Welcome 2016!

Kari and I are eagerly awaiting the convoy of cars and trucks about to pull into Middletown with members of the class of 2016. It’s a beautiful morning, and first-year students will see the campus looking its best as they meet their new roommates, find out how to get their food at Usdan, discover the newly renovated Butterfield dorms and the newly named Bennet Hall. Parents will be wondering (sometimes, with misty eyes) how quickly the time has passed since the first day of high school,  while their sons and daughters will often be wondering why their folks are lingering on the campus that now belongs to them. Not to worry: Homecoming/Family Weekend will be here before you know it!

International Students have had a couple of days head start, and it has been a treat to meet the families who have traveled to Middletown from all over the world. Athletes have also been on campus for a few days already. Last night Kari and I met an impressive group of volleyball players who will be working out at 7 am so they can be ready to help new students to move in later this morning.

I’ve also been talking with many faculty members gearing up for the new semester. Yesterday I met with more than twenty professors to discuss innovations in some of our larger classes. I picked up several pointers that I’ll use in my own course, The Modern and the Post-Modern, that starts Monday. I’ve been tinkering with the syllabus, wondering how students will react to the books I’ve chosen. We’ll soon find out!

Welcome to Wesleyan!


Arrival Day 2012, photo courtesy of Heather Brooke


Arrival Day 2012, photo courtesy of Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2012, photo courtesy of Olivia Drake
Arrival Day 2012, photo courtesy of Olivia Drake

Getting that Back-to-School Feeling

After a relaxing and productive several weeks in the Berkshires working on a book project, I am now back on campus full time. The staff have been hard at work preparing for the school year, with several projects just coming to completion. As summer winds down at Wes, the Dresser Diamond (used for a great deal of soccer in July) turns into Corwin Stadium…soon the sounds of football games will replace the ping of those aluminum bats.


Another great transformation on campus is the WestCo courtyard. A student initiative through WildWes (who are compelling advocates for developing a more sustainable campus), has really borne fruit! Well, it has resulted in a buckwheat labyrinth, here pictured with Evita Rodriguez ’14 (whose weeding work I interrupted).


Soon it will be arrival day, and I’m looking forward to greeting the class of 2016 and welcoming the rest of our students, faculty and staff to the new academic year!

Beyond Information Transfer: An Initiation into Lifelong Learning

Early May usually brings an unusually large number of press reports about higher education. Many high school seniors have just made their decisions about where they will be going to college, and those preparing to graduate from universities across the country are confronting transitions into an increasingly unwelcoming economy. Recently, there have been dozens of stories about whether those college years were worth the investment of time and money. Are American colleges and universities doing enough to prepare their graduates for the competitive world beyond the campus?

In this first week of May there were two stories that caught my eye. The first was on NPR, a media outlet usually pretty friendly to higher education. I know that many of its listeners, and almost all of its reporters, have benefited from broad educational experiences. The reporter on a recent story about liberal arts colleges, though, was wondering if we can still afford a wide-ranging, liberal education in our hyper-competitive world. Liberal arts schools, she said, “have long had a rap of being a kind of luxury, where learning is for learning’s sake, and not because understanding Aristotle will come in handy on the job one day. But economic pressures and changes in the world of higher education have now put them more on the defensive than ever.”

The reporter on the story is Tovia Smith, herself a graduate of Tufts University, a fine liberal arts school. Smith has covered or produced stories on an amazing range of topics,  from race relations to orphanages, from Clinton’s impeachment to Massachusetts prisons, “as well as regular features on cooking and movies.” I took this list from the NPR website, which also tells us that Smith taught journalism in Africa. Has learning for learning’s sake been a luxury for her, I wondered, or is it an integral part of her career and her life? She sure seems to have benefited from her Tufts education.

The second story that drew my attention was the announcement that Harvard and MIT were joining forces to offer “free online, college-level courses under a joint superbrand known as edX.” This is a great opening of access to the wealth of learning these universities possess. Both schools are among the most selective in the United States, and this venture means “Anyone with an Internet connection anywhere in the world can have access,’’ as Harvard president Drew Faust put it. The Cambridge powerhouses are inviting other schools to add their course materials to the platform they are developing, which will also allow researchers to study how students best learn online.

Where does this leave residential liberal arts schools? Nobody knows for sure how the availability of online courses will affect students’ interest in physically coming to a college to learn in a campus setting. Interest in attending MIT and Stanford has only grown as these universities have made course materials available online, and there is no sign that this new edX venture will reduce the desire to study in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That’s why the analogy between higher education and the newspaper business, drawn in this morning’s New York Times by the liberally educated David Brooks, doesn’t work. Nobody rushes out to buy the Times because they experienced it online.

Why is there still such a strong desire to be part of a diverse campus community when one can access content (often for free) in one’s own way at one’s own pace? It’s because a campus community still functions as a powerful catalyst for lifelong learning – and the ability to keep learning over a lifetime has never been so essential as it is today. Liberal arts education no longer draws on the cultivated homogeneity of a country club (or of the boardroom). Today selective schools create communities in which people learn from their differences while forming new modes of commonality. We don’t do this to be politically correct. We do it to prepare students to become lifelong learners who can navigate in and contribute to a heterogeneous world after graduation.

Our campuses should maximize each undergraduate’s ability to go beyond his or her comfort zone to learn from the most unexpected sources. By contrast, in the carefully curated online communities we create, we can reduce chances of surprise encounters, we can distance ourselves from sources with which we are unfamiliar. Our social networks are virtual, gated communities. We just filter out (or “unfriend”) the points of view we don’t want to hear. Our campuses, on the other hand, should be places where diversity leads to learning as our students come to see differences among people as a deep resource for solving problems and seeking opportunities. Online education can complement this educational environment very well. But it does not replace the need for it.

It’s early May, and as we prepare to welcome the class of 2016 and congratulate the grads of 2012, we should remember that their broadly-based, reflexive education is much more than information transfer. That kind of exchange can be done very well online. Our education, our immersion in communities of learning, is an initiation into a lifetime of learning, of solving problems, of creating opportunities, of experiencing the pleasures of the arts — and of participating in the public sphere.

Lifelong learning isn’t a luxury, although it does require investment. The investment enables our graduates to engage more fully with the world around them and exercise their responsibilities as citizens, to become shapers of the economy and culture of the future rather than be just spectators – or victims.

Creativity Works at Wes

What follows is a book review I published this weekend in The Washington Post of “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” by Jonah Lehrer. For years people have said that Wesleyan is a place for creative students, and recently we have tried to define more specifically how the work on our campus helps students develop their capacities for innovation.

A few days ago, applicants to Wes found out whether they have been invited to join the class of 2016. The competition for spots was very intense this year. With more than 10,000 applicants, most of whom are highly qualified, the process of putting together a class is increasingly difficult. We are looking for students who will thrive in the engaged, collaborative and imaginative campus culture here. Over the next four weeks many of the prospective pre-frosh will be visiting Wes, trying to determine if this will be their home and their launch pad for the next four years. The students who choose Wesleyan will likely be those who find that the dynamic student and faculty culture stimulates their own imaginative capacities. Creativity works at Wesleyan.


Check out these recent articles on the student music scene at Wes:




Here’s the review, crossposted from washingtonpost.com:

Not many writers can make plausible links among musicians Bob Dylan, Yo-Yo Ma and David Byrne, animators at Pixar, neuroscientists at MIT, an amateur bartender in New York, entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and Israeli army reservists. Not many reporters do research about an expert surfer who has Asperger’s, information theorists, industrial psychologists and artists. But Jonah Lehrer is such a writer-reporter, who weaves compelling and surprising connections based on detailed investigation and deep understanding. He says that working memory is an essential tool of the imagination, and his book is an excellent example of how a dynamic storehouse of captivating information feeds creative thinking and writing.

Lehrer begins with the story of a pop-culture breakthrough, the artistic reinvigoration that Dylan experienced when he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone.” Dylan was finishing a grueling tour schedule that had left him increasingly dissatisfied with making music. He decided to leave behind the madness of celebrity culture and the repetitive demands of pop performance. But once he was ensconced in Woodstock, N.Y., once he decided to stop trying to write songs, the great song came: “It’s like a ghost is writing a song,” he said. “It gives you the song and it goes away. You don’t know what it means.” Lehrer adds, “Once the ghost arrived, all Dylan wanted to do was get out of the way.”

Many of the stories that Lehrer recounts in the first few chapters stress the benefits of paying attention to internal mental processes that seem to come from out of the blue. We can learn to pay attention to our daydreams, to the thoughts or fantasies that seem nonsensical. Sometimes this attention must be very light, so that the stream of ideas and emotions flows, as when Ma feels his way into a new piece of music. Sometimes the attention must be very great, as when W.H. Auden (assisted by Benzedrine) focused on getting the words in a poem exactly right.

Lehrer explains some of the neuroscience behind these different modes of attentiveness. Making use of the power of the right hemisphere figures in, as does activating more energy from the prefrontal cortex to “direct the spotlight of attention.” He discusses experiments that explore which parts of the brain seem most active in different kinds of pursuits. For example, as the brain develops in childhood, the power to inhibit our flights of fancy grows. But as inhibition and focus increase, the capacity to improvise seems to diminish.

Lehrer notes that modern science has given new names to ideas that philosophers have been exploring for a very long time. Despite the fancy terminology, I found the anecdotes about scientific experiments less interesting than the anecdotes about poets, artists, surfers and inventors. That’s partly because the science stories seem to overreach, pretending to offer explanations for creativity by finding precise locations for the multitudinous connections that the brain generates. In an organ with the networking plasticity of the brain, location might not explain so much.

The last three chapters move from individuals to contexts. Lehrer offers fascinating accounts of why cities generate intense creative work and why certain urban-planning principles that emphasize heterogeneity (think Jane Jacobs) are so powerful. He shows us why teams that “are a mixture of the familiar and the unexpected,” such as those at Pixar, are the most innovative. Too much strangeness, and things fall apart. Too much closeness, and the generative spark is never struck.

Lehrer shows why brainstorming usually fails to result in real innovation because nobody is pushing back on bad ideas. “The only way to maximize creativity . . . is to encourage a candid discussion of mistakes. . . . We can only get it right when we talk about what we got wrong.” Or, as Lee Unkrich, a Pixar director, put it: “We just want to screw up as quickly as possible. We want to fail fast. And then we want to fix it. Together.”

Lehrer concludes with a discussion of why certain epochs seem to be more creative than others. Culture, he says, determines creative output, and it is through sharing information and making connections that we maximize that output. He quotes Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, who emphasizes that “even in this age of technology, we still get smart being around other smart people.”

Glaeser and Lehrer are showing why cities remain so important, but as the president of a university, I can also see how this applies to our campuses. Students and faculty seek the inspiration that is available all over campus, and that’s why so much learning happens outside the classroom. Sitting by yourself with your computer, even if you have access to thousands of Facebook “friends,” just isn’t the same as being in a creative, cosmopolitan culture in which new connections are continually (and surprisingly) formed.

“Imagine” doesn’t offer a prescription for how we are to become more imaginative, but it does emphasize some key ingredients of a creative culture: taking education seriously, increasing possibilities for human mixing and cultivating a willingness to take risks. Lehrer practices what he preaches, showing an appetite for learning, a determined effort to cross fields and disciplines, and a delight in exploring new possibilities. Reading his book exercises the imagination; the rest is up to us.