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Humanities Institute






Archive

New Faculty, 2009-10


Rebekka Andersen, University Writing Program
Christian Baldini, Music
Christina Cogdell, Art History and Design
David Copp, Philosophy
Corrie Decker, History
Jenny Kaminer, Russian
Stephanie Lee Mudge, Sociology
Marina Oshana, Philosophy
Sarah Perrault, University Writing Program
Guillaume Peureux, French
Carey Seal, Classics
Moulie Vidas, Religious Studies

The 2009-10 New Faculty Interview Series was coordinated and produced by Liz Montegary, Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies.

Marina Oshana

oshanaMarina Oshana returned to UC Davis as a professor in the Department of Philosophy this past fall. After completing her Ph.D. in Philosophy at UC Davis in 1993, she taught philosophy at universities in California and Ohio before joining the faculty of the University of Florida at Gainesville in 2003. Professor Oshana sat down with the DHI on May 4, 2010 to chat about her research on personal autonomy, moral responsibility, and self-identity. The following is not a precise transcription of our conversation; instead, we worked together to summarize the highlights of our discussion.

Q: Can you tell us about the intellectual trajectory that brought you to philosophy?

A: I was recently asked this question when I gave the keynote address at the third conference of the Collegium of Black Woman Philosophers this past April. I was unprepared for the question at the time, so I answered in a kind of stock fashion: I’ve been an introspective person since childhood, and I’ve always thought of the bigger questions. This is true. I took a philosophy class when I started university, and I enjoyed asking “What is the meaning of life?” and “What makes an action right or wrong?” But, when I really think about why I decided to pursue a Ph.D., I realize that a big part of that decision was the fact that I liked school. I wanted to continue learning. I was drawn to the intellectual inquiry and excitement that universities offer.

My research interests include questions about personal autonomy, moral responsibility, philosophy of law, and, most recently, self-identity. I actually started with an interest in the history of philosophy. I was more of a historian at first, and I liked learning about the history of ideas. I enrolled in the Ph.D. program at UC Davis with the intent of studying the history of modern philosophy, but I soon discovered that the Department of Philosophy was much stronger in supporting research on ancient philosophy. I had been interested in social and political philosophy and the philosophy of law as an undergraduate. In graduate school, I began to study ethics – and, specifically, contemporary work in moral philosophy – more closely. My dissertation on personal autonomy as a social and relational phenomenon grew out of this new focus and later became the basis for my first book, Personal Autonomy in Society (Ashgate, 2006). Recently, I’ve come to realize that my interest in these issues has been shaped by my life experiences. Questions about identity, autonomy, and responsibility have always been important to the people in my family and in the neighborhood where I grew up and have continued to be important in the intellectual work I do today.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished a draft of a book on self-identity entitled The Importance of How We See Ourselves: Self-Identity and Responsible Agency. I began with an interest in how our self-conceptions are implicated in questions about responsibility and agency. Typically, when you think of a person as being a candidate for responsible agency, you look at the person from a second-person standpoint. We ask whether they meet certain criteria (like maturity, sanity, etc.), but we rarely ask how they regard themselves. I think that moral responsibility is an interpersonal enterprise: people are not agents except within the context of social relationships, so how they see themselves is informed by how others see them. I do not think that identities are just social constructions; rather, I believe that there is a continuity of identity – a permanence or stability – over time and over place. But there are many faces to our identities – some of which we have no control over. Which components of our identities are inextricably bound up in who we are, and from which components do we wish to divest? Which components of our identities become really salient for us in directing our lives in the matter of self-governance? Which aspects of your identity are elevated in your mind’s eye, and which aspects are elevated in the mind’s eye of the public? How do we deal with the antecedent compartmentalization that gets hoisted upon us by others? What is the relationship between identity and agency? These are the questions that I explore in my current book project.

Q: Who is your imagined audience?

A: My primary audience is other academics, specifically philosophers and students of philosophy. But I’m of the view that philosophy should be of interest to a broader audience. Ideally, people who are interested in questions about identity, responsibility, and moral agency will read my book and find it accessible. I’ve talked to my friends and family about these issues, and they were intrigued and could engage with the questions. I realize that my book won’t be marketed to a broad audience, but I do hope that it will have a wider appeal.

Q: How would you describe the methodology of philosophers?

A: The most successful route for producing good philosophical work – and, even more broadly, good academic work – is to share your work with other people and to participate in ongoing conversations. Regardless of whether you’re a historian or a creative writer or a philosopher, you won’t be able to produce good work if you’re researching and writing in isolation. But I’m not attracted to a certain manner of doing philosophy: I’m turned off by the very combative approach, where everyone looks for flaws in each other’s work. I shy away from the more aggressive conversations, and I’ve found a community of people who feel similarly. We share our work with each other, and we offer respectful and critical feedback. It is definitely important to engage in philosophical debates and to expose your work to the critical scrutiny of your peers.

Q: In what ways are your research and your teaching connected?

A: This quarter, I’m teaching PHI 24: Introduction to Ethics and Political Philosophy. This is a lower-division GE course designed to familiarize undergraduates with philosophy. We’ve explored larger questions about morality and self-interest, talked about psychological and ethical egoism, and discussed utilitarian moral theory. In addition to examining key texts by Plato and Herodotus, we also read a piece on the moral conscience of Huckleberry Finn. I’m certainly interested in what I’m teaching, but the content of this class isn’t directly relevant to my current research. I did, however, have the opportunity to teach a graduate seminar this past fall – PHI 214: Ethics – that allowed me to bring questions of self-identity into the classroom.

I have also found that what I teach sometimes sparks a new research interest. For instance, my experience teaching philosophy of the law inspired me to start working on this area. I don’t have formal legal training, but I became really intrigued by the law through teaching. Specifically, I became interested in the Partial Abortion Act of 2003 and its effect on personal autonomy, and I developed a paper arguing that the act was indefensible because it interfered with the autonomy of women.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: I’m a fiction reader. I’m just finishing up Alice McDermott’s novel That Night. This isn’t one of her most recent books, but I really enjoy her writing. I appreciate the way she brings forth the mood of a heavily Catholic eastern suburb in the 1960s. I’ve recently started Marilyn Robinson’s novel Home. Her previous novel Gilead is one of my absolute favorite books. I’m also a fan of Walter Mosley’s novels, and I’m enjoying his new series.


Guillaume Peureux

picture-1Guillaume Peureux joined the HArCS division at UC Davis this fall as an associate professor of French. Prior to coming to Davis, Peureux was full-time faculty in the French Studies program at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. Peureux sat down with the DHI on May 5, 2010 to tell us a bit about his work on seventeenth-century poetry, libertinism and eroticism, and the history of French prosody. The following is not a precise transcription of our conversation; instead, we worked together to summarize the highlights of our discussion.

Q: What brought you to academia? How did you come to study 17th century French poetry?

A: In many ways, it was just chance. While I was working on what would be the equivalent of a Masters of Arts degree, I just happened to start reading 17th century poets. I began thinking that I could keep going with this interest. I didn’t necessarily think that I would become a university professor, and I wasn’t really thinking about a career in teaching.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your scholarly interests?

A: One of my areas of interest is 17th century literature and poetry. My first book, Le Rendez-vous des enfans sans soucy : la poétique de Saint-Amant, (Champion, 2002), stems from my dissertation research. The dissertation examined the work of the seventeenth century poet Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant. My most recent book, however, explores the history of French prosody. This is my second area of interest. In La Fabrique du vers (Seuil, 2009), I examine the ways in which theories of poetry shifted from the 16th century to the present day. I’m specifically interested in how these debates about form – about what language is expected to do – reveal an investment in stabilizing the language.

Q: What research projects are you working on now?

A: I’m still working on questions of French prosody, but I also have other projects in process. I’ve also remained interested in theories of libertinism, and I’m currently working on a project related to this: I’m looking at a series of texts that may or may not be described as libertinism and asking how these texts function as an act of resistance against civilizing processes. I’m also working with French colleagues on two critical editions: Louis Du Gardin, Les Cent premieres Addresses du Parnasse (Garnier, 2011) and Pierre de Deimier, L’Académie de l’art poétique (Garnier, 2012).

Q: How would you describe your research methodology?

A: I rely on a cultural studies approach to the study of French prosody. Specifically, I combine close readings and technical analysis with an examination of the broader social context surrounding the texts in question. I argue that French is not a pure, transparent language; instead, I illustrate the ways in which different political ideologies shape the theories of poetry and the art of versification. In other words, I am interested in historicizing the shifts that have taken place in French prosody.

Q: Who is your imagined audience?

A: I wrote In La Fabrique du vers for graduate students in French and other scholars working within the field. It’s a rather technical book, so it’s really for advanced students. If, however, the text were translated into English, younger students of French in the U.S. might find it useful.

Q: What courses are you teaching this quarter?

A: I’m teaching FRE 130: From Page to Stage: Theatre and Theatricality, which focuses on French theatre between the 17th and 20th century. Ideally, the course will help students develop an appreciation of drama by understanding how the text produces the possibility of performance. The main focus of the class is on analyzing the meaning of mise-en-scene. I’m also teaching FRE 206C: 17th Century Literature and Poetry, which is a graduate seminar on lyricism. This course examines the history of a key notion of poetic discourse – lyricism – from Aristotle through today with the aim of determining whether it is possible to consider some 17th century French poets as lyricists.

Q: In what ways are your research and your teaching connected?

A: It’s a complicated relationship: I would say that my research and my teaching are strongly – yet subtly – connected. I sometimes talk about the ways in which my work relates to the lesson at hand, but I don’t dwell on overly theoretical things in the undergraduate classes. In graduate seminars, however, I make more explicit connections between my research interests and the course material. I occasionally try to incorporate a cultural studies approach in the classes I’m teaching. For instance, in the theatricality class I’m teaching this quarter, we tend to focus on comparing the “page” to the “stage”, but we’ll occasionally discuss the broader social and political context.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: I read mystery novels for pleasure. Actually, I read American novels translated into French, so I can read them at a faster pace. In addition to reading rather popular authors (like Michael Connelly or James Ellroy), I also end up reading much lesser known mystery writers. As it turns out, many of the authors who are advertised in France as super famous American writers aren’t very well known at all in the U.S.

I’m also trying to read the most important theoretical texts written in the U.S., so I’m in the process of figuring out what common texts American scholars have read and are reading. At the moment, I’m reading Frederic Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. This book will finally be translated into French this coming fall, but I’m working my way through the original English text.


Stephanie Lee Mudge

mudge-photoStephanie Mudge joined the Social Sciences division at UC Davis this fall as an assistant professor of Sociology. Prior to coming to Davis, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute and a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute. She received her Ph.D. in Sociology from UC Berkeley, and her research interests focus on the politics of policy-making in Europe and the U.S. Mudge sat down with the DHI on Jan 20, 2010 to tell us about herself, her research, and her teaching. The following is not a precise transcription of our conversation; instead, we worked together to summarize the highlights of our discussion.

Q: Why sociology? What brought you to this field?

A: The standard joke about sociologists is that we’ve all had an experience of being outsiders. So, if I had to identify one thing before higher education that influenced my decision to pursue sociology, I would point to the moment when I switched out of public school and went to a boarding school for two years. This experience as an “outsider” really sparked my interest in trying to understand how our social environments redefine us in ways that are beyond our control.

I attended the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate. Located in West Philadelphia, Penn is a wealthy university situated on the edge of what is an incredibly destitute community. The university, to its credit, encourages students to participate in community service. I volunteered as a tutor and a community advocate, and I became increasingly interested in educational disparities across American localities. Despite my initial plans to become an artist, I ended up with a double major in sociology and urban studies.

After graduating, I pursued my interest in education policy and eventually became a research assistant at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. This experience was a great introduction to constructing and implementing research projects. But I quickly realized that I was working in a grant-driven world where there were certain answers to questions that people wanted to hear. More importantly, there were a lot of interesting questions we simply didn’t ask. Senior-level people with advanced degrees, however, had more flexibility in designing their own projects. My desire to explore my own research questions – along with my interest in gaining a stronger theoretical foundation – led me to apply for Ph.D. programs in sociology. While I was working on my degree at UC Berkeley, I decided that I didn’t want to return to policy research and that I wanted to pursue an academic career.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your dissertation project?

A: My dissertation, broadly speaking, offers a comparative analysis of the politics of social and economic policy in the U.S. and Europe during the 1990s. Initially, the project focused specifically on education policy. I noticed the number of privatization initiatives – like charter schools and voucher systems – at the center of education reform in the U.S. since the 1980s, and I wanted to understand how it became plausible to talk about education as something that should work according to market principles. I realized that a similar rhetoric was also emerging in Europe, that the movement toward privatization wasn’t limited to education, and that it was linked to changes in expertise and political authority. It became clear to me that there was a larger shift happening. The term I (and many others) use to name this shift is “neoliberalism.”

Interestingly, if you look closely at the politics of Western democracies in the late 20th century, you’ll find that the people who were advocating for market-style reforms were not necessarily people you would expect. Many of the really aggressive advocates were coming not from the political right but from the left and center-left. While Clinton’s support of these reforms may not be particularly surprising given the lack of a socialist political tradition in the U.S., the shift toward a deregulatory and privatizing politics in the European context – with its highly developed welfare states and stronger socialist political traditions – marks a rather dramatic historical change. It is quite shocking to hear social democrats in Germany – the original Marxist party – advocating, for instance, for financial deregulation. In the end, my project migrated from the rhetoric around the politics of education to the broad politics over reforming public institutions.

Q: Are you looking towards a new project?

A: I’m now working on a book that draws inspiration from my dissertation. It includes a lot of new materials and emphasizes the role of experts in the formulation and implementation of policies. Stated very simply, it asks why left parties went right, historically speaking, during the 1990s. I am also working on several articles and considering plans for my next book. One possibility is a book about the politics of education reform – specifically at the level of higher education – in Europe and the U.S. Another option is an examination of the role that professionals – especially lawyers and economists – have played in the process of European integration. I touched on both of these in my dissertation, but didn’t explore either fully. Both topics interest me a great deal.

Q: What is the relationship between your research questions and methodologies?

A: Some people start with a particular method or data set and then look for problems that can be addressed with them. My approach is more conceptual and problem-oriented. After identifying an historical question that I’d like to explore, I identify both relevant data sources – statistical, historical, etc – and the explanations that people have already offered, and try to be very clear about my particular theoretical approach. I am eclectic in terms of method and empirics. For my dissertation, I used an extensive data set on the programs of political parties for twenty-two Western countries, macroeconomic and policy data from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) and other sources, historical and official documents, and I also interviewed bureaucrats and policy elites to learn their perspectives. My main goal is always to formulate interesting new questions about important issues.

Q: In what ways does your research inform your teaching and vice versa?

A: I would say that there is definitely a symbiosis between my teaching and my research. For instance, I’m teaching SOC 100: Origins of Modern Sociological Theory this year, and I will inevitably incorporate my areas of research into the class. On the one hand, the examples I give and the topics I address are derived from the research I do. In my opinion, my subject areas – economic change and political ideas – are pretty useful for students trying to gain an understanding of social theory. On the other hand, I often use my teaching as a reason to spend more time with theorists or theoretical frameworks I want to incorporate in my own work. In my opinion, teaching allows me to get a better grasp of theory. I’m also teaching SOC 3: Social Problems this year, which is an introductory class designed to give students a sense of what the field of sociology brings to bear on problems in society. In addition to discussing how certain issues become constructed as “social problems,” we will also examine who gets to decide how to respond and what happens as a consequence. For this class, I’ll focus on areas that are connected to my work even if they fall outside of my immediate research, such as poverty, work, and scientific knowledge.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: I just started reading Jennifer Burns’ Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. There have been a couple books that have recently – for reasons that are not random – come out on Ayn Rand. I think there’s a general historical puzzling going on right now: everything seems to be falling apart, and nobody seems to know what to do. It seems to me there is a breakdown in trustworthy authority. Just like the early part of the 20th century, this comes on the heels of a resurgence of the individualist worldview that Ayn Rand presented. I’m interested in reading through the different discussions that are trying to make sense of all this.


Christian Baldini

baldini-picChristian Baldini joined the HArCS division this fall as an assistant professor of Music and as the music director and conductor of the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra. He received his bachelor’s degree in conducting and composition at the Catholic University of Argentina, his master’s degree in orchestral conducting at Pennsylvania State University and his Ph.D. in composition from the State University of New York at Buffalo. Prior to coming to Davis, Baldini worked at SUNY Buffalo as the conductor of Slee Sinfonietta (a professional chamber orchestra) and the UB Symphony Orchestra and as an instructor in orchestral conducting. For more on his musical career, check out his website at http://www.christianbaldini.info. Baldini sat down with the DHI on Feb 10, 2010 to tell us a bit about himself, his music, and his teaching. The following is not a precise transcription of our conversation; instead, we worked together to summarize the highlights of our discussion.

Q: How does one become a composer and a conductor? Tell us a little bit about your career trajectory.

A: I was drawn to music at a very young age. I started taking piano lessons at age four while at home we only had an electronic keyboard. When my parents realized just how into music I was, they decided to buy me a real piano. I continued playing music throughout my childhood, and, in high school, I played electric guitar in a rock band. I was also composing since I was little. In the beginning, it was just fun. I wasn’t thinking about a career in music; I planned to study engineering in college. But music eventually started growing more and more inside me. And, when it came time to decide whether I was going to engineering school, I knew that I wanted to devote my life to music. Composition took over. And, since I needed to conduct my own music, I started conducting. Composing and conducting started taking up most of my time, and the piano eventually became just a tool for composing and conducting.

Q: What kind of training did you receive in studying to become a composer and conductor?

A: I began studying piano at a conservatory when I was a teenager, so I already had a diploma in piano when I finished high school. I then began working on my undergraduate degree in conducting and composing. The degree program takes seven years to complete. But, since I was able to skip the first of the two pre-admission years, I finished my degree in six years. Everyone begins on the same track and undergoes very intense training. There are certain skills that are necessary for composing, such as developing a trained ear, learning knowledge of harmony, and studying theories of counterpoint. Because the training system in Argentina is based on the French conservatory, we also spent a lot of time trying to write in the mode of different musical traditions and imitating the style of different composers. Lots of paper and pencils… and lots of erasers.

In the last four years of the program, you start focusing on a particular specialization. This is when I started getting conducting lessons. In the beginning, we had to conduct an imaginary orchestra. You must learn how to move your wrist and the stick and what to do with your other hand. It is only after some serious training that you’re finally allowed to get in front of an actual orchestra. But, in the end, I really think that conducting is a constant learning process. Conductors work to interpret the message that a composer has created and to convey that message to the audience. You soon learn that, each time you conduct a piece (even if you’ve conducted it ten times before), you discover something new. It’s like re-reading a novel and spotting a character that never really stood out to you. You begin to see the piece form a new perspective – and that makes you see other pieces differently too.

Q: What does your job as conductor of the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra entail?

A: In many ways, my job is primarily a leadership position. There are approximately 100 people involved in the orchestra, including undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and community members. I’m trying to take into account all of these different factors and to find the perfect balance. What can I do for whom to make the orchestra better? In addition to working with orchestra as a collective mass, there is also a personal side to conducting. I try to follow everyone on an individual basis, and I invite students to my office for private coaching sessions.

For the most part, I don’t spend much time composing during the academic year. I have some projects planned for the summer, but, right now, I’m doing a lot of organizing. I’m responsible for initiating fundraising efforts and for building support for the orchestra. We’re very lucky in Davis that there is already such an appreciation for music, and we’re really fortunate to have the Mondavi Center in town, but my job is to get the community even more excited about our program and all what we have to offer. I try to remind people that the music we’re presenting is the face of the community. The orchestra can be a projection of Davis locally and internationally.

Q: What has drawn you to work with university orchestras? Are there particular pleasures or challenges associated with working in a university setting?

A: I am drawn to the ways in which university orchestras give me the chance to focus on details that would otherwise be difficult to do. For instance, I’m going to Argentina next month to conduct the Buenos Aires Philharmonic. I’ll have the chance to work with some of the highest caliber professional players in Latin America, but we’ll only have about five days to rehearse together. And then it’s over. At a university, however, the orchestra will meet twice a week for one or two months to prepare for a program. It’s a very different situation. There are advantages and disadvantages to both conducting experiences.

But I’m also drawn to the incredible feeling of freshness that you get from people who are playing a piece for the first time. I find it particularly beautiful to see students – many of whom are not majoring in music – opening themselves to something completely new. I enjoy watching the orchestra learn technically difficult pieces and overcome challenges. It’s really rewarding to see that kind of change – to see them realize that they can do better than they thought. I believe that it is a transformative experience that gives the members of the orchestra a sense of confidence and the trust that they can do whatever they want with dedication and working as a team.

Q: What does the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra’s calendar look like for the rest of the year?

A: We have a big concert coming up on May 16, 2010. The first half of the program will be a piece by a very well known composer that is rarely played in its entirety. We’re going to perform the overture and incidental music that Beethoven wrote for Goethe’s play Egmont, and we’re going to feature two outstanding performers: singer Susannah Biller and (UCD’s own) Bella Merlin as the narrator. For the second half of the program, we’re going to play Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10. It is a very powerful work, and it is a piece that Shostakovich wrote about Stalin and those years. One if its movements is indeed a musical portrait of Stalin. It’s going to be quite a thing. We’re also looking forward to the Family Concert on June 3, 2010, which will feature works by Piazzola, Liadov, and the winning composer of the 2010 UC Davis Concerto Competition, as well as the UCDSO Composition Award. It’s a wonderful opportunity for students to play new music. (Note: For more information on the upcoming concerts, please check out the calendar of events from the Mondavi Center.)

Q: What are you reading right now, and to what are you listening these days?

A: I always read several books at once. I’m currently reading a very nice biography about Leonard Bernstein as well as Barack Obama’s second book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006). I’m also reading a short novel called Pedro Páramo (1955). It’s the only novel that Mexican author Juan Rulfo ever wrote, and it really foreshadows what will happen with magical realism. It’s incredible. I’m re-reading the novel because I’m planning to write an opera about it. But that will take years.

As for music… I listen to just about anything I can find. I still like the bands I listened to in high school, like Radiohead and Guns N’ Roses. I also listen to a lot of lieder by Schubert and particularly Schumann. My son loves Schumann. Most recently, though, I’ve been listening to Mercedes Sosa a lot. She died recently; I’ve been feeling melancholic. She was an Argentine signer who sang folk music from the provinces in her amazing low voice.


Sarah Perrault

perrault-photoSarah Perrault joined the HArCS division at UC Davis this fall as an assistant professor in the University Writing Program. She completed her Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Nevada, Reno in 2009. She has been admiring the writing program at UC Davis for years, and she is thrilled to have joined the faculty this fall. Perrault sat down with the DHI on Wed, Jan 20, 2010 to tell us a bit about her research on science writing, her work on writing assessment, and her take on the humanities. The following is not a precise transcription of our conversation; instead, we worked together to summarize the highlights of our discussion.

Q: What brought you to the fields of rhetoric and technical writing?

A: It was a series of happy accidents that brought me to this field. I majored in anthropology as an undergraduate at Reed College because I was interested in studying cross-cultural communication. But, after I graduated, I wasn’t sure what to do with my degree. Building on the experience I had gained as an apprentice writer in college, I managed to get a job as a tech writer, which grew into an almost decade-long career. I thoroughly enjoyed the puzzle-solving aspect of my job – the challenge of relaying information from a group of experts in a way that non-experts can understand – but I eventually realized that I wanted something more. So I took the summer off to drive around the U.S.

I ended up meeting some people who were starting an M.F.A. program in Creative Writing at Northern Michigan University, and I realized that I could teach writing while working on my master’s degree. I applied to their program upon returning home, and I was accepted for the following fall. Shortly after beginning the program, I discovered that, although I enjoyed writing creative nonfiction, I was really passionate about studying how writing works. I took a few courses in rhetoric and composition, and I grew to love teaching students what writing does. As soon as I realized that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in academia, I began applying to Ph.D. programs in Rhetoric and Composition.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your dissertation research?

A: As an M.F.A student, I focused on natural history and science writing. I have always been interested in the use of language to facilitate more open communication between different areas of culture. In my opinion, one of the biggest communication gaps exists between science and society. My dissertation emerges out of this larger concern.

My project, which I am now turning into a book, focuses on popular science writing. Specifically, I explore two interrelated questions: what is popular science writing itself doing, and what do popular science writers think their writing should be doing? Science popularization has traditionally operated through what Greg Myers describes as a deficit model. The assumption: if the public understood science, then they would support it. In order to solve the problem of mass ignorance, knowledgeable experts must provide the public with more information. Recently, however, scholars in the fields of communications, science & technology studies, and rhetoric have begun to challenge traditional understandings of popular science writing and to question the distinction between “expert” and “non-expert” and the line between “science” and “non-science.”

In my dissertation, I build upon the work of these scholars in calling for a public engagement model of science writing. I want to understand the ways in which popular science texts construct the relationship between science and society and to identify writing practices that invite productive conversations between scientists and non-scientists. For instance, I greatly admire the work of Trevor Corson and Beverly Sauer. Corson’s The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean (Harper Collins, 2004) details the conversations occurring between ecologists and fisherman regarding lobster populations in the Gulf of Maine, and Sauer’s The Rhetoric of Risk: Technical Documentation in Hazardous Environments (Routledge, 2002) illustrates how mining communities produce local knowledges – based on lived experiences rather than on scientific studies – that can affect the development of safety protocols. Rather than constructing scientists as saints to be revered and never questioned, Corson and Sauer describe interesting situations where scientists and non-scientists are working on similar problems and engaging in conversations.

Q: Who is your imagined audience?

A: I am, of course, writing for scholars working on the rhetoric of science, but I definitely think there’s application in my work for other rhetoricians as well. I would also argue that my other intellectual home is science and technology studies, so I see myself writing for scholars working on science communication from an STS perspective. Lastly, since I’d like to develop best practices for science writing, I imagine that my audience might also include science writers themselves and teachers of science writing.

Q: How does your research connect with your teaching, and vice versa?

A: I’m teaching UWP 104A: Business Reports and Technical Communication this year, so I’m definitely drawing on the years I spent working as a writer in the high tech industry. Broadly speaking, however, my research informs my teaching in the sense that I don’t look at texts as inanimate objects. Instead, I see texts as doing something. I want to help my students shift their understanding of the text: rather than allowing them to view writing as simply the transmission of meaning, I encourage my students to recognize that texts are created to have some kind of effect on the reader. How you craft your text depends on what you want your writing to do. What are they trying to change with their writing, and what is the most effective way to accomplish that?

My secondary research area – writing assessment – has also profoundly affected my teaching. By learning about assessment practices and traditions, I feel that I’ve become a more reflective and thus better teacher. I’m currently working on an article that brings cognitive and developmental psychology into conversation with writing studies. Why, I ask, does our writing tend to get worse for a while when we’re dealing with new ideas? I’m trying to understand the psychological processes that account for why our writing – at the syntactic and semantic levels – often suffers while we’re trying to wrap our brains around a new body of knowledge. I really like being able to explain to my students how learning happens on a cognitive level. This helps them feel comfortable about focusing on content rather than being frightened about form.

Q: Why do you think the humanities matter?

A: If, as many people like to say, science is about “is” not about “ought,” who is responsible for talking about “ought?” Where should we be putting our money? What should we be doing with what we know? This, in my opinion, is where the humanities comes in. I don’t necessarily think that it is our job to supply clear answers, but I do think we should work to foster conversations and debates about these questions. Scholars in the humanities can keep perspectives and narratives alive that might seem irrelevant at the moment but might later turn out to offer crucial insight. Different understandings provide a more flexible repertoire for approaching problems, constructing answers, and appreciating art and life.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: I’ve been reading Edward Schiappa’s Defining Reality: Definitions and the Politics of Meaning (Southern Illinois University Press, 2003), which provides fantastic case studies that illustrate how definitions shape our perception of issues and circumstances. I would also like to put in a plug for rhetorician Randy Allen Harris. His writing on the rhetoric of science is brilliant and terribly funny. I really admire his ability to craft a powerful scholarly argument that can make readers laugh at least once per page.


Rebekka Andersen

photo-andersenRebekka Andersen joined the HArCS division at UC Davis this fall as an assistant professor in the University Writing Program. She completed her Ph.D. in English with an emphasis on professional writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in May 2009, and she received the 2010 Conference on College Composition and Communication Outstanding Dissertation Award in Technical Communication. Andersen sat down with the DHI on Mon, Nov 30, 2009 to tell us about her research on content management technologies. The following is not a precise transcription of our conversation; instead, we worked together to summarize the highlights of our discussion.

Q: How did you come to the field of technical communication?

A: While I was working on my master’s degree in rhetoric and composition, I had trouble finding value in the academic papers that I was writing. I then had the chance to take a class on proposal writing, and I realized that my writing could make a difference. I fell in love with the field of technical communication because I finally felt that the writing I was doing had a purpose beyond the academe. Concepts such as “usability,” “readability,” and “user centered” took on a whole new meaning for me. My master’s degree then became a rhetoric, composition, and technical communication degree. I initially wasn’t sure if a Ph.D. was for me, so I took a year off from school. I taught technical and professional writing as an adjunct at Washington State University, and I realized that I wanted to make a living studying and teaching technical communication. I thus applied to a number of PhD programs and decided that the professional writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee aligned best with my interests and goals.

Q: Can you tell us a little about your dissertation project?

My dissertation adviser, who I often describe as a technologist, got me interested in content management. Specifically, I became fascinated by the ways in which new information and communication technologies are automating writing, design, and production practices and, as a result, redefining traditional notions of what it means to write, design, and publish. . These technological developments have a big impact on the users themselves. In my dissertation project, I explore these changes – what I see as a paradigm shift in how we communicate – in relation to single-sourcing methodologies and the content management technologies that support them. Single-sourcing content management enables writers to create modular content objects, store them in a database, and then reuse them in different outputs for different audiences and purposes.

In the broadest sense, I’m studying technology transfer and diffusion. I am interested in how software developers attempt to communicate, or diffuse, their single-source content management technologies into information development groups (such as technical writers) and how those groups attempt to integrate the technologies into their social systems. In the digital age, when we’re talking about new technology, we’re often talking about new software. Many content management technologies are on-demand systems; that is, the companies who create the technologies host them, and customers ultimately pay for a subscription service. Information developers then upload their content to these servers, and the software developers help the information developers manage their processes for supporting and publishing that content. A new kind of relationship – an ongoing relationship – is thus emerging between information development groups and software developers. Moreover, because single-sourcing methodologies and the content management technologies that support them ask people to develop content that functions as data and store it in a database, technical writers and other information developers are now thinking about creating, reviewing, managing, and publishing information in new ways.

At the moment, there hasn’t been very much research done in this area. Most of the discussions are practitioner driven and are oriented around the question of business practices. Consultants have reported a great deal on the importance of change management and process management planning before information development groups attempt to implement content management technologies, but scholars have barely started to tackle this complex process. I’m hoping to fill this gap. In my dissertation, I argue that the process requires not only careful attention to change and process management but also attention to the sociotechnical and rhetorical factors that shape the diffusion process. I know that some people are skeptical that these technologies are just a trend, but I really think that data-ized content is the future. I will be turning this dissertation into a book over the next few years, and I hope to be on the cutting edge of what’s happening with information.

Q: Who is the imagined audience of your work?

A: I want my project to be useful to both practitioners and scholars. I’m now in the process of trying to figure out what the needs of both groups are and how I might address them simultaneously. This year, I plan to attend quite a few conferences – three academic ones and one industry one – with the aim of getting a sense of what my research can offer these groups. At the moment, software developers make decisions in conjunction with business leaders, and information development groups are often left to work with the resulting technology. I, however, would like to see information developers becoming involved in the process of designing and implementing the technology.

I feel that it is very important for scholarship to influence practice, so I want scholars to think smart about how and where we’re publishing. If we’re going to provide practitioners with accessible and useable information, then we need to figure out ways to put our theoretical arguments into practitioner language. We can’t limit our publishing to elite academic journals; we need to publish in many different areas and realms, including the blogosphere. In my opinion, working with practitioners is key to advancing the field of technical communication. How else will we gain recognition as an engaged field that can help businesses increase profits and improve practices and processes?

Q: Have you also worked as technical writer?

A: Yes, I have experience working in the for-profit and non-profit world. As an undergraduate at Whitworth College, I double majored in music and English (with an emphasis in writing). In an attempt to combine my interests in music and writing, I worked for the development director of the Spokane symphony, and I did a lot of ghost writing and assisted with grant proposals. Ever since, I’ve tried to combine my studies with working as a professional writer. I’ve done document design and copywriting for a public radio station, and I’ve helped to develop an employee training manual and content management system for the non-profit organization, Empowering Nonprofits with Technology. I have also worked as a proofreader and documentation specialist for a health insurance company and as a technical editor for a Fortune 100 company. I like to know what’s going outside of the academy, so I try to dabble in a bit of everything to get different perspectives.

Q: Which courses will you be teaching at UC Davis?

A: This year, I’m teaching UWP 104A: Business Reports and Technical Communication. This course focuses primarily on the construction of print documents, such as traditional reports and other business-type information products. But I’d also like to encourage students to start thinking about information in the business world. How do they construct meaning through their messages, and how does that meaning-making process change depending on the medium (including texts and IMs)? We’ll pay careful attention to every communication that happens between us, and we’ll aim for clarity and gracefulness in our writing.

Over the next few years, I’ll be teaching different UWP writing in the disciplines and professions courses. I’ll also have the chance to teach our UWP 298: Literacy and Technology course. In the future, I’d like to develop a course on professional and technical editing. This course could take many different shapes. If I were teaching the practice of editing as a service skills course, we’d focus on proofreading, copyediting, and comprehensive editing. If, however, I were working with students interested in pursuing a career in professional and technical communication, we could also talk about the impact technology has on the field and the recent trends within the industry as a whole. Ideally, I’d like to see professional and technical editing become a required course for the new writing minor in the University Writing Program.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: Since I’m trying to figure out how practitioners might benefit from my research (that is, what kind of research-oriented resources they’d most likely use), I’m spending a lot of time reading discussion forums on content management best practices, monitoring consultant group blogs, and watching industry-related webinars. I’m also in the process of writing an article for the 20th anniversary issue of Technical Communication Quarterly. This special issue will offer a retrospective look at the field while also providing ideas on where things should go from here. Consequently, I’m reading a lot of back issues of the journal with the hopes of figuring out how previous debates within technical communication are connected to current discussions about the emergence of information technologies. As for books, I’m reading two new, potentially foundational works in the field: Digital Literacy for Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory and Practice and Content Management: Bridging the Gap Between Theory to Practice.


Carey Seal

photo-seal

Carey Seal joined the HArCS division at UC Davis this fall as an assistant professor of Classics. He recently received his Ph.D. in Classics from Princeton University, and his research interests include Latin literature, Roman political thought, and ancient literary criticism. Seal sat down with the DHI on Nov 9, 2009 to tell us a bit about himself, his research, and his teaching. The following is not a precise transcription of our conversation; instead, we worked together to summarize the highlights of our discussion.

Q: What drew you to Classics? Why this field?

A: In some ways, it was an accident, which is probably true for most people. Before entering high school, I had read a lot of Greek and Latin literature in translation. I particularly enjoyed the historians, like Livy and Tacitus. I then had some really remarkable teachers of Greek and Latin in high school. This gave me the opportunity to study languages and have direct contact with the texts. I continued taking classes in Greek and Latin throughout college.

I was also drawn to Classics for its versatility and flexibility. The focus of your training is on mastering a particular body of texts and the basic tools you need to understand them. But the boundaries between philosophical, literary, and historical study are fluid. In this respect, Classics is a natural home for people with interdisciplinary interests. I’m able to explore interests in all of those angles. I’ve focused chiefly on literature, but I’m also concerned with cultural, historical, and philosophical questions.

Q: What are you working on right now?

A: I’m working on an article at the moment, but my main priority is turning my dissertation into a book. My dissertation project, entitled “Philosophy and Community in Seneca’s Prose,” examines the philosophical works of Seneca the Younger. I aim to show how social and political relations shaped Seneca’s conception of what a philosophical life would be. His work marks a key stage in the Romanization of Greek thinking about what it meant to live a good life.

In recent decades, Seneca has been receiving more attention in philosophy departments. But my concerns regarding Seneca’s work are not the same as a philosopher’s. I’m especially interested in questions of form and narrative, and in how Seneca situates himself in literary history.

Q: How did you come to this project?

A: This project brings together two different interests: 1) an interest in ancient conceptions of philosophy as a therapeutic guide to living a good life; and 2) an interest in the cultural history of values and ethics. I wanted to look at how the social and the political as well as the Roman and the Greek intermesh to generate a larger scheme of values. On the one hand, Seneca was committed to philosophy itself as a guide to the best form of life. On the other hand, he built his arguments around the historical examples that carried weight in Roman talk about values. In my dissertation, I try to understand the productive tension that appears in Seneca’s work between claims of philosophy and claims of the thickly defined community in which he lived.

Q: With whom is your work in conversation? Who is your audience?

A: In terms of my dissertation/book project, there are a couple of different layers. At the core, I’m writing for students of Latin literature and Roman culture. My project tries to shed light on the complex ways in which Seneca engages with Roman literary and moral tradition. On a secondary level, I hope that my work will be of interest to students of ancient philosophy. I am not writing a philosophy book, but I would like to contribute to a cultural history of philosophy. On a tertiary (and rather ambitious) level, I would like to appeal to people who aren’t necessarily interested in Roman culture but who are interested, broadly speaking, in the literary study of philosophical texts. I think that a study of Seneca can offer a great deal to conversations among scholars who wish to situate the ahistorical or universalizing claims of philosophy within a specific cultural moment.

Q: What are the links between your research and your teaching?

A: I’m a Latinist by training, but I’m teaching a ton of Greek topics this year. In addition to teaching two upper-division courses, CLA 150: Socrates and Ancient Athens and GRK 101: Plato this winter, I’m also teaching CLA 50: The Rise of Science in Ancient Greece this spring. I’ve been really interested in learning more about ancient science, and this course will be a fun way of pursuing this interest. Seneca actually wrote a substantial treatise on natural philosophy (which includes questions that we associate with physics, astronomy, and geology today). I’ve wanted to do more work with this text, but I haven’t done enough background research on the Greek traditions that Seneca uses as his starting point. Teaching this course will give me the chance to learn more about the historical and social context surrounding the rise of science. I’m really excited about this class. [Update: Due to a change in scheduling, this course will not be taught next quarter.]

Q: Why, in your opinion, do the humanities matter?

A: There are a number of ways to answer this question. In Classics, we have a lot of experience dealing with this question; the field has historically been under pressure to justify itself. But I sometimes worry that humanities scholars too readily reach for the most narrowly instrumental answers to this question. For instance, some people in Classics want to cite studies showing that learning Latin in high school will improve your SAT scores. This kind of answer is frustrating to me because we miss the opportunity to articulate what’s really important about our field. The question actually opens space for talking about what’s really important about Latin in particular and the Classics in general.

If we just emphasize the educational potential of the humanities, we risk losing sight of the importance of ongoing inquiry. Humanistic research does matter; it isn’t just secondary to the teaching. We need to convey the excitement and importance of our research to the public. Sure, people trained in the humanities can teach students to reflect on the meaning of life. But that’s not all. And, if we weren’t doing research, our ability to do that would wither.

Q: How has Classics as a field engaged with contemporary political debates?

A: In the last few decades, scholars in the classics have been working to show how their expertise in the ancient world might come to bear on modern questions of ethics. For instance, how are ideas, figures, or texts that survived from ancient Rome drawn upon and redeployed, and how are our ways of thinking about these things affected by contemporary uses of them? However, because our training is necessarily so focused on the ancient world, it is challenging for Classics scholars to develop the expertise needed to engage productively with what scholars of the modern period are doing. There are barriers to overcome, but this process can be productive.

Q: What are you reading right now?

I’m reading a few different books on science in ancient Greece right now. I’ve also been reading Henry Sidgwick, the nineteenth century English utilitarian philosopher; his work is attractively attentive to the continued presence of ancient Greek and Roman ethics in modern thought. And I just started the new Anne Tyler novel.


Moulie Vidas

vidas-pictureMoulie Vidas joined the HArCS division at UC Davis this fall as an assistant professor in the Religious Studies Program. He has studied at the universities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as well as at the Advanced Beit Midrash of the Hartman Institute, and he received his Ph.D. in late ancient religion from Princeton University this past fall. He was recently interviewed by J Weekly and featured in the article “UC Davis Snags Dynamic, Young Talmudic Scholar.” Vidas sat down with the DHI on Wed, Nov 4, 2009 to tell us a bit about himself, his research, and his teaching. The following is not a precise transcription of our conversation; instead, we worked together to summarize the highlights of our discussion.

Q: Why religious studies? What brought you to this field?

A: This is an interesting question because religious studies is an emerging field. I didn’t know that I was going to end up here. As an undergraduate at Tel Aviv University, I started out with an interest in film studies and Jewish philosophy. Then I decided to check out the Talmud department. I grew up with a secular education, so I wanted to see what the religious folks were thinking. Secular education in Israel, for political reasons, doesn’t have an interest in teaching people about a document that symbolizes a certain type of Judaism, which secular Zionism tried to supersede.

For me, the Talmud – and Talmudic scholars – had a certain mystique. On the one hand the Talmud represents a very traditional kind of erudition which later spans some fifteen hundred years of scholarship; on the other hand, some Talmudists are cutting-edge thinkers and the Talmud often imagines itself as an innovative intellectual vanguard, reorganizing the entire intellectual world.

Studying the Talmud and pursuing a career in religious studies has allowed me to incorporate my interest in history and social sciences with my love of literary work. I also appreciate the immediacy of my field – its import is something clear for most people, and you rarely have to explain to people why you study religion.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m finishing up two collections that I’m editing with friends: one is on revelation, literature, and community in antiquity, and the other is on conversations between rabbis and non-rabbis. I’m also working on editing my dissertation into a book manuscript. And I’m thinking ahead to 2010-2011. I received the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation/ACLS Early Career Fellowship, and I’ll be spending next year at Columbia University conducting research for my next project, which examines innovation in ancient Judaism and Christianity.

Q: Can you tell us a little more about your dissertation project?

A: My dissertation project, Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud, brings together very technical Talmudic work with literary criticism and historical analysis with the aim of better understanding the production of the Talmud. We sometimes think of the Talmud as an exposition of Jewish tradition: if you want to know what Jewish tradition is, then you just need to open the Talmud. In my dissertation, however, I argue that the Talmud could be read as a sophisticated critique of this tradition. The Talmud uses ancient sources in a way that plays with them and that even undermines them. From a literary perspective, I’m interested in the act of quoting. I show how the Talmud lists traditions without editing them and thus implicitly distances itself from these traditions. I also rely on historical and social analysis in order to understand the kinds of strategies with which groups other than the rabbis negotiated tradition during the period when the Talmud was being produced. In other words, I look at the politics of how the Talmud comes about.

Q: How do your research questions shape the methods you use?

A: Religious studies scholars are often working to recover the multiplicity of voices in the texts and societies they study. These projects might begin with redaction criticism. Who copied what from whom? What changes were made in the process? Rather than looking at the text as if it is a single thing, redaction criticism sees the voices of the people who are being cited and the voice of the person doing the citing. In the context of Talmudic scholarship, social analysis is a more innovative mode of inquiry. This approach opens space for asking about the voices that aren’t cited and that aren’t heard. In analyzing inter-religious polemics, I am less interested in whether a certain practice or tradition originated in a certain religious culture, and more interested in how labeling certain practices or traditions “Jewish,” “Christian,” or “Persian” was used by ancient authors to promote their own vision at the expense of others. For example, let’s say the Talmud criticizes Persians, which happens sometimes. While some readers would simply conclude that a cultural clash was occurring, I call attention to the ways in which the problem is much closer to home. That is, when Jews are criticizing Persians, they’re often actually criticizing Jews who act like Persians. I try to recover the unofficial voices that don’t actually appear in the text.

Q: Who do you write for? Who is your imagined audience?

A: I would love if people read my book not only for the Talmudic or late ancient subject matter but also for the contributions it tries to make to literary analysis, like its analysis of the function of the authorial voice or quotations. Ideally, I’d prefer a wide readership made up of the general humanities crowd – the problem is that Talmudic scholarship is so technical.

In its history, the discipline of religious studies had to define itself against traditional religious communities. In my opinion, our field no longer has to distance itself from these communities in an attempt to justify itself. This isn’t a battle we have to fight anymore. I think that there are a lot of important things that scholars of ancient religions can offer religious communities. One thing is sharing our scholarship in religious forums – I am giving a talk at the local Jewish Community Center about a medieval Jewish commentator. When I give such a talk, I usually focus on the historicity of things – on the transformation of certain ideas, institutions or practices.

Q: What kinds of connections do you see between your research and your teaching?

A: I feel strongly that teaching inspires scholarship, and vice versa. I make it a point to show my students what scholarship is. In the U.S., the undergraduate curriculum is very broad, and students are accustomed to a textbook culture. There’s a tendency to teach the text without going into the debates. Conversely, in universities where undergraduate education is more specialized – like my education at Tel Aviv – professors involve students in scholarly debates from the beginning. Today, as a teacher, I want to give my students the chance to participate in these conversations from early on. Rather than simply telling them when Jesus was born, I’ll ask them how we know the year of his birth, and I’ll present them with the debates surrounding these questions. I try to give them a front row seat to how knowledge is created.

Q: What courses are you teaching this year?

A: Next quarter, I’m teaching RST 125: Dead Sea Scrolls, Apocrypha, and Pseudepigrapha. In the spring, I’m teaching RST 1B: Death and the Afterlife and RST 130 (section 2): The Formation of the Rabbinic Tradition. I’ve submitted proposals for several new courses, included a variation of the introductory course that will address the relationship between religion and law (RST 1H) and a wide-ranging course on the history of religion in antiquity that traces the formation of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (RST 12). I hope I’ll have the chance to teach these classes soon.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: I’m reading Karol Berger’s Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow: An Essay on the Origins of Musical Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007). I love reading about music. I find that the way I talk about the production of ancient texts is very much influenced by the way people talk about composers and film directors. For instance, Sergei Eisenstein’s innovative use of montage isn’t so different from the way many ancient religious texts were created – I’m interested in how artists or authors create new meaning by merely juxtaposing things together without necessarily changing them.


Christina Cogdell

christina-cogdellChristina Cogdell joined the HArCS division at UC Davis this fall as an associate professor in the Art History and Design Programs. Prior to coming to Davis, she was an assistant professor of Art History at the College of Santa Fe. She holds a B.A. and M.A. in American studies and a Ph.D. in art history. Her current research focuses on the relationship between contemporary architectural theory and practice and scientific theories of complex biological systems, including evolution, genetics and epigenetics, emergence, and self-organization. Cogdell sat down with the DHI on Nov 17, 2009 to chat about science, architecture, and the process of collaboration. The following is not a precise transcription of our conversation; instead, we worked together to summarize the highlights of our discussion.

Q: How did you come to the fields of American studies and art history?

A: I initially thought I was going to study criminal justice. But, during my freshman year, I took an American studies class that totally caught my imagination. I ended up getting a B.A. in American studies at the University of Texas, Austin, and I chose to complete an M.A. in the field at Notre Dame. I’d always liked looking at the arts from a cultural perspective, so I took quite a few classes in art history while I was working on my American studies degrees. I then decided to return to the University of Texas, Austin to pursue a Ph.D. in art history. My dissertation focused on design in relation to the history of popular science and within a larger cultural context and was, in many ways, between the fields of American studies and art history.

Q: Can you tell us a little more about your dissertation?

A: My dissertation project started with a graduate seminar on modern architecture and design. I wrote a paper on evolutionary themes and the sexually metaphorical layout of the Futurama, a building that Norman Bel Geddes created for the New York World’s Fair in 1939. As it turns out, Bel Geddes’s papers were at UT. I was surprised to find a lot of books on eugenics in his archive, and I started thinking about the connections between his design projects and theories of eugenics. It seemed significant that Bel Geddes, who was the first to popularize and theorize streamlining, was the designer most explicitly interested in eugenics. This was the beginning of my dissertation research. I spent the next few years visiting the archives of eight designers and architects as well as a number of eugenics archives, and I began to recognize that the four main goals of these movements – streamlining and eugenics – were identical. This dissertation project later became my first book Eugenic Design: Streamlining American in the 1930s (UPenn, 2004).

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My new project looks at the links between contemporary architecture and systems theories, particularly ideas of self-organization and emergence as expressed through evolution, genetics, and computation. A few years ago, I came across an edited collection entitled Genetic Architectures (SITES, 2003), and I realized that there are a number of current architects deeply interested in evolutionary concepts and notions of fitness as expressed through the language of genetic algorithms. I was immediately struck by how similar their ideas sounded to everything I had written about the 1930s. Yet, there didn’t seem to be an historical awareness of the precedence for this kind of thinking. In the end, I felt that there was no option: this was my next project.

Ultimately, I want to trace the historical trajectory from theories of eugenic design to today’s ideas about genetic architecture, which began with the onset of computational architecture in the 1960s in London at the Architectural Association, in order to offer critical insight into the implications of the shifts that are occurring within architecture. I hope to interview ten or twenty architects involved in this type of work and to compile a book or an oral history archive of these interviews. It’s important to note that there isn’t a single movement happening; rather, there are many different schools and many different ideas. However, because architects tend not to publish very often, there isn’t much of a record of what different architects are saying. A richer collection of primary source materials would be quite useful for other architects and, of course, for my own research. I will also be traveling to the Architectural Association this year to examine their archives and learn about current theories and processes of generative design being taught there.

This is a huge project, though. While genetics and architecture might sound similar to eugenics and design, there is, in fact, a huge gulf between these historical moments. If I really want to do justice to the movement toward genetic architecture, I need to have a better understanding of the developments in science and computation over the last seventy years. Consequently, I am also in the process of learning more about changes that have occurred in theories of evolution, genetics and epigenetics, and complex systems.

Q: What are the challenges facing humanities scholars who are engaging cutting-edge scientific research?

A: I’ve been thinking a lot about the quandary facing humanities scholars trying to do this kind of interdisciplinary work. Specifically, I’ve been considering the limits and possibilities of collaboration. Last year, as an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, I had the opportunity to work closely with an architect and a molecular biologist who do collaborative research. In my opinion, there is a lot to be gained from these kinds of collaborations. In terms of my own project, I’m not sure that I can or should study systems biology and evolutionary theory on my own. I would benefit greatly from conversations with scholars in other fields, and I like to think that my collaborators would learn something from me. Given the ways in which systems thinking is pervading so many other disciplines, I don’t think that my situation is all that unique. It’s not going to be rare for humanities scholars to be looking for collaborative opportunities with scholars in the sciences.

Unfortunately, the organizational structure of the university limits the possibilities for these kinds of collaborations. This seems especially true for the humanities. In the sciences, researchers are required to collaborate with one another, and multi-author articles are expected and respected. At the moment, there isn’t a model for doing collaborative work in the humanities, and there isn’t a way to judge this scholarship in the tenure process. This raises some very important questions for humanities scholars exploring questions of science and technology.

Q: In what ways is your teaching connected to your research (and vice versa)?

A: Since becoming an academic, I have loved the American studies approach to analyzing creative production. So that’s how I teach. I try to situate a particular image, object, building, or movement in the larger cultural context and in relation to the ideas and beliefs that influenced the artists or creators. In that sense, regardless of the course I’m teaching, my research methods and approaches guide the shape of the class. This year, I’m teaching a few classes directly related to my past research. This fall I taught AMS 101C: Special Topics, which focused on the history of American eugenics, and this winter I am teaching AMS 30: Images of America and AHI 250/DES 222: Design in Context, which bring together my interests in American studies and design history. In the future, I’m hoping to teach a class similar to the senior seminar I did at U Penn last year called “Nature Theorized, Nature Materialized.” This course examined architecture and design in relation to theories of nature and really allowed me to bring my current research interests into the classroom setting.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: I am currently reading David J. Depew and Bruce H. Weber’s Darwinism Evolving: Systems Dynamics and the Genealogy of Natural Selection (MIT Press, 1995) and Eva Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb’s Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life (MIT Press, 2005). On the architectural side, I’m reading Greg Lynn Form (Rizzoli, 2008), a compendium of Lynn’s work thus far, as well as the latest issues from the journal Architectural Design. In my opinion, this is the best publication dealing with emergence, morphogenetics, and programming in relation to contemporary architecture.


Jenny Kaminer

kaminerJenny Kaminer joined the HArCS division at UC Davis this fall as an assistant professor in the Russian Program. Prior to coming to Davis, she taught as a visiting assistant professor of Russian at Oberlin College and then as a lecturer for the Department of Russian and Slavonic Studies at the University of Sheffield (UK). Her research focuses on questions of gender in Russian culture as well as the role of comedy in Russian theatre and literature. Kaminer sat down with the DHI on Nov 10, 2009 to chat about her current project on representations of maternity in Russian culture. The following is not a precise transcription of our conversation; instead, we worked together to summarize the highlights of our discussion.

Q: What brought you to the field of Russian language and literature?

A: I developed an interest in Russian studies and, more broadly, Russian culture through my family background. My parents moved from the Ukraine to the U.S. when I was very small, so I had the fortune of being exposed to the language and the culture from a young age. As a child, I often rolled my eyes when my parents told me that I would regret it if I didn’t learn about my heritage. I never really appreciated learning Russian until I got to university and started taking Russian literature classes. As soon as I was out of my parents’ shadow, I was able to explore the culture in my own way, and I became a Russian major.

After finishing my undergraduate degree, I had originally planned to study comparative literature. But, during the four years between my undergraduate and graduate careers, I found that my main research interests lie in Russian culture. Specifically, I wanted to focus on representations of women in Russian literature. During my first year of graduate school, I read a novel (The Time: Night by Liudmila Petrushevskaia) that seemed to deconstruct the myth of the noble Russian mother, and I began thinking about representations of negative maternity in Russian culture. What does it mean to be a bad mother in the context of a culture like Russia’s that has always revered maternity? This is the question that I try to answer in my dissertation. Currently, as I’m revising that project into a book, I’m trying to situate my conclusions within a broader European framework.

Q: What is the historical scope of your project?

A: Figuring out how to keep the scope manageable has been one of the major methodological problems I’m facing. It is important to note that I’m not trying to provide an encyclopedic account of every image of motherhood since the beginning of time; rather, I’m trying to situate the examples I highlight within a very specific historical and social context. I focus on what I would describe as the three most historically significant decades of Soviet and post-Soviet Russian history in the past 150 years. The first section of my book focuses on motherhood during the 1870s, which is the time of the Great Reforms that followed the emancipation of the serfs in Russia. I then jump to the 1920s to ask what it means to be a mother after the October Revolution, when the traditional family was meant to disappear. One of the first laws that the Bolsheviks passed was designed to destroy the traditional family. Finally, the last section looks at the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century, the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In this last section, I examine the media coverage of a terrorist attack in Moscow that took place in 2002. A group of Chechens – including several females – stormed a theatre and took hundreds of people hostage. Although there were female terrorists in Russia during the nineteenth century, this was one of the first incidents in the contemporary period. I became fascinated with how journalists and other Russian observers were fixated on the fact that these women had to be mothers – either actual mothers or potential mothers. They seemed to fixate on this idea of maternal instinct as a way of neutralizing the volatility of women who turned to violence and betrayed their sex. This aspect of my project has some bearing on larger questions of terrorism in Russia, so I applied for a research grant from the American Council for Teachers of Russian, which provides funding for work that has “policy relevance.” With their support, I was able to spend six months in Russia, conducting research in libraries and archives.

Q: Have you started thinking about your next project?

A: My next project is going back to my earliest interests as a graduate student. There are very few points of convergence between this new project and my dissertation research. I had majored in Russian and theatre as an undergraduate, so I initially intended to focus on a dramatic topic. My M.A. project – which I recently published as an article in The Russian Review – examines the intersections between literature and theatre in the works of Mikhail Zoshchenko, a very popular satirist in the 1920s. I was intrigued by the ways in which he satirized and debunked what the Russian theatrical community found to be its new sense of self-importance after the October Revolution. I would be interested in continuing my investigation of how literary writers represented the theatre’s grand project of helping to create the new Soviet citizen. But I’m also interested in writing a history of the Russian comedic hero or heroine from the eighteenth century to the present. My next project will take one of these two paths.

Q: In what ways does your research connect to your teaching?

A: My approach to research and teaching involves looking not at literature in isolation but alongside sociological and historical texts. That is, I’m interested in the intersections between culture and society. How are the two influencing each other? Whatever project I undertake, I always situate the cultural texts within a much broader framework, and I try to understand literary topics in relation to larger social topics.

This fall, I’m teaching RUS 127: 19th Century Russian Poetry and RUS 142: Women’s Autobiography. I’m used to teaching courses that explore topics from various disciplinary perspectives and through multiple genres, so I initially felt a little constricted with RUS 127 knowing that I had to stick to poetry. In the end, I was able to craft the class in a way that reflects my own interests. I provided students with examples of poetry from the Golden Age that appear in other media forms, like film or opera. We were then able to discuss the process of transposing poetry into another medium. RUS 142 – which focuses on women in Russian culture from the late-Soviet/post-Soviet period – is much more in line with my research interests. In addition to reading works of prose, we’re also looking a little bit of drama, and we’re watching a film for each of the three thematic units.

Q: Why, in your opinion, do the humanities matter?

A: It is important to teach students how to think critically and how to analyze the world around them. You also need to teach them how to express their ideas in both written and oral form. I don’t know if there is any other forum in the university capable of doing that besides the humanities. I also think that students should learn to speak foreign languages. While there are an increasing number of people who speak English in the world, I don’t think that foreign language skills are any less relevant in the twenty-first century. Teaching foreign language is important not only in terms of students’ global competitiveness but also as a way of introducing them to other cultures.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: I’m constantly reading fifteen things at once. Currently, I’m in the process of preparing a paper for a conference that I’ll be attending. But I also try to have one thing that I read for no practical purpose and that I just read slowly for pleasure. Right now, I’m reading Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Place in the World (New York: Twelve, 2008), which is the featured book for the 2009-10 Campus Community Book Project.


Corrie Decker

decker-photoCorrie Decker joined the Social Sciences division at UC Davis this fall as an assistant professor in the Department of History. Prior to coming to Davis, she taught African history as a member of the Department of African and African American Studies at Lehman College, a senior college of the City University of New York. Her research focuses on twentieth-century social and cultural history of East Africa, with an emphasis on childhood, education, gender, and sexuality. Decker sat down with the DHI on Nov 10, 2009 to chat about her work on Zanzibar and Kenya. The following is not a precise transcription of our conversation; instead, we worked together to summarize the highlights of our discussion.

Q: Why African history? How did you come to this field of study?

A: It was an academic interest that I developed while I was in college. I had really fantastic professors of African history as an undergraduate at Bryn Mawr. At some point, I took a Swahili course at night. I did office work for a few years after graduating from college, which made me realize quickly that I wanted to go to graduate school for African history. I wanted to learn more about Swahili, so I ended up doing work in East Africa and spending time on the coast. This region became the focus of my dissertation.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your dissertation?

A: My dissertation focused on colonial girls’ education in Zanzibar. I came to this project after stumbling upon a file in British colonial archives about a girls’ school in Zanzibar that made a set of dolls for the queen of England in 1931. The set consisted of two pairs – a boy and a girl – of dolls; one pair was dressed in Arab costume, the other in European costume. The girls wanted to demonstrate that they were learning to sew both types of clothing for men and women. This immediately sparked my interest. It is very unique to see a girls’ school run by the colonial government in this period.

In addition to doing archival research, I also interviewed former students and teachers in Zanzibar. I met a woman in my neighborhood who agreed to help me with my research. Through informal networking, we managed to track down people who were involved as teachers or students in the schools under the colonial system. However, given the postcolonial politics of colonial education, there weren’t that many women still alive and still in Zanzibar who were willing to talk with me about their experiences. Many women didn’t want to talk openly about their connections to the elite or urban schools that developed under the colonial system. Though people in their communities knew that they were connected to colonial education, they had to be careful about openly discussing it.

I’m now going back to finish the book project that came out of this dissertation. The book is a more comparative project that brings in the research I did in Mombassa as well. There are similar histories in terms of colonial education in Zanzibar and Kenya, but the colonial states had very different investments in girls’ education. In short, the book is a revision and an expansion of the dissertation.

Q: Have you started thinking about your next project?

A: I’ve already started a new project that traces how sex education and adolescent culture change in the 20th century. I’m still a little fuzzy on the geographical scope of this project, but I’m starting with Zanzibar and will probably extend to the Swahili coast. I’m looking at ukungwi, or indigenous initiation practices, including individual mentoring and group instruction through dance and song, designed to teach girls about sex and marriage, and I want to see how these changed with the development of western schools. How did western scientific approaches to sex education – which emphasized biology and hygiene and avoided talk of sex directly – influence indigenous practices, and vice versa? These practices continue to appear today. I have found many contemporary references in newspapers – and even a video posted online – of how the initiation dance is still performed at wedding ceremonies and other public events. Yet, when I interviewed one of the most well-known initiation instructors, who is now over ninety years old, she told me that these practices don’t occur anymore. Ultimately, I want to understand how the meaning and context of these practices have changed since the early twentieth century.

Q: What is the relationship between the questions you ask and the methods you use?

A: African history is a field of interdisciplinary methodologies. Because archival documents tend to be written from a European or other foreign perspective, oral history is a way of getting at perspectives and details otherwise silenced in the documents. Africanist historians are unique in the sense that oral history is more central to our methodology. In other fields, oral history might function only as a way to fill out, but not necessarily challenge, the archive, although this is changing in some fields. In African history, we very much try to look at different kinds of sources on equal merit. This is especially true in terms of my new project. Questions of gender and sexuality aren’t easily investigated within the archive, so the practice of oral history is particularly important.

For the new project, I am looking at government-planned syllabi from the colonial period, but I am also interviewing people to find out what they learned about sex in and outside school. There are some archival references – in travel narratives and ethnographic accounts – to the indigenous initiation practices I mentioned. But I’m also planning to do more widespread interviews with women regardless of their educational background on their experiences with these practices. There are methodological problems with this approach, though. In the interviews that I’ve already done, I’m realizing the challenge of asking people about what happened when they were teenagers, which was in some cases over fifty years ago. I’ve been getting ahistorical, formulaic responses rather than hearing about specific individual experiences. They tell me how the practices were done, and they suggest that it happened to everyone the same way. It’s really difficult to unpack these summaries, so this project is going to involve a lot of investigative work and historical imagination.

Q: Would you describe your work as community-engaged scholarship?

A: My work is very connected to the community. But I struggle with the fact that most of my writing is inaccessible to the people I’m writing about. This is partially because of the language barrier. I can speak Swahili, but it would be quite a feat to translate my work. This might be something to think about for the future. Moreover, not everyone I interview is literate, even if they did go to school for a few years. Several of the women I interviewed for my dissertation research asked me to bring them a copy of the book, so there is some interest. As much as I can, I try to get feedback on my work from the community. For instance, I have a friend in London who is related to two of the families I interviewed in Mombasa, Kenya. She also happens to be doing a documentary on her grandfather who was a governor during the colonial period. I sent one of my articles to her, and she and her father looked it over. Their feedback was really reassuring and very helpful. They made sure that I didn’t make any faux pas in representing the family and that I got the spelling of names correct. The process of getting feedback is really important to me.

Q: What are you reading now?

A: I am currently teaching HIS102O: Girlhood in the Modern World, which focuses on the history of girlhood in Africa and the world. For this class, I’m re-reading Audrey Richards’ Chisungu: A Girl’s Initiation Ceremony among the Bemba of Northern Rhodesia (London: Faber, 1956). It’s fascinating reading this not as an ethnography (I read it the first time for an anthropology course in college) but as part of the historical narrative of girlhood. It really helps me think about my own work in more comparative ways.


David Copp

David Copp

David Copp returned to UC Davis as a professor in the Department of Philosophy this fall. He taught here from 1989 to 1998, and he is thrilled to be back at Davis. During his time away, he taught philosophy at Bowling Green State University and, most recently, the University of Florida, Gainesville. Professor Copp sat down with the DHI on November 4, 2009 to chat about his research, the field of philosophy, and the humanities. The following is not a precise transcription of our conversation; instead, we worked together to summarize the highlights of our discussion.

Q: What drew you to the field of philosophy?

A: Even when I was a kid, I found myself thinking about philosophical issues. I worried, for instance, about whether there is a god and about the limits of our knowledge. You don’t get to do philosophy in high school, but I was intuitively thinking about these things. In college, I met faculty who were similarly motivated. These philosophers really excited me; their job was to probe the really difficult, deep issues, issues of real significance to how people see themselves and their lives. They made me want to keep doing this. I finished my B.A. and applied to graduate school. I was accepted, and I ended up getting a job when I was done. Teaching is great. I really enjoy helping my students think about stuff. I think that doing research is fun. If things had gone differently, I might have reluctantly gone into something else. Perhaps law or foreign affairs.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your research?

A: My main line of research is moral and political philosophy. I’m interested in the debates surrounding questions of morality. Does morality have any foundation to it? Some people think that it’s all a matter of feelings or emotions. Others think that it’s just a cultural thing: we’re raised in certain ways, we end up with certain attitudes, and that’s the whole story. I don’t agree with people who think these ways. I’m also interested in political philosophy. For example, why do we believe in democracy? Given how wacky some voters’ ideas are, why do we think that democracy is a good idea? I’m basically interested in normative issues: how we ought to act and how society ought to be organized.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve got many things going on at the moment. I’m working on a book project on normative thinking and broad questions of ethics. What is the basis of our ideas about what counts as rational and moral? How should we live? But I’m also working on several smaller projects that focus on more particular things. I’m in the process of finishing a paper on democracy. I’m also quite excited about a piece that I’m writing for The Oxford Handbook of Animals and Ethics (Oxford University Press, forthcoming). This volume brings together a number of different perspectives on the moral standing of non-human animals.

Q: How would you describe philosophy’s methodologies? What “data” do philosophers analyze?

A: That’s a large philosophical question. There is a longstanding debate in philosophy about what the methodology of philosophy should be. The debate has become more interesting in recent years because some philosophers have been arguing in favor of “experimental philosophy” and are interested in collecting empirical data. Some of them have been using MRIs to monitor the brain activity of subjects who are thinking about certain puzzle cases. The well-known Trolley Problems, for example, are designed to figure out whether there is a morally significant difference between doing harm and allowing harm. Experimentalists are interested in finding out, for example, whether it is the cognitive or the emotional part of the brain that lights up when people think about these puzzle cases. Other experimental philosophers rely on run-of-the-mill surveys to find out what people think. They use the insights that this data provides in developing answers to more theoretical questions. The traditional approach to thinking about philosophical questions uses thought experiments. But even philosophers who follow this more traditional approach are interested in what experimental philosophers are learning. Ultimately, you can’t just state opinions. You need to engage with the debates in the field, and you have to give arguments for your positions. This is not unlike other fields in the humanities.

Q: Who do you write for? Who is your imagined audience?

A: It depends on what I’m writing. The piece on ethics and animals is meant to be accessible – not necessarily to the average person – but it is not written just for philosophers. It should be accessible to advanced undergraduates, graduate students, and any intelligent reader willing to concentrate on the issues at hand. The more technical stuff, however, is probably only of interest to other philosophers. I have some interest in reaching a wider audience. If people are interested, that’s great. I hope to communicate with people outside the field, but that’s not my primary motivation when I’m writing.

Q: How does your research inform your teaching?

A: I’m teaching a course on the philosophical foundations of democracy (PHI 16: Philosophical Foundations of American Democracy). It’s an interdisciplinary course that explores questions about democracy. Is there a good reason to favor majority rule? We don’t actually have majority rule in the American system, of course. Is this a flaw in the system? Should the rights of the majority be limited (such as through something like the Bill of Rights)? We’re reading the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers, and we’re discussing issues of institutional design. We’re also reading philosophical texts about democracy and human rights. At the end of the quarter, we’ll be reading political science and legal texts and perhaps watching a few films (including Battle of Algiers [1966] and Death and the Maiden [1994]) as we start discussing philosophical questions about torture. I think the use of torture in interrogation raises issues that are very important to look at in a class on democracy. For instance, what do we think about cases where the state feels threatened by internal or foreign threats? If we favor a democracy with a limited set of powers, is there a point at which an exception should be made to majority rule or to the rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights in order to protect the security of the country? I wouldn’t normally show films or assign texts that aren’t clearly philosophical in a philosophy course, but I’m trying to make the class as accessible as possible for people with a variety of interests. At the same time, I’m insisting that they try to think systematically about the issues and debates.

Q: Why do you think that the humanities matter?

A: That seems easy. I think that the sorts of issues we’ve been talking about – these humanistic questions – are fundamental issues for any society to confront. How should a society be organized? How should we make public policy? How should we live? These are rather philosophical questions. But other fields in the humanities are also tackling these questions. For instance, these issues come up in poems and novels. Poets and novelists obviously don’t write about these questions in the way a philosopher would, but their writings do raise these questions. I realize that the humanities doesn’t bring in the research money that the sciences and social sciences do. But it strikes me as astonishing that someone could think humanities research is not important. Our teaching is important, too. We help our students to write better and think better. We want them to be able to think critically about these issues.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: I’m reading Richard Russo’s recent novel, Bridge of Sighs (Knopf, 2007). I’m also reading things on animals and philosophy for the piece that I’m writing for the Oxford Handbook. I’ve been looking at books on well-being and morality, such as the work of Richard Kraut and L.W. Sumner. It would be arbitrary and speciesist to assume that the idea of well-being only applies to humans, so these books have been helpful in thinking about ethical questions about our treatment of non-human animals.

This page was last updated: February 1, 2011

 

 

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