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The O'Shea Report: March 2004

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 March 2004.


Darby Dyar, associate professor of astronomy and geology, has just received a three-year $195,000 award from NASA for her proposal Hydrogen and Iron in Terrestrial Bodies. Darby will coordinate and direct work by her students and investigators at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, Brown, Rutgers, and NASA aimed at studying the amounts of hydrogen in the interior of planets, notably Mars and the moon. They do this by studying Martian and lunar meteorites, as well as rocks brought back from the moon by the Apollo mission. Darby will prepare and identify the samples, separating out the minerals of interest. She and her colleagues will build on previous work and study hydrogen and iron contents in the minute samples Darby isolates using a whole range of techniques. The proposal argues that the group's work will give insight into the geological processes involved in the formation of Mars and the moon and will ultimately illuminate surface processes as well as differences between the core and the mantle of both Mars and the moon. This work has become even more urgent with the recent discovery of evidence for water in liquid form on Mars.


Science faculty have been arguing for some time about how best to teach science to students whose quantitative and algebraic skills are not as sharp as they might be. One of the most promising experiments happened last term when Donnie Cotter, associate professor of chemistry, with enthusiastic support from the chemistry department, offered a new course, Chemistry 100. The course was offered to a self-selected group of students who felt they needed additional problem-solving skills. The course met five days a week and the students wound up in the same spot as the standard first-semester inorganic chemistry course (Chemistry 101). The extra class time was used to allow students to go into greater depth on algebraic techniques and problem-solving strategies. The course evaluations were excellent; however, the real test will be to see whether such students perform as well in the second-semester inorganic course as those who took Chemistry 101.

One of the most difficult things in teaching writing is to find the time to read and usefully comment on multiple student drafts of papers. A collaboration between English professors and instructional technologists has given rise to some really interesting experiments. Amy Martin, assistant professor of English, for instance, has been using WebCT in a novel way in English 101 and 200. For each paper assignment, she divides students into groups of three or four and asks them to copy the first draft of their paper onto WebCT. She sets it up so that only members of a given group can access each other's papers. Each student then reads the drafts of the other two or three members of her group and comments on them using the "comments" function available in Microsoft Word. Amy gives the students guidelines for commenting productively so that they are not lost and don't just praise each other's work. The end result is that each student gets two or three sets of comments from her peers. Amy also has her SAW mentor read and comment upon all of the papers, so that every student has feedback from her as well. The student uses all of that feedback to revise the essay substantially. For the first paper early in the semester, Amy grades the draft and then the revision so that she is part of the whole process. This helps the students take the whole process seriously. Later in the semester, it becomes less formal, and she only looks at the final product that results from the online peer review. The uniting of the commenting feature in Word with WebCT was actually the idea of Aime DeGrenier, instructional technology consultant at LITS. Its use in English classes mediated by a SAW mentor was piloted by Peter Berek, professor of English, SAW mentor Andrea LeClair '02, instructional services coordinator Julie Boiselle, former reference librarian Raven Fonfa, and, of course, Aime. Peter, too, now uses it routinely, and the technique seems to be spreading. I haven't been in the classroom in a while, but the technique seems potentially very powerful--the students surely learn by commenting, under supervision, on each other's papers. One could imagine adopting the technique to math and physics by using Tex instead of Word. And for those worried about investing so much time in the technology, all reports have been that the LITS folks provide wonderful support, technical and psychic. Aime DeGrenier gave a presentation on this work at a meeting in Atlanta; her slides show what the interface looks like from student and faculty points of view. They are really neat. Best of all, they are online: check them out.


Thank you for the papers, and please keep sending them. I really enjoy them, even when I don't know what is going on.

Danny Czitrom, professor of history, published a very provocative review of Scorsese's movie the Gangs of New York in the latest issue of Labor History. Why, Danny wonders, has "Scorsese, whose work has redefined the drama of ethnic experience, so thoroughly internalized such an essentially anti-immigrant (and anti-Catholic) vision of New York history?" His partial answer is unsettling.

Since my mother was diagnosed with dementia (which, sadly, is inexorably erasing her memories and personality), I've been keeping an eye out for papers related to Alzheimer's. In addition to the paper by Sean Decatur, associate professor and chair of chemistry, and several of his colleagues, which I described in my February 2004 report, Amy Hitchcock, visiting assistant professor of biological sciences, has published a paper potentially relevant to neurodegenerative disorders. It has just appeared in the very prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The synthesis of proteins from their basic constituents (amino acids) has been far better understood than how proteins are broken down in the cell into amino acids. Twenty years ago, a small protein named ubiquitin was implicated in this process, and lots of work since then has gone on showing how this protein can bind to other proteins as a precursor to dissolution. One of the richest sites for synthesis and breakdown of proteins within the cell is the internal membrane called the endoplasmic reticulum. Through a range of techniques culminating in some heavy-duty data analysis and matching to a big proteonome database, researchers actually identify and classify 83 membrane proteins (of a total of 211 earlier possibilities they had identified) that could play a role in membrane protein degradation pathways using ubiquitin.

Lowell Gudmundson, professor of Latin American studies and history, has what can only be described as a stealth article in the upcoming issue of the Hispanic American Historical Review. At first blush, it looks, and reads, like a whodunit. One hundred eleven years ago, in the midst of Christmas Eve revelry in the Guatemalan village of San Gerónimo, a 23-year-old English hacienda owner and his 19-year-old English friend were beaten and left unconscious in the middle of a main street. Or so it seemed. The unlikely alibis of the accused became more believable as they were challenged. Perhaps the defendants, blind drunk, ineptly beat each other up? "What," asks Lowell, "are we to make of a trial in which all appears lost, silence reigns, and oppression wins?" Where losing is winning? And by the time you are asking yourself this, you are in the midst of a highly entertaining, highly sophisticated post-modern narrative in which race, gender, class, and government regulation are nontrivial actors. Highly recommended.

A fascinating article by Michael Penn, assistant professor of religion, appeared recently in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History. Entitled "Ritual Kissing, Heresy, and the Emergence of Early Christian Orthodoxy," the article shows how various church fathers (Ruffinius, Jerome, and Augustine, among others) appropriated the ritual kiss, then current in fourth- and fifth-century Christian worship as a means of setting boundaries and distinguishing orthodox followers from heretics.

Eva Paus, professor of economics and director of global initiatives, has just published a sweeping paper in the journal World Development studying productivity gains in a number of Latin American economies. She compares the economies and productivity within Latin America and to other economies in Asia and eastern Europe. She analyzes why the widespread implementation of free market reforms in the last decade has not given rise to hoped for productivity gains. Her findings suggest that Latin American countries need to couple their neo-liberal policies with developing their human capital base (i.e., secondary education) and technological infrastructure.

The new journal Latino Studies features an open letter to university presidents arguing for the necessity of Latino studies. That letter cites the journal's section Pšinas Recuperadas, which attempts to rescue and bring into the light lost moments, words, images, and events in Latino and Latina experience in the United States, and credits Roberto Marquez, William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, with the idea for the section. The first appearance of the section recalls a couple of key images of black-Latino collaboration.

Leo Kahane, visiting associate professor of economics, is editor of the Journal of Sports Economics and contributes an article on competitive balance in baseball (actually, an article commenting on an article on competitive balance). In fact, if you are a baseball fan, I recommend the entire November 2003 issue of the journal. It is a fascinating study of economics and labor relations in baseball.


Our trustees are also writing. Go: An Airline Adventure by Barbara Cassani '82 appeared late last year from Time-Warner books. You can get it in Britain or Canada or from Amazon's UK Web site. The book gallops along, full of life and impossible to put down. Barbara tells the story of having been put in charge of setting up a low-cost airline subsidiary of British Air. Starting with a ridiculously small budget, she and her team literally built an airline company from scratch, scrambling for market share and personnel, leasing airplanes and airports, standing accepted wisdom on its head, designing uniforms, selling really good coffee, and inventing cheap frills. They triumphed over lawsuits and ad campaigns from opposing carriers, co-opted unions, and turned a profit after three years in the face of ferocious competition. When British Airways' CEO and Barbara's mentor was fired after three years, the company was sold and Barbara managed to engineer a management buyout. When the investment company that backed them decided to sell out to their arch-rival six months later at a profit close to 400 percent, one understands Barbara's and her management team's disappointment. In four years, they had parlayed 25 million pounds into nearly 400 million and turned the airline business in the UK upside down.

Barbara is what most would call an A player. Trustee Tom DeLong, a professor at the Harvard Business School, and a colleague contributed an article to the Harvard Business Review entitled "Let's Hear It for B Players." The article points out the huge role in the success of corporations and companies played by individuals with B-player temperaments: "Companies are routinely blinded to the important role B players serve in saving organizations from themselves." The defining characteristics of a B-player temperament include an aversion to calling attention to oneself, making the fewest demands on a CEO's time, and valuing work-life balance. Tom analyzes the different roles played by B players and provides a preliminary taxonomy of such individuals (recovered A players, truth-tellers, go-to persons, and middlers).

--The February 2004 O'Shea Report more>
--The December 2003 O'Shea Report more>
--The October 2003 O'Shea Report more>
--The September 2003 O'Shea Report more>
--The May 2003 O'Shea Report more>
--The April 2003 O'Shea Report more>
--The February 2003 O'Shea Report more>
--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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