazingly talented students who sing a capella at Wes, and now we are finishing our syllabi and checking our reserve readings. I am teaching the Past on Film and am looking forward to meeting the students.

 

American higher education is the envy of the world. Students flock to this country from all over, and the most highly ranked schools tend to be here. We should be proud!

American higher education is a mess. With high costs, low graduation rates, unhappy faculty members and coddled students, our universities are about to be radically disrupted by massive, technologically driven change. A good thing, too!

How to reconcile these opposing views? At a time when ambitious business-school professors and salivating entrepreneurs predict the end of the university as we know it, and at a time when we have never been more in need of an educated workforce and citizenry, the task of understanding the evolving mission and performance of American higher education has never been more urgent. Thank goodness Derek Bok, a two-time president of Harvard and a judicious, learned analyst of education, has taken on this undertaking. His book is too long to be called a report card, but it is a detailed progress report on the challenges and opportunities facing our nation’s colleges and universities.

One of the first things to note about higher ed in the United States is its heterogeneity. The problems of Harvard are not the same as the problems of the University of Texas or those of Scripps College in California or of LaGuardia Community College in New York. Bok tries to address schools in all their multiplicity, and his book suffers somewhat from the clunkiness that also characterizes higher ed. The book’s five sections discuss instruction from undergraduate to graduate and professional schools, as well as the market forces at work at each level. After the introduction, there are five forewords and four afterwords — not including the short final chapter called “The Last Word.” Yet one forgives redundancies because of the thoroughness of the research and the measured judgment consistently applied.

After noting the variety in higher ed, Bok acknowledges the extraordinary inequalities in the sector. Public discussion of education often focuses on the schools most difficult to get into, but “no more than two hundred colleges regularly reject more students than they admit.” At most highly selective schools (such as the one at which I am president), students receive some subsidy from the institution — even those paying full tuition. Students enrolled at less-selective schools get a small fraction of that support. Public institutions have seen dramatic reductions in state support for universities, and many flagship campuses are scrambling for donations and out-of-state, full-tuition-paying students. Community colleges enroll dramatically more people than other parts of the sector, but most of these students will never earn a degree.

Bok shows that the current quip that universities haven’t changed their teaching styles since the Middle Ages is just an empty canard. Universities have adapted surprisingly well to massive changes in technology, in demography and in developing streams of support. But Bok is no Pollyana, emphasizing that “universities have been especially slow to act . . . in improving the quality of undergraduate education.” Professors often confuse their desire to teach what interests them the most with what undergrads need to learn, and students in recent years are spending far less time on their studies than in past generations. Bok shows how schools cater to students in order to attract more of them, often with little attention to how campus amenities provide distractions from studying.

Bok knows the governance structures of universities as well as anyone, and he realizes that true curricular reform has to be led by the faculty. The challenge, from his perspective, is to make the faculty (at least its leadership) more aware of the empirical work on student learning that has been done over the past decade. Professors may be focused on their research and distracted by committee work, but the evidence shows that they care deeply about teaching effectiveness.

“The key to educational reform,” Bok writes, “lies in gathering evidence that will convince faculty that current teaching methods are not accomplishing the results that the professors assume are taking place.” Once the teachers understand the need for change, they will rise to the occasion and create classes that are more effective at developing the capacities that most agree are essential in college graduates. They have done so in the past, and they will do so again.

Bok’s confidence in the faculty is characteristic of his approach in this book. He believes that our varied system of higher education is very much capable of self-correction. Do we need to bend the cost curve? Sure, and that is why experiments such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) are so interesting (and mostly led by university veterans). Is there a liberal bias on our campuses? Sure, and it has been there at least since the 1940s, but faculty members realize they need more political diversity. Do university leaders spend too much time raising money? Sure, but American schools — especially the selective ones — get much more support than schools in other countries. We may have the worst system, he jokes, but like democracy, it’s better than all the alternatives.

Bok underscores two areas in urgent need of improvement: increasing the percentage of students who graduate from college and improving the quality of undergraduate education. We must do a better job attracting low-income students to our best colleges and universities, no longer wasting financial aid on wealthy students with high SAT scores to improve an institution’s place in bogus rankings. We must also do a better job of stimulating curricular reform and assessment so as to be sure students are working hard to learn what they need to know — whether at a community college or a research university. Of course, reaching agreement on what students need to know is a great challenge, but that’s the core of the faculty’s responsibility.

Competition among schools produces benefits and causes problems. Most of the important ones are addressed in Bok’s helpful volume. I hope he is right that we already have the ingredients in place to make the necessary reforms. I know we need university leaders like him to help activate those ingredients so that American higher education can continue to contribute in vital ways to our culture, our economy and our polity.

Education, Public Life…Freedom and MUSIC!

This morning the New York Times ran an opinion piece I wrote on education as freedom. Earlier in the summer I’d posted on Jane Addams, and on the debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. All this comes from the book I am writing, Why Liberal Education Matters. I believe more strongly than ever in pragmatic liberal learning, and it’s good to have a chance to kick these ideas around in the public domain.

This year Wesleyan continues the “Creative Campus” initiative we got underway some years ago now. We believe that our form of education stimulates innovation and develops habits of mind that lead to regular participation in (and appreciation for) creative pursuits. Pam Tatge, director of the CFA, and Provost Rob Rosenthal are in New York today to discuss how our work in this area might be helpful to other colleges and universities.

I’m particularly excited about one of this year’s Creative Campus initiatives, the Music and Public Life program chaired by Mark Slobin. There are many great events, and tomorrow (September 7) we start off with The Mash — lots of campus bands performing with time for open, spontaneous performance. It all kicks off at noon in the Huss Courtyard (behind the Usdan University Center) with The Mattabesset String Collective — Barry Chernoff, Marc Eisner, Rebecca McCallum, Gil Skillman and Kevin Wiliarty.

Marc is away from campus presenting a paper, and I will have the great pleasure of sitting in with the group. They are actually going to let me play some guitar, keyboards, and harmonica. I even get to sing a little Dylan!  Later in the afternoon there will be performances by great student bands in front of Olin, WestCo, and… I hear Bear Hands is playing at Foss Hill late in the afternoon. It should be quite a day!!!

A Tale of Three Alumni

Last night the folks on Wesconnect were all a-twitter because Bill Belichick ’75 during one of his many press conferences picked out a reporter wearing a Wesleyan University sweatshirt. It’s not unusual for the smartest coach in the NFL to acknowledge alma mater. Bill has great affection for Wes, and has been supportive of our efforts in athletics and financial aid. Kimberley Martin ’03, a reporter from Newsday, was wearing the red and black.

This week the Middletown Press named Izzi Greenberg ’05 “Person of the Year.” Izzi has been a force for good things in Middletown’s North End for many years. Along with her organization NEAT (North End Action Team), she helped Wesleyan start the Green Street Art Center, and she has worked on behalf of her neighborhood every chance she gets. As The Middletown Press puts it: “Greenberg said her biggest success in 2011 was perhaps the North End Farmers Market, where NEAT saw visitors from 42 different municipalities. The North End Farmers Market doubled the value of federal benefits, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, essentially giving families on assistance 50 percent off their purchase, she said.”

This morning’s New York Times featured Lael Brainard ’83, U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Under Secretary for International Affairs. The Times described Lael, also a former Trustee at Wes, as our chief financial diplomat. At Davos this week she is playing a crucial role in negotiating with European countries as they struggle with debt relief. According to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner: “They trust her, they reach out to her, they talk to her for ideas and to get us to engage.”

Three very active alumni in three very different spheres of public engagement. If I had enough time, I could list hundreds more..

Our Desperate Need for Honest Leadership

This past weekend I posted the following on the HuffingtonPost, and it provoked a fair amount of comments. I cross-post it here, though it is somewhat more directly political than what I usually write for this blog. I won’t use this blog to support specific candidates, but from time to time political issues are so relevant to educational ones, and I do write on a variety of topics...

What a week it has been! On Monday the New York Times‘ conservative columnist, David Brooks, was criticizing the Republican Party in the harshest terms. On Friday, the paper’s liberal economist, Paul Krugman, was attacking President Obama for adopting the conservative fiscal agenda and betraying his core progressive creed. What’s going on?

For Brooks, we are faced with what he called “the mother of all no-brainers.” We now have broad agreement in Congress that we must deal with the long-term deficit, and this itself is a victory for the Republicans. They control the political discourse, and they can achieve many of their economic goals. But in a move that recalls the Dems’ ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the Republicans refuse to make a deal that would reduce the deficit by trillions.

Brooks is scathing:

But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity. That’s because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.

And he goes on:

Members of this tendency have taken a small piece of economic policy and turned it into a sacred fixation. They are willing to cut education and research to preserve tax expenditures. Manufacturing employment is cratering even as output rises, but members of this movement somehow believe such problems can be addressed so long as they continue to worship their idol.

He concludes that if the talks on the debt ceiling fail, it will be clear that the Republicans are not fit to govern.

Krugman is just as exercised by what he sees as Obama’s failure to apply either progressive values or sensible economic principles in his approach to dealing with the Republican deficit hawks:

But let’s be frank. It’s getting harder and harder to trust Mr. Obama’s motives in the budget fight, given the way his economic rhetoric has veered to the right. In fact, if all you did was listen to his speeches, you might conclude that he basically shares the G.O.P.’s diagnosis of what ails our economy and what should be done to fix it. And maybe that’s not a false impression; maybe it’s the simple truth.

For years, Krugman has viewed Obama’s compromises as an abdication of his responsibilities, and he speculates that the president is trying a Clintonesque maneuver that may have political sense but is an economic disaster. In a period of anemic job growth, Obama’s channeling of Herbert Hoover’s economic philosophies will only prolong the experience of dire recession for millions of Americans.

Brooks and Krugman both see that the Republican Party has been enormously successful in focusing attention on fiscal responsibility, which is resulting across the country in massive cuts to spending. These cuts will necessarily cause most pain to the most vulnerable — those who depend on government services. If the GOP were really serious about fiscal responsibility, its members would complement the cuts already won with increased revenue from those who have reaped the greatest rewards from our economic environment. This is what a political party ready to govern should do.

Meanwhile, we have an epidemic of unemployment, and nothing that the government is now doing is addressing this issue. Where is the enormous intellectual and political energy that Obama’s team displayed in preventing a banking system collapse, and that saved a large segment of the American automobile industry? Why has the president not had the courage of his convictions? Can he really believe that an imaginary bipartisan political pragmatism will trump economic realities?

Sensible government seems to have become a contradiction in terms. Democratic leaders have no ideas of their own, while Republican leaders are dedicated to protecting the rich — not to fiscal responsibility. Republican “non-starter” talk about additional revenue is an ideological fixation, not an economic theory. Democrats pandering to their base with calls to maintain the entitlement status quo won’t produce a sustainable health care system.

Protecting the least vulnerable remains the Republican’s highest priority, while protecting their political future seems to be what concerns Democrats. Where can we find honest leadership worthy of the name? We desperately need it.

Young Profs Making a Difference in the Public Sphere

Just a quick addendum to my last post on participation in the political sphere. This weekend two of our young professors in the social sciences weighed in on important national/international issues in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. In an OpEd for The Los Angeles Times, Laura Stark, who teaches sociology and is part of the Science in Society Program and the College of the Environment , explained how the current research review system in the United States remains inadequate. On the heels of a US apology for dangerous and cruel medical research in Guatemala, the US now has on opportunity to overhaul ethics rules. Stark makes specific recommendations as to how we can avoid both the steamrolling of subjects and an echo chamber of assent on ethics review panels.

As I drank my morning coffee and read the New York Times on Sunday, I saw Erika Franklin Fowler’s research with the Wesleyan Media Project cited once again. In this instance, she was discussing how China has become the scapegoat for many desperate candidates in this election cycle. Fear of China’s recent economic progress seems to have re-ignited traditional anti-Chinese racism, and many political advertisements are tapping into this cauldron of hate and anxiety.

Political scientist Elvin Lim continues to offer trenchant analysis and thoughtful opinions on his blog, Out on A Lim. Today he wondered if President Obama has been too quick to back down when challenged by a forceful opposition. He concluded his reflections on transformations in White House staffing by saying: “There can only be as much change as that which the president himself ultimately believes in.”

How much change do you believe in? Whatever you hope to see happen in the public sphere, I hope you will be inspired by our young social science faculty and get engaged!


Labor Day and the Start of the Semester

This year our first day of the semester is also Labor Day, which has certainly caused grumbling among some of us who have to show up for class on Monday rather than enjoying the last long weekend of summer. And of course it’s not just a matter of showing up Monday. Syllabi need final preparation, lectures must be written, and advisees are looking for guidance.

But on this Labor Day we should remember those who won’t have to report this week at all because there aren’t enough jobs. With official unemployment stubbornly remaining between 9% and 10%, there are many around us who are suffering from the poverty and despair of not being able to find work. Bob Herbert’s column in the New York Times on September 4 underscores the plight of a group of custodians recently laid off from their jobs at a luxury office building in Los Angeles. Closer to home, the Middletown food bank Amazing Grace reports a red alert because of the low level of supplies on their shelves. Right here at Wesleyan, we have made a small number of position reductions over the last 18 months. Each job is personal not just institutional, and each position elimination was painful.

As students plan their courses for the fall, and as faculty plan their curricula, how should we connect the reality of labor and unemployment to the broad liberal learning we so value? It can be done very specifically, as with Claire Potter’s Frosh History Seminar on Poverty in the United States, and it can be done more generally by thinking through how a liberal arts education is related to how one will support oneself. As I have said many times now in various venues, I believe a liberal education has never been more relevant to work in the world than it is today. This has little to do with the specific choice of concentration by an undergraduate. I was recently talking to a Wes parent who told me that in interviewing over a thousand people for jobs over the years he has never asked what somebody majored in during college. Instead, he has been looking for the ability to think creatively and critically, to imagine possibilities and to solve problems. This is the kind of ability cultivated by liberal learning.

A liberal education teaches that rigor and innovation, far from being in tension with one another, can often go hand in hand. Patience and diligence — practice and method — are qualities developed across a liberal arts curriculum. The American pragmatists celebrated inquiry as a mode of experience, and teachers and students today continue to believe that we must reflexively look back on our own inquiries to assess the learning process and whether the results are relevant to life beyond the specific questions being pursued. Self-criticism need not be navel-gazing. The practical is not the enemy of the true.

For years I have been saying that an undergraduate education should help students to discover what they love to do, and to get better at it. I’ve recently realized that it is important to emphasize a third goal: to develop the capacity to share what one loves to do (and has gotten a little better at) with others. This third goal, let’s call it “engagement,” connects what one has learned with what one can do with the communities to which one belongs.

The education that our students begin on Labor Day doesn’t promise a specific kind of job, but it does promise to expand one’s possibilities for meaningful work after graduation. Learning to learn also means learning to work, to engage with others in getting things done, creating opportunities and solving problems. Engaging with others also means being aware when we can be helpful to those in need, those who may not have the same opportunities we are enjoying while at the university.

My hope for Labor Day and the beginning of the semester is that through study and engagement we will eventually learn to create more jobs so that the perils and anxieties that mark this year’s holiday won’t become permanent parts of our economy and culture.

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Teachers Needed!

The New York Times Sunday Magazine today published a special “College” issue. Wesleyan figured prominently in it. A story about the use of student evaluations features a teacher whose contract the university did not renew last year. Another article describes a recent Wesleyan grad, Jordan Goldman ‘04, who has developed UNIGO, a web-based guide to schools based on mass input rather than on “expert evaluation.” Jordan had an idea that defied the well-worn genre of the college guide. His Internet version gathers information from anyone who wants to send it in. This young entrepreneur is launching his business with the help of some other Wesleyan alums.

A key focus of the magazine is teaching. Reading it led me to think about some of the inspirational teachers with whom I studied over the years, and about the great faculty I see here at Wesleyan. When you think about your best teachers, what is it that makes them great?

Mark Edmundson introduces the theme of the magazine with an insightful essay on the ingredients of good teaching. Mark has been an English professor at the University of Virginia for many years, and he underscores that “really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does.” The strong teacher opens up new ways of seeing the economy or works of art, new ways of recognizing patterns in cell division or in music. Fundamentally, strong teachers undermine conventions — they don’t appeal to whatever happens to be popular.

It is also vital that teachers not merely offer an alternative orthodoxy in their classes. The classroom isn’t a place to convert students to a model that has all the answers; it’s the place to discover that nobody has all the answers, and that inquiry, self-criticism and an openness to changing one’s mind are key to leading a meaningful life. That’s probably why Mark Edmundson writes that the great enemy of knowledge isn’t ignorance but “knowingness.” When teachers encounter students who think they have all the answers, our job is to undermine their certainty. And when students find teachers who think they know it all, they are usually savvy enough to look for different classes.

One of the reasons I enjoy teaching so much is that students open up new questions for me about things I thought I’d understood. At the same time, it is thrilling to see them changing their perspectives on things they had thought were clear. Together, we open ourselves to new ideas and to different ways of seeing the world. At least that’s what we’re aiming for. When we open ourselves to new ideas, we stand a better chance of discovering what we love to do.

Perhaps this all sounds too easy, too positive. It isn’t. It’s difficult to open yourself to questioning the things you deeply care about, and there is always the temptation to defend oneself against painful uncertainty by latching onto some orthodoxy – something that “goes without saying.”

This may be why there is so much anti-intellectualism in the current national election (see the Times interview with Charles Murray today). We should have learned in the last two presidential elections the danger of choosing someone on the basis of the candidate being “the kind of guy you want to have a beer with.” In this time of international crisis, the last thing we need in our country’s leadership is more close-minded arrogance masquerading as friendly populism. We do need leaders with the courage to defy knowingness – leaders who can think as well as act. We need teachers, teachers who are open to learning!

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