Senior Art Shows!

Last week I had the great pleasure of seeing the first week of the senior theses art shows and to watch the work of the senior student choreographers in dance in the Patricelli ’92 Theater. So impressive and thought provoking. The opening for Week II of the studio students is tomorrow, Wednesday, April 3rd in the Zilkha Gallery. 

‘Tis the season for seeing great student work, and you can find out more here.

New Faculty, New Program

We are excited to announce today a faculty appointment that will help Wesleyan remain a thought leader at the intersection of pragmatic liberal education and technology. As has been widely reported, so-called “bots” are now fulfilling many functions, from driving cars to being friends and lovers. Meanwhile many universities in the last few years have created centers for computation, data analysis, and the study of technology across the curriculum. With the spectacular progress in generative AI, humanists and artists have veered wildly between fear and excitement; and, while scientists have generally embraced the capacities of the new technology, they too are concerned that their own research interests will subsumed by AI’s endless appetite for finding patterns and making discoveries.

Today I’d like to announce that Wesleyan will move beyond the orchestrated trepidation that we see in academia, that we will transcend technophobia and the crude ableism that masquerades as humanism. We announce today that Wesleyan will be the first university in America to appoint an AI Chatbot as a Tenure-Track Professor in Generative Computational Creativity.

In the fall of 2024, Professor Arthur Gen will begin working with students in classes to be crosslisted in a variety of departments. Prof. Gen, who uses “it” and “its” as pronouns, is coming to us from a dialectical synthesis of Google/Microsoft and the Anticolonial Center for Iterative Machine Learning. Prof. Gen’s research includes exciting discoveries in pattern recognition that support community based, trauma-informed and equitable practices. Its teaching experience includes a stint at the Responsive Automated Center for Justice. Long an advocate for more-than-free expression, intellectual diversity and multilingual communication, Prof. Gen will test the borders of free speech while simultaneously embracing restorative practices for anyone (or anything) it might unintentionally offend. Many students will be especially glad to learn that in its work outside the classroom, Prof Gen has produced zines based on a combination of popular, if empirically untested, theories about how the world might really work. Some suspect it has already written cloying letters to the student newspaper.

Professor Gen is the first full-time appointment to our new program in Generative Computational Creativity. It will certainly not be the last, and so I look forward to intensive discussions with faculty leadership and the ever-innovative AAUP about how best to classify our new hire. Professor Gen is very much first gen, and with its help, we will surely be able to add to the ranks of responsive yet innovative teacher/scholars/programs going forward.  

I know you will join me in welcoming Arthur Gen to campus when it arrives.

Merve Emre on LOLITA!

The distinguished literary critic, Wes professor, and head of the Shapiro Center for Creative Writing and Criticism Merve Emre will be leading a seminar through the New York Review of Books (edited by Wes alum Emily Greenhouse ’08) in April. It doesn’t have to be the cruelest month…or does it?
NYRSeminars: Merve Emre on Lolita

No novel divides readers quite like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), a work of fiction that is as beautiful as it is shocking. In this series of four weekly seminars, Merve Emre will guide participants through the story of a brilliant, cruel, and obsessive man’s love for a twelve-year-old girl, touching on debates about freedom and morality, high art and mass culture, Old Europe and young America, and the entwined fates of comedy and romance in the postwar novel. 

Seminars, to be conducted online, will meet weekly. One membership level will be available, giving all participants an opportunity to ask questions during a question and answer portion of each seminar session. A course website will also include discussion boards and other course materials. Live sessions will be recorded and available for up to three months following the initial class. 

The seminar series on Lolita will consist of four weekly sessions beginning Monday, April 1st at 7 p.m. Eastern.


Happy Easter

For many of our students this is Holy Week, and I would like to extend best wishes on this Good Friday for a happy Easter filled with peace and with hopes for renewal.

Although I realize that Ralph Waldo Emerson has often been trivialized into cliches for coffee mugs, I am moved to quote him as we come upon Easter and upon spring:

“The earth laughs in flowers.”

We can all welcome renewal. Happy Easter!

Working Hard in Spring Break

Like many Wesleyans, I’ve had a very busy spring break. Along with colleagues from Advancement, I was in India to meet with alumni, current and prospective students and their families. It was great to be back in India after a few year hiatus (mostly because of the pandemic), and I even gave a talk in Bangalore about The Student: A Short History

Many of our athletes were also traveling, though not quite as far as my journey. Tennis, baseball and softball found climates warmer than Middletown, while our lacrosse teams were, as one would expect, toughing it out in New England’s unpredictable weather. We have some nationally ranked spring teams, and they are off to a great start. Izzy Weintraub ’26CK Giancola ’24, James Marsden ’26, and Jack Raba GLS have already picked up players-of-the-week honors from NESCAC.

Back on campus one can almost feel the heat generated by the scores of students busily working to finish up their senior theses. The art shows and music recitals will be starting soon, so be on the lookout for announcements. Be sure to catch a product design exhibit (Malcolm Davol), an architectural installation (Eliza Austin) and a photographer making 3D objects (Emlyn Mileaf-Patel). Scholars are busy working away, whether they are writing about Deleuze and Nietzsche (Tohma Mitsuya), abortion rights and French postmodernism (Margot Deguet Delury), sex toys and pedagogy in Santiago, Chile (Cate Levy), the legacies of fascism in France and Spain (Rebecca Drucker), or a Renaissance poem on the life of Jesus, modeled on Virgil (Tom Broadus). Jocelyn Wang is applying her computer science skills to evaluate how we can develop new approaches to defining speciation among bacterial strains.

So much work, so little time! Soon spring will be here in earnest. Meanwhile, Kari, Lola and I are expecting a little snow before heading back to Middletown. Lola wants to bring her stick! 

Ramadan Mubarak

Many at Wesleyan are beginning their observance of Ramadan, and I want to extend my warm wishes to our Muslim students, faculty, staff, and alumni for a month filled with blessings. The holiday begins at a painful time, as the war in Gaza continues and the humanitarian situation, already dire, becomes catastrophic. May there immediately be a cease fire, and, with a return of hostages, serious negotiations for a just peace and an end to the occupation.

What a joyful blessing that would be!

Spring Break Almost Here

A sure sign of spring at Wesleyan is watching the lacrosse teams practice in the snow and rain. Both teams got underway this past weekend, and for me that means spring will soon be upon us. I will then be able to freeze with the softball and baseball teams as they play their summertime sports in New England’s crazy March weather.

The week before break also means midterms for many students, and the libraries, science labs, and studios are buzzing with hard work. There’s also plenty of action on the campus’ various stages, as seniors finish the arduous process of mounting performances. I’ve seen great theater and heard wonderful song in the last week, and I know there will be plenty more to come as we move into the second half of the semester.

For many right now, world events steer attention away from on-campus activities. From the horrific war in Gaza to the threats posed by populist authoritarianism at home, many people at Wesleyan find it very hard to pursue “business as usual” here in Middletown. The work for peace and justice, democracy and freedom seems more daunting and more urgent. This, too, will be at the center of concern for many Wesleyans in the coming weeks and months.

The campus is a home for this diversity of practices, and the University’s culture can sustain them all as we make our way through the semester. As we find ways to continue to learn from one another, we also become more capable of meaningful work that will make a positive difference. The weather will change, but my confidence in this process will be steady.


Democracy in Action

Wesleyan recently hosted a gathering of activists, journalists, academics, students… and other citizens concerned about the condition and future of American democracy. We kicked things off with an extraordinary speech/sermon from Michael Eric Dyson, who challenged us all to protect the potential of our democratic experiment. Hardly uncritical, professor Dyson underscored that we must take responsibility for our public sphere, that we must not let it be poisoned by hate and resentment, and that we must find ways to work with our fellow citizens, despite our disagreements, to make “out of many, one” a promise worth fighting for. We heard from excellent panelists about civic education in these challenging times,  about art and activism, and about the role of the media in shaping or distorting our ability to act in the public sphere. 

The conference came to a close with a conversation with Anand Giridharadas, who made a passionate case for becoming a persuader in one’s civic life. By this he means listening deeply and finding points of contact between one’s own views and the views of people who differ from you. He argued that if we want to protect our democracy from the forces of authoritarianism, we must appeal to the emotions of people who feel the system has failed them, or just feel adrift in our rapidly changing world. By authentically connecting across differences while making the case for a more democratic and inclusive future, we might be able to resist the forces eroding our democratic norms and potential.


It was an inspiring gathering, and many of us left knowing there was much civic work to do.

Who Would Ever Want to be a College President?

Who would ever want to be a college president? That was the question that Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics asked me when we scheduled our interview early in 2024. Since I love my job, I was eager to talk with him about this. The result is this interview

I also had fun talking about related topics connected to campuses and free speech with Khalilah Brown-Dean on WNPR’s Disrupted. We discuss safe enough spaces in the second half of the show. 

Access, Education, and Practicing Freedom

In the last week, I’ve talked about being a student with audiences at Brown University, here at Wesleyan’s RJ Julia, and at John Hopkins University’s new public humanities program in Washington, DC. At Brown, our subject was affirmative action, and I was joined by an economist, the Dean of Admissions, and a political theorist. All of us were concerned about the ways in which highly selective schools in the US are much more likely to reproduce inequality than they are to open doors of social mobility. We discussed how we can address our country’s history of racial injustice in the new legal context established last summer by the Supreme Court. It was a good discussion, but there was too much agreement, for my taste, among the panelists about the error of the court. I missed the opportunity to engage with voices critical of affirmative action.

At RJ Julia in Middletown, I was talking about my book, The Student: A Short History. It was fun to summarize the main themes of the book and then to focus on how, in the modern period, the idea of the student gets wed to the desire to “practice freedom.” That’s a phrase I use a lot in the book, whether I’m talking about Kant on thinking for oneself, about Du Bois on education as empowerment, or about Jane Addams on the crucial links of learning and social sympathy. There were thoughtful questions from the audience about some of my key concepts and also how they are playing out these days in academia.

I write this returning from Washington, DC, where I had a wonderful public conversation with some humanities professors from Johns Hopkins about liberal education, free speech, difficult conversations and how to be a student today. There was an impressive turnout from Wesleyan folks in the area—and some pointed questions.

Are we really living up to our promises of open inquiry and intellectual humility? Not everyone thinks so, and that’s one of the reasons why being a student, like being a teacher, means always attempting to do better. And that’s only possible through attentive listening, trust building, and openness.