Dean of Faculty Report, March 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 March 2006 report of Donal O'Shea, Dean of Faculty.

  • Books (and Film)
  • Grants

Books (and Film)

Anthropology Professor Debbora Battaglia’s book E.T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces has just appeared with Duke University Press. It will surely become an instant classic. "These pages." she writes, "suggest how the idea of the extraterrestrial can attune us to insiders' voices in outerspaces and, too, guide our critical inquiry of the reach and range of anthropological theory and methods, productively destabilizing prior knowledge of the field.' This highly serious, always playful, and very scholarly romp challenges us in turn to honor the disconnect, to consider an expanded sense of possible affinities, and to explore globalization as planetization. Debbora's provocative lead essay introduces notions such as “the devotional mode of the cult alien” and “technoscience spirituality” to describe aspects of the contemporary Zeitgeist. You may never have heard of them, but after reading Debbora you find them indispensable. Two months ago, I had never heard of visibility or mobility anxiety. A month ago, awash in the warm glow of a second glass of wine, I found myself trying to explain Debbora’s hypothesis that the two were inseparably linked. The essays in the collection are uniformly fascinating. My favorite two are Debbora’s on the Raelian cult and Joseph Dumit’s on illnesses you have to fight to get. Dumit, a professor at University of California at Davis and M.I.T., discusses conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, Gulf war syndrome, and repetitive strain injury, viewing them anthropologically both from the point of view of the sufferers and others’ experience of them. The connection with E.T. culture? All can be viewed as a sort of host-planet-rejection-syndrome.

The Harlem Renaissance refers to the predominantly African American literary and artistic flowering associated with Harlem and other areas between the World Wars. Associate Professor of English and director of the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts Lois Brown’s Encyclopedia of the Harlem Literary Renaissance explores all aspects of this social and cultural phenomenon. It is at once a browser’s dream and a monumental work of scholarship. It begins with a concise introductory essay and a wonderful map, and ends with two useful bibliographies and a careful chronology. The heart of the book is a series of encyclopedia entries, arranged alphabetically, and all written by Lois. So you could, say, start with the chronology and look up the various works and authors and events. Or, you could begin with the map of Harlem and move from one theater and club to another, moving to the entry and iterating the cross-references in each article. The articles are wonderful and deal directly with achievement, contradiction, and failure without a trace of moralizing or sycophancy. Some, such as the entry on Alain Locke that straightforwardly navigates a career of great complexity, are minor masterpieces. The resulting depiction of the Harlem Renaissance captures its complicated, multi-sited, diverse strands, individuals, events, and places. It records triumph, failure, and achievement in the face of overwhelming odds and pervasive racism, and is at once inspiring and haunting. Above all, it a scholarly tour de force that no one, I think, could have predicted would succeed so well on so many levels. It will be essential for any serious student of American literature or history as well as African American, American, ethnic, or gender studies.

French Professor Samba Gadjigo's documentary film The Making of Moolaadé covers the production of Ousmane Sembène’s film Moolaadé. Samba and his crew journeyed to the village of Djerisso in Burkina Faso, documenting Sembène’s choice of the village, and the difficulties of making a feature-length film with a multinational cast of Ivorians, Malians, and Burkinans in a remote area of central West Africa. Interviews with actors, technicians, and editors underscore the theme that making a film in Africa is part adventure, part grand folly, and part heroic act. Samba’s choice not to include a filmed interview directly with Sembène, but rather to have footage of Sembène participating in various parts of the filming, choice of set, and editing with appropriate voiceovers works to highlight Sembène’s ever-present role, and the respect in which he is held by everyone associated with the film. Sembène’s passion for social change, and for film as a vehicle of such change, comes through clearly in his description of Moolaadé towards the end of the documentary not just as a film about the horror of female circumcision, but as a means of “liberating our societies and freeing our peoples.” The documentary is utterly engaging, and one can only imagine the difficulties of making it -- one of the producers interviewed in the documentary describes following Sembène as always being at the heart of the storm. Doubtless, Samba knows that better than anyone else, yet his documentary runs effortlessly.

Grants

Jessica Sidman, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Mathematics, has heard that her NSF grant will be recommended for funding. So did associate professor of chemistry Wei Chen. Jessica’s, entitled Computational and Commutative Algebra, proposes a number of projects aimed at exploring a number of mysterious phenomena at the interface of geometry, combinatorics, and computational complexity. She studies how certain computational techniques give rise to algebraic gadgets that somehow mirror geometric simplicity in terms of computational complexity. Understanding such phenomena is at the cutting edge of twenty-first century mathematics and has applications to the algorithms that drive today’s data search engines. Wei’s project, Impregnation of Nanoparticles in a Biocompatible Hydrogel Matrix, involves the fabrication of hydrogels in which nanoparticles are isotropically embedded. Here again the science is cutting edge, and the potential applications to medicine, sensing, and imaging almost boundless. More on these when the grants become definite.

Submitted by Don O’Shea
March 1, 2006