Wesleyan out West

I’m getting ready to return to Wesleyan after a few days in Los Angeles followed by a brief visit to San Francisco. The occasion was the Shasha Seminar on the road, organized by Jeanine Basinger. The topics for the day were Women in Film, TV Writing, and the Business of Film. Each panel was thoughtful, funny and very engaging. We had almost 200 alumni, students and friends at William Morris-Endeavor, and there was plenty of time for making new connections and pursuing good conversation among old friends. Scott Higgins and Steve Collins joined us for the discussions, and I spoke about the Mellon Foundation encouraging us to build an endowment for the College of Film and Moving Image with a $2 million challenge grant. If we raise $4 million, the foundation will make a $2 million contribution to the endowment of the CFMI. It’s a great time to support film at Wesleyan, and many alumni and parents have already made significant donations.

Marc Shmuger ’80, Jan Eliasberg ’74, Brad Fuller ’87, Jane Goldenring ’77, Matthew Greenfield ’90, and Paul Weitz ’88
With me are David Stone ’04, host; Scott Higgins, associate professor of film studies at Wesleyan; Professor Jeanine Basinger; and Steve Collins ’96, assistant professor of film studies at Wesleyan

While on the West Coast I made a quick trip to San Francisco to meet with Wesleyan supporters of financial aid. I am so grateful for their efforts to provide scholarships for Wes students. Before heading to the airport, I spent an hour talking about liberal education at KQED, the Bay Area’s NPR station. On Michael Krasny’s Forum show, we talked about Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters and took questions from callers. A couple of Wes alumni called in, and there was strong support for broad, contextual education. There was also recognition that we must make it more affordable and reduce student indebtedness. You can listen here.

Professors Serving Scholarship and Social Good

Sunday’s Nicholas Kristof’s column (NYT online) was entitled “Professors, We need You!”  He begins this way, “Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates,” and then he quotes former Princeton prof Anne-Marie Slaughter: “All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public.”

I think there is a lot of truth to this line of thought, and it is worth emphasizing that most graduate programs do promote specialization at the expense of broader communication. Acquiring deep expertise in molecular biology, macroeconomics or romantic poetry is a vital endeavor, but that doesn’t have to mean that the experts lose connection with the broader public. Here at Wes, I can think of so many people on the faculty who defy the trend that Kristof is describing. I hesitate to name some individuals for fear of omitting others. But here goes.

Let’s begin with the programs developed here over the years that draw on deep expertise but accentuate cross-fertilization and translation skills. The College of Social Studies and the College of Letters have depended on faculty stretching beyond their given fields for more than 50 years. The teachers don’t do this as a tired obligation but engage in these programs with real passion. The same can be said of the College of the Environment, which explicitly connects to policy and public culture through its Think Tank. The new College of Film and the Moving Image combines deep expertise about cinema with public outreach in Middletown and popular historical scholarship in the widely celebrated work of Jeanine Basinger. Newer interdisciplinary investigation is also thriving at Wesleyan. I’m thinking of our folks working in Animal Studies or in Food Studies through, say, the Long Lane Farm. There are specialists in all these programs, but they are eager to go beyond their areas of specialization and have an effect on the world.

And I can’t help but think of Richard Grossman, an economics prof who has been churning out op-eds on monetary and banking policy with great regularity, even as he publishes important scholarly economic history books. Or I think of Gina Ulysse (who teaches anthropology, FGSS and African-American Studies), who has published ethnography and also engaged in dance, spoken-word and performance pieces. I just read some of her art criticism on the Huffington Post, and I know she is also preparing her own installation/performance. That’s not what she was told to do in graduate school.

Mary-Alice Haddad in government has combined her research on civic mobilization with teaching students how to participate in political movements in our own region. Her real expertise doesn’t put her in a cloister, to use Kristof’s word; it helps her engage vital social and political issues. Similar things might be said about anthropologist Kēhaulani Kauanui’s work with indigenous people around the world or economist Gary Yohe’s efforts to understand questions of probability and risk in regard to climate change. Both have worked with the United Nations, and both reach wide audiences with serious scholarship.

Our scientists, of course, are taking on big questions in specific research through which they can make a measurable difference. This may be in regard to epilepsy (Laura Grabel, Janice Naegele, Gloster Aaron), or muscular development and degeneration (Stephen Devoto). As a group, the science faculty has undertaken an initiative to help students from under-represented groups prepare for graduate work. This pipeline program can have a powerful effect on a number of fields and on our public culture.

Historians are no strangers to a public role. Magda Teter, for example, has explicitly used her deep archival research on Polish-Jewish relations to influence the way groups interact today. Lois Brown, professor of African American Studies and English, knows more about particular slave lives than anyone alive today. She is a specialist. But she can also be an impassioned contributor to educating Americans about slavery and abolitionism through mass audience public television programs.

Speaking of “mass,” I should definitely mention Scott Plous’ enormously successful Social Psychology class on Coursera. It wasn’t just that Scott attracted more than 200,000 people to his class, it was that at every turn he connected his teaching to action in the world. On campus and on his Social Psychology Network, Scott is a leader in “action teaching.” On campus and online, he aims to ensure that the lessons of social psychology — lessons about how we live together — are not “merely academic.”

The Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life (which houses the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship, Center for Community Partnerships and Prison Education and the Quantitative Analysis Center) can stand for countless other efforts that our faculty make to connect deep academic learning to work in the world that makes a difference.

This intellectual cross-training and the translational research that is a part of it have been hallmarks of the Wesleyan experience for decades – and reason for pride for all involved with this institution.

And for the dozens and dozens of colleagues I could have mentioned in this blog…please forgive me. But perhaps you (or your students) will send in examples through the comments…


Fall Break

Students are winding up midterms, writing papers and preparing for performances. The semester has been growing more intense, and that’s why it’s good to have a moment to catch one’s breath during Fall Break. It’s just a couple of days tacked onto this weekend, but for professors and their students it offers a happy holiday before the pressures of the second half of the term kick in.

Lots of folks, though, don’t get much of a break at all. Tennis, cross-country, volleyball and football will all be busy competing. The gridiron crew heads back to Maine after earning a tough victory there last week. Sebastian Aguirre ’14 earned special team player of the week honors for kicking the winning field goal with less than a minute to play. Coach Whalen’s boys are undefeated going into the fourth week of the season, something we haven’t seen around here for many a year. Wes plays Bates this weekend, and they promise to be a challenging opponent.

Here on campus, Dean of the Arts and Humanities Andrew Curran is welcoming more than 100 18th century scholars for a conference that focuses on the Enlightenment. I understand they kicked things off with a plenary talk on the banjo! There are many people on campus getting ready for the Navaratri festival, which gets underway on Wed, October 16. That will lead us right into Homecoming Family Weekend!

I’ll be spending time meeting with alumni and parents, raising money for scholarships and the curriculum. Some of those meetings will be with Jeanine Basinger, recently singled out in Variety’s “Women’s Impact Report” as one of only two academics for her work at “helping turn [Wesleyan’s] film program into one of the best in the nation, as well as developing some of the industry’s most powerful talent, with protégés like Joss Whedon ’87, Paul Weitz ’88 and Alex Kurtzman ’95.” I’m star struck!

The extended Wesleyan family loves hearing news from campus. I hope to be able to return with some news (and support) from them!

Coming Home, Finding Family

The extended Wes family has gathered together this weekend, celebrating scholarship, athletics, teaching and all things Red and Black. The seminars were often full and always lively, and they brought together the great energy that characterizes the classes here. I ran into Orin Snyder  ’83, who had just come from a packed discussion, led by the Wesleyan Lawyers Association, of the changing legal network for social media. And Alberto Ibarguen ’66 P’97 HON’11 was equally enthused about his session celebrating 50 years of the Peace Corps. The history of the Peace Corps at Wesleyan spills naturally into our new PATRICELLI CENTER FOR SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP. We cut the ribbon on the new Center on Saturday morning. Later in the day on Saturday I ran into some starry-eyed parents who were quite in awe of the presentation by Wes film faculty Jeanine Basinger, Scott Higgins and Steve Collins on “what makes movies great”! Jeanine was quoted extensively in this morning’s New York Times on Leonardo diCaprio (and a few days ago could be found in the Wall Street Journal). Our film folks are everywhere, but there’s nothing like seeing them on the home turf!

This weekend saw a grand celebration of the extraordinary work in experimental music by Alvin Lucier. Lucierfest brought out artists, musicians and writers who have been inspired by this pioneering composer and teacher. And speaking of things musical, I was delighted to catch Randy Newman’s benefit performance in the chapel on Friday night. We veered from ironic complicity to emotional commitment as he sampled his catalogue.

The efforts of our student athletes were so impressive this weekend, even if they left us saying, “wait ’til next year!” The cross country teams had very strong showings: the women were 6th of 40 teams  and the men were 9th of 44 teams. The women’s soccer team played well but fell to Amherst in the semi-finals of the NESCAC tournament. Our great goalie Jess Tollman ’15 kept the Lord Jeffs at bay for the first half, a fitting end to her strong first year. Our star forward Laura Kurash ’13 was named District Academic All American. This was our first time advancing this far in the tournament, and we are very proud of the women who battled all semester.

And speaking of a battle…our football team put up a mighty effort against the Purple Ephs in front of an enthusiastic homecoming crowd. We came very close to pulling off a great upset against Williams, thanks to a strong team effort. Matt Coyne passed for 192 yards, and star freshman running back LaDarius Drew ’15 was a workhorse despite the cast on his injured hand. Seniors Brett Bandazian and Jordan Greene had 10 tackles apiece, and our punter Jesse Warren ’15 had a world-class game. Coach Mike Whalen ’83 and the entire team are working together to build a great program. We are very proud of them!

All our athletes today are inspired by the great achievements of Wes students in the past. On Saturday night we inducted an all-star group into the Wesleyan Athletics Hall of Fame. When Moira James ’78, along with Dennis Robinson ’79 and the Athletics Advisory Council, came up with the idea of the hall of fame, I knew it would be a way of recognizing and reconnecting with our alumni greats. They also probably figured it would inspire contemporary success. And they were right!

I wish I were able to attend all the events, and it’s been a joy to welcome so many back to campus after a challenging week. Go Wes!


Late Afternoon A Cappella
Late Afternoon A Cappella

UPDATE: What a great thing to hear the many a cappella groups at the First Annual Stone A Capella Concert, celebrating Chip Stone ’49, p’79, P’82, GP ’11, GP ’15. A highlight for us was Chip and daughter Sarah Stone Maynard ’79 P ’11 singing a duet about the dangers of drugs to start things off.


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.

The Semester Begins! Celebrations and Classes

This week is the 100th anniversary of the  birth of one of America’s great film directors, Elia Kazan, and Wesleyan will mark the occasion with a series of films. We begin on Saturday, September 12th at 8:00 pm with Boomerang! (1947). Kazan, whose work with theater was also of decisive importance, presented his papers to Wesleyan in 1968, and for some time he had an office in Olin Library. For decades scholars have been using the papers in their research, one of the many extraordinary collections in the Wesleyan Cinema Archive. You can hear more about Kazan and the Archive on Saturday when Jeanine Basinger, Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, introduces Boomerang! at 8 pm. For more information on the Kazan festival, see http://www.wesleyan.edu/filmstudies/specialevents.html.

In conjunction with the Kazan celebrations Mark Longenecker is teaching a film studies class based in the archival holdings. This is one of the dozens of classes added to the curriculum this year, most of them with enrollments under 20. I remember as a student feeling frustrated when I didn’t get the class I most wanted, but then I wound up in another course and it turned out to be the best thing that happened to me that semester. Perusing the course catalogue, I’ve seen offerings that combine science and service learning, politics and history, literature and music. Barry Chernoff, who is leading our efforts for planning the College of the Environment, is teaching “Conservation of Aquatic Ecosystems.” This a science class that requires students to devote a few Saturday mornings to fieldwork to complement lectures and labs. Fieldwork in a boat sounds like a great way to spend a Saturday.

Leah Wright, who has just joined the history department, is teaching a class on Black Conservatism. The class examines how black conservatism shifted, transformed, and evolved over the course of American social and political development. Lynn Westling teaches an introductory Physics course for non-majors called “Physics for Presidents.” It examines “mathematical and physical models that explain quantitatively how our world works.” The course discusses issues in the political sphere that depend on an understanding of physics, from nuclear weapons to alternative energy.

I’m teaching a new class this term: Topics in the Philosophy of History. It’s a small seminar to complement my large film class in the spring. We’ll be working on issues connecting memory and history, psychoanalysis and trauma, and photography and representation.

I had lunch today with Howard Needler, who has been teaching in the College of Letters since the late 1960s. We talked about Wesleyan old and new, sometimes emphasizing the great changes and at other moments marveling at the continuities. The College of Letters (like CSS and CHUM which all celebrate their 50th anniversaries this year) has always attracted talented, creative students interested in ideas and how they take shape over time. Professor Needler is teaching Dante’s Divine Comedy this year: a full year on this landmark text. The class is fully subscribed. Lucky students, I thought!

[tags]Elia Kazan, film series, classes, Jeanine Basinger, Mark Longenecker, Barry Chernoff, Leah Wright, Lynn Westling, Howard Needler, College of Letters[/tags]

Summertime, and the Living is…Scholarly

How many times do professors hear “how lucky you are to have the entire summer off!” Off? As August has replaced July and the Wesleyan “summer send offs” are well underway, my colleagues and I can hear in the distance the hum of the oncoming semester growing louder and louder. How are we likely to react? Read more, write more, recalibrate that experiment or crunch those numbers! Summer is an essential time for faculty to make progress on the research that often plays a key role in the courses they will be teaching.

Kari and I have been away from campus for a few weeks now, and we often hear from friends how important it is to “take time and relax.” Sure, but we both also have book contracts and spend every day reading and writing (and rewriting!) in hopes of making progress on the manuscripts. She is critically exploring how writers and philosophers have re-framed “the animal” so as to describe what “the human” might be with the goal of reconceptualizing how humans and non-human animals might relate to one another. I am wrestling with how photography has changed the ways we make sense of  the past. Both of us will use the research we are doing now in the classes we will teach this fall.

Intensive summertime research is very common at Wesleyan. Historian Phil Pomper, with whom I studied when I was an undergrad, is in the office daily writing a biography set in the Russian revolutionary period, philosopher Lori Gruen is completing a book on animal morality, while German Professor Krishna Winston (whose translation of Werner Herzog’s memoir was twice recently reviewed in the New York Times) has multiple translation assignments underway. Chemist Stew Novick leads an amazingly prolific team studying “exotic molecules” with microwave spectroscopy that can create super low temperatures.  Having just finished her term as Chair of FGSS, Jennifer Tucker, is putting the finishing touches on a volume about photography and history, while the indefatigable Jeanine Basinger writes a new book on marriage in the movies. Biologist Dave Bodznick can be found at the Cape for a good part of the summer, but that’s because he has a lab at the Marine Biological Laboratory Woods Hole where he studies the electroreceptors in skates. French Professor Andrew Curran has been finishing his book on concepts of race in the 18th century, while sociologist  Alex Dupuy is doing research on parallels and disconnections between key figures in the American and Haitian revolutions. Finally, COL Director Ethan Kleinberg explores the concept of forgiveness in his book about French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas.

I should probably ask forgiveness for leaving out scores of faculty research projects in this tiny sample! But I trust this gives some small idea of how faculty are actively advancing their fields in ways that will come back to inform the classroom.

Ah, the sun will soon be setting on another beautiful summer day…  so I better get back to work!

[tags]summer, Kari Weil, research, professors, Phil Pomper, Lori Gruen, Krishna Winston, Stew Novick, Jennifer Tucker, Jeanine Basinger, Dave Bodznick, Andrew Curran, Alex Dupuy, Ethan Kleinberg[/tags]

Wesleyan in Los Angeles

I’m on my way back from California, where the Film Studies faculty and I attended the great annual party at the Creative Artist Agency. Rick Nicita ’67 is one of the directors of this talent agency, and each year he throws a cocktail party at which a couple of hundred Wes alums can compare notes on their screenplays, TV pilots, cinematography, and the crazy business world that is Hollywood. I didn’t know about the event until I was appointed to the presidency, and now I’m told regularly how Wesleyan “runs the entertainment world.” That’s a slight exaggeration, but it is true that from heads of major studios to composers and Oscar winning writers, producers and directors, our little university has had a BIG impact on what we watch on the screen.

How did it happen that a small liberal arts school has managed to do this? The story has to start with Jeanine Basinger, who has built the program from scratch and turned it into one of the premier films studies departments in the country. Jeanine’s devotion to her students is legendary, and while she has taught effectively and built the program, she has also published a group of important books contributing to the history of American cinema. The department’s ethos of creative teamwork has led to the development of a network of caring and effective alumni. They help each other out, and they have confidence in the broad-based liberal arts education of Wes grads. The result is that the “Wesleyan Mafia” is the gold standard in Hollywood.

I was particularly delighted to see the great wave of affection that greeted Prof. Rich Slotkin, who is stepping down this term after more than 40 years of teaching Film and American Studies at Wes. The young film scholars Lisa Dombrowski and Scott Higgins rounded out the Middletown contingent, and recent alumni joined with more senior classes to greet us and ask for news of Wesleyan today. The talent, energy and loyalty of the alumni were truly impressive.

I shouldn’t, though, give the impression that our LA alumni are only found in the entertainment industry. Some have leadership positions in research and education, museums and the symphony, science, medicine and the business world. Of course, there are many who started in one sector and wound up in a totally different one. They are Wesleyan alumni after all!

People often ask me how “practical” it is to study the liberal arts. I’ll write more about that another time, but I got a powerful sense in the last few days of how a great group of our students have gone out to develop productive and creative careers that draw on their broad-based Wesleyan education. Los Angeles may be a long way from Middletown, but the liberal arts seeds planted in central Connecticut are indeed blooming in southern California.

[tags] Los Angeles, Film Studies, Creative Artist Agency, Rick Nicita, Jeanine Basinger, Wesleyan Mafia, Richard Slotkin, Lisa Dombrowski, Scott Higgins, alumni [/tags]


Flying home from yet another trip to visit with alumni, I reflect on some of my recent conversations. In Chicago I had lunch with Burt Kaplan ’62, a dedicated alumnus who continues to draw on the liberal arts education he experienced at Wesleyan more than 40 years ago. I was delighted to discover our common admiration for Norman O. Brown, whom Burt knew while a student, and who became a hero of mine when I read Life Against Death as an undergraduate. A classics professor at Wesleyan, Brown had authored one of the great books on Freud and politics. He was confined by no disciplinary boundaries, and he was a truly learned man and an inspiring teacher.

Burt showed me his extraordinary home on Lake Michigan, designed by Peter Gluck, and his wonderful painting collection. We talked about how Wesleyan’s education transforms lives, and his interest in helping his alma mater. Though neither of us were music majors, we agreed that one of the great gifts that the university gave us was an openness to music from a variety of cultures. We spoke about enhancing Wesleyan’s ability to do that in the future because it is a gift we will always carry with us.

I went on to Los Angeles to meet with Jeanine Basinger and a few members of what in L.A. is called the Wesleyan Film Mafia (Professor Basinger calls them “my babies”). Jeanine has a wonderful new book out with Knopf, The Star Machine, and she is on a book-signing tour. It was exhilarating to see her effect on her former students. They positively light up when she enters the room, and then they restart conversations that date back to their undergrad days. Studio heads, award-winning writers, producers, directors, and actors become engaged students once again. Their affection for their teacher and for Wesleyan is palpable. We celebrated with Jeanine at a lovely dinner party at Michael Bay’s incredible house overlooking the city. Michael (’86) was recently at Wesleyan to donate a copy of his latest film, Transformers, as well as to make a gift for the new film building.

At the dinner Jeanine turned the conversation to Wesleyan. But she and her former students didn’t want to just dwell on the good old days of their youth; they wanted to talk about Wesleyan’s future. I told them about our priority-setting process, and about how we were continuing to cultivate an experimental community that is demanding and productive. The combination of spirited, passionate learning, jubilant play, and of compelling creative work is what we all value. The Film Studies department exemplifies those qualities and has become an essential part of the university as a whole. As it turned out, that’s what we were all celebrating, led by Jeanine.

I am eager to get back to Middletown to see my family. This week will be especially intense, as we prepare for my inauguration (and Family Weekend, Homecoming, the dedication of Beckham Hall). Monday night starts President’s Picks, a series of movies the film dept asked me to put together for the week of my inauguration. We begin with Ernst Lubitsch’s Shop Around the Corner, a perfect little gem of a movie.

P.S. There was a lovely review of Prof. Basinger’s The Star Machine in this morning’s (1/31/07) New York Times. Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/31/books/31grim.html?_r=1&oref=slogin.

[tags] Alumni, Burt Kaplan, Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death, Jeanine Basinger, Wesleyan Mafia, The Star Machine, Michael Bay, Transformers, Film Studies Department, President’s Picks [/tags]