Winter Research…More Work in Progress

In my last blog I wrote about several senior thesis projects on which Wes students have been working. Here are some others:

In art history, Erika Siegel is writing a history of Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscaping plan for the Capitol grounds in Washington, a plan much influenced by the Civil War.  Anne deBoer‘s thesis combines her majors in art history and environmental studies.  It is on the use of water technology in recent major works of Sir Norman Foster, with an emphasis on how Foster’s architectural designs deal with questions of sustainability.

The CSS seniors have, as is often the case, an eclectic crop of senior projects. A couple of years ago I read Chan-young Yang’s excellent CSS thesis on Francis Fukuyama’s understanding of civilization and history, and now Nick Quah is examining Fukuyama on the idea of a transhuman future. While Nick is pointed toward the future, Han Hsien Liew is doing a thesis (with history) on medieval Islamic political thought. Kathlyn Pattillo is writing on the role of the South African teachers’ union in educational reform, while Charmaine Chen is studying blogging and political change in China. And I was surprised to find a CSSer writing a film, but that’s what Mac Schneider is doing. His screenplay is about the trial of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden’s driver.

In history, Rachel Tretter is working on Judeo-Christian ascetic traditions and fasting in early modern Europe. BJ Lillis is writing on native American identity in New England, while Aaron Forbath is working on settlers on the Plains. Moving much closer to the present, Jisan Zaman‘s thesis looks at  contradictions in US foreign policy during the Bangladesh War, focusing on the relation of the State Dept and the White House/NSC.

And here are three English department theses that could easily fall under the rubric of history or American studies – with two  looking at recent Wesleyan history. Harry Bartle is working on the connection between Ralph Ellison and Lewis Mumford and their comparable reactions to the transformation of New York City in the 1940s. Bridget Read is using the archive of Wesleyan Professor Fred Millett, who taught here from 1937-1958, to examine larger trends in American history and questions about what it means to tell a true story about the past. Caroline Fox is writing on Race and Student Radicalism: Wesleyan, 1989-1990. Her essay is based on numerous interviews and archival research, and it is sure to produce a fresh understanding of that turbulent time.

In economics, Gil Skilman reports that there is a “bumper crop” of a dozen honors theses writers this year. More than anybody in the department can remember! Here are just two from that stellar group: Ali Chaudhry is doing an econometric analysis of something that governments often don’t willingly reveal:  whether they are following a fixed or freely floating or managed floating exchange rate policy. Zachary Nguyen is studying the financial economics puzzle of why mergers and acquisitions leading to greater corporate diversification persist despite the fact that such diversification typically leads to lower stock values.

Of course, I’ve only mentioned a smattering of the projects being done as capstones this year. There are dozens more students preparing performances, working in labs, writing poems, stories and plays and many are helping each other out. In film, for example, most seniors are part of a crew on at least one film other than their own, and collaboration is a feature of much of the best work we see each year. I am hopeful that team capstones will be featured more prominently in future years.

A few nights ago, walking Mathilde around the Center for the Arts, I stumbled across some students taking a break. Sculptors, painters, printmakers and photographers are already working late into the night to prepare for their senior shows. And faculty artists, too, are burning the midnight oil. David Schorr has a show opening at the Davison Gallery in February, a show that will then open at Mary Ryan Gallery in Chelsea. Kari and I ran into David last night at the opening of Tula Telfair’s amazing painting exhibition, Out of Sight: Imaginary Landscapes at Forum Gallery in New York. We saw many colleagues at the gallery, and several students were there to celebrate the work of a great teacher and extraordinary artist!




Built Exclusively for Delight
The Chemistry of Time

Break? What Break? Research Continues…(Part One)

In early January each year, many students (and more than a few parents) start wondering about the length of the Wesleyan winter break. The holidays are over, and yet the semester won’t start for another few weeks. Although the campus is quiet (and just now, very cold), there are students in the library, the gym and the science labs already hard at work. The winter sports teams have been playing and practicing as they get ready for intense conference competition, and science research continues regardless of whether classes are in session.

And then there is that special class of students busily working on their senior theses and essays. Though most of these won’t be due until April, the winter break is a crucial time to make significant progress on challenging research topics. I’ve asked around for some examples of theses and essays in various sectors of the curriculum, and here is a sampling. I’ll be adding more later in the week.

In Theater, Sarah Wolfe is working on a thesis project entitled “The Role of Women in the War Play: Euripides The Trojan Women.”  In her essay, Sarah explores how adaptations of The Trojan Women have been used as anti-war plays in America, and she did her own adaptation with the play Lift Your Head, which was staged in December.  Emily Steck examines “the world’s oldest profession” by focusing on female transgression and agency through the lens of the whore in the performances of Lydia Thompson and the British Blondes, Mae West, and Annie Sprinkle.

In Literature, Laura Bliss is writing about Wallace Stevens’s late poems, especially those collected in Transport to Summer. Laura combines creative non-fiction with more traditional literary critical analysis to explore the way Stevens treats the idea and experience of summer. This sounds particularly good right now!  Brianna van Kan is writing a thesis about the underground culture of jazz in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s.  She will bring together all three of her majors (Russian, COL and Music) for this project. Christopher Wade is doing a poetry thesis that involves translation, literary analysis, and poetry writing, focusing on two major Russian poets. Matthew Alexander is translating Lost Modern Love, a postmodern play by Lord Schadt that he will also direct in a spring production.

In Music, Alan Rodi has written (that’s right, it’s finished) an opera about Mao Tse Tung. The characters are Mao, his wife, and a peasant couple who are trying to be good revolutionaries. Sean Curtice is  composing a piano concerto in the style of Mozart, and writing a paper about the Mozart piano concerti. Lana Lana is writing a big paper on Amir Pasaribu, the first modern composer of Indonesia, in the sense of writing a distinctive music that combines European techniques and instruments with Indonesian techniques and instruments.

In philosophy Sid Issar is writing a comparative study of Spinoza and Bhagavad Gita. In Science in Society, Kelsey Vela is doing an empirical study of the ways that experimental psychologists report on the race of their subjects. Erin Kelly is using case studies to examine the evolution of federal drug regulations in mid-twentieth century America and the influence of these regulations on contemporary medicine. Chris Russell is examining the standards of justification applied to the evidential uses of forensic technologies in criminal and civil trials.  Charlie Hanna is examining the introduction and reception of the most recent class of sleep medications, given FDA approval in 2001. He is charting the FDA approval process, the subsequent experimental and empirical reports on the medication, patients’ responses and media coverage.

As I said, this is just a sampling of some of the impressive work our students are doing for their capstone projects. I’ll be adding more examples that the Deans collected later in the week.

New Year’s Resolution: Make Stuff that Matters

The Huffingtonpost asked me to write something for their New Year’s Eve front page. Thinking back over the year can feel depressing, but one can also find a positive trajectory. And why not focus as we start 2012 on a simple commitment: make stuff that matters.

In the first half of 2011, we heard the word”deficit” in wave after wave of political discourse. The Republicans used it as a signifier of Washington’s lack of fiscal self-control — of an intellectually and morally bankrupt government that spent our money without concern for the views of those who had earned it in the first place. The “deficit” was real, and it was also symbolic of a failure to maintain an economy that promised a reasonable opportunity for creating a better future. Government spending was seen to be the problem because those who spent (and perhaps those who benefited directly from the spending) had no connection to how Americans made a living. Real work seemed completely divorced from massive expenditure because it was borrowing that enabled the spending. The collapse of the credit markets in 2008 and the bailout of the wealthiest institutions (and individuals) that followed underscored for many Americans that spending through borrowing created deficits, and that deficits robbed us of the promise of a better future. Raising the “debt ceiling” no longer seemed like a mere formality.

Sometime in the late summer the tide turned, and the wave of words concerning the evil of deficits receded before a wave of rhetoric on the production of inequality. Despite all the negative press about the “leaderless” and “agenda-less” Occupiers, the movement successfully repositioned the political conversation around how the richest 1% had been accumulating an ever-greater share of the nation’s wealth and political influence. This massive shift of wealth to a small percentage of the population was seen not as the result of hard work or great feats of productive imagination but as the result of policies (tax breaks, subsidies, bailouts)geared to bringing more advantages to the most advantaged. The system is rigged, and this denies most Americans any chance at a better future.

Throughout 2011, another current of conversation, less powerful perhaps than the cries of “deficits” or “inequality” but important nonetheless, had to do with “creativity and innovation.” Book after book explored the roots of individual genius, and pundits from all over the political spectrum opined on the ingredients of organizational innovation and the cultural components that make productive invention more likely. There was general recognition that we need not just products that were artfully put together, but platforms that would give rise to renewable cycles of innovation.

Platforms create new value rather than just borrow on the basis of past credit. A culture that simply borrows to maintain the status quo is doomed to fall apart. Spending without creativity is just depletion. Some of the rhetoric on deficits of the first half of 2011 recognized that. Innovation demands a culture of equal access so that “the best idea can win.” A society that is geared to protecting the powers of its most advantaged is also doomed — doomed to corruption and stagnation. Some of the rhetoric on inequality in recent months has rightly pointed this out.

Although talk of creativity can be vague, it can offer us a way of navigating the future with hope and purpose. Charting a course that includes innovation turns us toward practices of “making stuff that matters” rather than berating ourselves for failures to defend traditions, products or advantages that we have held in the past.

As we begin 2012, I trust we will remain wary of those who promise us that the future will be more secure if we borrow against the credit accumulated from the past, and that we will remain suspicious of those who tell us that freedom for the rich is freedom for us all. As we begin the new year, I trust that our interest in creativity will remain strong. Our fascination with innovation stems from our determination to keep our hopes for a better future alive, despite the well-justified fears of depletion and corruption. Innovation doesn’t just mean better gadgets – phones that are ever faster or music players that can hold more tunes. Innovation should mean creating stuff that matters: renewable energy that will power our industries without destroying the planet; medicines that will cure seemingly intractable illnesses; educational structures that will enable more of our citizens to engage in productive and meaningful work — and to become innovators themselves.

If we can learn from the critics of borrowing and of inequality, and if we can foster a culture of innovation, perhaps we can make the new year one of promise and fairness, of learning and creativity. It’s almost New Year’s Eve, a time to be hopeful. And then it will be the time to work on realizing those hopes.