Check Out SWERVED and Good Luck on Finals!

Thanks to the suggestion of some parents, over the weekend I’ve been checking out the wonderful Wesleyan student website, It’s a great collection of creative work in a variety of media. As I explored photography and video and listened to cuts on the “Sound” section, my admiration for our students’ work grew with each click.

We’re now in the final days of the semester, so I’d like to wish all our students the best of luck with finals! I’m looking forward to a fabulous Commencement/Reunion Weekend, as we honor the class of 2012 along with Senator Michael Bennet ’87, Planned Parenthood head Cecile Richards ‘P13, and artist Glenn Ligon ’82. We’ll also be honoring President Douglas Bennet ’59,  P’87, P’94 and his family by re-naming Fauver Frosh Bennet Hall.

I have an extra graduation ceremony to attend this year. I’m proud to be receiving an honorary doctorate from Eastern Connecticut State University this week. I give the Commencement Address tomorrow in Hartford for our state’s public liberal arts university.

Kari and I hope to spend lots of time during the next few months in the Berkshires (where I am supposed to make progress on a book project). Recently, I sat down with the head of our local NPR affiliate for an interview about Wesleyan, Freud, memory and history…

Summertime is almost here…

In Theory….

Last year the faculty approved a new “certificate” in Social, Cultural, and Critical Theory.  The website for the program proudly announces that “the commitment to critical theory evidenced in the scholarship and coursework of the Wesleyan faculty is one of the university’s greatest and most distinctive strengths. The Certificate allows students to identify and leverage these curricular assets.” The number of departments that offer classes  that fall under this program is staggering: English and sociology, music and religion, film, history and philosophy — just to name a few.

What are “certificates” anyway? I used to refer to this Wesleyan mode of academic certification as “interdisciplinary minors.” But since we don’t currently have minors at Wesleyan (although the faculty is working on this now), perhaps that’s not the most helpful label. The Educational Policy Committee put it this way in 2010: certificates “organize curricular resources to structure a coherent interdisciplinary course of study independent of established majors.” That’s why the program in Social, Cultural and Critical Theory draws on so many different disciplines. Its “independence of established majors” allows the program to draw on work that examines religious belief or scientific knowledge (Mary-Jane Rubenstein and Joe Rouse, respectively); work that explores health care and ethics (Laura Stark) or diasporic communities (Khachig Tölölyan). All the classes aim at a broad based and critical understanding of how culture and society function (and for whose benefit).

This semester the program has been sponsoring lectures most Wednesday afternoons at 4:30 in Downey House (113). I began the series with a talk on Freud, and there have been discussions of  Hegel, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt and Max Weber. No, this isn’t just a German-centric series. Historian Gary Shaw spoke on George Herbert Mead and this week and next the organizers dare to cross the Rhine with lectures from College of Letters faculty members Kari Weil and Ethan Kleinberg. Prof. Weil will be speaking on French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray, and Prof. Kleinberg will talk about Jacques Derrida. My schedule doesn’t usually allow me to attend the talks, but I’ve been very impressed to hear that more than 50 people each week get together to discuss some of the most important thinkers of modernity and postmodernity. I catch up on some of the talks via the podcasts.

If you are on campus and haven’t attended the lectures yet, there are still two Wednesdays left in the semester! Be there, at least in theory….

Classes Are Underway…

I want to thank the folks who so generously expressed their support and welcome in their comments on my first entry. I am new to blogging, and undoubtedly I will make some mistakes. I guess that’s part of the drill.

Classes are now underway, and it is exciting to see the returning students mixing with our new frosh. Of course, there are the frustrations of the beginning of the semester. Not everyone gets the classes they want on the first try, and advisors are scrambling with their students to put together a rewarding collection of courses for every student. I remember my own disappointment long ago, when the creative writing professor discovered that I wasn’t in the “Junior or Senior” category and had to kick me out of his class. As a frosh, I was very annoyed (and even a little offended by the idea of class entry hierarchy), and I wound up sitting in a philosophy class taught by a visitor. I was very fortunate, and it turned out to be a life changing class. I loved the course, and I still study the philosophers I began reading that semester.

I know not everyone will be that fortunate, and that’s why we will closely monitor our ability to deliver courses that meet students’ needs as early in their careers as possible. We’ve enhanced our advising work this year so that we can meet the needs of our students more efficiently and intelligently. We will study the results of the enhancement to see if it is working.

Walking through the bookstore, I enjoy just perusing the shelves to see what my colleagues are assigning. It has been thirty years or so since I’ve been in the Wesleyan bookstore, but in some ways the experience is very familiar. The store itself seems spiffier, and there are certainly more items for sale to remind us of alma mater. But the textbooks still offer wonderful examples of continuity and change. I see classics that I studied (or wish I had studied!) in my youth, and intriguing new titles that remind me of how much more there is to learn. There are courses, like one in political theory, with many books (one per week, I suppose). Others, like a frosh seminar I wish I could take, with a single slim (and endlessly deep) volume. There are the fat, up-to-date science textbooks, and the skinny poetry paperbacks – each promising measures of insight and mystery. Religions of the world are represented through their sacred texts and commentaries, and the philosophical critiques of faith are there, too.

I am reminded that a great university, like Wesleyan, has an obligation to be innovative, cutting edge, and experimental. And it has an obligation to take care (to understand, appreciate, sometimes preserve) of the cultures that cannot be so easily integrated into our contemporary ways of thinking.
This weekend is my first meeting with the Board of Trustees since assuming the presidency. I have been very impressed with the individual conversations with board member over the last few months. They are all alumni or parents of students, and they care deeply about Wesleyan. Like the alum who posted a comment on this blog, they are reasonably skeptical. They are not satisfied with what is going on at any particular moment because they want, as I do, Wesleyan to remain self-critical, ambitious, and demanding. Next week I’ll be able to relate some of the major issues that get discussed at the retreat. But being at the trustee retreat means I’ll miss the first sports events of the season. Even the president can’t be everywhere!

Besides blogging and learning the presidential ropes, last week I sent off book reviews to the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. It is important for me to continue to write about topics independent of my administrative work. In this case, the books had to do with Sigmund Freud, on the one hand, and contemporary political theory, on the other. I’ll post the links to the reviews when they are published. On Monday, I am to give a lunchtime talk at the College of Social Studies about my recent scholarly work. I am eager to meet the CSS community, and I’ll be able to report on my impressions of this unique aspect of the Wesleyan community.

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