Profiles in Academic Innovation

Two of Wesleyan’s many centers of interdisciplinary scholarship have new leaders who are doing exciting things:

Jennifer Tucker is now the interim director of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life. Jennifer is a historian with deep interests in the intersection of visual and scientific cultures, paying especial attention to how this intersection is often mediated by questions of gender and sexuality. She has long been a member of the Science in Society Program and also currently chairs Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies (FGSS). You probably have seen her op-ed on the “science” behind Congressman Akin’s notions of pregnancy and rape, and she is eager to see even more Wes faculty (especially women faculty) contribute to the public sphere through essays, op-eds and editorials. I’ve gotten to know Jennifer better because of our mutual interest in the intersections of photography and history. Nature Exposed, her book on Victorian science and photography, is already a key text in the field, and she recently edited an issue of History and Theory devoted to photography, history and philosophy. At the Allbritton Center, Jennifer will be developing the foundations and frameworks for planning future programs that link the campus to the most pressing issues in the public sphere.


Ethan Kleinberg began his stint as director of the Center for the Humanities this summer. Ethan is also a historian, with a joint appointment in the College of Letters. I first encountered his work many years ago when he was doing research for his excellent book, Generation Existential, a study of the impact of Heidegger on 20th century French intellectual history. In addition to his work in history and COL, at Wesleyan Ethan has been one of the creators of the Certificate in Social, Cultural and Critical Theory, and he is the Executive Editor of History and Theory. Ethan intends to build on the great tradition at the Center for dynamic interdisciplinary research and teaching, ensuring that Wesleyan’s humanities programs remain a crucial node in the networks of international scholarship. Students, faculty, and distinguished visitors make the Center for the Humanities a place where knowledge happens — where scholarship gets jump-started. You can learn more about Ethan’s vision for the Center here.

There are many faculty across the campus doing exciting things across the disciplines — from the College of the Environment to the Center for East Asian Studies. These two new leaders will surely add to our distinctive educational experience on campus — and beyond!

Cracking the Genetic Code: Genomic Science and Bioethics

Thanks, I suppose, to my friends Joshua Boger ’73 and Joe Fins ’82, I joined the board of the Hastings Center last year. At our last meeting, we saw a film that Hastings consulted on with PBS’s NOVA. It has to do with the tremendous advances in genomic science, and the ethical issues that have arisen as the clinical applications of the science become more accessible. Wesleyan’s strengths in science studies are really formidable, and some of those strengths fall into the bioethics category. The Science and Society Program, Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies, the Center for the Humanities, the Sociology, History and Philosophy departments are just some of the areas where one can find sophisticated work on bioethics at Wesleyan. And in throughout the life sciences at Wes, one can find advanced work that depends on genomics.

I put his up today on the Huffingtonpost.

On Wednesday, March 28th (9 p.m./8c), PBS will broadcast an important film that explores some of the crucial ethical issues that are emerging from the life sciences: how to use our knowledge of personal genetic information; and who should have access to this information about our individual and familial genetic data? On the one hand, genomic science promises us an unprecedented look at the material sources of our lives, and on the other hand, this science may tempt some to think that we are nothing more than our genetic makeup.

Cracking Your Genetic Code is a joint project of PBS’s NOVA producers and the Hastings Center, a bioethics research center on whose board I sit. The film gives an insightful and moving portrait of how people who suffer from genetic disorders are investing their hopes in genomic science. Designer drugs, like those to combat some forms of cystic fibrosis, are shown to have enormous potential for patients who can get access to them early enough to reverse the ravages of disease. In addition to the patients’ stories, we hear from scientists eager to use their understanding of the genetic bases of disease to prevent symptoms from emerging in future generations. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, is particularly compelling as he describes the clinical potential of genomic medicine.

Cracking Your Genetic Code also describes the more troubling potential in our new understanding of our biological heritage. Will we want to know if our genes make it likely that we will develop a life threatening or debilitating disease? Will we want to tell our children, and, if so, when? Will the knowledge be helpful, or just a burden? Who else will know about our genetic destiny? Insurance companies? Advertising firms?

The Hastings Center’s Help With Hard Questions website provides a useful way of navigating in the new world opened up by contemporary genomic science. NOVA, too, has a website that complements the film. Both use social networking to bring together people concerned about what to do with the new knowledge that is available to us through science and technology.

It was not long ago that the goal of cracking the genetic code seemed like a wild ambition. Soon we will be able to get our own personalized genetic information almost anywhere for under $1000. The information tells us about our biological constitution; how will we relate that to our sense of self, family and destiny? Cracking Your Genetic Code raises more questions than it answers — perfectly appropriate as we strive to understand how to use and to protect these new modes of knowledge.

Here’s a clip from the film:


Science, Ethics and Liberal Arts Education

I’ve recently had a series of talks with education officials, journalists and families about liberal arts education. There are international dimensions to these conversations that are exceptionally interesting to me, and I want to return to those in some future blog postings. Some of these discussions have concentrated on contrasts between a broad liberal arts education and a focused, technical study of STEM fields. This has struck me as odd because broad liberal learning also serves these fields so well. Today I am thinking about the ways in which the sciences are linked to the other liberal arts. In some contexts, people talk about the liberal arts and the sciences, as if biology and chemistry, physics and astronomy weren’t already part of the liberal arts. Even at Wesleyan there had been a tendency to make this two cultures mistake, which risks separating the sciences from our liberal arts mission. Regardless of which disciplines come to mind when we hear “liberal arts,” the fact is that almost all our science majors take classes in the social sciences, arts and humanities, and that there has been increasing interest among humanists, artists and social scientists in scientific research practices.

Many of our scientists have been interested in the intersection of their work with the broader community. Peter Patton, long-time faculty member in Earth and Environmental Sciences, recently led a field trip with students to study changes to some deep-rooted ecosystems in Puerto Rico. Last week biologist Janice Naegele spoke with a group of faculty from across the curriculum about her lab’s stem-cell work on brain seizures, and she also teaches classes that emphasize writing about science —   translating research into clear terms for the generally educated reader. Suzanne O’Connell, a scientist now directing our Service Learning Center, has a similar concern about the dissemination of research. You can tune in to her “Science on the Radio” class. And there are plenty of other science faculty I could mention in this regard, as well as students who are helping to teach science to youngsters in Middletown.

Wesleyan’s Science in Society Program is at the heart of our efforts to maintain robust interconnections between the sciences and all the other fields on campus. For example, for many years philosopher Joe Rouse (who heads the program) has explored how scientific legitimacy is achieved, and how specific disciplinary practices in the sciences create modes of understanding. Laura Stark, a sociologist who also teaches in the SiSP program, has just published Behind Closed Doors: IRNs and the Making of Ethical Research. Laura’s work explores how institutional review boards come to approve some experiments and not others, and how their criteria for decision making reflects conceptions of what it means to be human and to have rights. In history, Bill Johnston, Paul Erickson and Jennifer Tucker all connect the sciences to their cultural contexts, as does Gillian Goslinga in anthropology. Jill Morawski, another member of SiSP and a psychologist who has been directing the Center for the Humanities, has been linking the topics at CHUM with issues in the sciences that intersect with philosophy, history, gender studies and ethics. Speaking of ethics, philosopher Lori Gruen’s work in animal studies has been very much influenced by her team teaching over the years with scientists. She has been at the forefront of the university’s curricular development in ethics.

Last year I joined the board of the Hastings Center, a non-partisan research institution dedicated to bioethics and the public interest.  The president of the organization asked me to address the links between its mission in bioethics and the mission of universities and colleges dedicated to liberal arts education. The founders of the Hastings Center knew that science was too important to leave in the hands only of specialists, and over the years the staff has developed a robust research organization that connects advanced scientific work with ethical and policy issues. In a similar vein, I think it’s crucial that liberal arts colleges and universities ensure that higher education isn’t left in the hands only of specialists. We are connecting our schools to the worlds of public life, the economy and the broader culture. These connections will make for healthier and more successful scientific and educational institutions.

Here’s a link to my talk for Hastings:



Young Profs Making a Difference in the Public Sphere

Just a quick addendum to my last post on participation in the political sphere. This weekend two of our young professors in the social sciences weighed in on important national/international issues in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. In an OpEd for The Los Angeles Times, Laura Stark, who teaches sociology and is part of the Science in Society Program and the College of the Environment , explained how the current research review system in the United States remains inadequate. On the heels of a US apology for dangerous and cruel medical research in Guatemala, the US now has on opportunity to overhaul ethics rules. Stark makes specific recommendations as to how we can avoid both the steamrolling of subjects and an echo chamber of assent on ethics review panels.

As I drank my morning coffee and read the New York Times on Sunday, I saw Erika Franklin Fowler’s research with the Wesleyan Media Project cited once again. In this instance, she was discussing how China has become the scapegoat for many desperate candidates in this election cycle. Fear of China’s recent economic progress seems to have re-ignited traditional anti-Chinese racism, and many political advertisements are tapping into this cauldron of hate and anxiety.

Political scientist Elvin Lim continues to offer trenchant analysis and thoughtful opinions on his blog, Out on A Lim. Today he wondered if President Obama has been too quick to back down when challenged by a forceful opposition. He concluded his reflections on transformations in White House staffing by saying: “There can only be as much change as that which the president himself ultimately believes in.”

How much change do you believe in? Whatever you hope to see happen in the public sphere, I hope you will be inspired by our young social science faculty and get engaged!

Spring is Finally Here, Get Ready for Summer and Fall

Although we are just in the thick of the spring semester,students next week will be asked to plan their classes for the coming semester. This year we have the added choices offered by Wesleyan’s Summer Session, which runs from June 7 – July 9. The program not only promises opportunities to take required classes (like pre-med staples Calculus and Organic Chemistry) in small courses with great faculty, but it also includes studies in financial analysis, economic theory, photography and fiction writing. I am particularly excited about the “Institutes” that combine two related classes: Computer Science and Experimental Music; Cultural and Biological Approaches to Psychopathology; Acting and Directing. Students will receive two course credits for completing the Institutes in the early part of the summer. See for more information.

The curriculum at Wesleyan is always evolving, and I recently received lists of new courses from our Divisional Deans.

  • Biol 173: Global Change and Infectious Disease — Fred Cohan is currently teaching this new Gen Ed course, which comes out of his research interests in the evolution of bacterial species (and involves a significant dance component!).
  • Chem 378:  Materials Chemistry and Nanoscience — Brian Northrop’s research is directed at understanding molecular interactions and self-assembly processes that might be used in nano-scale devices – e.g. molecular sensors or motors.
  • Psyc 392: Behavioral Methods in Affective Neuroscience- Charles Sanislow is currently teaching this course linked to his research in post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression and other affective disorders.

Assistant Professor Laura Stark, Science in Society Program, has proposed a course called Reading Medical Ethnography (a study of different ways of approaching the study of health and illness); Professor Ann duCille has proposed an African-American Studies class called Love in the Time of Slavery (drawing on songs, poetry, fiction, and examining representations of love, intimacy, and marriage in early African American literature); Assistant Professor Michael Nelson, has proposed Government, Global Environmental Politics (which covers a variety of environmental issues, along with the design and use of international institutions for managing cooperation and conflict on these issues). The Center for the Humanities will be sponsoring a group of courses examining Genealogies of Reason, with seminars on ghosts of the Enlightenment and the history of human rights.

I’ve developed a lecture course for the fall called The Modern and the Postmodern. We’ll read literature, philosophy and critical theory to try to better understand how the idea of the modern came to inform our sense of ourselves and of our history in the West.

The curriculum has been evolving and will continue to do so. We can thank our scholar-teacher model for that! It’s through their scholarship and creative practice that our professors develop new ideas that energize the classroom, and we are all the better for it, in every season!

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