Faculty Seminar/Presentation Descriptions

On Friday, September 4th, you will attend the Faculty Seminar you were assigned over the summer. You will need to complete the readings and other material assigned for your seminar before arriving to campus so you are fully prepared to engage the material being presented during the seminar and during the breakout sessions immediately following the seminars.

The locations of the seminars will be indicated on the Moodle course page once they have all been finalized. If you are unsure about how to find a particular location, you should ask your RA, an Orientation Leader, or email the Dean of Students Office.

If you have any questions, please email Scott Backer in the Dean of Student's Office.

The seminar descriptions, including the associated readings, are available through Moodle which you can access if you are logged into your E-Portfolio; you can also review the descriptions below.

The Seminar descriptions for FYM 2015 are:

Alien/Nation: Difference and the Politics of Unbelonging in the US

Laura Grappo

This seminar is full. Please select another option.

In this seminar, we’ll explore the politics of recent immigration history. We’ll consider why the US is often painted as a “land of opportunity” for those seeking economic betterment, religious asylum, or political freedom. We’ll ask what it means to imagine the US as a “nation of immigrants” by exploring discourses of diversity and multiculturalism. But, most importantly, we’ll ask why immigration is typically represented in popular accounts of history as a positive, nation-building force, when it has, in fact, ushered in eras of bigotry, xenophobic violence, and social exclusion. For instance, familiar narratives depicting the arrival of hardworking, impoverished Europeans in the early 20th century typically conceal the profound difficulties faced by many who were not considered “white” enough by contemporary racial standards.

Moreover, this seminar will consider the legacies of this paradoxical phenomenon. We’ll examine the discourses of nationalism and racism that are frequently found in media reports detailing the current immigration debate, and we’ll address “who” and “what” is imagined to be a “proper” immigrant. We’ll ask: how can we understand the differential valuation, treatment, and cultural understanding of diverse racial and ethnic identities in the US?  Why are some immigrant groups imagined to hold benevolent intentions, while others are portrayed as “criminals,” “parasites,” or “anchor babies”? And, how can we think of recent acts of political resistance – including the Black Lives Matter Movement – as speaking back to these histories of discrimination and oppression?

Global warming is not invisible!

Fred Cohan

This seminar is full. Please select another option.

The world is warming. Climatologists have assembled careful records of global temperatures of recent centuries and of millennia before that, and it’s easy to see that the trend is up. Yet, global warming is one of the great fracture points of today’s political discourse. Clearly, listening to scientists is not the way many people are persuaded. Our challenge is to find evidence that untrained people can appreciate with their own eyes—that is, how anyone can productively compare the climates of today to climates of the past.

What can be confusing is that the trend is not simply toward warmer temperatures. There are pesky year-to-year fluctuations in temperature, so if all you did each year was to compare the current year against the year before, you could not possibly make out a trend toward warming. So, how we can witness global warming with our own eyes? One approach, especially for some of us living in the right (or wrong!) place, is to observe cumulative effects that bear witness to centuries of rising temperatures: rising sea levels, receding glaciers, shrinking polar sea ice.

For those attuned to the animals and plants around us, we can note that plants and animals are beginning their spring traditions earlier, that our gardens now sustain plants that previously would have been killed in harsher winters, and especially that plant and animals are moving poleward—ask any seasoned birder! Our attention may be drawn in particular to those creatures at the poles, who have nowhere cooler to go. Yes, grieving for the polar bear helps tune non-experts into climate change, but we have much more we can productively worry about. When we hear that warming environments are threatening yet another species, we should not ask for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for us. Perhaps the most distressing evidence of global warming is that rising temperatures are exposing humans to novel and exotic infectious diseases, as vectors of disease are moving toward the poles and up mountains.

In our seminar, we will explore the poster children who provide the most gripping and consequential evidence by which to compare the climates of today to climates past.

"When is History?”

William Pinch

This seminar is full. Please select another option.

Is history possible without comparison?  If historians are to tell coherent stories about the human past, is it possible for them to not think in terms of "X happened before Y," or "Y happened after Z"?  If historians really do care about causation, then can they avoid engaging in debates about relative importance of X and Z to Y, not to mention X and Z to each other?  If we agree with the sentiment that “the past is a foreign country, [and] they do things differently there,” then isn’t it the job of the historian to perceive what it was about the past that marks it off as different from the present, to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange?  No matter which way we scan it, in other words, history is a comparative cat.

And like all cats, it refuses to behave.  In history, chronology is not destiny.  Despite our occasional obsession with causation, history is not “one damned thing after another.”  This begs bigger questions:  when does history begin, and when does it end?  When is a topic deemed distant enough in time from the present to be examined historically?  Conversely, how far back in time is too far?  The answers to these questions depend, not surprisingly, on what we think history is.  If, as at Wesleyan, we assert that “History is a way of understanding the whole of the human condition as it has unfolded in time,” then it would be hard to imagine history’s temporal reach not extending as far back as the emergence of the human species and right up to the moment you stop reading this sentence.  In fact, some historians have sought to go even further, to conceptualize “universal history” as the history of the universe, beginning with the Big Bang.  This might prompt us to ask yet another question:  if history begins at the beginning of time, does it still end when you stop reading this sentence?  What of the future?  What about the end (of) time?

In this seminar we will reflect on how humans have thought about history over time, what the future of history might look like, and how the nature of the comparisons we make in history change with changing temporal and spatial scales.

Reading Matters

Suzy Taraba

This seminar is full. Please select another option.

Books are objects, containers of text (and image) created and altered by networks of people, including authors, papermakers, publishers, readers, scribes, and many others.  They come in many formats, from manuscript to print to digital.  The codex book, a familiar form with pages inside covers, was developed by the ancient Romans to supersede the scroll, the predominant form at the time.  Today, the digital book is gaining prominence.  Each of these formats – along with several others – facilitates different ways of reading.

In this seminar, we will explore how the physical aspects of a text can shape the reading experience.  We will begin to understand how the circumstances behind the publication of a book, its technology and format, work to influence how it is experienced by a reader.  By encountering and comparing a familiar text in several iterations, we will experience how the “matter” of a text, its physical manifestations, contribute to its meaning.  We will meet in the Davison Rare Book Room, Olin Library (1st floor east), where we will examine selections from Wesleyan’s superb collection of rare books and artists’ books.

Primitive or Civilized? A Legacy of the Comparative Method

Daniella Gandolfo

This seminar is full. Please select another option.

What do we mean when we say that a person or behavior is “primitive” or “civilized”? Beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century, at the height of European imperial expansion, scholars of society, including those in the emergent field of anthropology, used what is known as “the comparative method” for one main purpose: to identify, across diverse cultural groups, the laws of social development. One such law was the evolution of societies along a predetermined path on which they moved progressively from a “primitive” to a “civilized” state. At the turn of the twentieth century, Social Evolutionism, including the appropriateness of comparing cultural forms, came under attack. It was vigorously contested by a young generation of anthropologists espousing a new theory—and an entirely new ethical and methodological attitude toward their objects of study—that they called Cultural Relativism. The debate that ensued between those defending the comparative method as an effective way to find cultural universals and those advocating for cultural particularism and the relative value of all cultural forms lasted well into the 1940s, coming to a head with the event of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This session will focus on questions at the center of this debate: Can and should cultures be compared? Are some cultural values and behaviors more advanced or superior than others? What standard should one use to assess this fact? But isn’t appeal to a standard as a measure of advancement and civilization inevitably ethnocentric—that is, biased in favor of certain cultural forms deemed superior? Is the idea of universal human rights even conceivable without standards of behavior? And if standards are needed, does this mean that the Declaration of Human Rights is ethnocentric? By addressing these questions—as they were tackled in texts written during the period spanning 1860-1950—we will discuss the appropriateness of cultural comparison as well as the meanings and ideologies that have been historically implicated in the idea of the “primitive” condition of some societies.

Tales of the African Forest

Laura Ann Twagira

Recent popular accounts of the state of the environment in Africa are alarming, but they are not new.  In the 1930s a British colonial scientist invented the term "desertification" for what he believed was a dramatic loss of forest vegetation and the drying out of the West African landscape.  Several decades later Al Gore famously warned that Ethiopia's forest cover had fallen from forty percent to just one percent in four decades.  Currently, NGOs decry the on-going 'woodfuel crisis' as one of the most pressing concerns facing rural Africans, especially women.  In this tale, African forests have been consistently and rapidly on the decline for the past century, and their loss threatens local livelihoods.  Unfortunately rural African residents are most often blamed for this degradation. 

Why do narratives about the degradation of the African forest persist?  More recent evidence challenges Gore's assertion about Ethiopian forests and raises several questions about how we perceive the environment in Africa.  What is the actual state of forests across the continent, and what roles have Africans had in their conservation?  Other narratives about the forest center on African farmers and activists who have long been planting and conserving trees.  Most famously, Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai started the Green Belt Movement.  In this seminar we ask how tales about forests have been constructed, and we will also uncover alternate histories about the African environment.

Science versus pseudoscience in an age of unlimited information.

Brian Northrop

This seminar is full. Please select another option.

We are inundated with reports of new discoveries and information that claim to be based on scientific research. In a rush to capture the public’s attention, or simply to garner more clicks and their corresponding ad revenue, media outlets often report as truth questionable studies that later turn out to be misleading or even false. The reporting of misleading or false science is not without consequences as it can dramatically shift peoples’ perceptions and behaviors, as well as their confidence in science in general. In the age of smartphones, blogs, and social media it is surprisingly easy for anyone to cherry-pick research that promotes a particular point of view, and to gain a large audience doing so. Further complicating the matter is the ease with which anyone can create their own news “echo chamber” where they’re only exposed to information that supports their own point of view. All too often this artificial homogenizing of scientific reporting can divide the public into different camps and lead to such illogical claims as “well you have your science but I have mine.” In this environment, where we can find support for almost anything online, how can we be confident that the scientific reporting we receive is reliable? More to the point, how can we distinguish science from pseudoscience? In this seminar we will compare and contrast examples of purportedly scientific reporting. We will attempt to develop the means to distinguish science from pseudoscience by identifying key characteristics of each. We will also explore what it means to have reached a scientific consensus.

Apples and Oranges: Comparing Policy Options

Damien Sheehan-Connor

This seminar is full. Please select another option.

Societies make many choices involving tradeoffs that require making difficult comparisons. For example, is public revenue better spent on education? Health care? Defense?  Or would it be better to raise less revenue in the first place and allow private citizens to decide how to spend a larger share of their income? Another common issue faced in the policy arena is how to think about policies that benefit some individuals while harming others.  How do we compare these opposing impacts in order to decide whether a policy should be implemented?  Finally, there is the question of what type of government and economic system we wish to have.  How do we compare democracy to dictatorship?  A libertarian economy to a socialist one?  A society where wealth is relatively equal to one where there is substantial inequality?  We will consider how to think about comparisons across such seemingly disparate policy outcomes by using these, and other, examples.

A Closer Look: Reading Visual Evidence Through Comparison

Clare Rogan

This seminar is full. Please select another option.

The discipline of art history is fundamentally based on comparison—in the late 19th century, Heinrich Wölfflin developed the technique of projecting two photographic images from glass slides simultaneously, in order to “compare and contrast,” a method still used in art history lectures today. But what are the goals of such comparisons? Connoisseurship? Formal analysis? Social history? Understanding of materials and production? How does the process of comparison connect to the art market and to monetary or symbolic valuation? How have artists used citations and comparisons to evoke connections with their predecessors? For this session, you will visit the Davison Art Center collection to compare original prints ranging from the 17th to the 21st centuries, by Rembrandt van Rijn, Francisco de Goya, Pablo Picasso, and Enrique Chagoya. The comparisons raise questions of meaning, and demonstrate the power and pitfalls of comparisons across the centuries. Comparisons sharpen our ability to see and to evaluate the choices artists have made for different ends, and the ways in which they have been interpreted across time.

Comparing the Gospels of Mark and John

Ron Cameron

Comparison is not only a fundamental characteristic of human intelligence, and the absolute requirement of responsible thought; comparison is arguably the method of scholarship par excellence. The fact that there are four gospels in the New Testament, not just one—to say nothing of the other gospels not included in the Bible—requires a comparative reading. It makes noting their similarities and differences an obvious way to understand each of them better.

In this seminar, we will explore how a comparative perspective enables us to understand the divergent portraits of Jesus presented in the gospels of Mark and John, and begin to assess why they wrote their stories the ways they did. Making use of a recent scholarly edition of Mark and John and a classic essay on comparison, we will illustrate how biblical studies contribute to the humanistic project of the academic study of religion.

Schools of Comparison: Novels and the Business of Education

Sally Bachner

This seminar is full. Please select another option.

While we learn to compare things everywhere, schools are where the modes and terms of comparison we use are both explicitly taught and assimilated through rigorous practice.  For this reason, schools are alternately seen as liberatory sites of critical reflection or insidious institutions of indoctrination. Ideally, schools teach us to think critically and to challenge that which is taken for granted in the wider culture, and yet they also provoke a worry that control how and what we make of the world around us. This potential – and risk – is not unlike that of fiction itself, which, in inventing new world, can challenge us to see the world anew, and perhaps, more dangerously, shape our perspective without or conscious consent.

This seminar will explore the intimate relationship between education and literature by exploring – and comparing – different representations of the school in recent fiction.

Talking About Animals

Melissa Behney

This seminar is full. Please select another option.

How do we, as humans, describe non-human animals? As humans, we use language to create shared meaning and transmit culture. How does this shared understanding influence the ways in which we categorize and describe animals as our companions? As laboratory animals? As food (why do we say pork and not pig)? What words are used to talk about animals in the wild in comparison to those in zoos and aquariums? We'll use the lenses of animal welfare and anthropology to compare the use of language in scholarly literature and mass media in talking about animals.


Brian Stewart

This seminar is full. Please select another option.

Given two ways of organizing human effort, it seems obvious that we should choose the one that is most efficient.  But what is efficiency?  Is it always desirable?  This talk will explore different uses of the word "efficiency" and inquire into the consequences of acting efficiently.

One obvious reason to think about efficiency is to avoid waste.  While at Wesleyan, you will want to make efficient use of your time and other resources.  And it's terribly inefficient to buy something that fails to serve the purpose for which it was bought, necessitating a replacement purchase.

Another important reason to think about efficiency is because of its relationship to sustainability.  If we are to create a sustainable culture, mustn't we make it more efficient?  We will find ourselves led to consider the possibility that certain kinds of efficiency are not necessarily compatible with sustainability.  Students demonstrating against the Keystone XL pipeline understand this intuitively.

These considerations bring us to the larger question: efficient at what and for what or whom?  War can be an efficient destroyer of human life, but we do not value it for this reason.  And even efficiencies that appear positive may have unintended consequences that are negative.

Some things on whose efficiency it may be profitable to ruminate:

heating water
mining energy
a power plant
an ecosystem
an economy
a day's activity
a life

I have provided links and a couple of book excerpts in the reading materials on Moodle to get you thinking concretely about some of these; others I have left for you to research or ruminate on yourself.

Minds and Machines

James Lipton

This seminar is full. Please select another option.

Can machines think? This question was raised by computing pioneer Alan Turing in a famous article in 1950, in which he also laid out the “imitation game”, now known as the Turing test. In a somewhat revised form from the original version, the test can be formulated as follows: the test is passed by a machine if it can fool a human “questioner” into thinking it is human. Is this enough? If a machine passed Turing’s test would it really be capable of thinking? Can computers have consciousness, assuming that we eventually understand what it is?

Should we attempt to build simulations of the human mind or should we aim –as Turing suggested– for something perhaps a little bit simpler: simulating some of the faculties of a newborn human and then teaching it, so it evolves the way growing humans learn?

Another interesting question is whether or not humans have free will and if so, does that definitively set us apart from programmed machines?

Some philosophers of mind argue that a program, as conceived today, cannot simulate consciousness, by its very nature, being entirely made up of formal rules and lacking any notion of meaning.

In this seminar we will examine these and related questions.

Why Words Matter: 5 steps to building an inclusive environmental mindset

Antonio Farias and Jennifer Kleindienst

This seminar is full. Please select another option.

Picture two trains running on parallel tracks going in the same direction and you’ve got a good picture of the environmental and social justice movements.  We’ll discuss class, race, space segregation, and other historical barriers to cooperation between these communities, and investigate the role language has played in perpetuating this artificial divide.  Then we’ll explore the emerging “one track, one train” movement that is actively connecting issues of environmental and social justice through an expansive mindset, and a lexicon of inclusion.  This movement is spreading nationwide, via initiatives like Broccoli City and Green for All, and is also finding a home right here in Middletown, CT.  We’ll explore the practical and local opportunities to practice this new mindset at Wesleyan and within the greater Middletown ecosystem.  Prepare to turn words into action!

What Constitutes Independence? Legal vs. Dissenting Declarations: An American Studies Comparison  

Joel Pfister

This seminar is full. Please select another option.

In our seminar session we will compare the Declaration of Independence (1776) to several dissenting declarations of independence (1829 to 1976) composed by workers, women’s rights advocates, African American groups, union leaders, and American socialists to help frame questions about what constitutes (the conditions for) “independence.”  What and who are included in constructions of “independence”?  For instance, in 1970 the National Committee of Black Churchmen asserted their “Right . . . to be FREE AND INDEPENDENT FROM THE INJUSTICE, EXPLOITATIVE CONTROL, INSTITUTIONALIZED VIOLENCE AND RACISM OF WHITE AMERICA” and threatened to “renounce all Allegiance to this Nation.”  Intriguingly, some of the dissenters titled their alternative statements “declarations of rights.”  How might one define the scope of “rights”?  To consider this we will also compare the Bill of Rights (1791, the original ten amendments to the Constitution [1787-90]) to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (popularly termed) “Second Bill of Rights,” outlined in his State of the Union Address on January 11, 1944 (and never passed, the President died in April 1945).  These comparisons bring up debates and critiques that remain not only timely but urgent.  Roosevelt, for example, advocated for “The right of every family to a decent home” and “The right to adequate medical care.”  Our comparisons will engage some critical concerns that are at the heart of American Studies.  

How the American Public Encounters China

Patrick Dowdy

There’s been a strong contrast in the US between reports in mass media that reach large general audiences and the academic and personal views of China that far fewer people read. The reports that appear in newspapers and documentaries present a resolutely dim view of the “regime” (known elsewhere as a government) and paint a picture of contemporary life as venal, chaotic and predatory. Work by long term visitors and western academics, while often critical, present more nuanced views, ones that privilege local perspectives in the creation of what lay people often see as needlessly complicated views of the society. “Dissident artists” like Ai Weiwei get major press but have little influence in China while a successful expatriate artist like Xu Bing who returns to take an influential academic position in China draws little mass media attention.

We’ll read from and look at a variety of materials from and about contemporary China to try to piece together not an answer but a better way to encounter these radically different perspectives. Many but not all of these pieces will focus on art.

These contrasting pieces will include:

  • David Shambaugh’s recent paper “The Coming Chinese Crackup” and Sidney Rittenberg’s response.
  • Ai Weiwei’s actions and recent agitprop pieces as described in the New Yorker by Evan Osnos and Xu Bing’s earlier successes with ambiguous pieces such as his “Sky Book,” as profiled in Karen Smith’s Nine Lives. Along the way we’ll see how both Xu Bing and Ai Weiwei came from extremely privileged backgrounds.
  • We’ll compare a Chinese (Before the Flood) and an American (Up the Yangtze) documentary film on the relocation of millions of people in connection with construction of the Three Gorges dam.
  • Jay Miles report on the 2008 Lhasa riots and the New York Times’ coverage of the same event along with a first person account (with context) of an associated riot in Labrang by Reed College professor of anthropology Charlotte Makley.

We will also look at pieces by authors to help us develop deeper perspectives on these media attitudes. This will include:

  • Excerpts from papers by Stanford literature professor Ban Wang on the importance of lived history to an understanding of China and excerpts from University of Michigan professor of art history Xiaobing Tang’s book on Chinese contemporary visual culture.
  • New Yorker reporter and former Peace Corp volunteer Peter Hessler’s article on his Chinese “minder;”

China is a locus of concern for Americans: but it seems these contrasts of media and documentary reportage with long term, local, in depth experience occurs widely. People who work in person-to-person relationships overseas often report the same disjuncture between media reports and their own experiences when they read American papers. As we work through this material we will develop perspectives and approaches to help us evaluate media reports better and to distinguish more useful analyses from “the usual suspect” type of reporting.