How are the Humanities?

Last week I met with many faculty members from Wesleyan’s division of Arts and Humanities. We had an interesting conversation about some of the challenges facing teachers and scholars in these areas, which have found themselves under increasing pressure around the country as schools cut budgets. Recently, the State University of New York at Albany eliminated some foreign language programs, and that is only one dramatic example of many that seem to show that humanities-based education is in deep trouble. Recently, Stanley Fish critically considered many of the contemporary Cassandras predicting the collapse of the liberal arts, but he also noted the founding of a new (and traditional) liberal arts college in Savannah, Georgia.

At Wesleyan we have much to be proud of with respect to the humanities. Our faculty regularly inspire students and readers in subjects ranging from the most traditional to the most avant garde, and they continue to create scholarship that shapes their fields. Russian Professor Susanne Fusso, for example, has written powerfully on Dostoevsky’s exploration of sexuality, deviance and the young person’s encounter with the adult world. Joel Pfister, of English and American Studies, has for years helped reconfigure our understanding of the relationship of Native American and White American culture, and he recently published a study of Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) Henry Roe Cloud, entitled The Yale Indian. Like Susanne, Joel has been an active member of the university community, and he currently chairs the English department. Andrew Curran, of the Romance Languages and Literatures Department, has just finished a major study of ideas of race in the Eighteenth Century, and this spring he is organizing a Shasha Seminar on race in conjunction with a class he is teaching. There are so many examples I could cite of humanities scholar-teachers here working at the highest level! They are attracting some of our best students and launching them toward a lifetime of learning.

One of the confusing aspects of our curriculum at Wesleyan is how we define our academic divisions. At Wes, some disciplines commonly thought to be key to the humanities, like Philosophy, History and Religion, are located in the social science division. Many courses within these programs are labeled as humanities classes, though there are also several surprises. Over the next several months I hope to better understand how we have organized the curriculum, and talk to faculty and students about how this organization supports their educational goals.

This week the Board of Trustees are here for the fall meeting. I’ve asked our board members to let me know how their humanities  college education has remained relevant to their lives after graduation. They have written at some length about critical thinking, communication skills, and the expansion of their powers of empathy. How do we understand the narratives of those around us, and how to we learn to shape our own story? Many of our trustees trace their love of music, art and literature to encounters in the arts and humanities here.

Professor of Italian Ellen Nerenberg recently shared with me the self-study conducted last year by Romance Languages and Literatures. The department discusses the humanities as a crossroads of the world, as a gateway to interculturalism, and as a constructive engagement with tradition. These are certainly crucial dimensions of humanistic study, which provides students with an orientation to traditions, cultures and creativity. An education in the humanities also offers enormous pleasure, expanding one’s capacity for delight and wonder.

Students are now choosing their classes for the spring. As I look at the rich array of offerings, I can only imagine the joyful discoveries that await them. How are the Humanities at Wesleyan? Self-questioning, as always, but also alive to both tradition and the contemporary world in ways that continue to benefit our students.


Center for the Humanities at 50

Tonight I am reading over my lecture for tomorrow’s conference at the Center for Humanities to celebrate its 50th anniversary. This is especially exciting for me because as a student more than 30 years ago the Center was my intellectual home. I had made up my own major, and so I didn’t have one department that was my base. But every Monday night I went to the Center to listen to Wesleyan faculty and distinguished visitors explain their research as they benefited from an atmosphere of intense, interdisciplinary activity. It was heady stuff for me, even if I understood little. When I was a senior I joined the Junior Fellow ranks at the Center, and the faculty really did treat us as colleagues. I got a taste of academic research, and I was hooked.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about the evolution of CHUM a bit, and then about some major changes in the humanities over the last few decades. Nancy Armstrong, a distinguished critic from Duke, will be one of my respondents, as will my teacher Victor Gourevitch. I hope my paper meets his expectations! We start at 9:00 am.

The real fun for me starts at 10:30, when English professor Sean McCann will give a talk on liberal humanism. Historian Demetrius Eudell will talk about a humanism “made to the measure of the world” at 1:10 pm, and philosopher Lori Gruen will discuss Humanities’ Others at 2:50 pm. Respondents are former directors of the Center and current Wesleyan faculty. At 4:15 keynote Cary Nelson will discuss some of the political and economic pressures on the humanities. It should be an exciting day of vigorous intellectual stimulation.

The Center for the Humanities was one of Victor Butterfield’s great innovations, and now there are more than 150 such places all around the country. Wesleyan was a leader in bringing together teachers, scholars and students to examine problems from a multiplicity of perspectives, and the fact that so many others have followed our lead has much to do with why I refer to our school as “progressive.” We move ahead and others follow.

Join us at Russell House tomorrow anytime after 9 am to help celebrate The Center for the Humanities!

[tags]Russell House, Center for the Humanities, Victor Butterfield, Cary Nelson, Sean McCann, Demetrius Eudell, Lori Gruen, Victor Gourevitch, Nancy Armstrong[/tags]

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!

[tags] Victor Gourevitch, Center for Humanities, Nat Greene, Graduate Liberal Studies Program, economy, Small Class Initiative [/tags]

And the Semester Begins

Yesterday I met with my first class, and it was wonderful to join students and faculty racing across campus to begin focusing on Enzyme Mechanisms or on Emerson, on Film Noir or on French Intellectual History. The students in my seminar are mostly seniors, and there are majors from all three divisions enrolled. It’s a stressful time for some students, as they figure out their schedules and determine whether a class they want is already full. Last year I wrote about my own (fortunate) experience of getting only my third choice for a class, and how that course really changed my life. Within the next week or so all of our almost 3,000 students will have their schedules in place, the library will be packed late into the night, and we teachers will start worrying about how we will grade all those papers. Intellectual excitement, new discoveries, lots of work….summer is really over!

This academic year one of Wesleyan’s real treasures will begin celebrating its 50th anniversary. The Center for the Humanities has for decades brought to our campus major intellectual figures, artists and writers who share their insights with the Wesleyan community (and often write their books here, too!). Hannah Arendt Edmund Wilson, and Stanley Cavell spent extended residences at the Center in its early years. When I was a student here, the Center was at the heart of intellectual life on campus, and the tradition continues each Monday with lectures devoted to a specific theme but coming at it from diverse disciplines. Student Fellows join with faculty and visitors to create an incubator of new scholarship. My time as a student fellow was one of the highlights of my Wesleyan experience.

The theme this year is “Figuring the Human,” and the speakers and Fellows are all concerned with understanding the conception of the “human” that is at the core of the humanities. How have definitions of the human developed in relation to changing conceptions of technology, machines, animals? How does recent work in the sciences and the arts challenge our notions of “human nature?” These are just some of the ideas in play this year at CHUM. Under the leadership of Prof. Jill Morawski, there are plans for exciting classes and public events. You can check them out online, or visit the Center (on the corner of Washington and Pearl Streets).

We are ending the first week of classes with an exciting fundraising event on Broadway. Friday night will be Wesleyan night at In the Heights, winner of the Tony Award for Best Musical (and led by a troika of Wes alums). Thanks to all who purchased tickets, which will support financial aid at the university.

This weekend will also see our athletic teams get underway. Come cheer the Cardinals in Volleyball, and Cross-Country, and check our all the teams’ schedules at


[tags] Center for the Humanities, Hannah Arendt Edmund Wilson, Stanley Cavell, Figuring the Human, Jill Morawski, In the Heights, student fellows, athletics, back to school [/tags]