How to Choose A (Our) University

Throughout the spring, high school seniors with the acceptance letters in hand normally visit campuses as they try to decide where to attend college. They are trying to envision the school at which they will be most likely to thrive. Where will I learn the most, be happiest, and form friendships that will last a lifetime? How to choose? As I do each spring, I thought it might be useful to re-post my thoughts on choosing a college, with a few revisions for this season of pandemic. The most important issue this year for many will be that they cannot visit schools to get a feel for the campuses where they might live. Schools are offering online substitutes, but it’s hard to pick when one doesn’t get to feel one’s reactionI invite you to visit our Admitted Students website to learn more about Wesleyan.

Many students today are wondering what campus life will be like in the fall, and I can say that we at Wesleyan are planning for a normal university year. Sure, we expect to continue to take health precautions, including ensuring that all students are vaccinated before they begin the semester. And we will monitor the pandemic’s course throughout the coming months.

For many, the decision about where to attend college will be made on an economic basis. Which school has given the most generous financial aid package? Wesleyan is one of a small number of schools that meets the full financial need of all admitted students according to a formula developed over several years. Wesleyan has made a commitment to keep loan levels low, and we have replaced them with grants for high need families. We also offer a three-year program that allows families to save about 20 percent of their total expenses, while still earning the same number of credits.

After answering the question of which schools one can afford, how else does one decide where best to spend one’s college years? Of course, size matters.  Some students are looking for a large university in an urban setting where the city itself plays an important role in one’s education. New York and Boston, for example, are popular college destinations, but not, I suspect, for the classroom experience. If one seeks small classes and strong, personal relationships with faculty, then liberal arts schools, which pride themselves on providing rich cultural and social experiences on a residential campus, are especially compelling. You can be on a campus with a human scale and still have plenty of things to do. Wesleyan is somewhat larger than most liberal arts colleges but much smaller than the urban or land grant universities. We feel that this gives our students the opportunity to choose a broad curriculum and a variety of cultural activities on campus, while still being small enough to encourage regular, sustained relationships among faculty and students.

All the selective small liberal arts schools boast of having a faculty of scholar-teachers, of a commitment to research and interdisciplinarity, and of encouraging community and service. So what sets us apart from one another after taking into account size, location, and financial aid packages? What are students trying to see when they visit Amherst and Wesleyan, or Tufts and Pomona?

As students scan the Wesleyan website, go to chatrooms and listen to current students talk about their experiences, I hope they feel the brave exuberance and ambition of our students, the intelligence and care of our faculty, the playful yet demanding qualities of our community. I would like prospective students to get a sense of our commitment to creating a diversity in which difference is embraced and not just tolerated, and to public service that is part of one’s education and approach to life. Our students have the courage to find new combinations of subjects to study, of people to meet, of challenges to face.

Whatever college or university students choose, I hope they get three things out of their education: discovering what they love to do; getting better at it; learning to share it with others. I explain a little bit more about that in this talk to admitted students a few years ago:

We all know that Wesleyan is hard to get into, but even in the group of highly selective schools, Wes is not for everybody. We aspire to be a community committed to boldness as well as to rigor, to idealism as well as to effectiveness. Whether in the sciences, arts, humanities or social sciences, our faculty and students are dedicated to explorations that invite originality as well as collaboration. The scholar-teacher model is at the heart of our curriculum. Our faculty are committed to teaching and to shaping their disciplines. At Wesleyan, we know how to work hard, but we also know how to enjoy the work we choose to do. That’s been magically appealing to me for more than 30 years. I bet the magic will appeal to many of those who are still in the process of getting to know our extraordinary university.

Critical Feeling

In March I published this piece on “Critical Feeling” in Inside Higher Ed

 

With the recent proliferation of conspiracy theories and claims of hoaxes and stolen elections, educators have been asking why so many people so easily find themselves misinformed or downright deceived. Is it the human need to belong to like-minded groups? The power of social media to accelerate the filtering of information to suit preconceived ideas? We should have by now recognized the bottomless ability of those in power to lie with impunity, but the signs are not encouraging. So many Americans continue to rush off to seek the comfort of like-minded groups, heedless of whether those groups misinform or mislead.

Educators often insist that in order to strengthen our ability to resist being misled we should become better at critical thinking. And that’s understandable. For more than 50 years, educational theorists have stressed that colleges should help students determine what kinds of information are most reliable, what makes a good argument and which kinds of fallacies are associated with particular contexts of persuasion and enforcement. The Foundation for Critical Thinking points to “universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth and fairness.” Even if one has one’s doubts about the universality of how these values take shape in in particular situations, teachers can enhance students’ appreciation of these values and, in turn, their resistance to being misled.

Yet as I think about my own students, I find myself at least as concerned with critical feeling as with critical thinking. The Norwegian psychologist Rolf Rieber has argued that “critical feelers can interrupt inappropriate feelings, use feelings to extract information about the state of another person or of the environment, and are able to change the external environment and internal states in order to be able to spontaneously perform appropriate actions by following the lead of feelings.”

It’s the “following the lead of feelings” that interests me most, given that we have been so misled due to the manipulation of emotions over the last several years. The previous presidential administration corrupted the news media with alternative facts, to be sure, but it also damaged the very soul of the public sphere by manipulating emotions — by stoking racism, xenophobia, mistrust and, perhaps most of all, resentment.

More thinking alone isn’t an antidote to this manipulation of feelings. As theorists as different as Judith Butler and Bryan Garsten have pointed out, Trump used resentment to fuel the revenge of the shamed — arousing a sense of empowerment in those who felt deplored, condescended to, dismissed. The tendency to find scapegoats for one’s misery isn’t confined, of course, to Trump supporters. Rejecting another person as being beyond the pale — be it called “canceling” or labeling someone “the enemy of the people” — provides pleasures of righteousness across the political spectrum.

Critical thinking alone will not turn us from such pleasures; reason alone never supplants sentiment. We need critical feeling — practiced emotional alternatives to the satisfactions of outrage. Outrage today is braided together with self-absorption, with the tendency to intensify group identification by finding outsiders one can detest. The outrage of many Trump supporters, often fueled by racism, targets enemies in elaborate conspiracy narratives. Among the intellectual set, outrage is sublimated into irony, allowing the chattering class to police the borders of its in-groups without overtly subscribing to their norms. One can humorously dismiss outliers without seeming to hold any beliefs of one’s own.

How to use critical feeling to dislodge these tendencies? Teachers do this all the time when we enthusiastically introduce works that students find foreign or offensive, when, as Mark Edmundson puts it, we teach what we love. We do this by using Shakespeare to expand their capacity for empathy, or when we use James Baldwin to deepen their understanding of racist betrayal. When we help students to appreciate a character in a novel who is not wholly sympathetic, or to admire an argument even when it runs counter to their own assumptions, we are expanding their emotional registers as well as intellectual ones. When our teaching invites students to occupy identities and ideologies they would never encounter in their own curated information networks, we are enhancing their consideration of the power of emotions.

When my students try to understand why Aristotle made his arguments about habit, why J. J. Rousseau saw inequality linked to the development of society, what Jane Austen meant by vanity as an obstacle to love or why Toni Morrison’s Sethe holds what haunts her, they are exercising their empathy and strengthening their power of generous insight. Whether or not they are engaging in what Merve Emre has called critical love studies, they are becoming more aware of how their feelings are aroused or redirected. In being willing to make emotional as well as intellectual connections to ideas and characters who disturb where they are coming from, they broaden where they might be willing to go. If we want our students to learn discernment and not just critique, we must give them more opportunities to consider ideas and emotions that they wouldn’t encounter on their own.

Expanding the repertoire of feelings has long been a goal of liberal education. Through history, literature and the arts we make connections to worlds of emotion, creativity and intelligence that take us beyond our individual identities and our group allegiances. The exercise of critical feeling should make us less susceptible to demagogic manipulation and to the misleading politics of resentment. It should make us more understanding of why other people care about the things they do.

By exploring the complexities of the world, our students practice making connections that are intellectual and affective. And in a political and cultural context that encourages crude parochialism under the guise of group solidarity, helping them do so through increasing their powers of critical feeling is more important than ever.

Announcing New Presidential Compound at Wesleyan

You’ve probably been wondering what the construction work on the field near the CFA (formerly Jackson Field) is all about.

I’m delighted to announce today that crews are preparing the new WESLEYAN PRESIDENTIAL COMPOUND. This will be a state of the art housing and office complex that will showcase the power of the central administration at the university. Full design plans are forthcoming, but here is the inspiration:

 

We’d love to hear your comments. Please leave a message on the blog (and be sure to note the date).

Say It Again: Stop Violence Against AAPI People

Yesterday many Wesleyans attended a vigil to stand against hate directed towards our Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander friends, colleagues and neighbors. The vigil called attention to the damage done by recent street attacks, like the heinous crime in mid-town Manhattan just a few days ago when an AAPI woman was brutally assaulted, while others looked on with seeming indifference. Later yesterday, one of our students reported being the object of drive-by racial slurs and spitting as he walked home. I am disgusted and dismayed by these efforts to intimidate and marginalize the AAPI community.

Let’s say it again: Hate and violence have no place here. We will stand against racist and xenophobic violence, and we will do our best to protect and support all members of the extended Wesleyan family. We embrace the AAPI community in solidarity against this latest wave of attacks.

The Other Pandemic Returns: Gun Violence

In the last week, we have been reminded again what “normal” looks like in America—18 people gunned down in two incidents separated by many miles but linked by the all-too-familiar presence of weapons of mass killing in the hands of angry young men. A policeman and a masseuse, a small business owner and a young worker are among the many people who left home one morning to go about their business and then encountered deadly violence unleashed on them without reason.

Atlanta and Boulder are cities to add to the sad list of places where ordinary Americans paid the price for the cowardice of politicians in the pocket of a gun lobby that sees any restrictions on access to lethal weapons as an infringement on….its business interests and the Second Amendment with which they shield those interests. We need sensible gun safety legislation, and most Americans support this. As Wesleyan historian Jennifer Tucker has been showing for many years now, basic gun regulations have been seen as fundamental to a healthy society at least since the founding of the republic. As Prof. Tucker argued in a 2015 op-ed with Matt Miller:  “Firearm violence is a public health crisis no less serious than those associated with automobiles. Our experience with autos and pollution shows that, along with other measures, sensible gun regulations could save lives.

Many societies have angry young men, and many have been plagued by combinations of hatred and mental illness that seem to afflict too many Americans. But the United States fuels a pandemic of violence with the business of gun access, creating a pandemic which shows no sign of abating. We could slow it down, however. All we have to do is pass gun safety regulations that would make it more challenging for those filled with rage to inflict harm on innocent people trying to go about their lives.

 

Stop the Violence Against Asian-Americans!

We learned with horror of the killing of eight people in the Atlanta area, and we are now once again moved to wonder at how hate and guns are combined in mass killing. The facts in this case are still being sorted out, but it is clear that six of the victims were Asian-American women. It is also clear that there has been a horrific increase in violence against Asian-Americans, especially seniors, in various part of the United States. Racism has many forms in this country, we know. When it turns so deadly, we must renew our efforts to stand together to combat it.

Wesleyan stands in solidarity with those who reject the politics of fear and hatred that fuels this latest form of racist violence. Let us defend our Asian and Asian-American brothers and sisters living in this country, let us pass sensible gun safety legislation, and let us condemn these attacks and all attempts to sow fear and division.

We must do better.

 

 

One Year In: Loss and Learning Together

Looking back at some of my blog entries in March 2020, I was struck by the rapidly increasing urgency of my communications to the campus community, and the evolving understanding of the seriousness of the situation in which we all found ourselves. On March 1st I actually posted a book review I wrote on ruins, and little did I know how apt that would seem just a short time later. On March 31st I wrote about our Design and Engineering program making face shields for first responders. In between there were many messages about how we were moving classes online and striving to protect the most vulnerable members of our community.

A year later, I am filled with sadness for all of us who have suffered losses over the last twelve months, and I am filled with gratitude for the many contributions of our students, staff, faculty and alumni as we navigated the crisis. As I say in this video message, we must remain vigilant and strive to limit opportunities for virus transmission, but we can also see in the not-so-distant future a return to campus life of supportive intimacy rather than social distancing. It isn’t here yet, but with lots of hard work, cooperation, and some good luck, we should get there.


 

International Women’s Day

Just a quick shout out to my women colleagues in the Wesleyan Cabinet and beyond on International Women’s Day. Anne Martin (Chief-Investment Officer); Andrea Patalano (Chair of the Faculty);  Nicole Stanton (Provost), Alison Williams (VP for Equity and Inclusion); Renell Wynn (VP for Communications). I am so fortunate to work closely with such talented women leaders.

Speaking of talented colleagues, our team in the President’s Office does whatever it takes to keep Wesleyan moving in the right direction: Heather Brooke, Dina Burghardt and Lisa Prokop.

The pandemic has placed many additional burdens on women, and I count my lucky stars that here at Wesleyan our women colleagues ensure that the university stays on track to fulfill its mission.

Thank you!

 

 

Recognizing Wesleyan Staff

It takes so many smart, caring people to make a university run well! Here at Wesleyan, we are very fortunate to have a staff that works hard to provide students and faculty with an environment in which they can thrive. Every year, they keep the campus beautiful, enhance the technology, and provide us with the foundation on which we can all learn together.

The first Friday of March is Employee Appreciation Day, and so if you see a Wesleyan staff member, give a distanced “thank you!” for all the hard work they’ve put in to making everything possible at the university.

THANK YOU!

A Sad Milestone for Remembrance

We have seen today many acknowledgments of the losses that the Covid-19 pandemic has inflicted on our country. More than 500,000 deaths in the last year–a horrific number that is so difficult to put in any reasonable perspective. So many of those deaths occurred in isolation, and for those who mourn, the disruption of our rituals of grief only compounds the pain. President Biden urged us this evening to resist becoming numb to the sorrow and to find purpose in the work we have left to do to end this pandemic. Remember and heal.

Today at Wesleyan we ended our beginning of the semester quarantine. I was so pleased to meet with my students face-to-face, and to talk with them about enduring questions concerning values and ethics, reverence and love that were as relevant a thousand years ago as they are today. We turned our attention to history, even as we thought about tomorrow.

Let us all turn our attention to the losses so many have suffered over the last year, let us find comfort and bring solace where we can. While we pay our respects with remembrance, may we remain vigilant about preventing more losses in the future. May we find common purpose and even some joy in keeping our community safe.