Responding to Complexity with Nuance and Grace

By | Politics, The Liberal Arts, The Long Road | One Comment

In the wake of last week’s violence, we have again become caught up in the fraught dichotomy into which public discourse always seems to force us. It is as if somehow the human capacity to hold complex thoughts consistently together dissolves the moment ideas enter the public sphere.

The heartbreaking killings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana require us to face the pathological pattern of violence white police officers continue to perpetrate on fellow African American citizens even as we mourn and denounce the assassination of police officers in Dallas.

The situation, our situation today in the United States, demands something difficult of us. It requires us to come to terms with the long and abiding history of racism that was woven into the fabric of the American experience long before it was ratified and legitimized in the texts of our founding documents.

There is no short term solution for this endemic racism and injustice. But there is a longer, more difficult path on which we might embark that will, over time, enable us to create a more just and a more perfect union.

It is the path of a certain kind of education, a liberal arts education deeply attuned to the fraught and broken world we share yet committed to cultural engagement and social justice.

A culturally engaged liberal arts education facilitates the capacity of citizens to respond to complexity with nuance and grace, and it deepens our shared commitment to make the world a better, more just, place.

Nuance is vital, because it involves the ability to discern the texture of a situation, to recognize how history saturates the present, how the contours of experience and identity and interest intersect, playing themselves out in our interactions and through our institutions. Grace, however, it’s vital too, because it empowers us to navigate our relationships with one another elegantly, that is, in ways that affirm and honor the experiences of others so that we might begin to move together toward a justice broader and more enduring than our finite selves.

These capacities for nuance and grace, however, remain impotent unless they are enlivened by an intentional choice to weave a commitment to justice into our relationships with one another.

The sort of liberal arts education we are seeking to cultivate in the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University is grounded in the belief that our deepest divisions, our most enduring social and political challenges, can only be redressed by a citizenry capable of and committed to pursuing justice with nuance and grace.

Ours is a vision of the liberal arts endeavor deeply rooted in the University’s mission to transform the lives of our students and improve the life of our shared body politic.

To begin to put this vision of a culturally engaged liberal arts education animated by a commitment to justice into practice, we must redress our collective failure to educate a more diverse generation of faculty. This is why we have focused significant attention on graduate education, and specifically, on recruiting graduate students like Shenika Hankerson, who brings her rich understanding of cultural practices to her research in ways that cultivate an appreciation of and respect for difference.

An education in the liberal arts is an education in the art of the possible. In the wake of the events of the past week, in the wake of the long history of racism this country continues to endure, it is all too easy to remain pinned like butterflies, as James Baldwin put it.

The harder path is the longer road we embark upon whenever we take up the liberal arts endeavor and seek the justice that is possible despite the very real injustices we continue so poignantly to encounter.


Cross posted on Medium:

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MSU Shadows

By | The Administrative Life, The Long Road | No Comments

A year ago today, as I began my tenure as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University, I made reference to a passage by Peter Raible, one that draws from Deuteronomy, in which he reminds us that “we sit in the shade of trees we did not plant.”

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this passage resonates with the MSU alma mater, which speaks to the shadows cast on campus “when twilight silence falls.”

The passage and the song are important to me because they serve as reminders that we benefit from the vision and commitment of those who came before us, and that we have an obligation to build upon the legacy we have inherited so that when our “twilight shadows fade,” there will be shade enough of trees for generations to follow.

Since my arrival, we have sought to plant new seeds that will enrich the academic experience for future students and faculty of Michigan State University.

Among many other things, we have nurtured success among our faculty through the Summer Faculty Fellowship initiative; we have invested in our graduate students through our External Funding Incentive Program; we have advanced the diversity and quality of our undergraduate students through the creation of our signature Citizen Scholars program; and we have recognized the important work of our staff through the creation of two new staff awards.

It’s been a year of sowing.

And even as we pause for a moment to look back, we look forward to reaping what we have sown.

The 2016 Dean’s Report, to be released on July 11th, draws on what we have accomplished to date in order to advance a vision of the College for the future. To this end, we have sought to focus our message on the Liberal Arts Endeavor, which requires us to cultivate in ourselves and our students the ability to communicate with eloquence, embrace diversity with grace, perceive globally with imagination, and respond to complexity with nuance.

More specifically, the report focuses on three dimensions of the Liberal Arts Endeavor: how we are enriching the undergraduate experience, engaging graduate students in advanced scholarship to prepare the next generation of faculty, and excelling in recruiting and retaining a world-class faculty. Each of these elements — enriching, engaging, excelling — are anchored by a video that speaks to one aspect of the Liberal Arts Endeavor and introduces a concrete example of how we are putting our values into practice.

Rather than attempting to summarize all of our many accomplishments this year, we have sought instead to present a vision that will enrich the lives of those future faculty and students who will gather beneath the pines where light and shadows play.

Here is a teaser video for the 2016 Dean’s Report:

Paths to Explore

By | Dean, The Long Road, The Undergraduate Experience | No Comments

Last week was the first week of the fall semester at Michigan State. It was my first opportunity to welcome new students to campus as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters.

In order to encourage students to identify with the College and to feel that their Dean is accessible and engaged, we created a fun video, wrote an open letter of welcome, and used Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to celebrate the beginning of our academic journey at MSU.

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The Edge of the Oak Opening

By | Dean, The Administrative Life, The Long Road | 4 Comments

As I begin my tenure as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University I find myself thinking of these lines adapted from Deuteronomy 6:10-12 by Peter Raible:

“We build on foundations we did not lay. We warm ourselves at fires we did not light. We sit in the shade of trees we did not plant. We drink from wells we did not dig. We profit from persons we did not know.”

The passage resonates with me now as I take up residence in the Dean’s office on the third floor of Linton Hall, a space that was itself for many years the Office of the President, first of Michigan State College, and then, under the leadership of John Hannah, of Michigan State University.

Linton Hall is the oldest academic building on campus. It sits at the edge of the original “oak opening” that was chosen in 1855 as the site for the Michigan State Agricultural College. 1 The office itself looks out over the “sacred space” around which Michigan State University has grown and flourished. 2 Indeed much of that growth was planned and executed by John Hannah within the walls of what is now the Dean’s office.

What it means to inhabit this office, John Hannah’s office, at the edge of the original oak opening around which Michigan State was founded is something I have been considering since I accepted the position of Dean of the College of Arts and Letters.

That it is now the Office of the Dean of Arts and Letters is perhaps appropriate, for it is the site from which the Michigan State University bodied forth during the middle part of the 20th century when John Hannah put the liberal arts at the center of its educational mission:

The concept of a great university as distinguished from a technical and professional school invariably emphasizes leadership in the realm of the cultural and humanistic… Michigan State was founded in the new scientific tradition, and has made a name for itself in that area of intellectual activity. But it has always placed a strong emphasis upon the liberal arts in general education. 3

It was not until Floyd Reeves, an educator from the University of Chicago, arrived at Michigan State College to create the Basic College in 1944 that a well-rounded liberal arts curriculum was established and MSC began to grow into the research university it is today. 4 The Basic College’s general education curriculum and the increasing emphasis on humanistic and artistic education helped to transform what had been a local agricultural college into Michigan State University.

If “we build upon foundations we did not lay,” it is important to keep in mind that those foundations were themselves laid upon a strong and sustained commitment to the arts and humanities.

As I move into John Hannah’s office, I feel the weight and power of that commitment; and as I begin as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, I hope we will draw deeply upon it as we continue the important work that has been handed down to us to deepen our understanding of the world we share and to enrich the lives of those we encounter.