Nashville (and Pittsburgh) Cats

Sitting in Nashville International Airport, I think back on the Wesleyan folks I’ve met during this trip. Some graduated more than 5 decades ago, others left Middletown only in the last couple of years. Before heading to Nashville I spent a day in Pittsburgh, where Ned Churchill ’59 and Jo-Ann Churchill hosted a reception for local alumni and parents. The conversation turned to the wonderful students who are now attracted to Wes, but also to some of the frustrations alumni experience in having to explain where exactly they spent their undergrad years. Ohio Wesleyan, or West Virginia? No, thundered Ned (who had spent many years running marketing for Heinz) “we went to THE Wesleyan University,” in mock tribute to the offensive lineman who declaim on television reports that they attended THE Ohio State University. There’s something wonderful about Ned’s pride in alma mater, a pride that made even more sense when I heard about the various accomplishments of the alumni in the room.

In Nashville our reception was at the home of Dr. George Allen ’63 and Dr Shannon Hersey. George had been Chair of the Neurosurgery department at Vanderbilt’s medical center, having graduated from Wesleyan with a passion for science, invention and car racing. While training an amazing percentage of the nation’s neurosurgeons at Vanderbilt and Johns Hopkins, George has discovered treatments and created medical devices for addressing serious conditions like the aftermath of stroke. He continues to see patients and work with young physicians, and in conversation reflected on how his Wesleyan years created the intellectual foundation on which he has continued to build for now almost fifty years.

At our reception I met Ljerka Vidic Rasmussen, a Ph.D. from our Ethnomusicology program now teaching in Tennessee. We talked about the importance of our grad programs for the whole campus and about her mentor and our mutual friend Professor Mark Slobin. Prince C. Chambliss ’70, an attorney in Memphis gave me his recently published book, Prince of Peace, a memoir of growing up in Birmingham and attending Wes in the late 1960s. He recounts that in the year before he started college Wesleyan admitted only 9 African-American students out of a class of 500 men. In his year, the efforts to open up the admission process to under-represented groups resulted in a class with 50 black men. In his memoir Prince Chambliss recalls the difficulties and mistakes in those years, but ends his chapter on Wesleyan with these words: “Wesleyan will always be on the cutting edge, leading the way for others to follow.” I hope we can live up to that!

After the reception last night Dr. Dan Viner ‘93 (a philosophy major at Wes who now has a substantial medical practice in Nashville) took me out to hear what he promised would be real Nashville music at The Station Inn. What a treat! Roland White (who backed up Bill Monroe and then Lester Flatts back in the day) had a great band that was occasionally livened up when an audience member got on stage to join in. It was a great way to close my trip to our extended Wesleyan family.

(Even better was returning to see that our men’s lacrosse team had beat Amherst (behind the eight goals [!] of  Lonny Blumenthal ’10) and that our softball team had swept a double-header from the Lord Jeffs (behind the amazing hitting of Alexis Kral ’12 and Meaghan Dendy ’10). Go Wes! The Wes!!

[tags]Ned Churchill ’59, Dr. George Allen ’63, Vanderbilt, Ljerka Vidic Rasmussen, ethnomusicology, Prince C. Chambliss ’70,  Dr. Dan Viner ‘93, Lonny Blumenthal ’10, Alexis Kral ’12, Meaghen Dendy ’10[/tags]

From Clubbiness to Cosmopolitanism

I was talking to someone recently about one of my favorites subjects: the future of the residential liberal arts college. In an age where online communication is increasingly the norm, an age in which face-to-face contact is seen as inefficient or “uncomfortable,” why should families make the great investment of spending four years in an artificially controlled community aimed at regular, intense personal interaction? Decades ago students who went to liberal arts colleges were likely to find people much like themselves. The schools drew on a fairly homogeneous population, and the relationships one developed while a student were supposed to enhance the family networks and local connections one brought to undergraduate life. The liberal arts education was broadening (at least in terms of an introduction to the cultures of Europe and North America), and the social environment provided the “finish.”

All of this began to change in the wake of World War II, and conditions were dramatically altered when schools made fair access a priority. The combination of proactive outreach to under-represented groups and the expansion of curricula far beyond the high culture of the West changed the demographics and the content of liberal education. Wesleyan was a leader in this regard, aggressively looking for talented students from groups previously discriminated against, and creating classes that went far beyond the traditional offerings.

Let’s take the Music Department at Wesleyan as an example. At many schools the Music Department would have been the most tied to European high culture, and the least likely to stray too far from the traditional canon. Wesleyan had long been a very musical campus – even known as the “Singing College of New England” because of its talented a cappella groups and championship Glee Club. A few music professors went to President Butterfield in the 1960s to get support for advanced work in ethnomusicology, a field almost unknown at our peer institutions. Soon, musicians from across Asia and then Africa would find students and audiences at Wesleyan. Professor Mark Slobin, whose interests range from his fieldwork in Afghanistan to Klezmer to movie music, continues to exemplify this voracious appetite for cultural diversity at the highest level of skill and performance. So does Su Zheng, now Chair of the department, a scholar of traditional Chinese and Japanese music as well as contemporary music of the Asian Diaspora.

Around the same time as Wesleyan students were learning Gamelan and African Drumming, Wes was also drinking deeply at the well of experimental music and jazz. John Cage’s time in residence here had a profound impact on teachers and students, and the tradition of experimentation continues with current faculty such as Anthony Braxton, Alvin Lucier and Ron Kuivila.  This doesn’t mean we’ve ignored the European tradition, though. Professor Jane Alden’s work on medieval singing traditions, and Neely Bruce’s on more contemporary ones, have had an important impact on the field as they inspire our current students.

The cosmopolitanism of the music department is in tune with the wonderful musical diversity of student life. From Eastern European song, to ska, from “surrealist pop” to the mighty Pep Band, our students make music with passion and joy. This kind of musical culture, in and outside the classroom, has evolved in our residential liberal arts context —indeed, it depends on that context. The thirst for experimentation, the ability to cross disciplinary or cultural borders, the scale of our residential life, all of these factors are as key to music at Wesleyan as they are to our curriculum more generally. In Religious Studies or in English, in History or in Government, the course offerings have moved beyond the comfortably familiar to open cosmopolitan networks of learning. Programs such as American Studies and East Asian Studies have gone beyond the national paradigms of education to reframe problems and explore possibilities.

The great advantage of our cosmopolitan liberal arts education is that it allows students to explore international, virtual networks of knowledge while learning the virtues (the pleasures and productivity) of face-to-face conversation, participation and cooperation. Whether learning music or biophysics, consistent personal contact with teachers and fellow-students deepens the education. The university must continue to be proactive about finding students from diverse backgrounds because this enhances everyone’s education in a residential community. And we must continue to enrich our curriculum by developing classes that sometimes go beyond traditional canons because by doing so we open up new possibilities for learning and life. Today’s Wesleyan students do plug into expansive virtual networks, of course, but they do so without sacrificing campus interactions that give these networks additional intensity and relevance.

There are serious challenges to our residential liberal art school model. But I take heart from the example of music, which shows how we might meet them by becoming ever more open to the wider world while valuing the vitality of our campus community.

[tags]ethnomusicology, liberal arts education, Mark Slobin, Su Zheng[/tags]

Epicenter of “Brooklyn Surrealist Pop”

I have often marveled at the extraordinary musical adventures offered by the Wesleyan campus. Having helped inaugurate the field of ethnomusicology, Wes has been a home for the most traditional and the most avant-garde musicians for decades. Gamelan concerts are packed, and the environmental sound experiments from students and faculty push the boundaries of how we listen to and discern the sounds around us. Senior theses might involve a rock band performance at which professors expected to give grades can’t help moving their feet and smiling broadly.

Just now I read a link from the Village Voice that declares Wesleyan the “epicenter of Brooklyn surrealist pop.” You know about MGMT, but there’s also Amazing Baby, Das Racist, and Boy Crisis. Wesleyan has clearly been both a home to and a launching pad for creative musicians for decades now. This is a vibrant part of our student culture.

Check out the article at:

[tags]music, ethnomusicology, sound experiments, Village Voice, Brooklyn surrealist pop, MGMT, Amazing Baby, Das Racist, Boy Crisis, indie[/tags]

Sounds of Early Semester

It was great to be back in the classroom this week, although the word “classroom” hardly does justice to the state-of-the-art facility that is the Goldsmith Family Cinema. I have taught “The Past on Film” for many years, but never with the support of a projection and sound system that makes the viewing experience as compelling as possible. There were about 250 students in attendance, and the film we watched (Night and Fog) was as intense as I remember it being the first time I saw it 35 years ago. The sound system is extraordinary, bringing the viewers deep into the work. The students made great comments and asked good questions. I am looking forward to Tuesday mornings! (And remember: open office hours for students February 4, between 4:00 pm and 5:30 pm. I’ll be scheduling this every other week afterwards.)

The Film Studies Department is one of the jewels of the university. The new facility and the archive are an enormous resource for the exploration of the movies, and each week a student board has chosen a group of films that are open to the entire campus. The choices are thoughtful, eclectic, and fun. I only wish I could go more often.

For generations, Wesleyan was known as the “Singing College of New England.” Apparently, students would burst into song whenever Mrs. Butterfield (whose husband Vic was president from 1942-1967) would enter a room. The musicality of our school remains vibrant. Professor Mark Slobin recently sent me an article recounting the development of world music and ethnomusicology at Wesleyan over the last 40 years or so. This week we welcomed a few hundred Connecticut area alumni on campus, and after I asked them to support our financial aid initiatives, we all joined in singing the old college songs. May the singing increase generosity for scholarships! A cappella groups on campus (there are many), sing with spirit and precision on all kinds of celebratory occasions. This week we had a celebration of Martin Luther King. After listening to talks Dr. King gave at Wes, Bernice Reagon (of Sweet Honey in the Rock fame) delivered a singing and talking lecture that filled the chapel with joyful, hopeful sounds. A group of women faculty and staff known as the Roadies led the group in a rousing spiritual.

But for me, the most powerful music I’ve heard thus far were when the Wesleyan Spirits, a group of young men who usually sing with infectious, antic joy, brought their music to the memorial service for Chase Parr. Chase herself was a singer, and the Spirits paid her tribute with dignity and love. I will long remember how their voices captured our community’s sorrow and affection in song, and how they transformed that sadness into something else – a music we could share.

[tags] Goldsmith Family Cinema, Night and Fog, office hours, Film Studies Department, Mark Slobin, music, Martin Luther King, Bernice Reagon, Wesleyan Spirits, Chase Parr [/tags]