Remote Classes and a Quiet Campus

There is an active discussion among faculty members about their first week of classes teaching remotely. Some are finding it very challenging to manage a series of discussions in real time with “breakout sessions” and the like, while others miss the immediate cues a teacher gets from watching the reactions of students right there, face-to-face, in a classroom. Many of my colleagues express concern about students who live in places where it’s inconvenient to join at regular class times, and we all worry about those whose internet connections aren’t robust enough for the material one wants to present. But after one week, I am very pleased to say that most of the folks I’ve heard from are feeling more optimistic than when we started. That includes the students who have been surveyed already in a few of the classes. There will be bumps in the road, to be sure, and there will also be happy surprises that increase learning beyond what we would have thought possible.

Yesterday I chatted with some students on Foss Hill on what was a beautiful spring day.

People were keeping their distance, but still we managed to commiserate about our lonely campus during what should be a very exciting time of year. We dreamed of better days to come and urged one another to stay healthy.

Yesterday, I was down at the boathouse, but the crew teams are scattered around the country. Athletes accustomed to perfect timing together must wait until it’s safe to be in the same boat. The river was beautiful, but the quiet was sad. We are all in the same boat, one of hunkering down.

 

A Quiet Citrin Field from Pine Street
Sunrise as seen from in front of Boger Hall

 

Early morning, College Row

Today, Kari and I walked by the tennis courts, into Indian Hill cemetery, and then around the athletic fields, the farm and back toward campus. We saw just a few other walkers, and we waved and kept our distance. I wished I could hear the chanting of the softball and lacrosse teams as they celebrated teammates, could marvel at frisbee players leaping in air, or could watch baseball in good company just behind the library. Instead, I was at my computer writing to all the spring Wesleyan athletes. We must be patient. And we will be.

Stay safe, stay healthy. And, please, stay in touch!

 

 

 

 

 

Classes Online Begin

I conducted my first class yesterday since moving to an online format for the rest of the semester. I have to admit that I was pretty nervous about the transition to Zoom, even though I’ve offered lectures online before. My class, The Modern and the Postmodern, is available on Coursera for free, and more than a hundred thousand people have participated in it over the last few years. I’ve asked my Wesleyan students (52 of them) to sign up for those recorded lectures.

But this morning at 10:50 (Eastern time) we were all online together, and I have to say I found it moving to see all those familiar faces — even if they were in little boxes on my screen. And they seemed glad to be together, even if their togetherness was merely virtual.  At first, I tried to reassure them that we were all aware of the stress of the moment, that we would try our best to learn together, that deadlines were flexible and anyone could choose to switch to a Pass/Fail mode. I saw nod and smiles…and then we got started with the text of the week, Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. I wish I had a more optimistic text for them, but perhaps reading about recurrent patterns of conflict, guilt and aggression will put our current predicament into a broader perspective. In any case, next week we look forward to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

I’ve heard from other Wesleyan professors that their classes also started out well. A colleague in the languages told me that her students, too, were so happy to be re-connected. She reported that “various pets that might walk in front of the camera or bark at inopportune times” were introduced to the group.   “We shared their names and a fun fact about them. Again, in the target language.” A relatively new member of our teaching corps wrote me to say that he found the online meeting with students “wonderfully therapeutic for my own soul.” Another long-term faculty member wrote (with some surprise, I think) that a department meeting via Zoom went smoothly, and that he was in touch with students all over the world. “This is going to work out,” he said.

Like the students in my class, these colleagues and students all expressed the desire to be back home at Wesleyan — back in their classrooms, Usdan, the gym, their libraries, houses, labs and dorms. We are all looking forward to that. Meanwhile, here’s a picture I took yesterday as an early spring snow began to fall on Foss Hill.

Early spring snow on a lonely Foss Hill

 

Working Ever More Closely Together

We need to physically isolate from one another; that much is very clear in these uncertain times. And in uncertain, stressful times many of us crave connecting with one another. We crave a friend’s embrace, a colleague’s pat on the back, a warm introduction to someone we are eager to get to know. Stopping the spread of this virus is hard because we must stop doing some of those things that really enhance our lives. These things are core to why we believe a residential educational experience is so enriching. They are the things that our students are already missing as almost all of them depart from campus, often tearfully.

They will also miss the kinds of activities that offer deep learning through physical practice. I’m not just talking about sports (which folks already miss), but also about playing in the gamelan orchestra or raising one’s voice along with the Ebony Singers. We are working hard on finding virtual ways to provide learning experiences that usually come from physical practice – whether with instruments, lab equipment, bodies or voices – and we are excited about the prospects. I have been so impressed by (and grateful to) my colleagues on the faculty who are figuring out how to match online learning pedagogies to the content of the courses and their own pedagogical practices. Teachers and students will learn a lot about what can (and cannot) be done at a distance – and things to be grateful for (once taken for granted) when normal classes resume.

It’s only been about a week since we announced that Wesleyan would suspend normal operations, and already so much has happened. After the initial shock and disappointment, there followed daily examples of sacrifice, cooperation and mutual understanding. Our friends and colleagues across the University have been stepping up in a big way. The Student Life and Equity and Inclusion teams have gone so far beyond the call of duty as they support students from an extraordinary range of circumstances. Public Safety officers, Investment staff, and Bon Appetit workers, Physical Plant, Technology, Library and Advancement and Finance colleagues…so many have found ways to contribute to student well-being while also planning for the future. Communications folks are working overtime to keep all our constituencies informed, and HR is looking after the welfare of all our employees. Admission and Financial Aid staff members, on top of everything else, are crafting the class of 2024 and planning a virtual WesFest!

Wesleyan University has weathered crises before, and we have done so by coming together to support one another. We begin with our most vulnerable students. We will ensure that work-study funds and other forms of financial aid are distributed for the remainder of the semester, and we have raised significant monies for the Emergency Fund. There is an application process for this support, but it is simple and straightforward. We are already distributing money. And for those who can, it’s easy to make a donation! (Kari and I just did.)

I feel the sadness of those whose college experience has been so rudely interrupted. I see some of those students on Foss Hill (6 feet apart) early in the morning, catching a last sunrise over the Connecticut River. I see others getting a grab-and-go meal at Usdan, or having one more WesWings delight, before sorrowfully waving goodbye to friends. We’ll do our best to keep the students safe who must remain on campus. Seniors, we’ll figure out how to celebrate your accomplishments, whether as planned in May or, if need be, at some later date.

We’ll miss all who had to leave, but we’ll be ready to welcome students back when the threat of the pandemic recedes. What a joy that will be! Meanwhile, be safe and stay well!!

Students Heading to Physical Isolation, Faculty Re-Tooling Classes

These are strange times, indeed. It’s the middle of spring break, but the campus is emptying out for the rest of the semester. Friends are saying goodbye in Middletown, or expressing sadness at already being so far apart. Anxiety hovers over us all as we deal with the disappointment of finishing our school year through distance learning while we yearn for connections with one another. But it’s the connections that put us at risk.

Well, it’s physical connections that put us at risk. We can — we must — connect with one another in other ways. In the coming weeks, we will share academic work through various platforms online, and we will talk to our friends, share music, photos and stories through our lively networks. In addition to the new materials we will generate, there are many videos, works of art and music already available through the Wesleyan website. We can watch them together, and we can find ways to talk about them — even at a great distance. It won’t be the same as sitting around Usdan, or chatting by the gym, or hanging in a wood frame, but it will preserve some of our connectivity. We don’t have to be isolated from one another in spirit.

Many of you will keep journals during this period — some in notebooks, others in podcast form, while others in videos. We will find ways to connect people registering their experiences. We want to hear from you. More on this soon.

Students are stepping up in big ways to help one another, and faculty and staff are finding ways to support those who need it the most. There are various efforts underway to give assistance to those at risk. No surprise, I prefer using official channels to ad hoc, if well-meaning, private projects.  Students who need emergency funding are asked to contact Dean Mike Whaley (mwhaley@wesleyan.edu). Members of the extended Wesleyan family who want to donate to the fund can do so here.

It’s a frightening time, to be sure. But we will depend on one another, deepen our connections with one another, so that when we come back to campus, we will be the stronger for having gone through all this.

 

Working Together in Anxious Times

Yesterday I sent the following note to all faculty and staff at Wesleyan. These folks have been working tirelessly to help our students through this crisis while also dealing with the threats posed by the epidemic. I am so grateful for their efforts!

 

Dear friends,

As you prepare for a weekend of ‘socially distanced’ activities, I wanted to thank everyone for their extraordinary efforts at making Wesleyan’s response to the current crisis as humane and responsible as possible. Many faculty members have been actively sharing information about how to move their classes into distant learning modes. Along with many others, I have learned much that will be relevant to my own class. Students, too, are preparing for learning in an uncertain future. Of course, many of them are deeply saddened to be torn away from friends and teachers, classmates and coaches. Yet, most are already figuring out how to continue to learn, and, eventually, to thrive. Countless staff members have been working with an intensity that is truly heroic as they prepare the campus and our students for the weeks ahead. The complexities of a diverse student body are everywhere apparent – from varieties of learning styles to a complex range of personal circumstances that require us always to customize. We have a framework of principles for making decisions, but I am so proud of the ways that we’ve tailored that framework for the specificity of individual students.

Faculty, students and staff – we are all educators at Wesleyan, and we are all especially attentive to the most vulnerable members of our community in this time of anxious planning and generous caring. I don’t want to overuse this phrase, but this seems to me ‘compassionate solidarity’ at work.

So, thank you for exemplifying the “independence of mind and generosity of spirit” signaled in the university’s mission statement. I am proud and grateful to be your colleague.

Yours ever,

Michael

Wesleyan Moves Classes Online and Asks Students to Leave Campus

 


This week we posted this video and sent the following message to all Wesleyans. We have been dealing with individual questions over the last couple of days, and we are trying our best to provide support for those who most need it. A couple of things have come up often: 1. why do I have to come back to campus now to retrieve my stuff; 2. why did the university not just suspend school for 2 weeks at a time (as some other schools have done).

In answer to the first question, we do not encourage students to fly back to campus to retrieve their belongings. We will work with students and their families to make alternative arrangements. In answer to the second question: I carefully considered this approach, but the public health experts I consulted found it unrealistic, at best. The consensus of professional opinion is that conditions will only worsen, and I believe it will be least disruptive to our community to have a clear and consistent plan to complete the semester remotely. That said, I find it immensely sad to see our students deprived of the chance to thrive together on this campus we love. 

This is the kind of event that has happened once in a century. We must keep our community safe and our mission clear.

Here’s my message.

Dear friends,

This is a message I was hoping not to have to write.

With the CDC today reporting nearly 1,000 known cases of COVID-19 nationwide (having doubled since Monday) and Governor Ned Lamont declaring a public health emergency in Connecticut, it has become clear just how rapidly this potentially deadly virus is spreading. As hard as we work to make the on-campus Wesleyan experience the best it can be, we must apply that same diligence and care to protecting our community’s well-being in light of this growing threat.

After consulting with a variety of public health experts and other higher education institutions around the country, we are announcing the following preventive measures:

  • In-person classes have been suspended for the remainder of the spring semester; we will be transitioning all classes to distance learning models.
  • Undergraduate students who are able should return to campus through March 23 to gather their belongings; all students without University-approved alternate arrangements must depart campus by that time.
  • We know that there are students for whom Wesleyan is their only home. We have set up an online petition to work with them to make sure that access continues, as well as for students who would like to request an extension for picking up their belongings.
  • Students who cannot return to campus for their belongings should contact reslife@wesleyan.edu and staff will work directly with them on packing, storage or shipping solutions.

I am enormously grateful to staff for continuing their regular work schedules on campus to support these transitions and care for students for whom leaving is not an option. I also want to express the trust I have in our faculty and students to adapt to teaching and learning in this new mode. I have always known Wesleyan to be an inventive place that rises to new challenges, and I have every confidence that the remainder of the semester, while taking a much different form than in the past, will be successful.

While it may not diminish any sadness and frustration, it’s important to note that my colleagues and I have searched far and wide for ways to avoid this suspension of in-person classes and campus activities. Realizing that the closeness of our richly interactive community is what makes us more vulnerable to this disease has led us to this unhappy decision. And now, we are determined to find ways to empower student learning while most are away from campus.

We continue to update the central coronavirus/COVID-19 webpage with the latest available information, including a video message I have recorded explaining our rationale behind these decisions. Additionally, I would encourage everyone to review the list of Frequently Asked Questions we have compiled in anticipation of the many inquiries these decisions will understandably raise. Should you have further questions, please direct them to Covid-19Info@wesleyan.edu or call us at 1-888-675-2011 and we will respond as quickly and thoroughly as possible.

With thanks for your patience and understanding,

Committed to International Diversity

With all the attention being devoted in recent weeks to the assassination of Suleimani and potential war with Iran, to Ukraine and impeachment, and to China and the coronavirus, it’s easy to lose sight of an isolationist trend in Washington worrisome in its own right. Although not everyone who wants to “make America great” means to cut it off from the rest of the world, the current regime’s isolationist instincts are powerful, persistent and perverse.

This came home to me during my recent trip to India to visit with Wesleyan families and to talk with prospective liberal arts students. Many told me that the United States seems less welcoming than before, and concerned parents wondered whether their children would feel at home in a country that seemed determined to cast foreigners in a harsh light. In some cases, they were attuned to this hostility because they saw their own government in Delhi using similar tactics. I tried to assure them that most Americans were open to meeting foreigners and that our traditions of hospitality remain strong. But they contrasted the current US climate with what they see in Canada, and to some extent in Australia.

Here at Wesleyan, we have a long tradition of collaboration with scholars and teachers from outside the United States. Nobel Prize winning chemist Satoshi Omura still looks back on his time as a researcher at Wes as formative to his experiments in developing new medicines from organic materials. African drummers like Abraham Adzenyah, Javanese gamelan virtuosos like Sumarsam, and dancers like Eiko Otake, have made Wes their home for decades because of its open learning environment, one that cultivates respect for tradition as well as enthusiasm for innovation. I proudly told my interlocutors in India about our longstanding Navaratri Festival of music and dance, and about the recent book by Hari Krishnan on how Bollywood creatively appropriated those traditions.

Shortly after I returned to campus, the Trump administration announced a new set of travel restrictions on people coming to the US. On Jan. 31 the President signed a proclamation banning visa applications from Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Nigeria. The reason given was that these countries presented risks because of their security procedures and information sharing. The administration’s announcement also included harsh immigration restrictions for people from Sudan and Tanzania.

The announcement is of a piece with the administration’s goal to restrict immigration of (almost) all kinds. For months in 2019, it refused to sign off on a new framework for refugees – the result being that in October ZERO refugees were legally admitted to the US. That’s the first time a month went by without the US providing legal refuge to someone. When President Trump eventually approved a legal ceiling for those seeking refuge here, it was for a mere 18,000 refugees, an all-time low. Even the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page complained in regard to the latest executive order that “punishing innocent people trying to come to America legally undermines Mr. Trump’s claim that he opposes illegal immigration, not immigrants more broadly.”

At Wesleyan, we value the vibrant, cosmopolitan community that we build in Middletown. About 15% of our students come from outside the US, and we cherish the opportunities to learn from one another. Rather than blocking off parts of the world from interactions with Americans, we believe in building positive, effective interconnectivity. Rather than refusing to listen to others we perceive as different from ourselves, we should cultivate the sharing of stories as a path to a broader more powerful education.

Let’s take Ahmed Badr’s ’20 Narratio project as our inspiration. Ahmed came to the US as a refugee from Baghdad and will graduate from Wesleyan in May. Determined to empower others, he created Narratio which invites youth around the world to share their stories  through the publishing of poetry, photography, art and narrative. Already Narratio has published 300+ works across 18+ countries.

Let’s push back against the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee messages coming from Washington. And let’s remember to listen to one another’s stories – lending an ear with special care to those that may come from faraway places.

 

 

 

It’s Almost #GivingTuesday

There is still turkey in my fridge, even though our guests are long gone. Mathilde seems to like the broth on her dog food, and I’ll be enjoying turkey soup for quite some time. I don’t do much shopping online, but I can’t avoid all the Black Friday and Cyber Monday ads. Tomorrow brings a different kind of post-Thanksgiving online transaction: Giving Tuesday.

There are so many ways to express gratitude, and I find a powerful one to be showing generosity toward organizations and people one cares about. A few years ago, my friend Henry Timms (now the president of Lincoln Center in New York) came up with the idea of a “giving day” to follow Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And so #GivingTuesday was born. It’s a simple idea. Just find a way for your family, your community, your company or your organization to act philanthropically. Then tell everyone you can about how you are giving. Generosity is contagious! Be a part of a national celebration of our great tradition of philanthropy.

#GivingTuesday has become internationally recognized as a time to show one’s support for the values and missions one cares about. People all over the world use the occasion to support their favorite causes. This is Wesleyan’s sixth year participating. During that time, thousands of Wesleyan alumni, parents, students and friends have chosen to make donations. Together, we have unlocked millions of dollars in matching funds for financial aid.

Every gift made through Tuesday, December 3, 2019 will be matched with a dollar-for-dollar contribution to Financial Aid, up to $100,000, thanks to the generosity of Stuart Ellman ’88 and Susan Berger Ellman ’90.

I hope you will be giving to your favorite causes tomorrow, and I am especially hopeful that Wesleyan will be among them. Don’t forget about WESUFM, and other university initiatives. There are many worthy causes out there, and this university is very grateful for any and all gifts.

Teaching and Religion

This essay on teaching intellectual history courses that take religion seriously builds on some pages in Safe Enough Spaces. It recently appeared in The Atlantic

 

I had hardly finished my lecture when the student came bounding down the auditorium’s stairs.

“You’re just like all the others,” he said, fuming. “You don’t really take religion seriously.”

This happened a few years ago, when I was teaching a college course on virtue and vice. I had just finished talking about the Catholic thinker Thomas Aquinas. My sin? According to my student, I had “intellectualized” Saint Thomas. I had described his philosophical sources and his historical context, but had said little about the philosopher’s fundamental project—one that had everything to do with the salvation of our souls.

My student’s name, fittingly, was Tom. He was a believer at a secular liberal-arts school, and he was sick of being condescended to either by a campus lousy with self-congratulatory progressives or by teachers (like me, he assumed) who treated religious faith as an inert museum piece. “Wait,” I told him. “Today we talked historical context, and next time we’ll illuminate religious practice.”Tom was a rare exception. As a teacher, I find remarkable resistance to bringing religious ideas and experiences into class discussions. When I ask what a philosopher had in mind in writing about salvation, or the immortality of the soul, my normally talkative undergraduates suddenly stare down at their notes. If I ask them a factual theological question about the Protestant Reformation, they are ready with answers: predestination; “faith, not works”; and so on. But if I go on to ask students how one knows in one’s heart that one is saved, they turn back to their laptops. They look anywhere but at me—for fear that I might ask them about feeling the love of God or about having a heart filled with faith. In my cultural-history classes, we talk about sexuality and identity, violence and revolution, art and obscenity, and the students are generally eager to weigh in. But when I bring up the topic of religious feeling or practice, an awkward silence always ensues.