This is Our Home – Let’s Protect it Together!

Today the Wesleyan Student Assembly sent out a final announcement before students start coming back to campus to begin their two-week quarantine and start classes. They forcefully and eloquently describe what’s at stake as we try to keep our campus safe during the pandemic. I’m grateful for the permission to cross-post.

Although what has happened at some universities across the country over the past week may be unnerving, we believe that Wesleyan is well-equipped for a safe residential experience on campus this Fall. Faculty and staff alike have been working extremely hard to make it possible. It is now up to us, the student body, to step up and start to do our part, too, as we begin to return to campus starting tomorrow.

The COVID 101 Moodle and the COVID Community Agreement have clearly outlined the set of guidelines and expectations for residential students this semester. Though they may be restrictive and inevitably make Fall 2020 an abnormal semester, they are necessary to maintain a safe campus for anyone who needs it. If you find those guidelines too restrictive and personally impossible to adhere to, we urge you to rethink your decision to return to campus this Fall. Having the ability to return to campus is a privilege within itself. For many students, Wesleyan has become a home and a safe haven. For many others, an on-campus experience and the community it brings, even at a 6 feet distance and with a mask on, is critical for their academic success. That is why Wesleyan staff have gone to great lengths and pains to set up appropriate health and safety protocols, reconfigure essential services in accordance to COVID guidelines, and invest in a robust testing technology.

However, frequent testing, as Prof. Cohan and Prof. Johnston have emphasized in their COVID101 lecture, will not be enough for us to think that we are automatically in a safe bubble. So make no mistake. This bubble does not magically build itself. It takes a village to build and takes even more to preserve, but it only takes one person, possibly with one urging idea to have one party with friends, however small, whether on campus or off campus, for that bubble to burst entirely and completely. So let’s not risk it. Too many people have worked too hard to set us up for success, and too much deliberation and planning have gone into all of your decision to return to campus already; too much is at stake for any of us to take such risks and be sent home 2 weeks into the semester. It is always better to err on the side of caution instead of being left with some residue of guilt. So keep your mask on even though it seems unbearably hot when you are outside of your residence, and make sure it covers both your mouth and your nose! Remember that it is 6 feet and not 5 feet and a half apart. This arrival season, show your love and care for friends, faculty and staff who you have dearly missed not by the kisses and the hugs, but by wearing a mask and keeping your distance. As Dr. McLarney has said in his last email to the campus on Wednesday, you may not be able to control what others do, but you can do your part. You can lead by example. You can help reinforce and strengthen those new norms of health guidelines on campus. It is possible.

Our return to campus this Fall will be abnormal, but it can also be phenomenal. A residential experience this Fall means that many students will have access to secure housing and several other important on-campus resources to fulfill their academic endeavor. Many people will get to keep their jobs. It will also mean Middletown can be lively again. Indeed, according to Mayor Ben Florsheim in a conversation between the WSA leadership and Middletown officials last month, local businesses have been longing for Wesleyan students to come and “bring the business back to town” since we left last March. Many will benefit from our students’ presence and care for the community at large. But please remember that those benefits can only be reaped if we all adhere to guidelines and practice our individual and collective responsibility that goes hand in hand together. In returning to campus this Fall, we all sign a community agreement. It is not a matter of legality or liability. Rather, it is a matter of life and death. It is a new social contract built upon the long-standing values of community and trust that should transcend all political, cultural or personal boundaries. It is a social contract that simply cannot afford a single rebel. We trust that cardinals care, because this is our community. This is our home. So let’s do our best to protect it.

Welcome back home, Cardinals!

Anna Nguyen, Student Life Committee Chair

Ben Garfield, Academic Affairs Committee Chair

Felicia Soderberg, President

Walking the Campus, Thinking of the Coming Semester

We are preparing to welcome students back to Wesleyan in the coming weeks, and I walked around the campus yesterday feeling nostalgic about the past and nervous about the future. We have a strong plan, informed by the work of experts, but we know plans are only as good as the people who put them into practice. Our team has been preparing for months, and we are counting on the cooperation of students, faculty and staff as we try to keep everyone as safe as possible. Sure, when we read about the outbreaks at Chapel Hill and other college towns, we are deeply concerned. Our plans are different, as is our scale. But we still need people to observe some basic public health guidelines. We can do it!

I went to the large testing test yesterday and had my quick and easy nasal swab test. Results by tomorrow!

I strolled around campus (here is a map of walking routes on campus, if you’d like to do the same) and started to imagine it full with our wonderful (masked) community! If you are coming back to Middletown, remember to practice social distancing, wear that mask, and stay healthy before you travel.  Stay safe, be well!!

 

 

Engaged Projects — A Different Way to Learn and Earn Credit

As we face an uncertain fall with a mix of online, hybrid and in-person classes, the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life has developed an “education in the field” option that I think will be of great interest to many Wesleyan students. Called “Engaged Projects,” these are individualized and “self-designed endeavors in which a student studies a topic of their choice and completes a final project intended for a non-academic audience.” Some students will choose projects that are closely connected to their central course of study, while others will use this option to explore new areas and interests. “Final projects can take the form of blogs, videos, a website, or other media; a work of art, an event, a workshop, a presentation, or panel; a policy proposal or analysis; a white paper or op-ed series; a business plan; and/or any other piece(s) thoughtfully designed for the public.” These quotes are from the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship’s website, which has detailed information about this option.

Interested students should submit a proposal through Handshake. Proposals will be reviewed on a rolling basis until August 27. Students whose proposals are approved will be added to the course during drop/add.

Given the nature of this experience, students will not be graded on the quality of their work in the traditional sense. Instead, the emphasis is on their learning process, and whether they are engaging with complex material, challenging their assumptions, experimenting with new ideas, learning new skills, engaging with new audiences, and reflecting on their intersecting positions and roles in the world.

Here’s how the Engaged Project option works:

EP students will develop a self-directed research and project plan. They must enlist an EP Sponsor who will serve in an advisory/mentor role. Sponsors can be Wesleyan faculty, staff, alumni, or community partners; family members or friends; or other experts or professionals willing to play this role. Seeking and enlisting an appropriate Sponsor is a component of the EP learning experience.

When I first heard about this option, I thought it was an excellent way to escape computer screens and to do work for academic credit out in the world. This can take many forms, and the project should be fun for the students and convey what they’ve learned to anyone with an interest in the topic (in other words, you shouldn’t have to be an academic to understand the final presentation). I know there are many faculty members and alumni (among others) who are ready to be sponsors.

 

 

More Information, More Questions

This week Wesleyan released more information about our plans to open in the fall, plans that rely heavily on the cooperation of our campus community to protect the health of all. Working with the Broad Institute in Cambridge Mass, we expect to provide frequent, simple testing for everyone on campus, and to provide supportive isolation to those who are Covid-19 positive. We will have a mix of online and in-person offerings, with the course listings being updated as I write. Of course, like so many people, I am watching with alarm the resurgence of the virus in several states. We must be cautious. We will be.

Providing more information often leads to new questions, and I know that many families have been contacting the University with queries particular to their own circumstances. We are grouping these together so that we might share broader answers that may anticipate other concerns that develop. We will update the website frequently and respond to emails as quickly as we can.

We will also be holding forums with athletes, arts students, financial aid students, and others. Some of these will be on Zoom, others may use different formats. Stay tuned for announcements in this regard.

Provost Nicole Stanton will soon be announcing a suite of Wesleyan initiatives addressing racial justice. We view these anti-racist initiatives as important steps forward and look forward to discussing them in the coming weeks. We will not lose the energy that the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the fight against racism.

Finally, we have been working urgently on plans to protect and support our international student community.  In addition to joining an Amicus Brief in support of the Harvard-MIT lawsuit against the new ICE regulations, we are planning to offer our students the help they need to continue their Wesleyan studies, from focused in-person classes to opportunities abroad. This will take different shapes in different contexts, and we are determined to find ways for our students from outside the U.S. to have access to the educational opportunities we offer. We will have much more to say about this soon.

I am grateful for the many questions we have received – among them those that have been relayed to us from the Wesleyan Student Assembly, International Students, UJAMAA and other groups. We will do our best to answer these even as we try to anticipate and address new questions that may arise.

Thanks for your patience, if patience you have to extend our way. Apologies to those who are frustrated by the uncertainties that remain. We’ll do our best to address them.

Remote Classes and a Quiet Campus

There is an active discussion among faculty members about their first week of classes teaching remotely. Some are finding it very challenging to manage a series of discussions in real time with “breakout sessions” and the like, while others miss the immediate cues a teacher gets from watching the reactions of students right there, face-to-face, in a classroom. Many of my colleagues express concern about students who live in places where it’s inconvenient to join at regular class times, and we all worry about those whose internet connections aren’t robust enough for the material one wants to present. But after one week, I am very pleased to say that most of the folks I’ve heard from are feeling more optimistic than when we started. That includes the students who have been surveyed already in a few of the classes. There will be bumps in the road, to be sure, and there will also be happy surprises that increase learning beyond what we would have thought possible.

Yesterday I chatted with some students on Foss Hill on what was a beautiful spring day.

People were keeping their distance, but still we managed to commiserate about our lonely campus during what should be a very exciting time of year. We dreamed of better days to come and urged one another to stay healthy.

Yesterday, I was down at the boathouse, but the crew teams are scattered around the country. Athletes accustomed to perfect timing together must wait until it’s safe to be in the same boat. The river was beautiful, but the quiet was sad. We are all in the same boat, one of hunkering down.

 

A Quiet Citrin Field from Pine Street
Sunrise as seen from in front of Boger Hall

 

Early morning, College Row

Today, Kari and I walked by the tennis courts, into Indian Hill cemetery, and then around the athletic fields, the farm and back toward campus. We saw just a few other walkers, and we waved and kept our distance. I wished I could hear the chanting of the softball and lacrosse teams as they celebrated teammates, could marvel at frisbee players leaping in air, or could watch baseball in good company just behind the library. Instead, I was at my computer writing to all the spring Wesleyan athletes. We must be patient. And we will be.

Stay safe, stay healthy. And, please, stay in touch!

 

 

 

 

 

Classes Online Begin

I conducted my first class yesterday since moving to an online format for the rest of the semester. I have to admit that I was pretty nervous about the transition to Zoom, even though I’ve offered lectures online before. My class, The Modern and the Postmodern, is available on Coursera for free, and more than a hundred thousand people have participated in it over the last few years. I’ve asked my Wesleyan students (52 of them) to sign up for those recorded lectures.

But this morning at 10:50 (Eastern time) we were all online together, and I have to say I found it moving to see all those familiar faces — even if they were in little boxes on my screen. And they seemed glad to be together, even if their togetherness was merely virtual.  At first, I tried to reassure them that we were all aware of the stress of the moment, that we would try our best to learn together, that deadlines were flexible and anyone could choose to switch to a Pass/Fail mode. I saw nod and smiles…and then we got started with the text of the week, Sigmund Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. I wish I had a more optimistic text for them, but perhaps reading about recurrent patterns of conflict, guilt and aggression will put our current predicament into a broader perspective. In any case, next week we look forward to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.

I’ve heard from other Wesleyan professors that their classes also started out well. A colleague in the languages told me that her students, too, were so happy to be re-connected. She reported that “various pets that might walk in front of the camera or bark at inopportune times” were introduced to the group.   “We shared their names and a fun fact about them. Again, in the target language.” A relatively new member of our teaching corps wrote me to say that he found the online meeting with students “wonderfully therapeutic for my own soul.” Another long-term faculty member wrote (with some surprise, I think) that a department meeting via Zoom went smoothly, and that he was in touch with students all over the world. “This is going to work out,” he said.

Like the students in my class, these colleagues and students all expressed the desire to be back home at Wesleyan — back in their classrooms, Usdan, the gym, their libraries, houses, labs and dorms. We are all looking forward to that. Meanwhile, here’s a picture I took yesterday as an early spring snow began to fall on Foss Hill.

Early spring snow on a lonely Foss Hill

 

Working Ever More Closely Together

We need to physically isolate from one another; that much is very clear in these uncertain times. And in uncertain, stressful times many of us crave connecting with one another. We crave a friend’s embrace, a colleague’s pat on the back, a warm introduction to someone we are eager to get to know. Stopping the spread of this virus is hard because we must stop doing some of those things that really enhance our lives. These things are core to why we believe a residential educational experience is so enriching. They are the things that our students are already missing as almost all of them depart from campus, often tearfully.

They will also miss the kinds of activities that offer deep learning through physical practice. I’m not just talking about sports (which folks already miss), but also about playing in the gamelan orchestra or raising one’s voice along with the Ebony Singers. We are working hard on finding virtual ways to provide learning experiences that usually come from physical practice – whether with instruments, lab equipment, bodies or voices – and we are excited about the prospects. I have been so impressed by (and grateful to) my colleagues on the faculty who are figuring out how to match online learning pedagogies to the content of the courses and their own pedagogical practices. Teachers and students will learn a lot about what can (and cannot) be done at a distance – and things to be grateful for (once taken for granted) when normal classes resume.

It’s only been about a week since we announced that Wesleyan would suspend normal operations, and already so much has happened. After the initial shock and disappointment, there followed daily examples of sacrifice, cooperation and mutual understanding. Our friends and colleagues across the University have been stepping up in a big way. The Student Life and Equity and Inclusion teams have gone so far beyond the call of duty as they support students from an extraordinary range of circumstances. Public Safety officers, Investment staff, and Bon Appetit workers, Physical Plant, Technology, Library and Advancement and Finance colleagues…so many have found ways to contribute to student well-being while also planning for the future. Communications folks are working overtime to keep all our constituencies informed, and HR is looking after the welfare of all our employees. Admission and Financial Aid staff members, on top of everything else, are crafting the class of 2024 and planning a virtual WesFest!

Wesleyan University has weathered crises before, and we have done so by coming together to support one another. We begin with our most vulnerable students. We will ensure that work-study funds and other forms of financial aid are distributed for the remainder of the semester, and we have raised significant monies for the Emergency Fund. There is an application process for this support, but it is simple and straightforward. We are already distributing money. And for those who can, it’s easy to make a donation! (Kari and I just did.)

I feel the sadness of those whose college experience has been so rudely interrupted. I see some of those students on Foss Hill (6 feet apart) early in the morning, catching a last sunrise over the Connecticut River. I see others getting a grab-and-go meal at Usdan, or having one more WesWings delight, before sorrowfully waving goodbye to friends. We’ll do our best to keep the students safe who must remain on campus. Seniors, we’ll figure out how to celebrate your accomplishments, whether as planned in May or, if need be, at some later date.

We’ll miss all who had to leave, but we’ll be ready to welcome students back when the threat of the pandemic recedes. What a joy that will be! Meanwhile, be safe and stay well!!

Students Heading to Physical Isolation, Faculty Re-Tooling Classes

These are strange times, indeed. It’s the middle of spring break, but the campus is emptying out for the rest of the semester. Friends are saying goodbye in Middletown, or expressing sadness at already being so far apart. Anxiety hovers over us all as we deal with the disappointment of finishing our school year through distance learning while we yearn for connections with one another. But it’s the connections that put us at risk.

Well, it’s physical connections that put us at risk. We can — we must — connect with one another in other ways. In the coming weeks, we will share academic work through various platforms online, and we will talk to our friends, share music, photos and stories through our lively networks. In addition to the new materials we will generate, there are many videos, works of art and music already available through the Wesleyan website. We can watch them together, and we can find ways to talk about them — even at a great distance. It won’t be the same as sitting around Usdan, or chatting by the gym, or hanging in a wood frame, but it will preserve some of our connectivity. We don’t have to be isolated from one another in spirit.

Many of you will keep journals during this period — some in notebooks, others in podcast form, while others in videos. We will find ways to connect people registering their experiences. We want to hear from you. More on this soon.

Students are stepping up in big ways to help one another, and faculty and staff are finding ways to support those who need it the most. There are various efforts underway to give assistance to those at risk. No surprise, I prefer using official channels to ad hoc, if well-meaning, private projects.  Students who need emergency funding are asked to contact Dean Mike Whaley (mwhaley@wesleyan.edu). Members of the extended Wesleyan family who want to donate to the fund can do so here.

It’s a frightening time, to be sure. But we will depend on one another, deepen our connections with one another, so that when we come back to campus, we will be the stronger for having gone through all this.

 

Working Together in Anxious Times

Yesterday I sent the following note to all faculty and staff at Wesleyan. These folks have been working tirelessly to help our students through this crisis while also dealing with the threats posed by the epidemic. I am so grateful for their efforts!

 

Dear friends,

As you prepare for a weekend of ‘socially distanced’ activities, I wanted to thank everyone for their extraordinary efforts at making Wesleyan’s response to the current crisis as humane and responsible as possible. Many faculty members have been actively sharing information about how to move their classes into distant learning modes. Along with many others, I have learned much that will be relevant to my own class. Students, too, are preparing for learning in an uncertain future. Of course, many of them are deeply saddened to be torn away from friends and teachers, classmates and coaches. Yet, most are already figuring out how to continue to learn, and, eventually, to thrive. Countless staff members have been working with an intensity that is truly heroic as they prepare the campus and our students for the weeks ahead. The complexities of a diverse student body are everywhere apparent – from varieties of learning styles to a complex range of personal circumstances that require us always to customize. We have a framework of principles for making decisions, but I am so proud of the ways that we’ve tailored that framework for the specificity of individual students.

Faculty, students and staff – we are all educators at Wesleyan, and we are all especially attentive to the most vulnerable members of our community in this time of anxious planning and generous caring. I don’t want to overuse this phrase, but this seems to me ‘compassionate solidarity’ at work.

So, thank you for exemplifying the “independence of mind and generosity of spirit” signaled in the university’s mission statement. I am proud and grateful to be your colleague.

Yours ever,

Michael