Dean of Faculty Report, December 2006

At every monthly faculty meeting during the school year, the Dean of Faculty presents brief overviews of recent publications and other achievements by the Mount Holyoke faculty. Here are excerpts from the December 2006 report of Donal O'Shea, Dean of Faculty

Grants and Awards

Steve Dunn, Professor of Geology and chair of Earth and Environment, received a three-year grant for about $158,000 from the National Science Foundation for his project Raman Spectroscopy and Stable Isotope Investigations of Graphite in Marble. Just as astronomers are always looking for ways to find distinguished classes of stars that allow them to infer distances of other objects, geologists are always seeking distinguished rocks (or features within rocks) that allow them to infer temperatures to which rocks have been subjected during their lifespan. Such distinguished objects are called geothermometers, and good ones are pressure dependent. Steve and his colleagues propose to use a relatively unusual spectroscopic technique, called Raman spectroscopy, to measure the degree of crystallization in graphite and other carbonaceous material and to determine whether the degree of crystallization might be used as geothermometer. If this worked, it would be a really useful advance, as graphite (and marble) are common. Steve and three students each year are going to examine marble in different areas of the country. They are also going to compare Raman spectroscopic techniques with stable isotope techniques, in which Steve is a well-known expert. The painstaking preparation of samples is done in Steve’s lab at Mount Holyoke (which has the most intricate-looking assemblage of glass fractionating tubes and thingies that I have ever seen). The samples are sent to UMass for mass spectroscopy and to Washington University in Saint Louis for Raman spectroscopy.

Wei Chen, Associate Professor of Chemistry, has received a $60,000 Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar award to support her fundamental work probing and designing new biocompatible hydrophilic materials. The award will support a radically new direction for her lab. She and her students will prepare and examine materials made by diffusing metal nanoparticles into water-based gels. The chemistry is complex, and on the edge of what is possible. But the potential applications of such substances are huge; they offer a possible way to get around blood compatibility problems that arise when using artificial implants in human bodies. Wei’s award is one of only seven such awards nationwide and is an endorsement of her dual goals of creating a world-class undergraduate polymer research program and thoroughly integrating polymer chemistry into the traditional chemistry curriculum.

Giovanna Di Chiro, visiting Assistant Professor of Earth and Environment, is a Principal Investigator on an Environmental Protection Agency grant to Holyoke’s Nuestra Raices. The purpose of the grant is to expand existing partnerships among a wide range of organizations and to complete a community-based environmental health assessment and to put in place mechanisms to monitor risks and public health hazards in the area. The expanded partnerships will lead to the creation of a Community Environmental Network in the Pioneer Valley/Hampden County area. About 30 youth and adult leaders, including some of our students, will be trained as environmental health leaders and will work with local residents through community forums to conduct GIS risk mapping of local environmental hazards and conduct community air monitoring. The $90,000 award was made through the CARE (Community Action for a Renewed Environment) program at EPA. Giovanna’s proposal was one of over 100 proposals to the program, only 16 of which were funded this year.

Michael Penn, Assistant Professor of Religion and Gender Studies, has just received word that he has been awarded a $40,000 research fellowship from the National Endowment of Humanities for his project Syriac Christian Responses to the Rise of Islam. Nowadays, when we talk of early Muslim-Christian interactions, we tend to think of encounters with Christians from the Western Mediterranean, who spoke Latin, or Christians from Constantinople, who spoke Greek. But, as Michael notes, the earliest encounters between Muslims and Christians occurred in Northern Mesopotamia with Christians who spoke an Aramaic dialect called Syriac. For years, Michael has been assembling, and in many cases translating, sources that document these interactions. These early sources actually document Christian reaction to Muhammed’s military victories at the time that those victories took place. They also offer invaluable insight into the formation of Christian identity under Muslim rule. The NEH grant will allow Michael to further his work filling in our understanding of this crucial, early, and very scantily studied era. The potential this has to enrich our present understanding of Christian-Muslim relations is incalculable.


Larry Fine, Irene Kaplan Leiwant Professor of Jewish Studies and chair of Jewish studies, has edited and reissued a new edition of Israel Abrahams’s Hebrew Ethical Wills. The original volume selected a number of wills and testaments written in Hebrew in various places during the Middle Ages. These wills are a fascinating genre in which fathers did far more than leave instructions for divvying up their estates, but attempted to pass on wisdom they had accumulated to their survivors. There are many attempts at instruction. Abrahams, a noted medievalist, originally compiled, selected from, and translated the wills. The translations are published face-to-face with the Hebrew originals, which is of enormous value if you are curious about medieval Hebrew. Even if you are not, the wills are wonderful reading, and offer even the non-specialist reader a glimpse into the different times and societies in which the documents were composed. They are very diverse, ranging from the twelfth century to eighteenth, from Israel to Eastern Europe to Spain, both Muslim and Christian, and Sicily. There is much expression of piety, but it varies from individual to individual, and for today’s reader, it is striking (and refreshing) to see different authors engaged in aligning reason, faith, and values. There is also much practical advice. Needless to say, there is also some posturing, and the wills doubtless reveal more about the individual than he intended. Larry has written a fascinating and learned introduction to the new edition. He has also added excerpts from a striking Yiddish memoir written in different places over the years straddling the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century by Gluckel of Hameln, clearly an extraordinary woman. She survived two husbands, and the tone and content of her memoir lead one to see similarities among the wills selected by Abrahams that are not immediately apparent and makes one wish for more women’s voices. The book, which has just been published by the Jewish Publication Society, would make a lovely gift.

Five College Visiting Artist in Film Studies Jenny Perlin’s book Perseverance and How to Develop It has just appeared with Navado Press. “This is a book about a film about a book,” she tells us, and she proceeds to describe how she stumbled onto an odd, small book in a secondhand bookstore. The book turned out to be one of a series of self-help books published in 1915. Jenny theorizes on why such a book, and series, might have appeared at this particular time. At the same time, she allows us to share in the process by which she made a film about the book and the decisions she made. The narrative interweaves the personal with larger historical events, cultural artifacts, and interviews with the non-actors in her film. It includes clips from the 16 mm film. It is very different, very well done, and highly satisfying.

Five College associate Jennifer Rosner, who often teaches in our philosophy department, has edited a collection of essays entitled The Messy Self. It has just appeared as a special issue of The Massachusetts Review (Summer 2006). “There is nothing simple about being a self,” begins Jennifer’s introductory essay. The collection is a wonderful, sometimes whimsical, sometimes highly analytic, critique of the notion that humans can achieve a rational, neat selfhood. The essays touch on love, self-understanding, self-deception, well-being, and identification. They include a hilarious, previously unpublished play of Wendy Wasserstein’s called Psyche in Love and a short, marvelous, memorable introduction to the play by Jane Crosthwaite, Professor and Chair of Religion. (It ends, for example, with the sentence, “Should Psyche’s beauty and Cupid’s love find each other within our conflicted selves, then life will be even more bountiful, however scarred.”)

I have just received a copy of former visiting Assistant Professor of English Sarah Willburn’s book Possessed Victorians: Extra Spheres in Nineteenth-Century Mystical Writings, which has just appeared with Ashgate Press. I have not had a chance to read it, but it looks utterly fascinating (the title of the last chapter, for example, is “Rethinking Interiority through Nineteenth-Century Trance Novels”).

I have received lots of articles, among them major pieces from Politics Professor Joan Cocks, Associate Professor of Asian studies Ying Wang, Assistant Professor of Religion Susanne Mrozik, and Don Weber, Lucia, Ruth and Elizabeth MacGregor Professor of English and chair of English. Sadly, I am far behind in reading them. If you have not seen Joan Cocks’s beautiful essay, “Jewish Nationalism and the Question of Palestine,” in the journal interventions (Vol. 8 (1) 24-39).