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The O'Shea Report: February 2003

At every monthly faculty meeting during the school year, Dean of Faculty Donal O'Shea presents brief overviews of recent publications and other achievements by the Mount Holyoke faculty. Here are excerpts from his report for February 2003.

Professor of English Donald Weber has received a fellowship to the Bellagio Center for his project "The Anxiety of Belonging: Multiculturalism and Identity Politics in U.S. and U.K. Literary and Popular Culture." He will compare how the idea of belonging and the constructions of ethnic identity are explored in the literary and popular cultures of the U.S. and U.K. On a theoretical level, he wants to explore the charge of French sociologists, such as Bourdieu, that multiculturalism is another example of American academic imperialism, together with the notion that, due to American sociologists, the term "identity" has become overburdened and lost all explanatory power. Fellowships to the Bellagio Center, a historic estate on the shores of Lake Como run by the Rockefeller Foundation, are highly prestigious and go to established scholars judged by their peers to be doing cutting-edge work. Incredibly, this is the fourth such award to MHC faculty members in as many years, surely a record.

Professor of Mathematics Giuliana Davidoff, Peter Sarnak, and Alain Valette's eagerly awaited book Elementary Number Theory, Group Theory, and Ramanujan Graphs has just appeared with Cambridge University Press. It is based on a set of notes that have, over the past few years, become a minor cult classic in the mathematical world. Graphs are sets of points, called vertices, together with lines, called edges, joining some of the pairs of vertices. They have been studied intensively by mathematicians and are of interest to engineers, theoretical biologists and computer scientists, among others, who have used them to model all sorts of things: networks, brain connections, economies, codes. The airline route maps you find in the seat pockets in front of you on an airplane and interstate maps on the inside of road atlases are graphs. This book studies Ramanujan graphs, which connect many vertices with a minimal number of edges but with reasonable redundancy (such graphs are of intense interest to phone and computer companies). There have been a number of beautiful constructions of infinite families of graphs that appear to be Ramanujam. However, the proofs that they are Ramanujan are highly nontrivial. This lovely little book presents some of these recently discovered constructions together with full proofs. The range of seemingly disparate mathematical techniques and objects that make an appearance is stunning: harmonic analysis, group representations, number theory, spectral theory. The book evokes a deep sense of wonder and hints at unexplored connections that lie just beyond our understanding.

Assistant Professor of History Jeremy King’s book Budweisers into Czechs and Germans: A Local History of Bohemian Politics, 1848-1948 has just appeared with Princeton University Press. It tells the story of how a bilingual population and their small town south of Prague became the town Budweis/Budæjovice inhabited by Czechs and purged of Germans and Jews. Jeremy argues that traditional accounts that frame the history as a contest between two ethnic groups, Czech and German, with Czechs emerging as victors, are in fact ahistorical and impose modern, constructed categories that obscure and do violence to what actually happened. The story Jeremy tells is one that starts not with ethnic groups but with a loose bilingual amalgam loyal to the Hapsburg state, the people of which constructed over time nationhoods we recognize today. It is a history of nationhood as opposed to a national history, one that shows just how national and narrow the concepts of race and ethnicity are, and one that makes one wish urgently for similar histories elsewhere.

Assistant Professor of Spanish Nieves Romero-Diaz's first book Nueva nobleza, nueva novela: reescribiendo la cultura urbana del Barroco (New Nobility, New Novel: Rewriting the Urban Culture of the Baroque) has just appeared with Juan de la Cuesta Press (Newark, Delaware, 2002). I'm ashamed to say that I can't read Spanish, but happily a translation is in the works. Nieves's book examines the novela, one of the two major literary genres in Baroque literary culture in Golden Age Spain, as a social phenomenon that reflected changes in the urban aristocracy of the time. She focuses on four authors, two of whom (Maria de Zayas and Marina de Carvajal) are women, chosen for the differing social and economic perspectives from which they write.

A lovely new collection of poems by Professor of English Robert Shaw, entitled Solving for X, has just appeared with Ohio University Press. The poem from which the collection takes its title is an exhaustively wonderful characterization of the various guises in which the symbol X appears, starting with the mathematical unknown and ending with the taped bracing on windows facing an impending hurricane. ("You are the unknown quantity in hiding / behind a blackboard’s haze of wasted chalk, / . . . But one stroke leaves the other standing, starts / the latest round of tic-tac-toe.") The poems defy easy description. They range from Robert's meditation "Drowned Towns" on the towns evacuated, razed, and flooded to create the Quabbin Reservoir, to poems that capture perfectly some of the more awkward of academic life's moments (writing a letter of recommendation for a dimly remembered student), to very short poems with utterly unlikely rhymes. Two examples of the latter are "An Out-of-Print Avant-Garde Anthology" ("Those poets who pursued le dernier cri / have found oblivion through cacophony") and "Reception after the Reading" ("After prolonged obeisance to Apollo / a nod to Dionysus ought to follow"). Neoclassical haiku?

Last spring semester, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Rachel Fink brought together the students in her upper-level seminar class on cloning and stem cells (Biology 321) and those in her introductory biology class (Biology 200) in a pedagogical tour de force. Each of the students in the seminar class was assigned the task of focusing on one of the members of President Bush's council on bioethics, of learning everything she could about that member, and of taking on his or her persona. The upper-level students then used their adopted personae to present a forum on the issues to the introductory class. Members of the introductory class asked questions and debated courses of action. The details and reflections on this extraordinary experiment have just appeared in Rachel's article "Cloning, Stem Cells, and the Current National Debate: Incorporating Ethics into a Large Introductory Biology Course" in the winter 2002 issue of Cell Biology Education. An interesting wrinkle was that Rachel sent the transcript of the forum to the (real) members of the president's council. One turned out to be an alumna and complained that a quote attributed to her by the Boston Globe was, in fact, a misrepresentation of her views!

A large number of articles have appeared:

I couldn’t read a word of "American Abstract Painting and the Asian Philosophy of Zen," a Chinese-language article by Lian Duan, visiting instructor in Asian studies, in the journal Artist Magazine (11 [2002]: 444-449), but the pictures were great.

More accessible is Professor of Russian Edwina Cruise's article "Women, Sexuality and Family" in the Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy (Cambridge University Press, 2003), a collection of papers by leading Tolstoy scholars. Edwina argues that Tolstoy's views on mothering expressed in his essays were relatively constant, whereas those expressed in his fiction changed fundamentally over time.

In the irresistibly entitled essay "Romancing the transgendered native" (GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 8, no. 4 [2002]: 469-497), Professor of Anthropology Lynn Morgan and a former student criticize the notion of a third gender and the use of non-Western examples in popular transgender literature, warning that "our ability to comprehend the complexity of others' lives is jeopardized when the power to represent them is placed in the hands of those who stand to gain from misrepresenting them." In another recent article (Medical Anthropology 21 [2002]: 247-274), Lynn convincingly traces the classification of embryos as medical waste to an alliance of convenience between embryologists and state authorities. The paper argues that a nearly century-old understanding is breaking down: "Their containers are leaking," "their disciplinary location is up for grabs," and "even an anthropologist might stake a claim."

Professor of English Donald Weber presents a hugely penetrating analysis of the way that the classic films Crossfire and Gentleman's Agreement take on anti-Semitism in postwar U.S. in his essay "The Limits of Empathy: Hollywood's Imaging of Jews circa 1947" (in the collection Key Texts in American Jewish Culture, Rutgers University Press, 2003). In another paper, entitled "Accents of the Future: Jewish American Popular Culture" (in the collection Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature, Cambridge University Press, 2003), he examines Jewish American immigrant fears and dissent in film, 1950s TV, and comedy. This exuberantly multidisciplinary romp covers lots of territory (Yiddish film, Yinglish parody, and stand-up comedy, to name a few) with good humor and grace. "Nostalgia," he writes, "bridges the gap between the ache for a lost place as it addresses the hurts of contemporary history."

Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Craig Woodard and collaborators have an article in Developmental Biology (252 [2002]: 138-148) on the role of ecdysone, a steroid hormone, in programmed cell death in salivary glands of fruit fly larvae (aka maggots). They study the hormonal effects at the genetic level, using careful experiments with mutants to examine a number of genes that are turned on and off by the hormone. This is critical to understanding the relations between different mechanisms of programmed cell death. Partly because of its connection with cancer and aging, programmed cell death is a hot topic of current research.

--The December 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The November 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The October 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The September 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The May 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The April 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The March 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The February 2002 O'Shea Report more>
--The December 2001 O'Shea Report more>
--The November 2001 O'Shea Report more>

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