Starting on Labor Day

Many people ask me why Wesleyan begins classes again this year on Labor Day, a holiday that celebrates the American worker and marks the unofficial end of summer. When the faculty approved the calendar a few years ago, we discussed the tradeoffs of either starting earlier (most were against that), or backing up too close to Christmas and winter holidays (a big problem for our students wanting to return home for break). We were also juggling the length of orientation and reading week. In the end, we decided that Labor Day would remain a holiday for most of the staff, but that faculty and students would begin their classes on the first Monday of September.

Labor is much on the mind for our students as they begin the term. Some of that is in the nature of choosing classes. A few students want to know “how hard is this class?” “How much work will I have to do?” This is almost always an impossible question to answer just by looking at the syllabus. Some professors assign ten books or more to read during the term, while others focus on one or two. That doesn’t mean that the class with the shorter reading list requires any less work. Just check out Brian Fay’s course reading Spinoza’s Ethics — no walk in the park, but a deep dive into a major philosophical work. The truth is that every class offers increased intellectual rewards the more work you give to it.

But labor is on the mind of our students and their families in a more general sense this year.The job situation in the United States is just awful, and it has been depressingly bad for far too long. At the end of last week we learned that the US economy created no new jobs in August, and in a few days President Obama is scheduled to give what is billed as a major address on jobs. The real wages of working men and women in America have been declining for several years now, as the gap between the rich and the rest grows impossibly wide. The most pressing question facing the American economy for the next decade is how we will create and sustain decent jobs. Everything else is a distraction.

It’s no wonder that already parents have begun asking me how I think our Wesleyan education is going to equip our students as they head off into the job market in the spring. One can certainly understand their anxiety. Although a college degree is clearly an advantage, the job market is just awful even for grads with an impressive diploma. After four years of a liberal arts education, what kind of labor will open to our new alumni?

The answer isn’t simple, but it is clear that employers are often looking for workers who can think creatively, solve problems, seek opportunities and be self-motivating. Employers, when they are able to hire for good jobs, are looking for people who can learn while they are working — folks who aren’t just wed to some single skill they learned in the classroom to deal with a challenge that may no longer be relevant. At Wesleyan we believe deeply in the translational liberal arts — a broad, pragmatic education through which one learns how to apply modes of thinking and innovation in a variety of contexts. Even as the contexts change (whether that be through technology, politics or the economy), we believe our students will be well equipped to make their way in the world. We believe our alumni will be at the forefront of those creating and sustaining the jobs of the future.

But this isn’t just an article of faith. Wesleyan also offers practical advice, internship information and personal connections through our Career Resource Center. The CRC is currently located in the Butterfield residence hall complex, and in January it will be moving into the center of campus (in the old Squash Building currently be renovated). Even as students start their classroom labors today, they should remember to pay a visit to the CRC sometime this semester.

Happy First Day of Classes! Happy Labor Day!!

1 thought on “Starting on Labor Day”

  1. Michael,
    Steve and I so appreciate your letters to the students, parents, and greater community. Your straight-forward, thoughtful comments are much appreciated. We believe your “hands-on” attitude with Wesleyan is part of its success. Our son, Trevor, is in your Modern/Post Modern class and is very excited about being at Wesleyan….well…actually ecstatic.

    Best wishes from Idaho…
    Debbi and Steve Wallace

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