Time Passes, Classes Begin (and so do exhibitions)!

Today classes get underway, and for me that’s always an exciting time. I re-tooled the Past on Film quite a bit this semester, and I am eager to see how the course develops in its new incarnation. I know many of my faculty colleagues have been developing new versions of old favorites, or developing new courses that address issues that have recently come to the fore. We are building a syllabus library, and you can check out some examples of what’s being taught at Wes here.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of greeting Wesleyan’s graduate students as they finished a day long symposium exploring career options in the sciences and music. Graduate students are not always very visible at our small university, but they play a vital role in our educational ecology. MA and Ph.D. students in ethnomusicology, chemistry, liberal studies, biology or experimental composition (to name just some of their fields) are all developing as scholars and teachers even while still being students. James Ricci, the head of the Graduate Students Association, heads up a vibrant, diverse and dedicated community. Bill Herbst, astronomer and Director of Graduate Studies, and Cheryl-Ann Hagner, who is in charge of graduate student services, are providing greater visibility and support to this important area at Wesleyan.

As classes get underway, there is a most interesting exhibition set to open in the Zilkha Gallery. The show is entitled “Passing Time,” and it features some extraordinarily gifted contemporary artists. Here’s a description of the show from the Center for the Arts: “The multiple and converging meanings of the phrase “passing time”–spending time, time to die–are explored in the evocative imagery of recent art by fourteen international artists working in video, photography, sculpture and works on paper. Some artists turn to sport, some to music; some refer to nature and its rhythms to explore concepts of time–short term, long term and terminating. Others partner with time itself in their making of art. Time is a concept that philosophers and physicists ponder. Time provides a framework that orders, measures and defines. We spend time, we waste it, we keep it; time flies, it drags. It is elastic in its perception–long when we are young, gaining momentum as we age. This exhibition explores the relationship between the time of our life and the time of the eons. The exhibit features works by Rineke Dijkstra (The Netherlands), Shaun Gladwell (Australia), Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Stefana McClure and Bill Viola (United States), among others. The exhibition is curated by Ginger Gregg Duggan and Judith Hoos Fox of c2—curatorsquared. Faculty members from six disciplines have written reactions to the show: Lutz Huwel (Physics), Bill Herbst (Astronomy), John Seamon (Psychology), Sara Croucher (Anthro), Uli Plass (German) and Janne Hoeltermann (Studio Art). Check out the website, or better yet, see the work at Zilkha.

The doors of Zilkha open on Friday, and the official opening celebration is Tuesday, January 31, from 5-7 pm.

Best wishes to all as the new semester begins!

 

 

 

Why We Teach

I noticed on the calendar today that this week there are some “Pre-Select Interviews” for students planning to apply to Teach for America this year. Teach for America was a popular choice for Wes grads even before other jobs after graduation became so scarce, and it continues to attract some of our most thoughtful and engaged students. For many years, Wesleyan has contributed a disproportionate share of teachers to schools at all levels, and our Graduate Liberal Studies program has provided hundreds of teachers in central Connecticut with advanced degrees. There is currently a task force of faculty and administrators investigating whether we should re-start a program of study for undergraduates intending to pursue careers in education. We certainly need new ideas for improving our schools — and a better understanding of how our education system now reproduces inequality rather than offering an escape from it.

Wesleyan faculty are celebrated for their devotion to their students, and some have been recognized nationally for their extraordinary work in the classroom. I’m thinking of Richie Adelstein in Economics and Andy Szegedy-Maszak in Classics. And I’m thinking of a film prof of whom Joss Whedon said, “I’ve had two great teachers in my life — one was my mother, the other was Jeanine Basinger.” Not every prof gets to see things like that in print, but we all take pride in them.

I’d like to think that one of the core reasons so many of our students go on to careers in education is that they are inspired by the energy and dedication of their teachers at Wesleyan. Whether they are studying computational biology or ethnomusicology, postmodern Christian thought or microeconomics, our students are enlivened by the work of their professors. And as their teachers, we are enlivened by the creativity, inquisitiveness and intellectual verve of our students. My colleagues tell me that I’m happiest just after I come back from the classroom. Now as our fall term comes to an end, I’m already beginning to wonder who will be in my spring course…

Emerson wrote that colleges “serve us when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.” That’s why we teach. To see those fires and to feel their warmth.

Campus Renovations

After an extended time away from Middletown, I always enjoy coming back to see the changes to various parts of campus. This summer there are many, from the sad dismantling and recycling of MoCon to the freshly painted dome of the historic Van Vleck observatory that shines anew atop Foss Hill.

We continue to make steady progress on renovating our science facilities. New fire alarms and sprinklers were put into Hall-Atwater and Shanklin; new ceilings and energy efficient lighting are being installed in the Hall-Atwater corridors; three Chemistry teaching labs are almost unrecognizable after being newly outfitted; and various improvements to other labs will support their high levels of research.

We are finishing a major project at the CFA Crowell Concert Hall. A handicap ramp has been added to the main entrance, and a new elevator being installed inside a former stairwell is going to provide easy accessibility to all levels of the Concert Hall.

Housing renovations accommodate more than 40 new beds for undergraduates.  Most notably, 156 High Street has a brand new suite of 10 beds on the main floor including handicap accessible restrooms and card access for everyone at the main entrance. 109 Cross Street and the former Community Service Office at 162 Church Street have been transformed into senior housing. The Womanist House is relocating to 44 Brainard Avenue, the German Haus is moving to a newly renovated 65 Lawn Avenue, and 260 Pine Street has been converted into a 6-bedroom house for seniors.

Energy conservation projects continue to be implemented across campus.  Residence halls have been furnished with a new energy metering and monitoring system. The new system will allow the expansion of the student run Do-It-In-the-Dark program which has been so successful in reducing energy consumption in student houses. Monitors located in residence halls will display real time data on energy consumption.

Several programs moved this summer to spaces better suited to their needs. The College of the Environment has moved to 284 High Street (formerly GLSP). The Graduate Liberal Studies Program is now at 74 Wyllys Avenue (formerly the Investment Office), right next door to the Admission Office. The Investment Office has relocated to the 4th floor of North College alongside the Treasurer and Finance and Administration offices, and some staff from Finance and Administration are moving to 287 High Street (formerly the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies building).

The Physical Plant staff has been working hard and productively all summer long. You’ll see the happy results when you come back to campus.

 

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Small Class Initiative

Not long after becoming president I noticed that Wesleyan did not have as many small classes as I had expected given the close relationships between faculty and students that have always existed here. I had fond memories of a class I had taken in 1977-1978 on Hegel taught by Victor Gourevitch to just myself and two other hard-working undergraduates. And at the Center for Humanities I took a number of other small classes on topics that likewise wouldn’t have won any popularity contests. I always assumed that my own experience was not untypical and that many of my classmates also took courses with few enrollees. Of course, I also had fond memories of my larger classes, such as Nat Greene’s introduction to modern European History. These survey courses were engaging and informative in different ways, and the mix of small classes with the occasional large lecture class has always seemed to me to be the way to produce an especially stimulating educational experience.
At Wesleyan today there are still many classes with somewhere between ten and 20 students. Nevertheless, given the size of the student body and the number of classes we offer each term, I would have expected the percentage of seminars to be higher. Admittedly, small classes also create frustration for students when a certain topic or professor is very popular but the teaching style is built around a restricted enrollment. If too many of these sought-after classes are small, too many students don’t get the classes they most want. Thus, if we were simply to restrict the class size of existing courses, we would create significant course access issues for students. Better to add small classes to our existing offerings. Noting that several of our professors proposed each year to offer extra classes for the program in Graduate Liberal Studies for a modest stipend, I thought I might find interest among the faculty in teaching additional, small classes. However, in my second year as president we’ve been grappling with the economic crisis, and for a time it has seemed that my ideas about adding a group of seminars and other small classes would have to wait.

Happily, we have recently received a commitment for 1 million dollars over four years to proceed what we’re calling the “Small Class Initiative”. Beginning this coming fall, we will be able to divide some of our mid-size classes into two sections (each with fewer than 20 students) and to add small seminars (around 15 students) in a variety of fields. The instructional budget for these additional courses will be on a scale similar that of our current GLSP classes. We can now offer our faculty the opportunity to teach these extra classes, which in many cases can be tied to their current research. The idea is that many of those who volunteer for this kind of teaching will do so because the small research seminar will contribute to their own ongoing projects. Depending on the level of interest and the fields of participating faculty, we may also hire visitors to complement these offerings. The result will be an increased number of small classes available to Wesleyan students.

Some have wondered whether this is an attempt to increase the required teaching load among faculty. Not at all. It is very important for faculty teaching here to have significant time and support for their research. This research time is also a great benefit to students, who get to work with teachers who are actively advancing their fields. Students learn to shape the culture of the future themselves by working with teachers doing just that in their publications and performances. Adding a few dozen small classes (many tied to the research of faculty) should complement – not detract from – the research environment on campus.

A good thing all around, I think!

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Midnight Sun and Scholarship Support

We just returned this weekend from a week visiting Kari’s family in Norway. Here’s a glimpse of what we saw as dusk settled in around midnight. It grew lighter by 1 AM.

It feels good to be back home on campus. The fields at Long Lane are busy with football and lacrosse practices from the high school camps here in the summer. Volleyball players have taken over Freeman. Over the next few months, the painters, carpenters and other physical plant employees will be working hard to get the various buildings ready for the return of the students. Classes in the Graduate Liberal Arts Program begin Monday, and soon I’ll be meeting with our Admissions officers to talk about recruiting the class of 2013. A few weeks ago I wrote about Summer Rhythms. The pace is already picking up!

When we were in Oslo, Kari and I met with a Wesleyan alumna who has settled there. We talked about how the education system in Norway emphasizes skill building early on, and how different that is from a liberal arts approach. In meeting college age relatives, I was struck by how they felt they had to specialize in a course of professional study by the age of 19. When I described Wesleyan to them, they were struck by the freedom that our students have to mold their own educational experience. “Is it only for the very rich?” they asked. When I described our financial aid program, and the work we’re doing to enhance it, they were very surprised. With strong governmental support, there is not the same tradition of philanthropy for culture and education in most of Europe as there is in the US. Of course, I know that there is plenty we still need to do to improve access to Wesleyan.

Even though our Oslo alum is decades out of Wes and thousands of miles away, she recently made a gift to support our scholarship programs through the Wesleyan Fund. She knows the value of financial aid to the students who receive grants, and to all the other students who benefit from a more diverse community. With the economic turmoil of this past year, it has been a challenging time to raise money. I have been reluctant to do any fundraising through this blog, but as this is the last week of our fiscal year, I will ask you to make a gift to our annual fund if you have not already done so. I know how tiresome it is to be asked for support again and again, and I have been so impressed with the generosity of the Wesleyan community. But nonetheless I now ask for your support because I believe that scholarships are a key component of our educational mission – and we need your help. Please give to financial aid through the Wesleyan Fund. Participation counts, as does every dollar we receive. Here’s the link to make a donation:
http://give.wesleyan.edu

Thanks in advance for any additional help you can provide.

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Summer Rhythms

After the frenzy of activity over the last month, the campus is oddly quiet. As I stroll across Andrus Field I expect to greet students heading to class, or going for coffee and conversation at the Usdan Center. Instead, I am more likely to run into a lone jogger or a dog walker taking in the open space, very green now with the spring rains.

But the calm in the center of campus belies an intense level of activity in a variety of areas. Graduate students are busy working on experiments, theses and dissertations. There are a surprising number of undergraduates here, too, some focusing on research in the sciences, others studying Arabic or Russian. The staff at the Graduate Liberal Studies Program is gearing up for classes. This remarkable program welcomes students from all walks of life. There are undergrads mixed with teachers, professionals and various people from the area just eager to continue their education. There is still time to register for some classes at:
http://www.wesleyan.edu/glsp/courses_registration/course_information/Summer_2008/summer08_concentration.htt

The Wesleyan Writers Conference will be underway in less than two weeks. You can read about this exciting program at:
http://www.wesleyan.edu/writing/conference/

This afternoon I will meet with elected student leaders to discuss our follow-up to the Fountain Ave. incident. Our interest is twofold. On the one hand we want to understand what went wrong that night, and who should be held accountable. On the other hand, we want to put in places policies and practices to ensure that this kind of incident doesn’t happen again.

At the end of the semester I received reports from the task forces working on the planning themes that emerged during the winter. There are five areas: strengthening the undergrad experience; internationalization; creative campus; civic engagement; College of the Environment. I will be reviewing the reports and preparing for next steps for moving forward in each of these areas. We are also focused on developing resources for enhanced financial aid and to stay on track for building our new complex in the molecular and life sciences.

One of the projects that has already emerged from our planning talks is the need for more support for undergraduate research during the summer. We currently have McNair, Hughes and Mellon foundation support for scientific research that supports the work of several students in the life sciences. These are great programs that open opportunities for students who might not otherwise have the chance to engage in advanced research. The programs are emblematic of what Wesleyan stands for more generally: helping students make a positive contribution through excellent academic work.

Now that I’ve taken stock of only a few of the activities on campus, it no longer seems so calm! I’d better get back to work!!

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Spring Break

Foss sunsetSpring Break at Wesleyan is unusually long – a two week vacation from classes. The campus is eerily quiet at night, and looking across Andrus Field from my office the snow is gone and the baseball field fences have gone up. It really is a break into spring!

Although the campus is quiet, it is certainly not empty. There are many international students who stay in town. Two weeks may seem long, but it is too short for students to justify a trip across the globe. I also bump into the seniors making their way to science labs or to the Olin Library to continue work on their theses. The subjects range from ideas of the French intellectual to politics and religion in Ireland; from problems in micro-economics to issues in Asian art history. Our students complete these independent research projects with close faculty supervision, but it is often the professors who learn so much from the collaboration with these young scholars, scientists and artists. Most of the work is due in about a month, so it’s getting to be crunch time.

Of course, many of our seniors are interviewing for jobs or waiting to hear from graduate schools. There are two very happy Wesleyan students who recently heard from The Thomas J Watson Foundation that their international research projects will be funded during the next year. Cedric Bien will be doing a project entitled, “Documenting the Chinese Diaspora: A Photographic Ethnography of Chinatowns” in Peru, Paraguay, Brazil, Italy, Ethiopia, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia. Rebecca Littman will be investigating the plight of child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal and Guinea in her project, “Victim and Perpetrator: Reintegrating the Former Child Soldier.” Congratulations to Cedric and Rebecca!

Some of our Masters of Liberal Studies students are spending their spring break on a research trip through some of the important sites of the civil rights movement in Alabama. I have heard already that this was a deeply moving and richly educational experience that complements the work done in the classroom.

Some of our undergraduates have made their way to Washington, D.C. to protest the war in Iraq on the fifth anniversary of the start of the conflict. American college campuses today often seem to feel immune from the fact that our country is fighting a war in the Middle East. Although we don’t always agree on political tactics or foreign policy frameworks, I am grateful to these Wesleyan activists for reminding all of us that a military conflict is being waged in our name.

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