Meetings and Dialogues

Presidents have lots of meetings. At Wesleyan my days are full of scheduled conversations with vice-presidents and deans informing me of ongoing plans, current crises, and budget issues. Students and parents request time to talk over some of the things the university is doing particularly well, or (more often) to discuss areas where we are falling short of expectations. This past week I had three (again three!) very different sorts of meetings that tell me a lot about Wesleyan.

Early in the week some senior administrators and I drove up to Amherst for Little Three meetings. Amherst, Williams and Wesleyan get together once each semester to compare notes on a handful of issues so that we can discover best practices and avoid the worst. There were some interesting exchanges about diversity work on each campus, and I took away the lesson that Wesleyan needs to engage in more serious planning about our goals in this area. How should diversity be part of our recruiting of students, faculty and staff? What is the status of the diversity dialogue on campus? Are we doing enough to ensure that our curriculum and our residential programs are teaching critical thinking about difference as well respect and affection for it? I know that we can do more to create a framework for planning in this area, and we will.

Other topics at the Little Three meeting ranged from library renovation to international students, from co-curricular programs to fund raising. My Wes colleagues and I left feeling especially good about our curriculum and residential learning. Although Williams and Amherst have a great advantage in financial resources, we felt we were using our faculty and student strength for interesting innovations.

Later in the week I had a very different “meeting” with the Wesleyan faculty of Division II – social sciences. The professors from this area gather every few weeks to hear a lecture over lunch, and I accepted the invitation some time ago. I decided to talk about the philosophy of Richard Rorty, who was my teacher at Princeton and a major influence on my work. It was exciting for me to give an academic talk to colleagues about the intersection of philosophy and politics, and I had fun discussing Rorty’s view that there was no longer any need for a “meta-discipline” (or an academic referee) to tell other intellectuals what counted as “real research” or “science” or “Truth.” Although there wasn’t much time, there was a spirited discussion about the future of philosophy after the demise of epistemology. It felt great to be among colleagues in dialogue about ideas.

Speaking of philosophy, the magazine Bookforum recently published my review of a new collection Sarah Kofman’s essays. Kofman was a key French feminist philosopher who wrote in especially powerful ways about Freud and Nietzsche.

Last night was my final meeting of the week, an hour with the Wesleyan Student Assembly. There were great questions about what kinds of students we should be recruiting, about how the campus community can be part of the planning process, about the juvenile Argus headlines, and about weirdness vs. political engagement. We didn’t reach consensus, but we did have a candid conversation that was lively, fun, and, I trust, informative. On this cold, icy night, students turned out who wanted to continue to improve the Wesleyan experience. That’s the best kind of meeting!

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Questions and Conversations: Past and Present

Yesterday I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Cecilia Miller’s class on European Intellectual History from the Ancient Greeks through the Renaissance. Professor Miller asked me to talk about how I became an intellectual historian myself, and the students (ranging from frosh through senior theses writers) read a few of my essays on history and memory. As I spoke with the students about my scholarly interests, I kept coming back to my own undergraduate Wesleyan education. My first book (Psychoanalysis as History: Negation and Freedom in Freud) was based on my senior thesis here, and my second book (Knowing and History: Appropriations of Hegel in 20th Century France) certainly came out of the work I did at Wesleyan on Hegel. My subsequent research and publications also were linked to the intellectual and political concerns that I began to develop at Wesleyan. My autobiographical reflections as an intellectual historian turned out to be reflections on the education we offer here.

The students in Prof. Miller’s class were awfully impressive. They asked good, probing questions about the links among my works, and about some central concepts I use (but perhaps don’t develop adequately!). I realized that I should have left more time for discussion because these were very able young men and women who had read some of my work with important critical insights. For example, in my introduction to a book called The Ironist’s Cage: Memory, Trauma and the Construction of History, I use the concept of “piety” to describe a vehicle for moving beyond ironic cultural criticism. Although I wrote this essay twenty years ago, I still need to develop that concept further. The students, bless their hearts, pointed this out. Teacher, you must keep learning!

On a very different, but equally impressive, level, this past week I met with a student group against the war in Iraq. Following on a resolution passed last spring by the Wesleyan Student Assembly, they are asking that the University divest from its holdings in two companies that make weapons used in the current conflict. If the university is going to be a socially responsible investor, they argue, it cannot maintain its holdings in these companies. The arguments of the students were thoughtful and well informed. Furthermore, they had gathered significant support from others on campus through a petition drive. As I listened to their presentation, I recalled my own student days when we urged Wesleyan to divest from companies doing business with South Africa. The students today, I thought, are better prepared than I remember being.

Wesleyan has the good fortune to have a Board of Trustees that listens to the views of students and faculty, and this committee will have a chance to make its case. I look forward to a productive conversation about these important matters with students, board members, and faculty. I told the students that I could not predict the conclusion of these conversations, but I could ensure that there would be a reasonable presentation of Wesleyan’s position after all the arguments were heard. Stay tuned.

Whatever one’s position on the war in Iraq, I think the Wesleyan community can be proud that we are offering support for returning veterans. Too often in our history, veterans have been badly neglected by the country they were asked to serve. In recent years few have had the opportunity to benefit from a first-rate liberal arts education. To address this, two of our alumni—Frank Sica ’73 and Jonathan Soros ’92—have generously contributed funds to secure scholarships at Wesleyan for those who have served in some branch of the military. This is an important signal of support for these men and women, and it will add to the real diversity of the Wesleyan campus. You can read about the specifics of this program at:
http://www.wesleyan.edu/cgi-bin/cdf_manager/template_renderer.cgi?item=58325

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