Looking Ahead, Getting Ready

With the holidays now behind us and the students not yet back from winter break, this is a time some of us use for planning our projects for the next semester. Which is not to say there isn’t plenty of activity on campus. The Admissions Office hasn’t had much of a break at all, as the staff there has been busy preparing the thousands of applications we’ve just received for the thorough evaluation they will get in the coming weeks. The library is open again, and I see professors (and more than a few seniors) moving through the stacks getting their materials for research projects and senior theses. And in the science labs — staffed by graduate and undergraduate students along with faculty — the work continues on subjects ranging from Hedgehog signaling to the surprising capacities of songbirds, from self-medicating insects to self-regulating ecosystems.

I see athletes in the fitness center whenever I get over there and some of the coaches sweating off the extra holiday inches. Men’s and women’s basketball are already in the thick of tough competition, and the track team is competing at the US Military Invitational this weekend. We anticipate a great start to the new semester. Geoffrey Canada, who runs the Harlem Children’s Zone of Waiting for Superman fame, gives the MLK lecture on January 21, and on January 28 the great saxophonist Charles Lloyd brings his quartet to campus.

I’m looking forward to teaching my Past on Film class again, and have recently spent some time thinking about big-picture philosophy. Here’s a review I wrote about a book by two philosophers that was published in the New York Times this week.

Admiration and Gratitude at Year’s End

Looking back on the year, I am filled with gratitude and admiration for Wesleyan’s capacity to create conditions for individual excellence and for intense commonality  — the all night work that tests one’s intellectual endurance, and the joyful dancing, cheering and singing that expands our horizons. I think back to the senior theses writers being toasted for their accomplishments, to cheering on the softball team’s first NESCAC conference championship, and to the accolades for the extraordinary student performances in Richard III. I remember with sadness and respect our times of mourning, and I recollect with wonder the social entrepreneurship of our students building schools in Kenya, raising money for flood and earthquake relief around the world or working with elementary school students right here in Middletown.

The university continues to thrive because of the dedication of those who work and study here. Current and former students, I thank you for your exuberance and devotion to alma mater. Faculty who inspire us, and staff who make it possible for all of us to work at our best, I thank you. The ‘independence of mind and generosity of spirit’ of the Wesleyan community is apparent each and every day, and I am so grateful to you for continually creating this extraordinary place.

Best wishes for a restful break, a joyful holiday, and a very happy new year!

Supporting Student Research

Faculty have been holding open meetings, organized on a divisional basis – Humanities and the Arts, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences and Mathematics — to discuss the framework for planning, Wesleyan 2020. Over the next month I will blog from time to time on some of the themes that emerge in these conversations. Today it’s support of student research.

In each of the meetings so far, faculty have called for more funding for student research. Wes professors (in all Divisions) feel that an emphasis on independent research projects is one of the important characteristics of the academic experience here, and they want to give ambitious undergraduates the opportunity to bring serious projects to a successful conclusion. Our graduate students receive support while they are here, but they, too, do their best work when given the freedom to focus on their dissertations and journal articles.

I’ve talked with a group of seniors this year about their senior theses, and I look forward to reading them.  Chan-young Yang is writing for CSS on the idea of the end of history; Emily Rasenick is exploring the relation of history and memory in films that deal with WWII for Film Studies and History; and Katie Boyce-Jacino in intellectual history has been investigating a group of theory driven French intellectuals who tried to situate themselves in relation to but outside of Communism. Other students are writing stories, conducting experiments or planning recitals as their capstone experiences. At this time of year students are  feeling both the pressure and the pleasure of pulling together complex, substantial projects.

The faculty have let us know that they would like to see students be able to draw on funds that would support their need for research trips, equipment or collaboration to bring their projects to fruition. In addition to our efforts to raise endowment for financial aid, we will be seeking donors who will make it possible for our students to conduct their scholarly and creative practice at the highest level.

This is one part of the framework for planning on which there is an enthusiastic consensus.

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Wes Faculty: Scholars, Scientists, Artists…Mentors All!

As our semester winds to a close, and as students prepare experiments, performances, papers and presentations, I often see my faculty colleagues literally running across campus. They are racing to  lectures and seminars, committee meetings on the curriculum or the budget, or advisory meetings  with students. This last activity is often the most rewarding part of what they do as faculty at Wesleyan.

On Tuesday I taught my penultimate class for The Past On Film. We talked about a British film, Distant Voices, Still Lives, and I suggested to my rather skeptical group of undergraduates that this film offers a serious perspective on the painful construction of desire inside the modern family. After class,  I ran to the faculty meeting  where there were at least 100 professors eager to take part in a serious discussion of a possible summer session at Wesleyan for 2010. I marveled at their energy. The chemists, fresh from their labs, were focused on the educational and financial issues, as were the historians who had just finished their seminars. The artists and the social scientists, after working with students throughout the day, were eager to lend a hand in crafting an approach to a new program that would have educational integrity and be economically sustainable.

Recently I blogged about a poster session in which undergraduate science majors presented research that was sophisticated and professional. Last night I attended part of an event at the College of Letters where students presented brief summaries of their theses to their teachers and to sophomores and juniors. I’ll mention just a few examples to give a sense of the diversity of subjects. Chris Patalano wrote a novella and Benjamin Sachs-Hamilton translated and directed a play – both projects were grounded in premodern texts. Sofia Warner examined changing modes of psychiatric worldviews from the patient’s perspective.  Russell Perkins, whom I had gotten to know because of his important work on bringing classes into prisons, had his thesis on art and philosophy described to the audience by another senior, Jason Kavett (recent winner of Fulbright and DAAD scholarships). Russell returned the favor by providing an account of Jason’s thesis on romanticism.

As I walked home with Sophie, I marveled at how wonderful these projects were. And then I thought that each and every one of them – like all thesis projects at Wesleyan — – had been supervised individually by a faculty member. In conversation and in their presentations, students show that their theses are often labors of love as well as of worldly investigation and self-discovery. In each case they are guided by a faculty member who takes the time and care to help them along the way. Truly, these are labors of love!

There is a long tradition of this kind of faculty devotion at Wesleyan. While individual professional rewards are often given for other kinds of “production,” our entire community is the beneficiary of this ongoing, thoughtful generosity.  As we come to the end of the spring term, it is such a joyous experience to see our graduating students exemplify the creative intellectual virtues that their teachers also embody.

I still remember my feelings of anxiety and pride as I finished my own thesis here. As a student, I was profoundly grateful for the mentoring (and editing!) I received. As a teacher, I know how gratifying it is see these strong examples of mature, independent work. BRAVO!

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Science (and other things) to Cheer About

I had written most of this blog before last night’s fire in the Hall Atwater Chemistry Building. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries, and thanks to the dedicated work of the Fire Department, Public Safety and our Physical Plant staff, we are preparing for the re-occupancy of most of the building very soon. We are currently rescheduling classrooms. For more information about Hall-Atwater, check:

http://www.wesleyan.edu/registrar/HallAtwater.html

WesFest is over now, and it was a great weekend for introducing prospective students to the campus, the academics, and the special culture of Wesleyan. I described this as best I could each morning as I welcomed parents and their (recently accepted to Wes) students gathered in Beckham Hall. Our visitors acquired a more meaningful feel for the university from panels, from classes, from the vibe on Foss Hill as the spring sun finally arrived, and from the great music emanating from WestCo or even from interlopers on Andrus Field.

Courtesy of Olivia Bartlett
Mad Wow Disease – Foss Hill

Almost every time I go around showing the campus to others, I myself discover something about our school that deepens my appreciation of what goes on here. This weekend there were plenty of athletic contests to look in on. I watched tennis, track and lacrosse, and in each case the students put forth impressive efforts. This was no surprise to me because I’d met the coaches and many of the players already.  On Saturday I also discovered the dynamic wonder that is Nietzsch Factor, Wesleyan’s Ultimate Frisbee team. Peter Lubershane ’10 had let me know that the team had organized a multi-school tournament at the Long Lane fields. Even from my brief visit to the sidelines, I could see that Wes is a real powerhouse in this sport. And have athletes ever had more fun? I often talk about the exuberance of our students, and it was in full flower Saturday in that competition.

On Friday I stopped in at the Science Center and saw some student work displayed in the lobby. The students were holding a poster session on their research projects — from computer science to astronomy, from physics and earth science to neuroscience and mathematics.  I was struck by how conceptually sophisticated and empirically grounded the work was. In short, there was plenty to cheer about.

Jan Naegele introduced me to a few of her students, including Keith Tan ‘09, who gave me a fine description of his work on cell death. It seems that cell death is something at times to be encouraged, and Keith’s research explored some of the biochemistry that made the process possible.

Courtesy of Olivia Bartlett
Listening to Professor Naegele and Keith Tan ’09 @ the poster session

Hannah Sugarman ‘09 talked to me about her thesis research, through which she discovered more than a dozen new black holes in our “local universe.” Who knew? Certainly not I. The collaborative nature of the work across the sciences was especially impressive.  As I was I checking out the astronomy project of Anna Williams ’09, I noticed some printed papers appended to the poster board and asked about them. She cheerfully replied that she and some astronomy colleagues had already published some of the results in a scientific journal. It was the reprint that was hanging from the poster, and there are more publications to come!

Courtesy of Olivia Bartlett
Hannah Sugarman ’09 and Professor Laurel Appel

Scientific research at Wesleyan is one of the distinctive aspects of the university. Our students are not just spectators of science; they are active participants in it. Our small graduate programs allow our undergrads to establish working relationships with more experienced students while they continue to do research with faculty engaged with projects of international import. Wesleyan has shown for decades that a small liberal arts institution can contribute to advancing scientific fields. The poster session during WesFest underscored how vital that contribution continues to be.

All photos courtesy of Olivia Bartlett

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Deceptive Tranquility

After a frenetic if fascinating trip to some major cities in Asia, it is a real pleasure to come home to Wesleyan, which is enjoying spring break. When I left 10 days ago, there was a frantic energy in the air in the wake of meetings with students and faculty regarding recent conversations with the Board of Trustees about Wesleyan’s finances. Many people were feverishly dealing with midterms, papers and the various pressures that arise just before the final push of the academic year.

The quiet on campus is deceptive. Some people are working very hard, indeed. On Saturday I watched the men’s lacrosse team win a closely fought contest with rival Middlebury – always a tough match. Wes prevailed 8-7, led by Russ Follansbee’s three goals and an assist, and 16 saves from goalie Mike Borerro. On Sunday the women’s lacrosse team had a strong showing in beating Eastern Connecticut State by a score of 13-6. Jess Chukwu had three goals and Erin McCarthy had two goals and two assists in a great team effort.

There are many students whose work over spring break is much less visible but just as intense as that of our athletes. At CFA members of the Javanese Gamelan orchestra have been rehearsing, and over the weekend I crossed paths with more than a few musicians heading for their practice rooms. On my late night walks with Mathilde I see studio lights still burning as our artists and designers prepare their final projects for April exhibitions.

Many seniors are putting their best efforts into writing up their research into senior theses. On subjects ranging from comic memoirs (Jon Short, English) to Quranic conceptions of justice (Benedict Bernstein, CSS), our young scholars are making original arguments that advance the work of their chosen fields. Toshi Osaka (Design) is considering how to construct an interactive space by collapsing a swimming pool and a train station, and Alison Ringel (Molecular Biology — Biophysics) is examining how proteins interact to determine how genes are activated in yeast. Seniors are writing novels, making films and developing new scholarship in anticipation of that April deadline. For these students, spring “break” is just an opportunity to get lots of work done!

It’s good to be back home in Middletown. But the campus isn’t as tranquil as it might appear…

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The place is Wesleyan

It’s always a pleasure when our alumni return to campus to visit with students. This weekend my classmate (and star!) Dana Delaney ’78 was here to talk about her film and TV career as well as her new project with Janet Grillo ’80. I myself was just getting back from the road, but I heard the event was a great success. The Wesleyan Film program continues to support current students by bringing back fascinating alumni who can reflect on their careers in interesting ways.

On Sunday I stopped by the Wesleyan wrestling team’s match against Williams College. Coach Black has put together a great roster of students who have had a truly impressive season. We didn’t beat Williams yesterday, but every match I saw was competitive. I have to admit that I don’t know much about wrestling, but even I could see how much these young men have worked at becoming stronger, more agile and more focused. Hats off especially to Greg Hurd ’10 who is ranked 8th nationally and who finished the season 16-0 in duals.

We all owe Coach Black a debt of gratitude for his effective actions in providing CPR to an alumnus who suffered a heart attack in the gym last week. Coach Black and student Jamal Ahmed ’09, who made good use of his defibrillator training, heroically saved a life! Our whole community is indebted to them.

Such is the excitement of the Wesleyan campus that I went directly from the tournament in the Freeman Athletic Center to a senior thesis presentation in the theater department that was wrestling with fundamental issues of gender, freedom, reality and illusion. Gedney Barclay ’09 presented a thoughtful, provocative and intense production of Fefu and Her Friends.  The demanding production made use of many spaces in the Malcom X House, and the audience moved into zones of believability, uncertainty and concern as we shifted from room to room. The entire cast (Ali San Roman ’11, Emily Levine ’11, Emily Caffery ’10, Kiara Williams-Jones ’12, Elissa Heller ’11, Sarah Wolfe ’12, Arielle Hixson ’12, Alli Rock ’10), was excellent, and I left with a feeling of having been transported to a very special place.

Of course, I had been transported. The place is Wesleyan!

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Happy Frenzy

As we move into the final days of the semester, the level of activities on campus steps up to an even higher level of intensity. On Friday night after a great introduction to Skull and Serpent, I visited with the Wesleyan Christian Fellowship, which was holding an evening celebration to honor its seniors. WCF has grown over the years, and it is engaged in a variety of civic and spiritual activities. The seniors have clearly made the most of their Wesleyan years, and they have contributed mightily to our campus culture.

On Friday night I also had the chance to hear the thesis project of Zach Fried, whose rock band played at Eclectic. This was my first Eclectic visit this term, and it was amazing. The music was raucous and alive, and the crowd was really into it. I think Zach’s band is opening for Spring Fling. A parent came up to me to say, “That’s my boy playing guitar in his underwear. The one with the tattoo!” While the band was cooking at Eclectic, there were other fine musicians doing their thing all over campus. Here’s how Wesleyan parent Myra Berkowitz described it:

I was lucky enough to visit my daughter this weekend and attended the final concert of the Wesleyan Concert Choir and Wesleyan Orchestra on Friday night. What a special musical event–and congratulations to all the families and students who participated! The concert featured the three winners of the annual concerto competition at Wesleyan, who soloed in the first movements of three different pieces. These students performed beautifully, with great musicality, personality, feeling, and skill, backed by a wonderful orchestral sound. It was a delightful evening.

Even more astonishingly, I witnessed myriads of students busily attending and participating in many performances of all kinds–theater, dance, klezmer, a capella, you name it, this all in the context of the busy year-end schedule of papers, exams, presentations, etc. I’m so impressed by many students’ ability to balance their own academic work, preparation for performing, and attendance/support of their friends’ events. It seems like a happy frenzy (versus the frantic feeling I know I experienced at those times in my past). One common theme might be…lack of sleep.

While everyone can’t do everything all the time, it’s certainly great to see the rich variety that Wes students have available, even at this crunch-time of the semester.

While all this art activity was going on, the Wesleyan Women’s Softball team was making a great run to the NESCAC finals (winning three games on Saturday!), and track meets, baseball and lacrosse games, and regattas saw Wes athletes competing with all their hearts. After watching dance classes yesterday afternoon and hearing the beat of drums from the World Music Hall at night, I was reminded again of how exciting and diverse this place truly is. Happy frenzy indeed!

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Dance, Democracy and Devoted Service

As we move into the final week or so of classes, the pace of work has picked up markedly. Among the many great performances that come toward the end of the semester, this weekend we were able to attend the faculty dance concert. Dance has always been a key part of the arts at Wesleyan, and this weekend I was reminded of why that’s the case. I was particularly struck by the boundary-crossing nature of the work presented. Nicole Stanton performed a piece, “Castle of My Skin,” in collaboration with Gina Ulysse (what a voice!), a recently tenured professor in Anthropology and African American Studies. And Katja Kolcio worked with composer Julian Kytasty to create a “living archive” of Ukrainian music and dance. Katja’s students performed the piece with dynamism and sensitivity. The creative collaboration of teachers and students is one of the most exciting aspects of a Wesleyan education.

Another exciting aspect of the Wesleyan experience is the practice of politics. Our student chapter of the Roosevelt Institution will be holding a conference on that subject on Saturday, May 3. The Roosevelt Institution challenges chapters to consider “how to restore government of the people, and for the people.” How can students play a role in creating a more effective and equitable democratic political practice? There will be a series of workshops on Saturday, and I am looking forward to hearing Richard Berke, Assistant Managing Editor at the New York Times, close out the afternoon.

On Tuesday of this week there will be a reception to honor of the service of Peter Patton to Wesleyan. Peter, a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, has worked in various administrative capacities for many years at Wesleyan. As I look back over the history of the last decade or so, I can see that whenever there was a strong need for a capable, sensitive leader, Wesleyan turned to Peter. Whether it was to be the Dean of the College, or, to help create the Green Street Art Center, to direct the improvements to the central part of the campus (and the construction of the Usdan University Center), or, more recently, to oversee athletics and public safety, the university was able to enlist Peter’s vision and hard work. Over the years of administrative service, Peter continued to teach his science classes, and our reception this week in no way signals his retirement. On the contrary, Peter will now devote his energies full time to teaching and research. A grateful university community will express our gratitude to Peter at reception in his honor this Tuesday, April 29, from 3:30 to 5:00 in Beckham Hall.

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Back in the Swing of Things

Our students have come back to Middletown, and those who have been here all along (internationals, thesis writers, athletes, and yes, graduate students) are realizing that now there is just one long sprint until the end of the semester. There is almost a frenzy of activity from now until Commencement. This week the letters from admission go out announcing who will be admitted to the Class of 2012. Meanwhile, seniors are busy finishing their projects and, in many cases, looking for jobs that begin post-graduation. Midterms and research papers are being prepared, and faculty are busy grading. The easy rhythms of spring break are already distant.

From my office window I see the athletic grounds crew preparing the baseball field for upcoming contests. Men’s baseball and women’s softball are returning from trips to sunnier climes, and this week we have games but we also expect a little snow. Men’s and women’s lacrosse have already been busy after their spring break trips, and the tennis teams are also in full gear. Our student athletes add a great dimension to our campus, and there will be many great opportunities to cheer on the Red and Black.

In addition to their normal duties, several faculty members are working in small committees to refine ideas for curricular innovation that I wrote about in a previous entry. I am so impressed by the professors’ willingness to consider how we integrate the academic and the co-curricular, and to think creatively about what interdisciplinary study will mean in the future. From creativity to civic engagement, our teachers find ways to integrate their own scholarly and artistic work into a vibrant undergraduate curriculum.

Over the break there was a controversy on campus concerning whether Wesleyan should post on its Web site an op-ed piece published in the Hartford Courant by Melanye Price, an assistant professor in our Government Department. We publish links to many popular press articles by Wesleyan people, but we are specifically forbidden (because of our not-for-profit tax status) from participating in election activity in support of a candidate. Would posting a link to Professor Price’s op-ed piece, which is very sympathetic to Barack Obama, violate this IRS rule? Or would we just be providing a link rather than an endorsement? Surely, we also could post a link to another article by Wesleyan faculty backing John McCain or Hillary Clinton.

Our legal adviser thought we shouldn’t post a link, but some faculty wondered if we were avoiding politics in ways that distort who we really are as an institution. The IRS rules have to do with candidates during an election year – not just taking sides on issues. We didn’t post the link on the home page, but I am not confident that we shouldn’t have done so. Here’s the link to Professor Price’s interesting article You can decide for yourself.

[the link is now down, so here is the article from the Hartford Courant, March 16, 2008, downloaded the text from Lexis-Nexis.]

WHAT OBAMA MEANS;
DARING TO HOPE: CANDIDATE POSES STARK TURN FOR PERCEPTION OF RACE IN
AMERICA

BYLINE: MELANYE T. PRICE

Media pundits and supporters claim Barack Obama is at his best when viewed in person, so I went to the recent Obama rally at the XL Center in Hartford to see for myself. Ultimately, I came away convinced that Obama actually could succeed. I found myself both embracing and eschewing the conflicting meanings of an Obama presidency.

The most audaciously hopeful aspect of an Obama rally has to be the attendees, who represent every demographic imaginable. Waiting with me were professors, white suburban mothers, Obama gear-clad teenagers, an older African American couple, and a group of young black and Latino men.

As we waited with thousands, we became unlikely allies, holding places for bathroom breaks, scouting the best entrance and seats and discussing Obama’s appeal. Were we a “grand coalition for change” as Obama suggested? Moreover, could he translate our differing versions of change into coherent policies?

Seeing the diversity of people gathered had a strong effect, which was augmented by the fervor of his youngest supporters. When the rally began, I cheered for them as much as for Obama. Their enthusiasm made his success more urgent, if only to sustain this youthful energy and burgeoning community. In one sense, Obama was right: America’s promise is the potential for citizens to unite across differences.

Despite this, I was plagued by the precariousness of having Obama become the definition or model of black behavior for African Americans and ultimately all Americans. His is an engaging and captivating message, but not the only one that other blacks would deliver.

At the rally, a young black girl wore a button with Obama dressed as Superman that read “Super Obama.” This image resonated with me because like the comic book hero, Obama comes with his own Kryptonite. First, like other contenders, Obama cannot be all things to all people when concrete policies supplant grand concepts. More disturbing, however, is my fear of what Obama’s candidacy – win or lose – means for race in America.

We saw in Iowa how self-congratulatory many whites were of their ability to overcome America’s racist history to endorse an African American. Obama’s initial success signaled to many that the racism of the past had greatly dissipated. Should he actually secure the nomination or the presidency, would it provide conclusive evidence that the nation has finally entered a color-blind future?

This is the danger of a deracialized (or “transcendent”) campaign strategy. While racial inequality remains a central feature of American life, black candidates who directly attack that inequality are sure to repel many white voters and candidates like Obama will be more successful.

Likewise, protest-oriented (read “angry”) black grass-roots advocates may find it difficult to gain political traction in post-Obama America. If Obama is the new prototype for black political activity – less focused on race, less angry, more hopeful, “clean, articulate” and so on – what will this mean for focused efforts to combat racial inequality?

Furthermore, listening to Obama, I wondered if the greatest danger for me and other blacks is that if he loses it will confirm enduring fears that despite public rhetoric, when the votes count, whites will not endorse or accept blacks as leaders. If the most hopeful and non-angry (and maybe the most educated and prepared) African American candidate cannot crash the privileged gates of political power, who will? Put simply, I am not sure that blacks can take this kind of rejection.

That little girl with the Super Obama button cannot, and I fear for others. Blacks are told “no” in myriad ways in life, and it would be especially painful to have Super Obama rejected as well. This is an implicit concern, I believe, of many blacks, which explains increased black support for Obama after Iowa. Many blacks withheld judgment and support as they waited to see whether Obama could truly attract white support in sufficient numbers.

In the same way, the Clintons knew repetitive emphasis on his blackness could hurt his potential with many white voters.

Leaving the XL Center, I was afloat on the crowd’s enthusiasm, the community it embodied, and partially Obama’s words. I also remembered the power of hope. Not hope for an Obama presidency. Not even Obama’s brand of race-neutral, bipartisan hope.

Instead, I remembered the hopes of voting rights advocates, the freedom riders, and my own single mother at the bus stop too many cold mornings. I remembered that blacks have lost over and over again, but they got up and kept moving. I thought about how we might have described other ragtag coalitions like those in line with me. Only these coalitions were facing bigger odds – slavery’s abolition or Jim Crow’s defeat – and marshaled varied and unusual allies.

I could not be complicit in the loss of hope or reinforce the jaded expectations. I could not let past losses rob them or me of this victory. I knew when I entered that arena that I would be voting for Obama, but when I left I knew with greater clarity why.

Melanye T. Price is an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University.

Copyright 2008 The Hartford Courant Company
All Rights Reserved

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