Bioethics and the Limits of Experimentation

Since coming back to Wesleyan in 2007, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Joseph Fins ’82, who was on the Board of Trustees (and the presidential search committee) when I was hired. Joe is a proud graduate of the College of Letters, a physician and a bio-ethicist. I just read his powerful critique of experiments in Romania on children who had the misfortune to grow up in that country’s orphanages. Joe questions the ethics of randomized studies with children, when it is very likely that those children will be harmed by the conditions being studied. In a recent Hastings Center forum he writes:

One of the salient lessons of twentieth-century bioethics is that scientists cannot always do the experiment they would like to do. When you are not in a lab and unable to control all the variables, if you try to control all the variables, people can get hurt. That is what happened in Romania. And it is a double tragedy because investigators could have had the same policy impact if they had done their research in a different way. They could have been more attentive to the fact that some of the children suffered harm from ongoing early exposure to the orphanages that could have been interrupted.

Joe quotes his COL teacher, philosopher Elisabeth Young-Breuhl:

It is the great task of human beings–the essential task–to understand what adults should give children; what is–to use a legal phrase–“in the best interests of the child.” The basic needs of all children are the same; there are universal needs. And it should be the task of any and all adults to understand those needs and meet them. Children depend upon adults for this understanding, and if it is not applied, not translated into the actions of child-rearing and education, children cannot grow and develop freely and become adults who, in turn, give such understanding and action to their own children.

I sit on the Board of Trustees of the Hastings Center with Joe and Joshua Boger ’73. I so value the way these Wes alumni (and other members of the Hastings Center) connect a deep knowledge of science with questions of politics, policy and ethics. This is at the core of a liberal education. You can read more of Joe’s essay here.
Joe Fins will be on campus to hold a WesSeminar on medical writing, consciousness and human rights over Homecoming Family Weekend. You can find out more here.

Scholarship and Teaching Ramping Up this Summer

Last week Kari and I spent 6 hours a day in seminars on the impact of digital media on art history, visual studies and the humanities. The program was jointly sponsored by the research arm of the Clark Museum and by the French National Institute for the History of Art. Before my appointment at Wesleyan, I’d spent the previous decade or so in the world of art making and the study of visual culture. These seminars re-connected me with some of the scholars I’d gotten to know at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

Digital media are obviously having an enormous impact on art making today, and on the study of the history of art. Many of the participants in our discussions have seen their fields change dramatically in the last ten years because of technology. Our reading for the week consisted of a wide range of topics: theoretical critiques of new regimes of social control made possible by tracking and surveillance software; art historical discussions of the role of art in the age of digital distribution; projections concerning the importance of the digital humanities; films that showed the attraction of many artists to forms of reproducibility that have not really been left behind in the rush of the digital.

Clark-INHA Seminar at Fondation Hartung-Bergman
Clark-INHA Seminar at Fondation Hartung-Bergman

It was good to catch up with colleagues on the role of digital tools for the making and study of art, especially as we at Wesleyan hope to expand our facilities for digital design and media. It was also important to be reminded of “what remains” whenever society embraces new forms of technology to deal with questions that have deep cultural roots.

While we were digging into visual culture and its history, a group of Wesleyan faculty were representing our journal History and Theory at the first conference of the  International Network for Theory of History. The editor of the journal is Ethan Kleinberg (COL, History, Center for Humanities), and he was one of a small group of scholars from around the world asked to give a keynote address to the hundreds of philosophers, critics, historians and theorists gathered at Ghent. He, too, was concerned with digital culture in his talk entitled “The Analog Ceiling.” There were lively debates on topics in almost every field of historical reflection, but Ethan tells me there was a strong consensus about one thing: Wesleyan’s History and Theory is the preeminent journal in the field.

Another journal that has had its home at Wesleyan for years is Diaspora, edited by Khachig Tölölyan (COL and English). Diaspora is “dedicated to the multidisciplinary study of the history, culture, social structure, politics, and economics of both the traditional diasporas – Armenian, Greek, and Jewish – and the new transnational dispersions.” I knew Khach when I was an undergraduate — he already had a reputation as an inspiring teacher and pathbreaking scholar. He has been one of the founders of diaspora studies, travels extensively to talk about his research and has built a journal that is the leader in its field. And he remains a beloved teacher. You can see one of his recent lectures here

Hundreds of Wesleyan faculty and students are scattered across the globe teaching, writing, and pursuing their scholarship during the summer. And many of them are right here in Middletown, in the libraries and labs. Much of this work will find its way back into classrooms very quickly. I’ve just finished a book manuscript, been doing lots of reading and writing, and am to relaunch the Wesleyan-Coursera class The Modern and the Postmodern in the next week. Then I’ll be spending some time reconfiguring my fall class on philosophy and the movies while I finish some writing assignments.

From research to teaching and back again — a very virtuous circle.


Remembering Franklin Reeve

Kari received the sad news recently that Franklin Reeve, emeritus professor in the College of Letters, had passed away. He had taught at Wesleyan for more than 40 years, and his students and colleagues recognized his generosity, his wit, and his wide-ranging intellect. I didn’t study with Frank, but many of my friends did, and I experienced him as a formidable presence on campus. No, that’s not quite right. He had stature, but he also had a ready smile and an easy openness to which so many of my peers responded. A few years ago, Frank came back to campus with a jazz combo for an evening of music and poetry. He still had that openness, along with his lifelong joy in the careful use of language and in the vitality of improvisation.

Paul Schwaber, Frank’s colleague for many years in the COL has written a tribute to his friend. It’s my pleasure to post it below.

Briganteen Media Photo
Franklin Reeve (Briganteen Media)


I remember Frank Reeve as a tall, extremely handsome man.  He smiled ruefully and spoke very rapidly, as if barely able to control his rush of thought or  questions.  He joined COL after some time away from Wesleyan, where he’d initially taught Russian.  Widely learned, he was polylingual, witty, keen with pun and irony.  He wrote poetry, drama, fiction.  He translated.  He seemed never to stop writing.    He was competitive and judgmental, but only with the best.  To a young colleague he was also kind.  For example, I asked him early on to read a review I’d not yet submitted on a new book by Robert Lowell.  Frank made several helpful suggestions  about phrasing but also telegraphed dubiety about my choice of poets.  In COL’s jointly taught colloquia, he was energizing, a playful presence, exciting to teach with, inspiring by example to the students.  I’ve known him to be sharply critical but never nasty, and he had no trouble communicating his love of language and linguistic art.  Most of all he was both literary and worldly.  There were few things he seemed not to know.  COL applied for and won an NEH grant for courses on Science as a Humanistic Discipline, for which Frank taught a course called “How Things Work.”

He also noted when things didn’t work.  My friend Bill Firshein and I volunteered to join Ted Hoey sail his new boat on the Connecticut River.  Ted was a rookie, and Bill and I had never sailed.  We learned that “Hard-a-lee” meant bend down quickly, as the main sail would swing by.  Yet soon we three were in the water, the boat on its side, while we tried to roll it upright, laughing hard, as Bill, the biologist, shouted “Don’t swallow the water! It’s polluted!”  Suddenly we were aware of a boat circling round us protectively.  And there was Frank, with a boatload of wide-eyed children, he taller even than usual, with an amused—or was it pitying?—look on his face.   He was an expert sailor, a committed teacher of literature and writing, with a lively and enlivening mind.  He taught a seminar on Melville and Dostoevsky, two giants rarely studied in depth together.  Yet it was much in demand, each time he offered it.  For several years too he taught a first-year Great Books course, lecture size and ever-popular, in which apparently he was able to get the students to talk, and to talk with one another.  It became a major source of gifted students to the COL major as well. 

In his later years, he suffered crippling arthritis, which bent this exceptional man over but did not crush his spirit.  We mourn his death and praise him, a genuine and unique man of letters.



Mad About Wes

Last night a few hundred Wesleyans gathered at the Director’s Guild Theater in New York to hear from Matthew Weiner ’87, creator of Mad Men. This was one of the kickoff events for our THIS IS WHY fundraising campaign, and the energy was terrific. I met some recent graduates who were eager to hear how Matt went from being a College of Letters major to a film and television writer. Older alumni were comparing notes with me about how the mania for period detail in Mad Men got the epoch just right.

Matt told a hilarious story about his poetry thesis and spoke warmly of the creative friends and teachers at Wesleyan who helped launch him into the world of ideas and media. Was it the Freud seminar taught by Elisabeth Young-Breuhl and Paul Schwaber, or the work in writing seminars with Anne Greene? COL director Kari Weil seemed to think that it was all those discussions about books that matter, and Matt provided plenty of evidence for that when he talked about Don Draper’s tenuous existentialism. It was a wonderful evening, and at the end we announced a new $600,000 donation to financial aid from an alumnus who wanted to celebrate the occasion. It was a great night for alma mater!

I’m heading back to campus today. There is so much happening on campus this weekend — from music and public life in Indonesia to great international theater at the CFA (not to mention Company at the Second Stage). Lots of great athletic action, too! Check out the calendar and find out why we keep saying, “THIS IS WHY.”

Earning LEED Platinum for 41 Wyllys

One of the significant changes to campus over the last few years was moving the Career Center, the College of Letters and the Art History Department to what had been the old Squash building. This McKim, Mead and White building had been empty for years, and for a while there was talk of using the space for a museum. Instead, we decided to move some crucial academic and career functions there, and under the leadership of John Meerts, Joyce Topshe and Alan Rubacha, we were able to design and build a strong addition to the core of campus. Yesterday I learned that this historic-modern structure earned a rare LEED “platinum” status as an environmentally sound building. So many dedicated people worked on the building that I’m just going to reproduce Alan’s email here:

It  is with ebullient satisfaction that I am confirming that 41 Wyllys Avenue has been awarded the highest possible USGBC LEED rating of Platinum.  Wesleyan’s 41 Wyllys Avenue building is now among the most elite recognized projects in the country.
Please help me recognize my extraordinary team.  Certainly John Meerts must be recognized for leading the entire process and pushing us all to be our best along with our entire building committee.  Newman Architects led by Joe Schiffer, Dave Rodrigues and Jim Elmasry, helped spearhead the entire effort; they combined awesome architecture with sustainability.  Van Zelm, led by Dave Madigan and Bev Cleaveland, provided the electrical, mechanical and lighting systems design to make us as efficient as possible.  FIP Construction, led by Bill Hardy, Dan Burns and Mark Culligan, waded patiently and tirelessly through mountains of paperwork to provide all of the subcontractor management and required supporting documentation.
We really need to recognize Newman’s LEED consultant Michele Helou.  She guided us all through this extraordinary process.  Michele demonstrated not only an incredible knowledge of the LEED process but of construction; and she did this all patiently while we struggled to keep up with her. Marvelous job Michele! I can’t say enough about you.  Michele was supported by an excellent energy modeler, Maria Karpman.
I look forward to having the pleasure of installing our LEED Platinum plaque in this truly incredible building.     — Alan Rubacha

Congratulations to everyone who worked on this great addition to our increasingly sustainable campus!



Profiles in Academic Innovation

Two of Wesleyan’s many centers of interdisciplinary scholarship have new leaders who are doing exciting things:

Jennifer Tucker is now the interim director of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life. Jennifer is a historian with deep interests in the intersection of visual and scientific cultures, paying especial attention to how this intersection is often mediated by questions of gender and sexuality. She has long been a member of the Science in Society Program and also currently chairs Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies (FGSS). You probably have seen her op-ed on the “science” behind Congressman Akin’s notions of pregnancy and rape, and she is eager to see even more Wes faculty (especially women faculty) contribute to the public sphere through essays, op-eds and editorials. I’ve gotten to know Jennifer better because of our mutual interest in the intersections of photography and history. Nature Exposed, her book on Victorian science and photography, is already a key text in the field, and she recently edited an issue of History and Theory devoted to photography, history and philosophy. At the Allbritton Center, Jennifer will be developing the foundations and frameworks for planning future programs that link the campus to the most pressing issues in the public sphere.


Ethan Kleinberg began his stint as director of the Center for the Humanities this summer. Ethan is also a historian, with a joint appointment in the College of Letters. I first encountered his work many years ago when he was doing research for his excellent book, Generation Existential, a study of the impact of Heidegger on 20th century French intellectual history. In addition to his work in history and COL, at Wesleyan Ethan has been one of the creators of the Certificate in Social, Cultural and Critical Theory, and he is the Executive Editor of History and Theory. Ethan intends to build on the great tradition at the Center for dynamic interdisciplinary research and teaching, ensuring that Wesleyan’s humanities programs remain a crucial node in the networks of international scholarship. Students, faculty, and distinguished visitors make the Center for the Humanities a place where knowledge happens — where scholarship gets jump-started. You can learn more about Ethan’s vision for the Center here.

There are many faculty across the campus doing exciting things across the disciplines — from the College of the Environment to the Center for East Asian Studies. These two new leaders will surely add to our distinctive educational experience on campus — and beyond!

In Memoriam: Elisabeth Young-Bruehl

I received the sad email message from Professor Paul Schwaber on Friday: his close friend and COL colleague Elisabeth Young-Bruehl had died quite suddenly. Elisabeth was a philosopher, psychoanalyst, teacher…a great friend and mentor to many of my fellow-students at Wesleyan in the 1970s and for many years afterwards. She was a presence in the College of Letters, where she taught everything from ancient Greek philosophy to contemporary political theory. Although I did not study with her myself, I remember her vividly. Her questions from the back of the room at the Monday night Center for Humanities lectures often punctured the puffed up and pretentious, yet she was given to warm, easy laughter. We knew one another from a distance, but the devotion she inspired from her students was always evident. Evident and admirable.

Elisabeth’s intellectual biographies of Hannah Arendt and Anna Freud combined dogged empirical research with sophisticated theoretical analysis. Over the last several years, she was working as a psychoanalyst, having made a major contribution to this field with her Anatomy of Prejudices, among other works. Recently, the editor we both work with at Yale University Press sent me a glowing review of Elisabeth’s latest book, Childism:Confronting Prejudice Against Children. It’s an urgent call for action to protect some of the most vulnerable victims of prejudice and violence: children. The book will be published in the next month or so.

I last saw Elisabeth a few years ago in New York, when she stopped by to say hello after a talk I’d presented on the photographer David Maisel. She seemed vital and engaged, and she was generous and welcoming. The writer Dominique Browning, who studied with Elisabeth at Wesleyan in the mid 1970s, offers a loving tribute to her friend and teacher on her blog.

The legacies of great teachers continue on and on. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s memory will be a blessing for so many of her students, friends and readers.


Freeman Travels 2010

For the last week I’ve been in Japan and Korea with Graeme Freeman from the Freeman Foundation and Terri Overton from Admissions interviewing students for our Freeman Scholarship program. The program has now been going for 15 years, and it has brought to Wesleyan many exceptionally talented young people from 11 different Asian countries. Year in, year out they arrive on campus with a thirst for learning, faith in a liberal arts education, and an extraordinary capacity for focused, challenging work.

This was my first trip to Tokyo and Seoul, and it also included a number of alumni gatherings. I had the pleasure of meeting Katsuhiko Hiyama ’60 (Kay) who is hoping to come back for his 50th reunion this year. Kay described to me how his Wesleyan education has been a lifelong resource for him as he worked in four different continents, and he also shared with me his love of jazz. I also met some recent alums, including Joyce Haejung Park ‘04, who majored in math and is now working for Chartis in Seoul. Although Sam Paik ‘90 and Professor Jung-Ho Kim ‘85 are frequent visitors to campus, it was great to see them on their home turf. And I met with alumni working in media, finance, education and public service. All described to me how they continue to draw on their Wes education.

Interviewing Freeman finalists is a great cure for cynicism. These high school seniors display a love of learning and a devotion to education that is truly inspiring. Although in many cases they have already registered significant success in school (I’ve never met as many perfect 800 scorers in a short period of time), the dominant theme was the desire to explore new areas of inquiry and to encounter a variety of cultural experiences. They were interested in CSS, COL and the new College of the Environment, in addition to our offerings in music, science, philosophy, and, yes, even East Asian Studies. One young woman was led to her interest in the liberal arts through reading Aristotle on her own; another student was passionate about break dancing and religion. All in all they are an amazing group!

In my first year as President I set a goal of doubling the number of international students at Wesleyan. The financial crisis has slowed this down, but after a trip like this one, I am more convinced than ever that bringing students from outside the United States is a great benefit to them and to the entire Wes community.

Here are a couple of pictures of my recent alumni guides, who also helped out with interviews.

Alumni guides in Tokyo
Kohei Saito ’09 & Toshihiro Osaka ’09
Seoul Alumni Guides
Hyung Jin Choi ’07 & Sunho Hwang ’05

[tags]Freeman Scholarship Program, Katsuhiko Hiyama, alumni[/tags]

They’re coming home!

Just a quick note to say how wonderful it is to see the campus beginning to fill up with the smiling faces of Wesleyan parents and alumni. This morning I met with the Athletic Advisory Council, a group of dedicated alumni who have helped us to raise the profile of our sports programs at the university and to strengthen the quality of the students’ experience on all our teams. This afternoon I met with a group of parents and alumni who talked with me about Wesleyan 2020. It was most interesting to hear from this group about the distinctiveness of the Wes experience, and how to make its lifelong learning aspects more visible and compelling. One of the key ingredients emphasized by all the participants is the extraordinary quality of the faculty-student interaction. Our Scholar-Teacher model inspires new ways of thinking that permanently and positively affect our community.

The link on the Wesleyan homepage shows the full range of alumni programs this weekend. Of course, there is big game in football against Williams tomorrow, and we are hosting the NESCAC Conference Championship in men’s soccer. There are great seminars, screenings and exhibitions. I am particularly excited about Majora Carter’s talk tomorrow at 4 pm in Memorial Chapel. Majora has been a force for good things since graduating from Wesleyan in 1988, and her work on sustainable community development has been widely celebrated. Given our plans for the College of the Environment and for Civic Engagement, she is the perfect speaker for the Dwight Greene Symposium.

The College of Letters and the College of Social Studies are celebrating their 50th anniversaries this weekend. These great, innovative programs have introduced students to literature, philosophy, and history, economics, political science and social theory. The demanding comprehensives, the expectation of independent thinking, and the forging of close personal ties have been hallmarks of these programs that helped to define the very meaning of interdisciplinarity. HAPPY 50TH to COL and CSS!

If you are not able to get back to Middletown for Homecoming, I hope that our webcasts, videos and blogs give you a taste of what its like to be here on this beautiful Fall weekend.

[tags]Athletic Advisory Council, NESCAC, Majora Carter, College of Letters, College of Social Studies[/tags]

Wes Faculty: Scholars, Scientists, Artists…Mentors All!

As our semester winds to a close, and as students prepare experiments, performances, papers and presentations, I often see my faculty colleagues literally running across campus. They are racing to  lectures and seminars, committee meetings on the curriculum or the budget, or advisory meetings  with students. This last activity is often the most rewarding part of what they do as faculty at Wesleyan.

On Tuesday I taught my penultimate class for The Past On Film. We talked about a British film, Distant Voices, Still Lives, and I suggested to my rather skeptical group of undergraduates that this film offers a serious perspective on the painful construction of desire inside the modern family. After class,  I ran to the faculty meeting  where there were at least 100 professors eager to take part in a serious discussion of a possible summer session at Wesleyan for 2010. I marveled at their energy. The chemists, fresh from their labs, were focused on the educational and financial issues, as were the historians who had just finished their seminars. The artists and the social scientists, after working with students throughout the day, were eager to lend a hand in crafting an approach to a new program that would have educational integrity and be economically sustainable.

Recently I blogged about a poster session in which undergraduate science majors presented research that was sophisticated and professional. Last night I attended part of an event at the College of Letters where students presented brief summaries of their theses to their teachers and to sophomores and juniors. I’ll mention just a few examples to give a sense of the diversity of subjects. Chris Patalano wrote a novella and Benjamin Sachs-Hamilton translated and directed a play – both projects were grounded in premodern texts. Sofia Warner examined changing modes of psychiatric worldviews from the patient’s perspective.  Russell Perkins, whom I had gotten to know because of his important work on bringing classes into prisons, had his thesis on art and philosophy described to the audience by another senior, Jason Kavett (recent winner of Fulbright and DAAD scholarships). Russell returned the favor by providing an account of Jason’s thesis on romanticism.

As I walked home with Sophie, I marveled at how wonderful these projects were. And then I thought that each and every one of them – like all thesis projects at Wesleyan — – had been supervised individually by a faculty member. In conversation and in their presentations, students show that their theses are often labors of love as well as of worldly investigation and self-discovery. In each case they are guided by a faculty member who takes the time and care to help them along the way. Truly, these are labors of love!

There is a long tradition of this kind of faculty devotion at Wesleyan. While individual professional rewards are often given for other kinds of “production,” our entire community is the beneficiary of this ongoing, thoughtful generosity.  As we come to the end of the spring term, it is such a joyous experience to see our graduating students exemplify the creative intellectual virtues that their teachers also embody.

I still remember my feelings of anxiety and pride as I finished my own thesis here. As a student, I was profoundly grateful for the mentoring (and editing!) I received. As a teacher, I know how gratifying it is see these strong examples of mature, independent work. BRAVO!

[tags] The Past on Film, summer session, College of Letters, theses, Chris Patalano, Benjamin Sachs-Hamilton, Sofia Warner, Russell Perkins, Jason Kavett [/tags]