Discussing Science with the Scientists

Just a quick note about a fascinating discussion I had with a group of Wesleyan science faculty on Friday over lunch. I was asked to speak on what was distinctive about science education at Wesleyan. There is much to be proud of. Wesleyan receives extraordinary support for our research in the sciences in the competitive world of foundation and government funding. Our undergraduates co-author papers (and go on to do Ph.D. work) at rates that surpass almost all our peer institutions. Our small graduate programs in the sciences add an element of peer mentoring to our educational context, and the grads continue their research and teaching at institutions across the United States.

The scientists turned out in large numbers for my brief remarks (maybe it was the free pizza!). I explained how I thought that the culture of experimentation and research characteristic of our science programs should become a key part of our university-wide culture. I had questions about the graduate programs, about the makeup of our academic Division III (which includes psychology and mathematics), and about what we could do to get the word out about the quality of science education at Wesleyan. There was a lively conversation on topics such as merit scholarships, graduate admissions, and whether math was empirical. I had several e-mails over the weekend that followed up on these and other issues. Clearly, our scientists are eager to engage with academic planning and innovations to curriculum. And this doesn’t even include talk about the great new science facility that we will be building! On this, I knew they had strong views.

I believe that science at Wesleyan has always managed to combine excellence in specific disciplines with a consideration of the context for scientific research. We are committed to understanding the relation of the sciences to public life, and this has never been more important than it is today. That’s the beauty of studying science at a small university: you get to do high level research, but you also stay connected to other fields, and to a broad cultural context.

The work in psychology that I pursued as a student at Wesleyan had little relation to the natural sciences. As someone who studied Sigmund Freud’s contributions to 20th century culture, I was eager to explore the critical social theories that were part of Freud’s writings. I have grown more interested in Freud’s relation to the sciences, but have also continued to explore the political dimensions of his ideas. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review published my review of Mark Edmundson’s wonderful new book on Freud’s last year, and on the legacy of his ideas. Here’s the link:

www.latimes.com/features/books/la-bk-roth23sep23,0,4392115.story?coll=la-books-center

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Beginning Conversations: The Board Retreat, A CSS Lecture

The past few days have been extraordinarily busy. On Friday (9/7) we dedicated the new Usdan University Center, and there were many alumni, former trustees, and other friends of Wesleyan in town to help us celebrate. We were able to recognize a variety of contributors who made the planning and construction possible over the last ten years (!), and for me it was an opportunity to connect to many people who care about our school and who help move things forward. Standing on the third-floor terrace of the Usdan Center (or “the Suze,” as I’m told students call it) and looking across Andrus Field and Foss Hill, I am very grateful for the work of Doug Bennet and the trustees who envisioned this building at this location years ago.

Now, I know from reading the parents’ listserv and by talking to students, that our operation of the building has had some bumps in the last couple of weeks. As was true with MoCon, lines at the beginning of the year can be long, and we are still fixing issues in the building and in our getting food to students in a timely way. I can see progress, and we will continue to try to improve service to students, faculty, and staff who use the facility. Indeed, we expect “the Suze” to become a friendly hub for eating, conversation, and student committee meetings. Someone wrote in, concerned about it being “bland” and ordinary. This is a very traditional concern at Wesleyan, and often it is an expression of a desire to see things stay the way they used to be (for whomever is waxing nostalgic). I don’t share this concern myself, as I see students making the place their own, inventing their own education even as they learn from others.

The Wesleyan Board of Trustees begins the academic year with a retreat, which means here a day and a half of meetings focused on strategic issues facing the university. This was an occasion for me to talk with the Board (which includes representatives from the faculty and students) about my first impressions of coming back to Wesleyan, and to lay out some of the planning and research work we are taking on. There were three major areas of focus: endowment growth to make possible more robust financial aid and exciting innovations in the curriculum we offer our students; facilities enhancement, especially in the life sciences; communication effectiveness to clarify what Wesleyan stands for in the world of progressive liberal arts education. We discussed many other topics, but we kept returning to these key themes. I am sure to be writing about them again and again in the months to come as we consult with students, alumni, faculty, and staff about these priorities.

On a very different note, yesterday I had the great pleasure of giving a lunchtime talk for the College of Social Studies. It was wonderful to discuss my academic work in intellectual history, philosophy of history, and political theory – rather than the administrative side of my life. I focused on my work on contemporary French philosophy, psychoanalysis, and American pragmatism. At the beginning of the summer, I published a piece in Bookforum about the work in aesthetics of Jean-Luc Nancy, and I am now trying to finish a piece about my teacher, the great American pragmatist, Richard Rorty. Recently I sent off reviews of Mark Edmundson’s new book on Freud’s final year and of John Brenkman’s on political theory since 9/11. Today, of course, is the anniversary of that awful day. My remarks were about how my recent short writing is connected to my long-term intellectual interests.

The students at CSS are as tough minded and engaged as I remember them. In this program they learn to connect the kind of philosophical issues I was talking about with contemporary social, economic, and policy issues. They seemed engaged with one another and with the issues I brought up. It was only an hour, but it was a great sign to me of the energy and curiosity that have been the hallmarks of this program. We were fortunate last week to announce in The Wall Street Journal the Zilkha Chair in CSS, which is a wonderful way of enhancing the quality of this interdisciplinary program.

Here is the link to my Bookforum review of Nancy. I’ll post the links to the other reviews when they are published.

Thanks again to those people who have commented on what I’ve posted thus far. As I said initially, I won’t be able to respond to individual messages, but I do connect those posts that offer suggestions and criticism to the appropriate offices. I will try to find some time to introduce some more visual interest to the blog, but it may take a little while as I learn my way around the university.

My introduction to Wesleyan continues. THANKS FOR ALL THE HELP!

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Arrival Day

NOTE: You can view Michael Roth’s remarks to parents on Arrival Day here.

The Class of 2011 arrived on Tuesday this week, and a truckload of boxes containing our household possessions from California arrived the next day. Kari, Sophie and I are moving in and finding our way along with the frosh. Yesterday, as I made my way to the Freeman Athletic Center for a quick burst of exercise, a couple of students stopped their car to ask me for directions to Physical Plant. I had no idea. They asked, “Aren’t you the new president?” They were kind enough not to comment on my inability to help them find their way.

That will change as we find our way together. There are plenty of people here who are expert at helping others and are willing to do so. This was very clear on Tuesday, as staff members at all levels, as well as upperclassmen, headed out to the dorms to carry boxes, refrigerators, stereos, etc., to help our new arrivals move in. I have never seen a better combination of efficiency and graciousness. The excitement of the students and the nervousness of their parents (and vice versa) were palpable, and I met plenty of folks for whom saying goodbye was more than a little difficult. The responsibility of a university like Wesleyan is enormous. We have accepted these wonderfully gifted young people, we have welcomed them, and now we must give them the tools for lifetime learning and help them create a dynamic, generous community.

I am very confident in our ability to do that because in the past weeks I have gotten to know many of the staff and faculty. The operations here are truly impressive, and if move-in day is any indication, we are on top of the major logistical issues. Moreover, there is a consistent desire to keep improving for the welfare of the students, and for the enhancement of Wesleyan. The faculty are returning from summers of research, of writing, of creating. I am impressed with the eagerness with which they face the school year. Some of the faculty here I have known for more than thirty years, and I have personally experienced their remarkable abilities in the classroom. Even these veterans are always looking for ways to improve their classes, to further enhance student learning. And the young faculty come to Wesleyan with more than just impressive credentials. They come with a passion to make a difference in the lives of their students. How fortunate I am to have them as colleagues!

In my opening remarks to parents in the chapel I pointed to a feature of the Wesleyan community that we all know well: our students are intense, creative and engaged. But I also emphasized that they are taught to become self-critical; to be experimental also means to find ways to evaluate whether what one is trying is worth trying. That’s a difficult process, but it is essential in education and in life. Finally, I emphasized that our students learn that it is not enough to be intensely creative, and that it is not enough to be self-critical and experimental. We must also learn to deliver, to make something that others recognize as valuable, or as something that works. Our students are productive (often in surprising ways), and we set the highest standards for judging what they have produced.

Finally, and you will hear me say this often, I said that our students should discover what they love to do at Wesleyan, and then they should get a little better at it. I am confident that this will happen with the guidance of their teachers, and with the help of the staff and their fellow students.

I look forward to reporting to you a few times a month on what I am learning as I do what I love here at Wesleyan (and perhaps get a little better at it). And I look forward to reading your comments (though I won’t be able to respond to them individually) from your perspective on the Wesleyan community.

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