Richard Slotkin to Inaugurate Lecture Series

When I was a student here in the mid 1970s, I remember all those the smart kids who hung around Richard Slotkin, a young faculty member teaching literature, film, history, anthropology, cultural studies….or so it seemed to me from the buzz I heard about his classes and his scholarship. I remember sitting in the audience for a Center for the Humanities lecture based on his Regeneration Through Violence, a study that injected energy and purpose into the growing field of American Studies. Over the years Richie was one of the paragons of our scholar-teacher model: a beloved professor who was shaping the field of American Studies.

When I came back to Wesleyan as president, I asked Richie for advice about teaching large film classes (he was the master of this, as you can see from his iTunes class on Westerns), and he also gave me an earful on how the administration could do a much better job on any number of fronts. It was classic Slotkin: smart, engaged, and ready for real conversation. His retirement was a real loss for Wes (I keep asking him to come back to teach a course or two), but it has been a boon for readers who care about imagining the past. Check out his Amazon page, and you will find novels, history books, essays… He’s the real deal.

This week Prof. Slotkin is inaugurating a lecture series that has been created in his honor. His talk is entitled: “Thinking Mythologically: Black Hawk Down, the “Platoon Movie,” and the War of Choice in Iraq.” Here’s how Joel Pfister, who chairs American Studies, puts it:

Come see the amazing founder of the Wesleyan American Studies Department–Richard Slotkin–in action, THURSDAY, APRIL 24, 4:15, POWELL FAMILY CINEMA.  Professor Slotkin was a member of the English Department, began the American Studies Department (when he was in his mid-twenties), and helped establish the Film Department, and was one of Wesleyan’s most popular and beloved teachers (the first professor to win Wesleyan’s Binswanger Teaching Award twice).  He has not only written history, he has made it.  Since his early thirties he has been internationally acclaimed as one of the greatest American Studies scholars and he played a foundational role in developing the analysis of empire and race in the field of American Studies.  He taught hundreds of students each year in his movie courses on “Westerns” and also on war movies.  In December he was interviewed about gun control on Bill Moyers’ PBS show and before that has been interviewed by the major networks on gun culture and movies (for instance, re-reading the Star Wars films as extensions of the “frontier myth”).

This should be a great event. Come hear one of Wesleyan’s truly remarkable scholar-teachers on Thursday afternoon.


No Boycott of Israeli Universities!

This morning the Los Angeles Times published my op-ed rejecting the American Studies Association’s resolution to boycott Israeli Universities. I am sharing it here.

Boycott of Israeli universities: A repugnant attack on academic freedom

Academic institutions should not be declared off-limits because of their national affiliation.

The American Studies Assn. recently passed a resolution that “endorses and … honor[s] the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” The action was taken, the group explained, because “there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation,” and because “Israeli institutions of higher learning are a party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights and negatively impact the working conditions of Palestinian scholars and students.”

But the boycott is a repugnant attack on academic freedom, declaring academic institutions off-limits because of their national affiliation.

The ASA has not gone on record against the universities in any other country in the world: not against those that enforce laws against homosexuality, not against those that have rejected freedom of speech, not against those that systematically restrict access to higher education by race, religion or gender. No, the ASA listens to civil society only when it speaks against Israel. As its scholarly president declared, “One has to start somewhere.” Not in North Korea, not in Russia or Zimbabwe or China — one has to start with Israel. Really?

The 820-plus ASA members who voted for the resolution are sanctioning universities and their faculties because of their government’s policies. Many Israeli professors, like many other citizens, oppose the policies of the current government. But these schools have now run afoul of the ASA and are subject to boycott.

The ASA makes clear it thinks the United States enables the Israeli policies that it finds most objectionable. Did its leadership consider boycotting American universities too?

Not all those in academia agree with the ASA’s action, of course. Here’s what the American Assn. of University Professors, for example, has to say about the importance of unfettered interaction among scholars:

“Since its founding in 1915, the AAUP has been committed to preserving and advancing the free exchange of ideas among academics irrespective of governmental policies and however unpalatable those policies may be viewed. We reject proposals that curtail the freedom of teachers and researchers to engage in work with academic colleagues, and we reaffirm the paramount importance of the freest possible international movement of scholars and ideas.”

There is plenty of debate among Israeli scholars about the policies of their government, and there is plenty of debate among Israeli, Palestinian and other scholars about a reasonable path forward in the Middle East. As a citizen of the United States, I have supported efforts to develop new approaches to achieving peace in the Middle East. As a Jew, I have argued against the policies of the current Israeli government, many of which I find abhorrent.

Boycotts don’t serve these debates; they seek to cut them off by declaring certain academic institutions and their faculty off-limits. This tactic, in the words of Richard Slotkin, an emeritus professor here at Wesleyan University, “is wrong in principle, politically impotent, intellectually dishonest and morally obtuse.”

As president of Wesleyan, and as a historian, I deplore this politically retrograde resolution of the American Studies Assn. Under the guise of phony progressivism, the group has initiated an irresponsible attack on academic freedom. Others in academia should reject this call for an academic boycott.

Recognizing Academic Achievement: Slotkin, Hsu, Fins

In the last few days I heard about three major academic awards garnered by members of the Wes family. The first went to an emeritus faculty for a lifetime of scholarly contributions; the second went to a recent graduate whose achievement and promise are remarkable by any standard; the third went to an alumnus and former trustee whose work on medical ethics is having a profound effect on his professional and our public life.

This past weekend Richard Slotkin (Olin Professor of English, Emeritus) was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This society, founded during the revolutionary period, has as its mission “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honour, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.” Richard Slotkin is one of the founding figures in American Studies, and his work on politics, popular culture and myth has played a decisive role in shaping our understanding of how the idea of the frontier shaped American self-consciousness. A cultural critic of insight and wit, he has also written novels, such as the recent The Crater. At Wesleyan he helped create the American Studies Program and was a stellar contributor to Film Studies. Richie has long inspired students, faculty and readers, and you can see his film class on Westerns at iTunes University.

Chia Wei “Wade” Hsu ’10 has won the LeRoy Apker Award of the American Physical Society for his extraordinary undergraduate work in physics. Wade graduated in the spring after four years as a Freeman Scholar. He was a member of Francis Starr’s theoretical/computational physics group, and, as Brian Stewart recently told me, rapidly established himself as a force of nature, publishing five papers while an undergraduate, including a paper each in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA and Physical Review Letters, the most prestigious journals in physics. Wade received the award by competing against students from Ph.D.-granting institutions.  That means that Wade was chosen over students from, among other places, Harvard, Caltech, MIT and Princeton. Francis Starr calls him the “best of the best.” While at Wesleyan, he was also involved with the East Asian Studies Center, studied languages, tutored and played lots of music. Wade has begun his graduate work at Harvard this year. (I hope he’s not too bored.)

I met Joe Fins when he served as a trustee on the presidential search committee in 2007. Joe is a COL grad who has served alma mater with energy and distinction. He is also a physician and professor of medicine, authoring more than 200 publications in medical ethics and health policy. Joe was just elected to the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine, powerful recognition of his remarkable contributions. He is a professor at Cornell Medical College, President-Elect of the American Society for  Bioethics and Humanities, a Governor of the American College of Physicians  and a member of the Hastings Center Board of Trustees.

We know there is great work being done all around the campus. It’s especially gratifying to see these accomplishments recognized at the highest levels!

[tags]academic awards, Richard Slotkin, Chia Wei Wade Hsu, Joe Fins[/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]