In the last week, we have been reminded again what “normal” looks like in America—18 people gunned down in two incidents separated by many miles but linked by the all-too-familiar presence of weapons of mass killing in the hands of angry young men. A policeman and a masseuse, a small business owner and a young worker are among the many people who left home one morning to go about their business and then encountered deadly violence unleashed on them without reason.
Atlanta and Boulder are cities to add to the sad list of places where ordinary Americans paid the price for the cowardice of politicians in the pocket of a gun lobby that sees any restrictions on access to lethal weapons as an infringement on….its business interests and the Second Amendment with which they shield those interests. We need sensible gun safety legislation, and most Americans support this. As Wesleyan historian Jennifer Tucker has been showing for many years now, basic gun regulations have been seen as fundamental to a healthy society at least since the founding of the republic. As Prof. Tucker argued in a 2015 op-ed with Matt Miller: “Firearm violence is a public health crisis no less serious than those associated with automobiles. Our experience with autos and pollution shows that, along with other measures, sensible gun regulations could save lives.”
Many societies have angry young men, and many have been plagued by combinations of hatred and mental illness that seem to afflict too many Americans. But the United States fuels a pandemic of violence with the business of gun access, creating a pandemic which shows no sign of abating. We could slow it down, however. All we have to do is pass gun safety regulations that would make it more challenging for those filled with rage to inflict harm on innocent people trying to go about their lives.
This morning President Trump released his blueprint for the budget for the coming fiscal year. Given the rhetoric of the campaign, and the selective leaks over the last several weeks, no one should be surprised by this intense militarization of federal spending, nor by its attempt to dramatically downsize aspects of government that protect the environment and care for the most vulnerable. These are subjects that one can read about elsewhere.
As the president of an educational institution, I want only to underscore how these plans undermine some of the most important resources for cultural preservation, for research and inquiry, and for the dissemination of ideas. In other words, these plans are counter-educational. The budget blueprint represents a radical abdication of governmental responsibility for our nation’s culture. It calls for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Non-military scientific research will also see significant cuts to funding. The combination of cuts would be a disaster for education.
Like many colleges and universities across the country, Wesleyan has benefitted greatly from federal support for innovative programing in the arts and humanities. But it’s also the broader American public that benefits from advances in arts and humanities work. Recently, the NEA “Art Works” program has helped Wesleyan University Press publish some of the best American poetry in print, and the NEH has helped fund seminars fostering interdisciplinary inquiry and research like Sumarsam‘s on Indonesian performing arts, and Andrew Curran’s and Jennifer Tucker’s separate projects connecting historical inquiry with broad public purpose. The NEH also has helped us make out-of-print publications available in free e-editions through the Humanities Open Book Program. From a government agencies point of view, these are all small grants. But from the recipients’ point of view, this support can be essential for facilitating progress on scholarly research, providing a platform for sharing ideas, or both.
The current administration calls for putting “America first,” but it seems to believe that only our military matters in this regard. We must resist government plans that make support for American culture last. Please let your representatives know that higher education depends on adventurous research and expression, and that eliminating federal support for scholarship and the arts will undermine one of the most important dimensions of our cultural ecology.
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!
Look for Jennifer Tucker’s excellent op-ed in the New York Times. Jennifer, a professor in history, SiSP, and FGSS, shows how Rep. Akin’s recent inane remarks come out of a long cultural tradition — “in step with medieval science, even if Mr. Akin doesn’t seem quite aware of the similarities.”
The Wesleyan Media Project continues to roll along, tracking political spending in an increasingly nasty campaign. Erika Franklin Fowler was just on NPR, where she made the point that “the most important thing to remember about political advertising is that it matters at the margins.”
It’s easy to get cynical, even disgusted, with the poisonous political ecology of our country right now. Nonetheless, I look forward to seeing how Wesleyan students, like their teachers, manage to engage with the electoral cycle this fall. Whatever one’s ideological perspective, we will be encouraging our students to understand the issues and to participate in the election. There are some dramatic choices to be made!
I’ve recently had a series of talks with education officials, journalists and families about liberal arts education. There are international dimensions to these conversations that are exceptionally interesting to me, and I want to return to those in some future blog postings. Some of these discussions have concentrated on contrasts between a broad liberal arts education and a focused, technical study of STEM fields. This has struck me as odd because broad liberal learning also serves these fields so well. Today I am thinking about the ways in which the sciences are linked to the other liberal arts. In some contexts, people talk about the liberal arts and the sciences, as if biology and chemistry, physics and astronomy weren’t already part of the liberal arts. Even at Wesleyan there had been a tendency to make this two cultures mistake, which risks separating the sciences from our liberal arts mission. Regardless of which disciplines come to mind when we hear “liberal arts,” the fact is that almost all our science majors take classes in the social sciences, arts and humanities, and that there has been increasing interest among humanists, artists and social scientists in scientific research practices.
Many of our scientists have been interested in the intersection of their work with the broader community. Peter Patton, long-time faculty member in Earth and Environmental Sciences, recently led a field trip with students to study changes to some deep-rooted ecosystems in Puerto Rico. Last week biologist Janice Naegele spoke with a group of faculty from across the curriculum about her lab’s stem-cell work on brain seizures, and she also teaches classes that emphasize writing about science — translating research into clear terms for the generally educated reader. Suzanne O’Connell, a scientist now directing our Service Learning Center, has a similar concern about the dissemination of research. You can tune in to her “Science on the Radio” class. And there are plenty of other science faculty I could mention in this regard, as well as students who are helping to teach science to youngsters in Middletown.
Wesleyan’s Science in Society Program is at the heart of our efforts to maintain robust interconnections between the sciences and all the other fields on campus. For example, for many years philosopher Joe Rouse (who heads the program) has explored how scientific legitimacy is achieved, and how specific disciplinary practices in the sciences create modes of understanding. Laura Stark, a sociologist who also teaches in the SiSP program, has just published Behind Closed Doors: IRNs and the Making of Ethical Research. Laura’s work explores how institutional review boards come to approve some experiments and not others, and how their criteria for decision making reflects conceptions of what it means to be human and to have rights. In history, Bill Johnston, Paul Erickson and Jennifer Tucker all connect the sciences to their cultural contexts, as does Gillian Goslinga in anthropology. Jill Morawski, another member of SiSP and a psychologist who has been directing the Center for the Humanities, has been linking the topics at CHUM with issues in the sciences that intersect with philosophy, history, gender studies and ethics. Speaking of ethics, philosopher Lori Gruen’s work in animal studies has been very much influenced by her team teaching over the years with scientists. She has been at the forefront of the university’s curricular development in ethics.
Last year I joined the board of the Hastings Center, a non-partisan research institution dedicated to bioethics and the public interest. The president of the organization asked me to address the links between its mission in bioethics and the mission of universities and colleges dedicated to liberal arts education. The founders of the Hastings Center knew that science was too important to leave in the hands only of specialists, and over the years the staff has developed a robust research organization that connects advanced scientific work with ethical and policy issues. In a similar vein, I think it’s crucial that liberal arts colleges and universities ensure that higher education isn’t left in the hands only of specialists. We are connecting our schools to the worlds of public life, the economy and the broader culture. These connections will make for healthier and more successful scientific and educational institutions.
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!