Why We Teach

I noticed on the calendar today that this week there are some “Pre-Select Interviews” for students planning to apply to Teach for America this year. Teach for America was a popular choice for Wes grads even before other jobs after graduation became so scarce, and it continues to attract some of our most thoughtful and engaged students. For many years, Wesleyan has contributed a disproportionate share of teachers to schools at all levels, and our Graduate Liberal Studies program has provided hundreds of teachers in central Connecticut with advanced degrees. There is currently a task force of faculty and administrators investigating whether we should re-start a program of study for undergraduates intending to pursue careers in education. We certainly need new ideas for improving our schools — and a better understanding of how our education system now reproduces inequality rather than offering an escape from it.

Wesleyan faculty are celebrated for their devotion to their students, and some have been recognized nationally for their extraordinary work in the classroom. I’m thinking of Richie Adelstein in Economics and Andy Szegedy-Maszak in Classics. And I’m thinking of a film prof of whom Joss Whedon said, “I’ve had two great teachers in my life — one was my mother, the other was Jeanine Basinger.” Not every prof gets to see things like that in print, but we all take pride in them.

I’d like to think that one of the core reasons so many of our students go on to careers in education is that they are inspired by the energy and dedication of their teachers at Wesleyan. Whether they are studying computational biology or ethnomusicology, postmodern Christian thought or microeconomics, our students are enlivened by the work of their professors. And as their teachers, we are enlivened by the creativity, inquisitiveness and intellectual verve of our students. My colleagues tell me that I’m happiest just after I come back from the classroom. Now as our fall term comes to an end, I’m already beginning to wonder who will be in my spring course…

Emerson wrote that colleges “serve us when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame.” That’s why we teach. To see those fires and to feel their warmth.

Taking a Breath and Giving Thanks

As students begin to pack up for visits to family and friends, the campus itself seems to take a deep breath. On Thanksgiving morning the bleachers will be filled for the annual Xavier vs. Middletown High School football game, and then there will be a few days of unusual quiet (he writes, hopefully). I met with my class yesterday, and when they return there will only be a couple of weeks left in the semester. The term flies by so quickly! This brief pause in the semester’s frenetic activities gives us the opportunity to remember the things for which we are grateful. I’ll just mention a few here:

Students: When I met with a group of sons and daughters of Wesleyan alumni this weekend, I told them that the key aspect in finding the right school is to get a feel for the student culture that has developed on campus over the years. Wesleyan continues to attract marvelously creative, hard-working, fun-loving and civic-minded young people who make the most of their time in Middletown. I am grateful to be able to teach them, learn from them, and cheer as they strive to perform at the highest level.

Faculty: During the Thanksgiving “break” professors here will be grading exams, commenting on papers, or writing their own articles and books. The scholar-teachers at Wesleyan are remarkable for their dedication, their caring and rigorous approach to students, and their consistent ability to shape the scholarly fields in which they work.  I am proud to be their colleague, and grateful to work side by side with them.

Staff: Often the unsung heroes of the campus are the hundreds of employees who make the place run. From planning events for prospective students to making sure graduation and reunion go smoothly, our staff have impressively high standards for the work they do. And they consistently meet those standards even in difficult times. Wesleyan benefits so much from the support and creative problem solving abilities of its staff, and my family and I are lucky to live and work in a place where dedication and hard work are built into the fabric of the campus.

Alumni and Parents: Meeting alumni and parents from around the world who are active in a wide array of endeavors has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of being president here. They are proud of alma mater and eager to be helpful to current students beginning to make their way in the world. I am so thankful for the generosity and thoughtfulness of the extended Wesleyan community.

Above all, I am grateful for the patience, support and affection of my family. They make everything else possible, and I’m looking forward to having a little extra time with them during this break.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Fall Breezes, Turning to the Future

There is a cool breeze today and the weatherman tells me it’s a harbinger of fall.  I can see the excitement of students checking out new classes, and faculty are being re-energized by the thoughtful questions posed in seminars or in sessions with advisees. This week also marks the beginning of the fall sports schedule, and we start off by hosting Williams in men’s and women’s soccer and field hockey on Saturday. Come out and cheer the Cardinals!

But the air is also filled with mixed messages. On the faculty list-serve this week Wesleyan’s Muslim Chaplain, Marwa Aly, sent a thoughtful, heartfelt message deploring the hate speech being directed at Muslims in many parts of the country. She asks for something as basic as it is important: that we act with care and understanding toward members of our community, and that we stand up to hate when it is expressed around us. At Rosh Hashanah services yesterday Wesleyan’s Jewish Chaplain, David Teva, reminded us of some of the many intersections of Jewish and Islamic rituals. He spoke of the importance of taking care of one another, and of taking a stance against injustice. As we turned ourselves toward the gates of the new year, we also remembered the work for peace and understanding that must continue as we enter 5771.

The ideals of peace and understanding aren’t just large abstractions to which we pay lip service. They can be part of our everyday lives, part of our community. Want an example? Check out the celebration of Wesleyan’s Green Street Art Center’s new North End Mural this evening at 5:30.  For new students, this will be an opportunity to get to know the great programs at GSAC. For old timers, it will be an occasion to celebrate the arts and education (and delicious food!) with friends and neighbors.

Cool fall breezes, to be sure, and they carry lots of hope for a great year.

[tags]soccer, field hockey, Marwa Aly, David Teva, Green Street Arts Center, North End Mural[/tags]

Labor Day and the Start of the Semester

This year our first day of the semester is also Labor Day, which has certainly caused grumbling among some of us who have to show up for class on Monday rather than enjoying the last long weekend of summer. And of course it’s not just a matter of showing up Monday. Syllabi need final preparation, lectures must be written, and advisees are looking for guidance.

But on this Labor Day we should remember those who won’t have to report this week at all because there aren’t enough jobs. With official unemployment stubbornly remaining between 9% and 10%, there are many around us who are suffering from the poverty and despair of not being able to find work. Bob Herbert’s column in the New York Times on September 4 underscores the plight of a group of custodians recently laid off from their jobs at a luxury office building in Los Angeles. Closer to home, the Middletown food bank Amazing Grace reports a red alert because of the low level of supplies on their shelves. Right here at Wesleyan, we have made a small number of position reductions over the last 18 months. Each job is personal not just institutional, and each position elimination was painful.

As students plan their courses for the fall, and as faculty plan their curricula, how should we connect the reality of labor and unemployment to the broad liberal learning we so value? It can be done very specifically, as with Claire Potter’s Frosh History Seminar on Poverty in the United States, and it can be done more generally by thinking through how a liberal arts education is related to how one will support oneself. As I have said many times now in various venues, I believe a liberal education has never been more relevant to work in the world than it is today. This has little to do with the specific choice of concentration by an undergraduate. I was recently talking to a Wes parent who told me that in interviewing over a thousand people for jobs over the years he has never asked what somebody majored in during college. Instead, he has been looking for the ability to think creatively and critically, to imagine possibilities and to solve problems. This is the kind of ability cultivated by liberal learning.

A liberal education teaches that rigor and innovation, far from being in tension with one another, can often go hand in hand. Patience and diligence — practice and method — are qualities developed across a liberal arts curriculum. The American pragmatists celebrated inquiry as a mode of experience, and teachers and students today continue to believe that we must reflexively look back on our own inquiries to assess the learning process and whether the results are relevant to life beyond the specific questions being pursued. Self-criticism need not be navel-gazing. The practical is not the enemy of the true.

For years I have been saying that an undergraduate education should help students to discover what they love to do, and to get better at it. I’ve recently realized that it is important to emphasize a third goal: to develop the capacity to share what one loves to do (and has gotten a little better at) with others. This third goal, let’s call it “engagement,” connects what one has learned with what one can do with the communities to which one belongs.

The education that our students begin on Labor Day doesn’t promise a specific kind of job, but it does promise to expand one’s possibilities for meaningful work after graduation. Learning to learn also means learning to work, to engage with others in getting things done, creating opportunities and solving problems. Engaging with others also means being aware when we can be helpful to those in need, those who may not have the same opportunities we are enjoying while at the university.

My hope for Labor Day and the beginning of the semester is that through study and engagement we will eventually learn to create more jobs so that the perils and anxieties that mark this year’s holiday won’t become permanent parts of our economy and culture.

[tags]unemployment, Labor Day, Bob Herbert, New York Times, Amazing Grace Food Pantry, Claire Potter, Poverty in the United States, liberal arts education[/tags]

Looking to the Year Ahead

It’s late August, and students around the country are packing suitcases, organizing books and music, and figuring out how to say goodbye to friends and family as they get set to head off to their respective college campuses. Here at Wesleyan some of our student residential life staff members are already back and attending training sessions to put in place plans for the year ahead. Soon the international students will arrive, followed by fall athletes and then the Class of 2014. The campus comes back to life in stages, it seems, and with each new group I get those back-to-school butterflies and sense of excitement. I also realize that I’d better finish tinkering with my syllabus and get those lectures together for The Modern and the Postmodern!

I recently met with the Cabinet to discuss our goals for the coming year, and I was so impressed by the energy and ambition of the group. We heard two presentations, the first from Sonia Manjon, whose new title is Vice President for Institutional Partnerships and Chief Diversity Officer. Sonia described a program called Making Excellence Inclusive that has been developed by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. We discussed how important it is to go beyond rhetoric to build sustainable programs that treat the  diversity  of our communities as an educational asset. Difference, she stressed, is not a problem to be fixed but a resource on which we can draw. I look forward to working with Sonia, faculty, students, staff and alumni to continue building a vibrant, dynamic learning community from our multiplicity of perspectives and experiences.

Interim Provost Rob Rosenthal made a presentation on the “engaged university” in which he described the multiple layers of positive interactions we can create on campus and the relationships we can build between our university and the other communities in which we participate. As a faculty member, Rob has been a pioneer in campus-community partnerships, and along with several colleagues has worked tirelessly to embed civic engagement within the curriculum. We were all energized by thinking of ways we can develop our engaged university, whether that be through “action teaching,” new courses, partnerships, or other programs.

It’s late August, and we’re getting ready for a great year!

[tags]The Modern and the Postmodern, Sonia Manjon, Vice President for Institutional Partnerships and Chief Diversity Officer, Making Excellence Inclusive, American Association of Colleges and Universities, Rob Rosenthal[/tags]

Helping our Community Partners

Kari and I went to two fundraisers last week for great organizations in Middletown. That’s one of the “perks” of being Wesleyan’s president: one gets invited to serve on various committees, and one gets to know a variety of organizations doing good work in the region. This year I was an “honorary chair” for the celebration and fundraiser commemorating the 35th anniversary of Oddfellows Playhouse. Oddfellows was founded by a group of Wesleyan students in the 1970s to serve young people in Middletown by providing them with the opportunity to create first-rate theater. They have an educational, social and community mission, and they have remained true to the founders’ vision over a long period of time. The Gala and auction raised significant amounts of money that will have a direct impact on the lives of young people in this area.

The day after the Oddfellows event we were headed to a fundraising dinner for The Connection, a social services and community development organization. Wesleyan philosopher Steve Angle is on their board of directors, and he explained to me that the organization has always had a philosopher there since the 1970s when Phil Hallie served this role. The Connection addresses substance abuse, crime, and community disrepair across the state, and the fundraising event seemed like a great success. Lots of money was raised (and The Shiny Lapel Trio played some great dance music!).

Wesleyan is an important part of Middletown and Middlesex County, and for many years the university has been active in promoting community development. I am one of the Chairs of the upcoming United Way Campaign, which marks the organization’s 75th anniversary. Wes faculty and staff have been consistently generous supporters of United Way, and we will do our best to raise a record amount to mark the 75th! Thanks in advance for everyone who contributes to this effort!

Even our daughter Sophie has gotten into the act. She was just called for her bat mitzvah, and she suggested that people consider a donation to Wesleyan’s Green Street Arts Center in lieu of a gift. Green Street raised some money, and we have another reason to be proud of our not-so-little girl.

[tags]Oddfellows Playhouse, Green Street Arts Center, United Way Campaign, The Connection[/tags]

Wesleyan’s Green Street Art Center Needs Your Help!

Wesleyan’s Green Street Art Center is holding a benefit auction this week. On Thursday night from 6-9 pm you can enjoy good company and great food while supporting the after school programs in art and science at Green Street. That’s right, art and science. This year GSAC has developed a curriculum with some partner institutions that helps young boys and girls to improve their homework skills and find joy in learning. Wes students also discover this joy through our many volunteers. You can still buy a ticket for Thursday night, and funds go to support this work with youngsters that is so importantly educational for our tutors as well.

I was just looking at the auction list for the Green Street Art Center. You can still make bids through 2/15 on everything from tickets to Broadway shows to a dinner that Kari and I will prepare for you at the President’s House on campus. Check out all the items at the special website, and then bid.

Wesleyan’s programs at Green Street are having a powerful impact on the community and offering great learning opportunities to our students. I’m getting to know this not only from our undergraduates, but from my daughter Sophie who volunteers after school each week. I’ll let her close out this message:

sophie green st

[tags]Green Street Art Center, benefit auction, [/tags]

Promoting Access through Partnerships

Yesterday Sonia Manjon and I went to an exciting ground-breaking ceremony across the street from Wesleyan’s Green Street Arts Center. We first gathered at the GSAC to hear remarks from community organizers, bankers, businessmen, housing activists, federal, state and local officials, and the head of our Chamber of Commerce. It was a very impressive coalition of groups that has worked together with Nehemiah Housing to plan for 16 new owner-occupied units in the North End of Middletown. Access to affordable housing, all the partners agree, will enable residents to become stakeholders in their neighborhood thereby promoting the momentum for further improvements. Wesleyan has become an important part of this dynamic with our project at Green Street, and working with neighborhood groups (some of which are led by alumni) has been a great learning experience for our students, staff and faculty. Here’s a photograph of the groundbreaking from an article by recent honorary doctorate recipient Jennifer Alexander ’88 from the Middletowneye blog.

photo by Jennifer Alexander
photo by Jennifer Alexander

As we come to the end of our fiscal year this month, we are eagerly promoting the Wesleyan Fund as a way to enhance access to a great education. Be a stakeholder in our scholarship program by making a gift! We need the partnership of the extended Wesleyan family to keep our financial aid offerings strong. We  are making a big push to increase participation, so please make a contribution — no matter what size!

PLEASE GIVE BEFORE JUNE 30 TO BE ELIGIBLE FOR THE TRUSTEE MATCH. In another great example of partnership, the Board of Trustees will  match every gift up to $10,000 until June 30th.

Access to a Wesleyan education regardless of one’s ability to pay is key to who we are. Please become a partner in this effort! Here’s a link to make a donation on line.


[tags]ground-breaking ceremony, Sonia Manjon, Green Street Arts Center, Nehemiah Housing, construction, Jennifer Alexander, Wesleyan Fund, financial contribution, donation, Board of Trustees[/tags]

Making Ideals Effective

This past week Wesleyan’s students’ “Fast-a-Thon” raised $11,000 for the Amazing Grace Food Pantry in Middletown. Growing out of the observance of Ramadan, this was a great initiative to encourage students to be more mindful of the meals we eat, and to remember those who can’t afford to put food on the table. Starting with our Muslim students and extending across the religious and secular spectrum, this was a strong reminder of how our spiritual communities reach out to do good work on and off campus. Wesleyan students find ways to make their ideals effective!

The Board of Trustees just had its annual Fall Retreat on campus, working through some complex issues facing the university in these uncertain economic times. The trustees, all of whom are alumni or parents of students, volunteer their time, expertise and their financial resources to help make Wesleyan a stronger, even more dynamic institution. At this meeting we planned our work for the year, and we re-examined some of the financial assumptions in place for our major projects going forward. Over the next few months the staff will be gathering information to present to the Board in November, so that we can continue to develop resources to enhance the educational experience of all Wesleyan students. We have great aspirations, and we try to balance them with practical realities.

This is the season when I, like many Jews around the world, reflect on the past year and consider how I might turn more of my thinking and action to worthwhile goals in the future. It’s also a time to express gratitude for what we have, and for those who are close to us. The past year has been an extraordinary one for my family and for me. I so appreciate having been welcomed back to the Wesleyan community, of having the opportunity to be its president, and of sharing the commitment with you to build a university dedicated to offering the very best progressive liberal arts education in the world.

May it be a sweet year!

[tags] Fast-a-thon, Amazing Grace Food Pantry, Ramadan, Muslim students, ideals, Board of Trustees, Fall Retreat, Wesleyan community [/tags]

Getting Ready

Perhaps it’s the cool breezes in the morning and evening, or perhaps it’s the student workers who have begun to settle in, but as I walk around campus I’m getting that “back to school” feeling that makes every fall so special. After bookending my summer with vacations in Norway and Maine, I am eager to see our Wes students and teachers trotting to classes, sharing a meal at Usdan, or simply taking in the late summer sunshine on Foss Hill. We are getting ready!

During the summer I’ve been able to work with colleagues on evaluating how we did last year, and to plan the next steps for enhancing the curriculum, supporting the faculty, and making our students’ experience as meaningful as possible. Last year we gathered proposals that have helped us establish working priorities for improving class access, stimulating research, and enhancing the integration of the curriculum in the first two years. This summer we have built on those ideas and also prepared a new initiative to improve co-curricular offerings that link residential life with what students are learning in their classes.

In addition to the regular cycle of planning and goal development, this summer we have also created a task force to examine our policies and procedures in light of the incident with the police that occurred at the end of last semester on Fountain Ave. This committee of students, faculty and staff — led by Mike Whaley (VP for Student Affairs) — will report to me by the end of the summer. I will be meeting with Middletown police and civic leaders after I receive this report. My goal will be to ensure the safety and freedom of our community in a context that promotes a positive relationship with our town and region. Wesleyan has long been known for civic engagement, and that starts right here in Middletown.

Speaking of civic engagement, I hope that many of our students will be returning to campus with thoughts of the upcoming national election. I expect that there will be robust dialogue on the issues raised by various campaigns, and that our students will play a role in stimulating political participation. This is a time to make one’s voice heard, and it is also a time to listen to different voices. Elections matter, and this election offers opportunities for education and action. The stakes are very high.

Since I’ll be teaching a course on photography and philosophy this fall, I’ve also spent some of my summer getting ready for my first Wes seminar in 30 years. Whereas my film course last spring was a large lecture format, this will be a small class focused on contemporary scholarship. I have long been interested in how photography has changed the ways we make sense of the past, and the ways we represent the world. At CCA I taught this class for students in the visual arts, and I am excited to see how Wesleyan students respond to these issues in a liberal arts context. It won’t be long now!

[tags] Back to school, Fountain Ave, Mike Whaley, student affairs, Middletown, presidential election, photography [/tags]