Christopher P. Long Blogging a Philosophical Life Mon, 26 Jun 2017 18:28:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Christopher P. Long 32 32 55314677 The Liberal Arts at the Heart of the MSU Land Grant Mission Mon, 26 Jun 2017 18:28:39 +0000 When Ryan Kilcoyne and I met late last year to plan the 2017 MSU College of Arts & Letters Dean’s Report, we wanted to show what we have long talked about: situating the liberal arts endeavor at the center of the 21st-century land grant mission is a powerful catalyst for transformative change in the world.

In fact, a commitment to the liberal arts shaped the university itself at a decisive moment in its history.

In 1859, John M. Gregory, the state superintendent of public instruction, sought to reduce the curriculum of the Michigan Agricultural College (MAC) from its four-year liberal arts course of study to a 2-year program that would focus more narrowly on farm management.

Early advocates of the liberal arts, like Professor Lewis R. Fisk, then serving as president pro tempore of the MAC, argued:

The only way to teach agriculture here, is to teach literature also.

In his book, Michigan Agricultural College: The Evolution of a Land-Grant Philosophy, 1855–1925, Keith Widder calls this period of Michigan State University’s history “A Fork in the Road,” suggesting that “a wrong turn could have meant ruin while another turn led to growth and success.” 1

Students joined with faculty in advocating eloquently and successfully for the four-year liberal arts curriculum back in the early 1860’s. They wanted, as Widder writes, “to be transformed into enlightened citizens, not just better farmers.” 2

Ultimately, this was the path the state legislature approved in the 1861 Act to Reorganize the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, situating the liberal arts endeavor at the heart of the land-grant mission of the Michigan Agricultural College (see, sections 15–16 in particular).

By framing the 2017 MSU College of Art & Letters Dean’s Report around this important moment of decision, we sought to draw on this important history in order to show what the liberal arts has long empowered our faculty, students, and alumni to ACHIEVE:


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Beware the Jabberwocks Tue, 23 May 2017 21:03:47 +0000 Lessons from the Dragon Boat

None of us knew quite what to expect on Saturday as we gathered at Hawk Island for our one-hour training session for the Capital City Dragon Boat Race to support the Women’s Resource Center of Greater Lansing. Earlier this year, my wife, Val, suggested that the MSU College of Arts & Letters might pull a team together for the race, and she and Melissa Staub, Executive Assistant to the Dean, had been organizing our team, the Jabberwocks, for a few months. But no one on our team of faculty, staff, students, family and friends had any real experience racing dragon boats, so we arrived at Hawk Island for training with plenty of enthusiasm, but little understanding of the intricacies of the sport.

Then we met Mark Robinson.

As luck would have it, he was assigned as our steersman for the training session. He was just the person to guide us along a path to success. Before we knew what was happening, he was commanding us to “bury the paddle,” keep our “eyes in the boat,” and “watch your lead paddlers,” as we learned how to work together as a team.

So began an experience that focused and refined the way I think about leadership, how to create shared vision, and what it means to be a member of a team.

Dragon boat racing is like any successful collaborative endeavor, it depends less on individual strength than on coordinated effort oriented toward a common goal.

So here is what I learned this weekend as a member of the MSU College of Arts & Letters Jabberwocks:

Be on the Boat

One of the first things we had to do was commit ourselves to be in the moment, to fully be there together with one another in the boat. Each of us had to focus on what we needed to do to be successful as a team. We could not worry about what the other boats were doing or concern ourselves with the weather; but rather, we had to focus on our individual part in a greater whole.

For me, in the second row, this meant matching the formidable pace Maddie Shellgren, a College of Arts & Letters graduate student, was setting in the lead row. With each stroke, I tried to match her pace, focusing on the stroke I was making, how the paddle enters the water, reaching a bit further, pulling a bit harder — each stroke became an opportunity to be a little better than the last. Each stroke had to be in sync with Maddie’s.

Lead in Place

A dragon boat is made up of different sections, a flag catcher, drummer, the two lead paddlers and two rows of pacers, the middle three rows make up the engine room, while the last three are the rockets, with the steerman in the back. Each of us had a role to play: focus on the lead paddler, stay in sync, paddle together, bury the oar in the water, pull close to the boat, repeat.

Balance and synchronicity are critical to success.

Each of us needed to lead from the position in which we were situated; each of us needed to improve our form with every stroke; and each of us needed to find the energy — after so many heats and so many strokes — to give a little something more to the cause.

When the boat begins to move and pick up speed, when the water begins to buoy us and we are moving together as a team, it’s exhilarating.

Visualize Success

As we learned to work together and became stronger as a team, Mark took us to a quiet part of the lake before the qualifying race. He told us to “let it ride” and as we floated, he asked us to close our eyes and envision the race as it was to unfold. He walked us through each step in words — “Steersman Ready (bury the paddle) … Attention (eyes on the lead) … whistle … 1,2,3,4,5 (nickel), 1–2–3–4–5–6–7–8–9–10 (dime) … reach, reach, reach … power ten now! … reach, reach, reach … power finish now!”

It was quiet and still out there on the far side of the lake; we were all together in the boat, attending to the moment, focused on a common goal. We could see what we had to do, we each understood our role–focus, intention, coordination.

Timing beats strength every time.

None of us knew quite what to expect last weekend when we gathered at Hawk Island; we certainly didn’t expect to win a gold medal; but now we have all come to expect something more of ourselves and of our shared efforts to weave what we learned into the life of the College; and we know too, that when people come together to support an important cause, great things are possible.

“O frabjous day! Callooh, Callay!”

Thanks to Jennifer Desloover for the amazing photos!

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To Teach and Delight Fri, 14 Apr 2017 12:57:23 +0000 The last two weeks of March this year brought sadness twice over to the College of Arts & Letters. On March 18, 2017, we lost Anna Norris, a beloved professor of French Literature who taught at Michigan State University for 18 years. On March 30, 2017, we lost Jim Seaton, an eloquent advocate for the humanities who taught English Literature and Criticism here for more than 45 years.

Anna and Jim dedicated their lives to education.

And now it is April and all spring on a campus full of life as students and faculty turn to the semester’s end, to graduation, and to the possibilities that open for us over the summer. But the rhythm of the academic year has been broken; punctured by the poignant loss of our two dear colleagues.

In the introduction to his last book, Literary Criticism from Plato to Postmodernism, Jim gave voice to what lies at the heart of a life committed to education through literature:

Humanistic critics share Horace’s belief that literature, at its best, both teaches and delights and, furthermore, that the teaching and the delighting are intertwined, so much so that one cannot be separated from the other.1

To teach and delight; they are unseparated in the lives of two people who taught and delighted students and colleagues alike here at Michigan State University for generations.

Their impact has been deep; their influence, lasting.

Anna led a study abroad program to Tours, France, for 16 years. Rachel Burley Larner, one of Anna’s students, now herself a teacher, put the transformative experience with Anna this way:

Hardly a day of my teaching career has gone by where I haven’t thought fondly of you, your humor, and the things I learned from your classes. I know that I am a better teacher and person because of you and can’t even begin to put words to how valuable an experience Tours was for me.

John Dewey once asked himself what the most needed reform in the spirit of education should be. His response was that we ought to:

Cease conceiving of education as mere preparation for later life, and make it the full meaning of the present life.2

Through their scholarship, their passion, their humor, and their love for literature and their students, Anna and Jim taught us the full meaning of this present life.

Let us teach and delight, and delight in the teaching, awake now in new ways to the possibilities of this blooming spring, as we follow the footsteps of our two delightful colleagues.

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The Liberal Arts Endeavor: The Arts of Liberty in a Time of Uncertainty Sun, 19 Mar 2017 16:01:46 +0000 Even if, as Hannah Arendt suggests, “we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint,” 1 our commitment to general education as “a distinctive cornerstone of the arts of liberty” gains urgency in times of uncertainty.

Although we often think of liberty as a basic right bestowed upon us, it is more fundamentally an activity rooted in the human ability to begin anew. As an activity, liberty can be practiced well or poorly. Practiced well, the arts of liberty enrich our communities, enliven our connection with the natural world, and advance the cause of social justice. Practiced poorly, the arts of liberty diminish us, impoverish our relationships, and destroy the environment on which life depends.

The Journal of General Education endeavors to open a space for scholarship deeply committed to educating a generation of citizens who are capable of discerning truth from falsity, of advocating for those who are unable to advocate for themselves, and of putting freedom into practice in ways that enrich the world we share.

“Education,” Arendt reminds us, “is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and the young, would be inevitable.” 2

In times of uncertainty, renewal requires citizens capable of responding to complexity with nuance and grace. As educators, assuming responsibility for the world we love means nurturing the arts of liberty in future citizens so they are able to practice freedom well to mend a world so often out of joint.

As the editor of the Journal of General Education, I would like to invite submissions committed to advancing this vision of the liberal arts endeavor. To submit an article, please visit the Journal of General Education website.

* * *

To view the published version of this essay, see The Liberal Arts Endeavor: The Arts of Liberty in a Time of Uncertainty.

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“…No Arts; No Letters; No Society…” Fri, 17 Mar 2017 21:12:30 +0000 In early November last year, I returned to the Leviathan.

In it, Thomas Hobbes grapples with the question of sovereignty and considers the human condition in a state of nature in which there is:

…no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. (Leviathan, XIII)

In returning to Hobbes, we gain purchase on a future that only now begins to dawn as we in these United States consider abandoning completely our public support of the arts and letters upon which our very commonwealth depends.

There will be, I am confident, plenty of posts about the many initiatives funded by the NEH and NEA that have transformed the lives of communities across the country, and further, important advice about how one might effectively advocate for continuing and augmenting our shared financial commitments to both.

But the passage from Hobbes provokes a different set of considerations. It requires us to think about what a total renunciation of the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment of the Humanities says about who we are and what we aspire to be.

Washington Post, March 16, 2017

The passage from Hobbes suggests not simply that the arts and letters enhance social and political life, but that they are the very markers of the existence of a society. When we as a community say: we will no longer support the arts and humanities as a common good for which we are all responsible, we are saying: we are no longer a community, and there is no good toward which we might orient our lives.

The issue here is not whether the arts and humanities can or will be supported by other means, which they surely will, nor whether they have practical or economic value, which they surely do.

Rather, at issue is what happens when a community repudiates its deepest self?

We ought to pause a moment to consider this question before we make the decision to withdraw public funding from those core activities that make us who we are.

What is important here is not simply that the arts and humanities are funded, but that they are publicly funded because we as a community have made a collective decision to invest in ourselves and in a more just and meaningful future we might yet imagine.

For in the end, without the arts, without the humanities, there is no shared future; there is no society at all, but rather, a collection of increasingly isolated individuals for whom life has become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

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Charting a Path to Intellectual Leadership, then Following It Tue, 14 Mar 2017 20:53:17 +0000 As a junior faculty member, I attended every possible workshop on tenure and promotion I could find. Inevitably, however, as the shared wisdom of those who had successfully been tenured and promoted washed over me, my anxiety would slowly rise until, by the time the session was over, I had a pit of anxiety in my stomach and a feeling of inadequacy that it would take days to overcome.

During that time, I discovered that the most effective way to turn my paralyzing anxiety into motivating anxiety was to step back to consider my deepest academic commitments. This enabled me to return with renewed intention to the work.

Now, as a Dean, I am often asked to speak on just the sort of panel that caused my younger self such anxiety.

When I do, I try to emphasize one point:

Chart your path to intellectual leadership, then follow it.

This is easy to say, but very hard to accomplish. To make it easier, let’s divide the suggestion into two parts: 1) charting your path to leadership, 2) following it.

Charting Intellectual Leadership

Charting a path to intellectual leadership requires articulating what intellectual leadership looks like in your area of scholarship.

This means you need to articulate it…put it into words, write it down.

In the very process of articulating it, you begin to give it shape and texture; you begin to imagine what it looks like, and more importantly, how you will know if you have achieved it. Identify specific indicators of success: art exhibitions, articles in specific journals, books published, new approaches established, new areas of study discovered, new pedagogies adopted, innovative curriculum developed…

Consider as indicators of success not only products, but processes, the manner in which you proceed can be as much a sign of leadership as accomplishments accumulated.

Note that your path cannot be charted in isolation. Consider your field, consider your colleagues, consider your chair and, yes, your Dean; consider the ways the institution that supports your work measures success for itself.

This Twitter exchange @cplong captures it well:

Then Follow It

Once you have articulated your path to intellectual leadership, following it requires cultivating intentional practices of habitual focus.

Here let me first provide a few general principles, but then, since colleagues have asked about my workflow as a scholar and administrator, I thought I would share a Prezi that outlines how I attempt to cultivate habits of intentional focus in my role as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University.

First, and more generally, as I have written before, know thyself. Identify the time of day when you are most intellectually alive and reserve that time for your scholarship.

Second, time yourself. Seriously. Right now I am 5 minutes into the second of three Pomodoros I committed to writing this post. The Pomodoro Technique is one useful way to ensure that your best time does not get away from you.

Third, attend to your attention. Ask yourself before saying yes to a project if this will empower you to advance along your path to intellectual leadership. If it will not, say no.

Fourth, be relentless. Cultivating intentional practices of habitual focus takes time, but it also gets easier over time as you develop the disposition of discipline.

Finally, here is a Prezi that outlines my workflow and demonstrates how I try to position my scholarship at the center of my academic and administrative life:


Ultimately, tenure and promotion are not ends in themselves, they are indicators of success along a longer path to intellectual leadership and a meaningful life.

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Reiner Schürmann: Care of Death Sat, 11 Mar 2017 13:18:41 +0000 A homage in the guise of an essay, this is the story of the last course Reiner Schürmann taught. As a text, it attempts to describe, situate, and come to terms with the power of Schürmann’s teaching in the context of his last lectures on Heidegger’s Being and Time. But if it is to be true to the deepest lessons of Schürmann’s thinking, it will also need to be heard as an invitation to interpret together the significance of his reading so that it may be permitted to shape the course of the lives of those who encounter it.

The essay is made openly available here by a agreement with Philosophy Today and the Philosophy Documentation Center for which I am grateful.

Reiner Schürmann: Care of Death

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Open Letter on the Executive Order on Immigration Mon, 30 Jan 2017 16:59:23 +0000 Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff in the College of Arts & Letters:

Many of you have written to express your concern about the executive order signed by the President of the United States on January 27, 2017, that bars Syrian refugees and blocks citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

We have students and faculty scholars here now from countries identified in this executive order. Each one of you enriches our community and advances our academic mission. We will do everything in our power to ensure that you are safe, supported, and empowered to be successful.

The College of Arts & Letters is committed to putting the arts of liberty into practice in our relationships with one another and in the ways we pursue our scholarship, teaching, and learning. At Michigan State University, the liberal arts are rooted in the three core values of our world-grant mission: quality, inclusiveness, and connectivity. As President Simon has emphasized, the January 27th executive order is a threat to each.

What impedes the free flow of people and ideas, impoverishes the quality of the education we offer and receive.

What destroys our respect for differences, diminishes our capacities to connect across cultures to address the deepest challenges we face.

What prevents us from traveling abroad and welcoming newcomers to campus, perverts our ability to include the most talented people, whatever their background, religion, or country of origin, in a vibrant and open community capable of creating a more just and beautiful world.

As I considered how best to respond in this situation, I turned to my colleague Mohammad Khalil, who pointed me to a passage from the 13th century Persian Sunni Muslim poet, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī. In a single sentence,1 Rūmī captures something of the spirit of a world-grant university committed to putting the arts of liberty into practice.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.

May these words be for you what they have been for me: a reminder in a time of uncertainty that our deepest values only have impact when we find the courage to put them into action.


Christopher P. Long
Dean, College of Arts & Letters

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Mature Leadership: On Bending the Arc Thu, 19 Jan 2017 13:10:47 +0000 Shortly after Barack Obama won the 2008 Iowa caucuses, I wrote a blog post entitled Toward a Mature Politics that began with the Kantian idea that enlightenment requires us to relinquish our self-incurred immaturity. Then, as now, I associated petty hyper-partisan politics with adolescence; and I saw in Obama’s candidacy the possibility of a more mature politics.

As President Obama returns again to his role as citizen, I want to pause a moment here to reflect on an aspect of his legacy that has meant a lot to me as someone who has sought over the last eight years to chart path to leadership: his maturity.

Although Kant connects the maturity of enlightenment with the capacity to think for oneself, maturity of leadership involves much more than independent thinking.

Mature leaders are able to listen attentively through the noise of the moment so as to discern how best to put values into practice; they are able to distance themselves from their own cathartic reactions in order to consider what the situation requires. There is a stillness in maturity, a groundedness that anchors the courage to enact a more just and beautiful world.

A model of mature leadership is what I yearned for in Obama then, and what I am grateful for now.

The change we believed in at the time remains most palpable to me today when I look back to see how much our kids have grown.

Less obvious, however, is the distance each of us have travelled over the past eight years. For me, it has involved the decision to put my educational commitments to the liberal arts endeavor into practice through administrative work first at Penn State, and now as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State, our first two land-grant universities.

This decision was informed in no small part by the hope of which Theodore Parker first spoke before Martin Luther King, Jr. refined it and Barack Obama wove it into Presidential politics. Parker, a 19th century Unitarian minister and abolitionist, put it this way:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but a little ways; I cannot calculate and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice. Things refuse to be mis-managed long.1

Taking up this idea, King distilled it to its essence when, in his 1956 Statement on Ending the Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, he said:

The arc of the moral universe, although long, is bending toward justice.2

Expanding the idea yet further in an April of 2008 speech entitled “Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” Obama emphasized that the arc of the moral universe does not bend on its own:

You know, Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice. But what he also knew was that it doesn’t bend on its own. It bends because each of us puts our hands on that arc and bends it in the direction of justice.

These three articulations themselves arc over a 150-year history that ties the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement to the election of the first African-American President of the United States.

But even as we celebrate the justice toward which this arc undeniably tends, maturity requires us to remain vigilant, for the facts of the world teach us that the bending is not as smooth as the eloquence of the formulation leads us to believe. And yet, without the eloquence and the hope that a more just world is possible, maturity, for all its sobriety, will remain unable to chart a course toward a more perfect union.

So, if “things refuse to be mis-managed long,” mature leadership will be needed to bend the arc yet further. A commitment to that endeavor is the most enduring of Obama’s legacies, and the most urgent of our responsibilities.

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Between Beginning and Routine Sun, 15 Jan 2017 05:15:24 +0000 With the new year comes the deluge of resolutions. This ritual of new beginnings affords us an opportunity to begin anew, for, as the ancient proverb reminds us, “well begun is half done.”1

Of course, now that we are 15 days into 2017 and the new semester is upon us, old habits reassert themselves as the hopefulness of the beginning settles into the rhythm of routine.

Let us linger for a moment here where old habits have not yet become dominant and the possibilities of a different future remain open. This is the place where we might deepen our commitment to cultivate the aptitude to focus intentionally on strategic priorities.

A poignant question haunts this place.

Perhaps you too can hear it if you pause a moment to listen:

Are you focusing your energy, time, and effort on what will enrich your life and the life we share with others?

As a husband, father, scholar, and dean — always in that order of priority, I try to attend to this question at the beginning of each day, before everyone wakes up, and the day’s work is upon me.

The question itself is a little tricky, because so much depends on how we understand and define what “enriching” means. It is, of course, different for different people, and in different contexts, it will adjust itself accordingly. Yet, what abides is an orientation toward creating a meaningful and fulfilling life.

The question that haunts this place and the orientation it engenders are at the very heart of the liberal arts endeavor.

As a Dean, I want this question and orientation to permeate all levels of the College of Arts & Letters so that each decision we make to focus our attention on a given initiative is strategically integrated into a holistic vision of how to enrich the world we share.

Cultivating mindful habits of strategic decision making requires discipline and imagination, both of which are at home here where the beginning remains fresh and routine insistent. Discipline huddles over there where routine enables us to hold ourselves accountable to our values. Imagination, for its part, settles next to the beginning itself so it remains alive to new possibilities that might empower us to nudge the world toward a more just tomorrow.

So, as we settle into this space of incipient regularity where the possibilities of beginning waken to the rhythms that sustain us, let’s pause to consider the priorities on which we will focus our attention this year and how they are integrated into a holistic vision oriented toward advancing the mission of the College and the University to enrich the world we’ve inherited.

* * *

Critical Diversity in a Digital Age

Situated where digital theory and practice intersect with urgent questions of social justice and human difference, the Critical Diversity in a Digital Age initiative animates a hiring strategy designed to attract and retain creative, collaborative leaders who think synthetically about scholarship, teaching, and the creative endeavor. Our aim is to advance the recognized strengths of Michigan State University in the digital arts and humanities through a focus on questions of race, inclusion, cultural preservation, global interconnectedness, and engaged scholarship.

School of Languages

In an effort to advance the world-grant mission of Michigan State University, faculty in the College of Arts & Letters are creating a school of languages that will enhance collaboration across the languages to compete for more prestigious external funding, develop innovative approaches to language teaching and scholarship, and deepen our knowledge of other cultures and literatures to address the most complex challenges of our interconnected world.

Center for Interdisciplinarity

Many universities celebrate the importance of interdisciplinary work, few ground their interdisciplinary practices in a deep understanding of the nature of interdisciplinarity itself. The Center for Interdisciplinarity will do just this by recruiting and supporting world-class faculty with expertise in the theory and practices of interdisciplinarity, by training graduate students from across the university to do interdisciplinary research well, and by enhancing the broader impact statements of major university grants.

The Citizen Scholars Program

Designed to prepare the next generation of diverse, high-achieving, and engaged citizen leaders, the Citizens Scholars program encourages students to aspire to greater academic achievement while gaining experience in high-impact learning environments. Successful aspirants are admitted into the Citizen Scholars program and provided with $5,000 in financial assistance for study abroad, internships, undergraduate research, or other transformative educational experiences that position them to meet extra requirements and to perform at a higher level.

Excel Network

The Excel Network is an emerging initiative that takes a holistic and integrated approach to experiential education, career and professional development, and alumni relations in order to empower our students to chart a successful path from college to the world of meaningful work.

 * * *

Intentional focus on these five strategic priorities requires us to return to them regularly to ensure that the new possibilities they embody are integrated into the daily routines that will sustain them. Here, where the rhythms of routine remain alive to the novelty of the new year, let us recommit ourselves to putting the arts of liberty into practice in ways that enrich our relationships with one another and create a more just and beautiful world.

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