Spring Break and the Theses Writers are Hard at Work

Every March, faculty and students find the two weeks without classes a welcome breather before the intense rush toward finals and the end of the semester. For a group of determined seniors, though, the March break is crunch time as they prepare their senior theses. And there are many faculty who are working harder than ever as they read drafts and discuss final strategies with their honors students. March may come in like a lion and leave like a lamb (we hope) from the perspective of the weather, but for folks slaving away in their labs in Shanklin and Hall Attwater, or their carrels in Olin, or in the studios of the CFA, March is a key opportunity to bring projects closer to completion.

Sam Ebb, who I know as an active representative on academic matters from the WSA, is writing about compulsory voting, and why it may be a solution to solving the problem of economic inequality, misrepresentation, and the role of big money in the US. I wonder if Sam thinks we should try compulsory voting at Wes. Like Sam, Elizabeth Williams is doing a CSS thesis. Prof. Elvin Lim reports she is writing about the evolving role and involvement of the coal industry in the West Virginian economy, exploring the accumulated, path-dependent effects of the industry during its highs and especially its lows on the state’s post-industrial economy.

Michaela Tolman has been working at characterizing the types of neurons made by mouse and human embryonic stem cells, both in a culture dish and after transplantation to the mouse hippocampus. Under certain conditions we can generate inhibitory interneurons, which may be useful for suppressing seizures in mouse models of temporal lobe epilepsy, or so Laura Grabel tells me!

Like Amy Bloom, I’m a big fan of writer and musician Jason Katzenstein. Jason is writing a graphic novel, entitled Close To Me, about anxiety and love, both familial and romantic. How romantic is hairstyling in the Ancien Régime? Dean Andrew Curran tells me about another CSS thesis, by Eliza Fisher, who is studying the rise and consolidation of absolutism under Louis XIV and XV and the simultaneous creation of consumer culture. Her goal is to identify what the history of hairstyles in Bourbon France can tell us about the economic, sexual, and to a certain extent, political culture of the era. How cool is that?

Speaking of cool topics, Kari Weil told me about these COL theses: Samantha Januszeski is cooking up an analysis of the raw food movement in “You are what you eat”: An ethnographic study of Raw Foodism. Kyra Sutton is using her critical theory acumen to think about identity and religion in Islam’s Turn on the Couch: Psychoanalytic Theorizing of Muslim Identity in France. Ethan Kleinberg tells me that Savannah Whiting (Sociology and Romance Languages) is comparing the ways that Algeria figures in the work of Derrida and Bourdieu. Tobah Aukland (COL) is exploring Jewish art collectors and dealers in Paris from the late 19th century through Vichy in relation to issues of Franco-Jewish identity.

Jessica Wilson is finalizing curatorial decisions for her photography thesis exhibition. Jessica is interested in portraits of imitators. Nick Kokkinis (Math and Studio Art) is working on a painting senior thesis that Tula Telfair has described to me as post-minimalist. All I know is that post minimalism takes maximum effort!

Steve Collins reports that “the 16mm theses filmmakers are all tucked inside the editing rooms finishing their films.” Here are a few of his descriptions: “Ethan Young‘s black and white horror film is a nail-biting tale of a very scary house and some trauma that occurred there. It didn’t hurt the atmosphere that the crew found bags of sheep and goat carcasses in the abandoned house they were filming (they reported them to the police). Jenna Robbins is making a film about a young office worker struggling with her fantasies of perfection in order to find true love. Gabriel Urbina is editing and recording his score for his musical/hostage film, a classic Wesleyan genre mash-up combining gun-play with tap-dancing. And Chris McNabb is putting his deadpan wit and precise filmmaking into the final editing of Driven, his comic/melancholy tale of a suburban Dad pushed to his brink.”

Driven…and they call it a break….

Update:

Jennifer Tucker, who is organizing some lunch-time presentations by Wes students at the Allbritton Center later this term, wrote in from a research trip in England. She told me about the fabulous thesis of Aria Danaparamita, who will be presenting her work at a conference at Yale at the end of March. Aria’s title is British Borobudur Buddha: Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Orientalist Antiquarianism and (Post colonial) Development in Java.

Sara Mahurin, who is a visiting professor in English and African American Studies, writes about the following students: “Julia Christie is writing about visual experience — what it means to look at, look back, look ahead — in the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop; Alex Kelley is writing a fascinating creative thesis comprised of “vignettes” — meditative micro-narratives from the perspective of an aging biology teacher, each taking for its starting point some species of animal; Alex Wilkinson is writing about legacy and liminality in Faulkner.”

James Gardner’s thesis is a historical analysis of Afro-Germans from the 1800s to modern day. It focuses primarily on Germans of African descent, their history and the reactions to their presence during three main eras of modern German history. James writes that “my research is a reaction to racism and discrimination that I noticed Afro-Germans faced during my recent study abroad in Berlin and work with one of the women who spearheaded the Afro-German identity movement in the 1980s, Katharina Oguntoye.”

I’m happy to add more names and topics for the next several days…

Katja Kolcio just wrote in with this good news:  Elena Georgieva who finished her thesis on the  connection between science and dance at Wesleyan, just won an American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Honor Society Undergraduate Award for excellence in academics, research, and outreach (granted to only sixteen students every year).  She is presenting her thesis  to the Annual ASBMB Meeting in April 2013.  She also presented her work at the Harvard Undergraduate Interdisciplinary Research Conference in January.  Congratulations to Elena!

 

 

Spring Travels, Vacation Thoughts

Kari and I have been on vacation this first week of Spring Break. We’ve returned to Paris, a city we both lived in when we were in our student years, and in which we have spent extended periods of time in the time since. Although this was not a Wesleyan trip, we spent a few hours at the Wesleyan-Vassar program here. It was great to meet some of the staff and talk with some students who are spending the spring semester in France. Studying in a foreign country, especially when you are immersing yourself in another language, can be such a powerful complement to a broad, liberal arts education. There are so many things you have to re-consider when you are living outside the US, not the least being your own views of home. One starts to see oneself and one’s culture through the eyes of others — usually a strong learning experience.

Our students in France are studying art history, politics, history and, of course, French literature. Some want to explore psychology, while others are attracted to geography, science studies and philosophy. All of these things are often grouped here under the rubic of “human sciences,” and recently there has been a reinvigoration of the term “humanities” in French. Kari and I went to hear the inaugural lecture of a new Humanities Institute in Paris, at the Diderot campus (Paris 7). The feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti made a strong case for a “post-anthropocentric,” integrative version of the humanities that would be as interdisciplinary as anything we have seen in the states.

We’ve spent much of the week seeing old friends, listening to music and looking at art. We heard about new trends in philosophy, and Kari was especially interested to learn about the important number of philosophers who are now investigating “the problem of the animal.” Her new book, Thinking Animals, is about to come out from Columbia University Press. We saw a wonderful exhibition on Matisse, in which the decisions the painter made when confronted with certain visual/cognitive problems were brought to the fore. This reminded me of how Tula Telfair has recently discussed her work. We also saw fantastic, disturbing exhibition at the Musée Branly, L’Invention du Sauvage. The English title for the catalogue is The Human Zoo, and the two titles together give a good idea of the subject matter: the creation and display of the colonial Other as exotic — even antihuman. This exploration of the genealogy of racialism and racism reminded me of Andy Curran’s recent book, Anatomy of Blackness. And I couldn’t help wonder what our dance faculty would think of the great exhibition on dance and the arts at the Centre Pompidou, Danser sa Vie.

It’s not as if I think only of Wesleyan when visiting Paris. I promise, nothing red and black came to mind when we saw the exhibition on Degas’ nudes!

We’ll soon be home to prepare for the rush of the second half of the semester. There will be music to hear, and exhibitions to see as the senior theses continue to unfold. And friends, new and old, to share stories of Paris with.

Teaching, Research and a Busy Weekend

Yesterday felt like the first warm spring day since students returned from Spring Break, and it was great to see Andrus Field and Foss Hill fill up in the late afternoon. I’d begun the day with a visit to our pilot program at the Cheshire State Correctional Institution. VP Sonia Manjon and I visited Melanye Price’s class in political science, and I was struck by the seriousness with which the men were approaching complex issues in American political culture.  Russell Perkins ’09, who helped get this program underway and continues to coordinate it, met us at the prison. It was important to see first-hand some of the issues that arise in a program that teaches liberal arts classes in correctional institutions.

For the last year or so Provost Joe Bruno and I have sponsored talks by faculty for their colleagues across the campus. The faculty lunch lecture yesterday was delivered with panache by Stewart Novick, one of our star professors of chemistry. Stew’s subject was astrochemistry, and he did a masterful job of explaining the “rich chemistry” of dense interspatial dust clouds — even to someone as chemistry-challenged as I! I was especially impressed by the interdisciplinary importance of the work for astronomy, physics and cosmology. The collaboration on this sophisticated research by undergraduate and graduate students was yet another sign of how our science programs are dedicated to the scholar-teacher model at the highest level.

Busy weekend on the horizon at Wesleyan. The senior theses art exhibitions at Zilkha gallery are always worth checking out. This week Sarah Abbott, Julian Wellisz, Rachel Schwerin, Megumu Tagami and Yang Li have their recent work on display.

Baseball hosts Middlebury today and Saturday afternoon, and the softball team is at home against Hamilton. Men’s lacrosse is at home against the always strong Tufts team. Come out and support the Cardinals!

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Quiet Campus….People Working

I have been traveling for Wesleyan a lot recently, and it’s always good to return home to campus. During mid March, though, the place is startlingly  quiet. Many of the administrators take some vacation time before the final big push to Commencement, and faculty are busy grading papers or exams and trying to make progress on research projects. Looking out my office window toward Foss Hill, I see the physical plant staff (led by Dave Hall) getting the field ready for the baseball team, but otherwise there is  little visible activity.

But many students have been extremely busy during the March break. Let’s start with the athletes. Baseball is off to a great start, winning its first eight games against an impressive variety of opponents. Julian Sonnenfeld ’11 has been hitting up a storm, as has Talia Bernstein ’11 on the softball team. Softball also won its first eight games! The tennis teams are also starting off strong, with Genevieve Aniello ’13 for the women and Michael Piderit ’12 for the men having fine early seasons. The lacrosse teams have been hard at work, with Teddy Citrin ’12 for the men and Jess Chukwu ’11 and Erin McCarthy ’10 for the women playing like scoring machines. Crew is rowing back in CT after a very successful southern swing.

My athletic activities are just to keep the pounds off, and in the gym yesterday I ran into Greg Hurd ’10, who just finished a great wrestling career at Wesleyan. But no rest for the weary, as he’s now hard at work on his senior thesis in Earth and Environmental Science. Greg has spent a considerable amount of time doing fieldwork in the Southwest and is now writing up the results. There are many thesis writers on campus making the final push. Art projects will be going up soon, and I especially look forward to seeing Gregory James’s ’10 installation. Rebecca Krisel ’10 is writing on counter-insurgency, while Emma Van Susteren ’10 is focusing on the slow food movement. Kalen Flynn ’10 is writing about holocaust historiography and its effect on how we think about the representation of the past more generally. These are just a few of the theses that young scholars, artists, writers and scientists are busy bringing to completion. No spring break for them!

Not all senior projects take the form of theses. Some are writing stories, essays, or engaged in community service projects. Sam Hart is majoring in Chemistry and Molecular Biology, but he decided to do an art project that brings together his scientific and aesthetic interests. In addition to building the piece, he has written a computer program that will bring his sculpture to life through moving color field patterns. Check it out in the Zilkha Gallery in mid April.

Good work is its own reward, but sometimes there’s more.   Wes senior Liana Woskie has just won a Watson Fellowship ($25,000!) in support of her project entitled “Bringing Primary Healthcare Home: The Community Health Worker, Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Tanzania, Lesotho. In the words of  Cleveland Johnson, Director of the Watson Fellowship Program, “Watson Fellows are passionate learners, creative thinkers, and motivated self-starters who are encouraged to dream big but demonstrate feasible strategies for achieving their fellowship goals.”  No surprise to me that a Wes student is one of this year’s winners!

Congratulations to Liana and to all Wes students who are giving their all!

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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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Freeman Travels

During this first part of spring break I have traveled to

Photos by Gina Driscoll
Photos by Gina Driscoll

Southeast Asia to meet with the Freeman family and participate in some of the interviews for next year’s Freeman Scholars. This is my first trip to this part of the world, and so I am keeping my eyes and ears open. Last night in Singapore we held a reception for alumni, parents and prospective Wesleyan students. It was so impressive for me to hear about the many different things our alumni are up to. From traditional drumming and performance, to teaching and NGO work, from law and medicine to entrepreneurship, the Wesleyan-Freeman alumni are activating their education in powerful ways.

Although my stay in Singapore was very brief, I did have a very interesting meeting with the leadership team of the Singapore Management University, a relatively young school that is developing a very innovative curriculum. SMU had reached out to Wesleyan because its faculty is developing a new core program in the liberal arts. It seems that the government has recently decided to invest in higher education programs that move away from the early specialization required in the British model long popular here. SMU’s president (who once worked with former Wes prez Bill Chace!) talked about an education that would allow students to access their creativity, prepare them for a changing world. enhance their ability to think about problems using a broad range of disciplines… all the things that we emphasize at Wesleyan! Perhaps we will have some student exchanges with SMU in the future. For now, I am just pleased to know that our vision of the importance of the liberal arts is resonating here on the other side of the world.

Last night I received a strong shot of hopefulness from meeting prospective and former Freeman Scholars. In these difficult times, it is crucial that Wesleyan continues to recruit talented students from Asia, and that we continue to support their work after graduation. The generosity and thoughtfulness of the Freeman family is legendary, and now alumni of the program are continuing that tradition. It’s both a pleasure and a learning experience to participate in these activites of the program. which has given so much to Wesleyan over the years.

We are now in Bangkok, and I’ve attached some photos from Gina Driscoll.

Bankok from the river
Bangkok from the river

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Spring Break

Foss sunsetSpring Break at Wesleyan is unusually long – a two week vacation from classes. The campus is eerily quiet at night, and looking across Andrus Field from my office the snow is gone and the baseball field fences have gone up. It really is a break into spring!

Although the campus is quiet, it is certainly not empty. There are many international students who stay in town. Two weeks may seem long, but it is too short for students to justify a trip across the globe. I also bump into the seniors making their way to science labs or to the Olin Library to continue work on their theses. The subjects range from ideas of the French intellectual to politics and religion in Ireland; from problems in micro-economics to issues in Asian art history. Our students complete these independent research projects with close faculty supervision, but it is often the professors who learn so much from the collaboration with these young scholars, scientists and artists. Most of the work is due in about a month, so it’s getting to be crunch time.

Of course, many of our seniors are interviewing for jobs or waiting to hear from graduate schools. There are two very happy Wesleyan students who recently heard from The Thomas J Watson Foundation that their international research projects will be funded during the next year. Cedric Bien will be doing a project entitled, “Documenting the Chinese Diaspora: A Photographic Ethnography of Chinatowns” in Peru, Paraguay, Brazil, Italy, Ethiopia, Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia. Rebecca Littman will be investigating the plight of child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal and Guinea in her project, “Victim and Perpetrator: Reintegrating the Former Child Soldier.” Congratulations to Cedric and Rebecca!

Some of our Masters of Liberal Studies students are spending their spring break on a research trip through some of the important sites of the civil rights movement in Alabama. I have heard already that this was a deeply moving and richly educational experience that complements the work done in the classroom.

Some of our undergraduates have made their way to Washington, D.C. to protest the war in Iraq on the fifth anniversary of the start of the conflict. American college campuses today often seem to feel immune from the fact that our country is fighting a war in the Middle East. Although we don’t always agree on political tactics or foreign policy frameworks, I am grateful to these Wesleyan activists for reminding all of us that a military conflict is being waged in our name.

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