Dean’s Message No. 34

June 30, 2021

By Stephen Esquith

When RCAH turned 14, I began to plan for my return to the faculty and the next chapter in my own story as a member of this outstanding, innovative community. Serving as your dean has been a truly transformative experience for me. The everyday—literally every day—improvements, honest mistakes, small repairs, and leaps of imagination have made the work as rewarding as it has been challenging on a personal level.

But there is also a larger story about RCAH and what it has become over this decade and a half. Like you, I have never tired of singing the praises of our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community partners. It has been “we the people” of RCAH who have continually raised the bar and cleared it. The extraordinary curriculum, the inspiring visiting artists, the special events, and the resulting achievements have added up to a record of excellence that we can and should take great pride in. We have worked as a team, and as a team we have done marvelous work. RCAH students are leaders where it counts, on and off campus. RCAH faculty and academic specialists have applied their expertise in a student-centered learning environment, making their mark as scholars and artists at the same time that they have prepared their students to do the same. RCAH staff have given tirelessly to support the faculty and guide our students. RCAH alumni have demonstrated with confidence and with modesty what it means to practice the arts and humanities for the common good. Friends of RCAH have given in many ways to support all of these folks.

Over the years I’ve taken great pleasure in talking about all these things in detail in my many “Dean’s Messages.” I really don’t know where to begin if I were to try to do it again now. The RCAH website provides a partial album. Our social media gives you a running count of the latest accomplishments of the many faces of RCAH.

So, instead of trying to recap our history, piece by piece, let me try something different, admittedly a bit more self-reflective. (It is my last Dean’s Message after all.)

RCAH did not spring Athena-like, fully grown from my imagination or the imaginations of the founding faculty, students, and staff. It has drawn upon other experiments and efforts, including the earlier residential college in the arts and humanities at MSU, the Justin Morrill College (1968 – 1979). As I reflect on my piece of the larger RCAH story, I can draw upon fragments from earlier Dean’s Messages. Here are three that still have the ring of truth for me, even though they are also clearly products of their time. 

The first fragment is prospective, written in February 2008, just the second semester of the College. Our students were all first-year students in RCAH, and the faculty was teaching, planning the curriculum for the next year, and simultaneously meeting every week to write our Bylaws. It was, to say the least, exhausting and exhilarating at the same time.

1st Dean’s Message: Necessary Friction

The road ahead will not always be a smooth one. It shouldn’t be. For the arts and humanities to be of use, a certain degree of friction is essential. Friction—differences in opinion and ways of life—prompts the imagination and provides the occasion for creative solutions and laughter born of humility… The RCAH provides an extraordinary opportunity for building a learning community in which mutual concern and delight, not fear, are our passions. The students, faculty, staff, alumni/ae, and community partners of Michigan State University deserve no less.

By January 2010, the end of the third year, with three cohorts of students enrolled and plans for our first full graduating class (RCAH ’11) beginning to take shape, we had a better idea of what our students look like, what it is that will attract them to RCAH, and what we hope they will learn.

6th Dean’s Message: RCAH Students

Our job is not to make students over in our own image or put them through their paces. Education, as Socrates knew, is different from both painting and horse training. We don’t start from scratch, representing an image in our mind’s eye using human material the way a painter uses paint, brush, and canvas. Nor do we treat them solely as creatures of habit, even though good habits are important. Students have to learn to think, make, and do for themselves, not just stay within the borders and hedges we create for them, if education is to be successful.

I think that is what we are beginning to see and hear in the RCAH. Students are finding their own voices and seeing things for themselves. It seemed almost out of reach back in the fall of 2007 when we were struggling to describe what it was we wanted to do and what kinds of students (and faculty) we thought we could become. There is certainly no template for the RCAH student and no ideal RCAH faculty at this point. My guess is there never will be. But there are family resemblances. We are taking pleasure in moments of creative making. We are pausing to reflect on the complexity of the world in which doing the right thing is not nearly as unthinkable as it might have been before.

RCAH was created during a major economic recession in 2007-2008, and by November 2016, the country was facing yet another assault on our democratic political society. RCAH was not conceived to be an island unto itself. It was time to think more deeply about what it will take to advance “the arts and humanities for the common good” in the face of racism, inequality, and authoritarianism.

21st Dean’s Message: Radical Poise

There are those who call for a return to a less inclusive, idealized past. Democracy requires greater inclusion, participation, and compassion, not less.… Democracy may appear to be a “fugitive” in hard times, driven underground by powerful elites and the bombast of what passes for politics. It is our responsibility to coax democracy, that is, the power (kratia) of the people (demos), out of hiding. This is what it means to be radical in a time of reactionary politics. It will take poise.… It requires tenacity over the long haul. As we encounter challenges to this vision of radical democracy, we will need a new level of poise: not just composure and patience, but radical poise.

Since 2016, RCAH has been an even more effective catalyst and pathbreaker for diversity, equity, and inclusion on and off campus. The many Dean’s Messages between then and now have sought to chronicle this record, underscoring our successes, and identifying next steps as we continue to make this difficult road by walking.

After a year’s leave of absence, catching up on some writing and moving our community-based engagement project in Mali forward, I will return to the RCAH faculty in fall 2022 to continue the work we’re doing together—generating the right kind of friction, taking pleasure in the moment, and maintaining the radical poise we need to meet the inevitable challenges that we’ll face.