Dean of Faculty Report, October 2008

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 October 2008 report of Donal O'Shea, Dean of Faculty.


Angela Dickens, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Chemistry, received a $50,000 grant from the Petroleum Research Foundation to support her project entitled “Understanding the formation of a major terrestrial carbon sink: a molecular study of the Andean watershed.” She is studying the role rivers play in the carbon cycle and, more particularly, in distributing and sequestering organic carbon. She looks at two different sorts of organic carbon: lignin phenols and wax lipids--which are distributed differently in sediment--and tries to show that these are distributed differently in river systems. She studies the Beni river system, which starts in the Bolivian Andes (near Lake Titicaca) and drains into the Amazon. She has collaborators in Bolivia who will collect the sediment; she and her students will analyze it in her lab at MHC.

Jenny Perlin, our Five College Visiting Artist in Film Studies, based at Mount Holyoke, has received a $15,000 grant from the LEF foundation, a private foundation based in New England and California that supports the arts, to create a feature-length documentary film on domestic espionage from the 1940s to the present. She will transform the Perlin Papers, the archive located at Columbia Law School containing 250,000 documents related to the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case. The archive was named for the civil liberties lawyer Marshall Perlin (Jenny’s grandfather’s cousin), who was counsel to the Rosenbergs’ two sons following their parents’ executions. Jenny points out that some of the FBI transcripts of bugged conversations that Marshall Perlin pried out using the Freedom of Information Act actually read like a film script. The full-length film will be made by piecing together eight shorter films, some of which she has already made.
Lucas Wilson, associate professor of African American studies and economics, has received an award of $6,500 from CHAS, the Consortium on High Achievement and Success, to redesign his seminar class, the Political Economy of Race in the U.S. (Economics 306), as a course in which students learn through the Collaborative Research Process—an approach that has been developed by John Wertheimer, a historian at Davidson. The approach blends some of the pedagogy in the sciences with support from SAW.

Angelo Mazzocco, professor emeritus of Spanish and Italian, was one of 21 recipients of the Mellon Foundation’s prestigious emeritus fellowships (and one of only three to liberal arts colleges—two others went to Smith and Pomona , and the rest to scholars at research institutions). The $35,000 grant will support his work on the Italian humanist Biondo Flavio and, in particular, allow him to complete his book Biondo Flavio and Renaissance Thought. Biondo Flavio, as I’ve just learned, lived from 1392 to 1463, and produced highly important foundational studies in historiography, antiquarianism, and historical geography. He wrote treatises on jurisprudence, on education, and on the origin of the Italian vernacular. He also wrote four pieces advocating a crusade against the Turks. He had a huge influence on the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, was one of the leading figures of his day, but is comparatively little studied. Angelo has completed much of the book, but one huge part remains, the careful study of Biondo, the historian, and in particular his Decades, the history of Italy from 410 through the rise of the Italian city states to the mid-fifteenth century. Apparently, this work codified the notion of the medieval era. It also went through numerous revisions and included lots of papal sources to which Biondo had access in his role as papal secretary. Angelo proposes to retrace and recover this.


I almost never read a book more than once, and I have read Mellon Professor of English Chris Benfey’s new book, A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade, two-and-a-half times for the sheer pleasure of the language, the deftness of touch, and the wonderful storytelling. Chris tells the story of a number of individuals in post-Civil War United States whose life and whose art interweave at a number of points of tangencies: arbutus, hummingbirds, illicit affairs. Who would have known that Emily Dickinson, usually portrayed as a recluse, had such deep connections to the abolitionists in Newburyport and to the great Florida resorts built by Flagler and others? The writing is light and beautiful and self-referential in the most marvelous way—the structure and writing of the book evoke what the narrative narrates. Here is a book with the hummingbird as a leitmotif, the very structure of which reminds one of a hummingbird. And trying to classify it is as futile as determining whether the hairdresser who does everyone’s hair in town who does not do their own does in fact do his or her own hair.

Associate professor of English and director of the Harriet L. and Paul M. Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts Lois Brown’s magisterial biography Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins: Black Daughter of the Revolution appeared in May with the University of North Carolina Press. Author, playwright, journalist, publisher, poet, activist, Pauline Hopkins was a leading public intellectual in the first decade of the last century. Lois’s book traces Hopkins’s career, from her birth in Portland in 1859 until her death in 1930. It tells of her family, her work, her rise to prominence, and her slow slippage into obscurity as the vibrancy of Boston’s African American culture was eclipsed by that in New York. Lois uncovers the struggles that Hopkins had with Booker T. Washington (over the Colored American Magazine: Hopkins, the main writer, was too activist and considered mischievous in the South where non-agitation was the official policy) and the damage to her career. It is a superb tale, full of irony and complexity, joy and pathos, meticulously researched and beautifully written. The subtitle refers to Hopkins’s self-identification in a speech given on the steps of Faneuil Hall (December 11, 1905) on the occasion of the Centennial Celebration of William Lloyd Garrison’s birth. She was reflecting on her own appearance in the celebration, how she’d sat at Joy Street church churning with emotion: “I remembered that at Bunker Hill my ancestors on my maternal side poured out their blood. I am a daughter of the Revolution, you do not acknowledge black daughters of the Revolution but we are going to take that right.” The book is complemented with two appendices (speeches and letters), 70 pages of detailed notes containing many detailed mini-essays, and a 34-page critical bibliography. It is terrific.

Professor of English and Gender Studies Elizabeth Young’s book Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor has just appeared with NYU Press. Elizabeth argues that in the 1800s the Frankenstein monster served as a political metaphor for the American nation, the African American male, and the complicated relationship between them. She goes on to trace the changes in the metaphor in the twentieth century as the verbal edges towards the visual with the advent of film. The book contains some amazing material on Dick Gregory and the Blackenstein films. Reviewers talk of Elizabeth’s ability to talk about race and gender without resorting to pat formulae: “Many big volumes have been written about lynching, the stereotypes born of racial fear, and related issues; but every one of those studies would have benefited from Young’s analysis. In writing about a seemingly limited figure of popular culture, she has written an excellent and provocative book.” It’s awesome.

Visiting Senior Lecturer in English Alison Bass’s new book, Side Effects: A Prosecutor, A Whistleblower, and a Bestselling Antidepressant on Trial, is a fascinating read. It skips between a number of individuals dealing with cases of what seemed to be severe side effects of the glamorous new antidepressants (SSRIs) in the early and mid-90s, to trials in the midst of the first decade of the new century. Alison captures the uncertainty and the disquieting rumors coming in the midst of the overwhelming feeling of approbation that greeted the new wonder drugs, the industry, and FDA counterattacks (one of her chapter titles is “The Empire Strikes Back”). It’s a great read.

Tony Lee, associate professor of art and chair of art and art history, has had two books appear this year. His book Weegee and Naked City appeared in the series Defining Moments in American Photography. Weegee was the nickname for Arthur Fellig (born Usher Fellig, 1899, in Ukraine (then Austria), emigrated to NYC in 1910) and was a cross between Ouija and Squeegee (his job at Acme newspapers). Starting in 1935, he hustled as a street photographer who monitored police radios and chased ambulances. By early 1940s, he had become famous for his preternatural ability to arrive on crime scenes before or right after the police. In 1945, he wrote a book called Naked City, which was the apotheosis of all the distinctive features of tabloid journalism. Tony points out the irony that this book allowed Weegee’s work to enter art museums. His latest book, A Shoemaker’s Story, Being Chiefly about French Canadian Immigrants, Enterprising Photographers, Rascal Yankees, and Chinese Cobblers in a Nineteenth-Century Factory Town, appeared with Princeton University Press this summer, and is fascinating. It starts with a picture of a bunch of Chinese immigrant shoemakers outside a factory in North Adams. One gets an analysis of America in the 1870s, immigrant culture, both French Canadian and Chinese, and the Chinese American love of formal portraiture.

Professor of Economics Jim Hartley has compiled an anthology of Mary Lyon’s writings. It is great. He has rendered a tremendous service collecting and editing these writings of Mary Lyon. Her letters and meditations illuminate the extraordinary mixture of will, faith, and shrewd practicality that she brought to bear on founding Mount Holyoke College, the world’s oldest women’s college. They testify to her unsentimental commitment to her students and to the generations of women that would follow, and they underscore how hard she worked and how close failure, exhaustion, and despair lay. The triumph of clear-headed resolve, service, dignity, and quiet courage is as moving and timely today as it was in the early nineteenth century.

Indira Peterson, David B. Truman Professor of Asian Studies and Five College Fortieth Anniversary Professor, has two new books. One, with Devesh Soneji, entitled Performing Pasts: Reinventing the Arts in Modern South India, came out last term. The other, with Martha Ann Selby, entitled Tamil Geographies: Cultural Constructions of Space and Place in South India, with SUNY Press, came out in May.

Visiting Assistant Professor of History Jane Gerhard’s text, with Mari Jo Buhle and Teresa Murphy, entitled Women and the Making of America, has just appeared. It examines the history of women and gender in the United States from the time of first contact to the present. I haven’t finished it, but what I have read is fabulous. Jane has been doing the twentieth-century piece, so the last chapter, 1980-2008, will have to be updated.

Professor of Sociology Ken Tucker has written with his sister Barbara Tucker, who is a history professor at Eastern Connecticut State University, a book entitled Industrializing Antebellum America: The Rise of Manufacturing Entrepreneurs in the Early Republic. It has just appeared with Palgrave MacMillan and is fascinating. It studies the manufacturing entrepreneurialism in the United States beginning in the late eighteenth century and running to just after the Civil War. What is really neat, and absorbing, is that they tell their story by focusing on second-generation manufacturing leaders Samuel Colt, Horatio Nelson Slater and John Fox Slater, Amos Adams Lawrence, and their families. All of these men were quintessential American capitalists, but what the book makes clear is that their views of the nature of American enterprise were very different. There were wide rifts, even at this early time, about what capitalism should be.

Professor of Philosophy Tom Wartenberg has recently published Existentialism: A Beginner’s Guide. There will be a reading/signing at the Odyssey on November 18.

Professor of French Samba Gadjigo’s Ousmane Sembène: Une Conscience Africaine, has appeared with Homnisphères. It was completed shortly before Sembène’s death in 2007 and traces Sembène’s life and his development into one of Africa’s most influential filmmakers and critics. It is an absorbing book full of insight and irony about the complexities of Sembène’s life and the conflicting loyalties arising from imperialism. The section on Sembéne’s, and more generally the Senegalese, reaction to the Pétain government is particularly adroit. Lastly, the text is adorned with some great quotations and lovely extracts from Sembène’s poetry, as well as pictures, mostly thanks to Thomas Jacob (old timers will remember him). If you have a chance, check out the one of a much younger Samba. Bravo.

Assistant Professor of Politics Elizabeth Markovits’s The Politics of Sincerity: Plato, Frank Speech, and Democratic Judgment has just appeared with Pennsylvania State Press.

Awards and Honors

Biology Professor Rachel Fink has two spectacular images that are finalists in the 34th Annual Small World Photomicrography Competition. One is of newly fertilized killifish embryos, exhibiting a perfect hexagonal lattice packing, and the other is of three fluorescently stained squid embryos that she has nicknamed "The Three Tenors."

Associate Professor of Spanish and Chair of Romance Languages and Literatures Nieves Romero-Diaz's bilingual edition of Maria deGuevara’s Warnings to the King and Advice on Restoring Spain has won the 2008 Award of the Society for the Study of Early Modern Women as the best Translation or Teaching Edition published in the field in 2007.

Roberto Marquez, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, has earned professional recognition on several fronts: (1) The New England Council of Latin American Studies (NECLAS) selected Roberto’s book Puerto Rican Poetry: An Anthology from Aboriginal to Contemporary Times, as one of two winners of this year’s annual Prize for Translation. (2) He is the newly elected Vice-President/President-Elect of the Puerto Rican Studies Association. (3) Roberto is serving as a member of the International Jury for 2009, which will award the prestigious and coveted Casa de Las Americas Literary Prize. The prize is awarded annually in various genres by the Havana-based institution of the same name, which is widely recognized as one of Latin America’s and the Caribbean’s premier and widely influential cultural institutions. Being asked to serve on this international jury is a high honor and great distinction.