Lauren Rubenstein

Director of Media & Public Relations at Wesleyan University

Dancey on the Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis

Logan Dancey

Logan Dancey

Associate Professor of Government Logan Dancey’s research and teaching interests include the United States Congress, campaigns and elections, and public opinion. We spoke to him about the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

As a scholar of legislative decision-making, can you describe how the workings of the United States Congress look different during a time of crisis?

It’s still early, but the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic shows that even this gridlocked and polarized Congress—which doesn’t seem to accomplish much in normal times—is still fairly quick to respond to crises. We’ve seen large bipartisan majorities agree on fairly large-scale responses to the pandemic. I think that’s to be expected given the magnitude of the problem, as well as the incentives that members of Congress have to try to solve problems as they arise. When crises like this are forced onto Congress’s agenda and they have no choice but to act, it can break down those partisan and ideological divisions that seem so strong during normal times, though the legislative outcomes may not be perfect or satisfy everyone.

Aalgaard: COVID-Related Incidents Part of a Long “Historical Arc of Anti-Asian Racism”

Scott Aalgaard

Scott Aalgaard

Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies Scott Aalgaard studies modern and contemporary Japan, including the experiences of Japanese-Americans during World War II, when approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent were forced into internment camps. We spoke to him about the echoes of that history in the surge in racist incidents against Asian-Americans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professor Aalgaard, as we think about the increase in racist acts against people of Asian descent in the United States today, can you please offer a brief history of racism faced by Asian-Americans?

The first thing that I want to argue is that we can’t understand either the Japanese internment during the Pacific War or the present crisis with racism surrounding the coronavirus as exceptions. Racism is very much the norm instead of the exception in this country and others. It’s also critical to understand that racism isn’t just about vilifying the other, it’s about solidifying a sense of a pure self. In the North American context, that sense of self is understood as white. This is an argument that Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in his writings about how the construct of whiteness itself was created by positively contrasting it against blackness at the time of slavery.

Cohan: Human Behavior Affects Virus Evolution

Frederick Cohan

Frederick Cohan

Frederick Cohan, the Huffington Foundation Professor in the College of the Environment, professor of biology, is a microbial ecologist whose course “Global Change and Infectious Disease” examines how human disturbance of the environment contributes to infectious disease outbreaks. He also researches the origins of diversity among both bacteria and viruses.

In early February, as the novel coronavirus was beginning to spread, Cohan wrote an article in The Conversation, co-authored with PhD candidate Kathleen Sagarin and Kelly Mei ’20, titled, “A Clue to Stopping Coronavirus: Knowing How Viruses Adapt From Animals to Humans.”

Cohan also was interviewed recently by The Wesleyan Argus about the biology of the coronavirus.

You teach a course on Global Change and Infectious Disease, which looks at how human disturbance of the environment can contribute to infectious disease outbreaks like the one we’re now living through. Can you give us a brief introduction to the course?

I teach this course every year or two, and there are usually over 170 students enrolled. I’m also in the middle of writing a book based on the course content. We talk about five categories of environmental disturbance that humans are creating or have created in the past that bring new diseases to us or exacerbate existing ones. The categories are: demand for food (hunting and agriculture), demand for land (living at high density), demand for travel, demand for energy, and demand for health care (including antibiotics).

McGuire Studies the Relationship Between Democracy and Public Health

James McGuire

Professor of Government James McGuire is a political scientist with expertise in the association between democracy and public health.

You study the relationship between democracy and population health. Does the literature find that democracy is good for population health?

As a political scientist I’ve long been interested in democracy, and especially in its possible impact on other aspects of well-being. Many other political scientists have studied democracy’s impact on economic growth and income inequality. My interest has been in democracy’s impact on the risk of early death, and particularly on child mortality in developing countries. For Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, whose capabilities approach I endorse, the end of human development is to enable each of us to lead a thoughtfully chosen life. To live the life one has reason to choose, however, one has to be alive.

For my forthcoming book Democracy and Population Health, I reviewed more than 200 quantitative studies of the association between the two phenomena. On balance, these studies find that democracy is usually, but not invariably, beneficial for population health. One can certainly dredge up examples of authoritarian countries that have done well. China, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba have reduced infant mortality quite steeply over the past 30 years, but for every such case there is a North Korea, Venezuela, or Zimbabwe—authoritarian countries where infant mortality has declined only at a glacial pace.

Fowler: Effective Communication Around Health Crises Has “Life-Saving Consequences”

Erika Franklin Fowler

Erika Franklin Fowler

Associate Professor of Government Erika Franklin Fowler is an expert on political communication. When she’s not analyzing campaign advertising with the Wesleyan Media Project, she investigates how media, including ads and news, influence opinions and attitudes in a variety of health-related policy areas. Her past studies, many of which are co-authored with Sarah Gollust ’01, have examined media around the Affordable Care Act, mammography screening and the HPV vaccine.

“I’m drawn to research on messaging at the intersection of health and politics because it has such important—sometimes life-saving—consequences for citizens, and there are practical actions we can all take to improve the information environment,” said Fowler.

As the current coronavirus pandemic unfolded, Fowler reached out to government leaders in Connecticut with advice on communicating effectively in order to best protect public health. Here was some of the advice she shared:

  • We know from prior situations that the time is now for government (and specifically health authorities) to get out in front with simple clear messaging. Uncertainty and a lack of clear communication to ordinary citizens breeds lots of opportunity for misinformation and risks confusion in behavior that is very dangerous to the state’s public health response.

Dubar: Psychological Well-Being and Sleep Health in Troubling Times

Royette Dubar

Royette Dubar

Assistant Professor of Psychology Royette Dubar leads the Sleep & Psychosocial Adjustment Lab at Wesleyan. She’s a developmental psychologist who studies the links between sleep and a range of indices, including emotional well-being, academic performance, quality of interpersonal relationships, and technology use, in adolescents and emerging adults. She has just launched a new study on the psychosocial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic among adolescents and the challenges that come with it, especially for college seniors.

Your research focuses on sleep and psychosocial well-being among young people ages 15 to 29 years old. The pandemic and near-global shutdown has been extremely disruptive to everyday life, and many college students are struggling with needing to abruptly leave their campus homes and transition to distance learning. How do you anticipate this will affect them?

While at this point, I think many students have come to understand the motivations for suspending in-person classes, the move to distance learning has, undoubtedly, been generally upsetting and stressful for students. One of the factors that leads to stress is not being able to control what’s going on. At Wesleyan, as at numerous other colleges and universities, students did not have much time to process the switch to online learning and it was not a decision they could control.

Shusterman Offers Advice for Families on Transitioning to Homeschooling

Anna Shusterman with her sons Max and Reuben

Anna Shusterman with her sons Max and Reuben.

Anna Shusterman, associate professor of psychology and co-coordinator of education studies, studies learning and conceptual development in children. In this Q&A, we asked her for advice for families on transitioning children to distance learning during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Q: How should parents talk to kids about what’s happening in the world and why their daily lives look so different?

A: Full disclosure: I am not a clinician. However, as a parent and a research psychologist, I think it’s important for parents to validate their children’s emotions rather than dismissing them or telling them they are being silly. It’s also important that we’re not running around in a state of panic, as this can be too unsettling for kids. Children feel our stress and they need real social connection, so some time should be made for sitting together, talking, and reading books, when parents put their phones away, too. NPR’s Life Kit has good advice on talking to kids about scary current events.

No matter what else is happening, young children need human connection—board games, talking, working together on a project, cooking, anything together, the more child-led the better. Here’s a good commonsense report on the topic.

Q: What is your advice for parents on helping kids transition to distance learning?

A: Try to set up a gentle routine that involves getting up, getting dressed, chores, exercise, creativity, academics, regular meals, and sleep. By age 5 or 6, children can be a part of the conversation to create this schedule.

Grossman on Mitigating the Economic Fallout from the Coronavirus

Grossman

Richard Grossman

Richard Grossman, professor and chair of economics, is an expert in economic history as well as current policy issues in macroeconomics, banking, and finance. In this Q&A, we asked him about the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, and how the government is responding in efforts to mitigate the damage.

Q: We’ve all seen the headlines about a coronavirus-induced recession. What is the current state of the economy, and what do you predict we’ll see over the coming months?

A: Prior to the virus outbreak, the American economy was doing well by conventional standards. The unemployment rate was 3.5% in March, down from a peak of 10% around a decade ago. According to the government’s most recent estimate (released on Feb. 27), real gross domestic product grew by 2.3% in 2019. Not stellar, but high relative to other developed economies. It is going to get substantially worse quite soon.

Johnston: What History Can Teach Us About the COVID-19 Pandemic

Bill Johnston

Bill Johnston

William Johnston, the John E. Andrus Professor of History, is a historian who studies disease and medicine, with expertise in epidemics of infectious diseases. In this Q&A, Johnston discusses the novel coronavirus outbreak and what can be learned from the past.

Q: How and when did you start studying the history of disease and medicine?

A: About 30 years ago, I wrote my dissertation on the subject, which became my first book, The Modern Epidemic: A History of Tuberculosis in Japan. Around that time, people were starting to consider epidemics of infectious diseases a thing of the past that were no longer of concern to us, but then HIV took off. I’ve continued to study and teach on the history of disease and pandemics ever since.

Q: Please tell us about the course you teach.

A: It’s called Critical Approaches to the History of Disease and Epidemics. Ironically, almost every year I’ve taught it, the world has seen another major epidemic. I’m offering it again this semester, and our first day of class was January 23, just as the novel coronavirus was emerging as a serious threat in China. Seeing that this was coming down the pike, I adjusted the direction of the course to incorporate a combination of historical readings and articles from contemporary medical journals. For example, I gave students one reading on the plague and how it went pandemic in the Middle Ages—what it took for that to happen.

Longenecker in The Conversation: A Brief History of Invisibility on Screen

Wesleyan faculty frequently publish articles based on their scholarship in The Conversation US, a nonprofit news organization with the tagline “Academic rigor, journalistic flair.” In this article, Marc Longenecker ’03, MA ’07, assistant professor of the practice in film studies, explains the history of invisible characters in films. Longenecker ’03 majored in film studies and physics for his BA, and film studies for his MA.

Elisabeth Moss stars in the latest adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novel. Universal Pictures

Elisabeth Moss stars in the latest adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel. (Photo by Universal Pictures)

A brief history of invisibility on screen

What would you do if you could be invisible? Would this newfound power bring out the best in you, instilling you with the courage to discreetly sabotage the efforts of evildoers? Or would the ability to slip in and out of rooms unnoticed tap into darker impulses?

This alluring fantasy has long been fodder for filmmakers, many of whom have taken cues from the eponymous character in H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel, The Invisible Man.

First adapted to the screen in 1933, the invisible man (and his descendents) appeared in six films from 1933 to 1951. Now, he’ll be making his latest screen (dis)appearance in a film directed by Leigh Whannell. This iteration takes a horror-movie tack: Its protagonist, played by Elisabeth Moss, is harassed by an ex who has faked his own death. But beyond “The Invisible Man” franchise, the concept of invisibility has inspired a raft of movies over the decades.

As a film professor who studies adaptations and series, I’m most interested in the versatility of these invisible characters. They can star in cautionary tales or embody underdog heroes; they can act as vessels for social critique or vehicles for masochistic power fantasies.

Wesleyan in the News

NewsWesleyan in the News
1. The Open Mind: “Democratizing the Jury”

Associate Professor of Government Sonali Chakravarti is interviewed in connection with her new book, Radical Enfranchisement in the Jury Room and Public Life, in which she offers a “full-throated defense of juries as a democratic institution.” “I am very interested in how ordinary people engage with political institutions, and juries are the place where ordinary people have the most power,” she says. Chakravarti calls for more robust civic education, continuing into adulthood, in order to have a “more effective, modern jury system.”

2. Hartford Courant: “Sen. Murphy, Aiming to Expand Pell Grant Eligibility for Incarcerated Students, Hears from Inmates at York Correctional Institution”

Senator Chris Murphy, who is the co-sponsor of a bill to expand the federal Pell grant program for college students to include inmates, met with 11 inmates who have participated in educational programs at York Correctional Institution through the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education and other college-in-prison programs.“What’s important about the REAL Act is that college affordability should be accessible to all students regardless of where they are,” said CPE program manager Allie Cislo. “It’s one thing rhetorically to commit to reentry,” she said, but resources like educational programs “can make or break it for people.”

3. American Theatre: “Digging for New Roots”

This article on “climate change theatre” features Ocean Filibuster, a play by Assistant Professor of Theater Katie Pearl through her theater company, PearlDamour. Commenting on the play’s premise, in which a new Senate bill proposes sentencing the world’s oceans to death and the ocean stands to speak in its own defense, Pearl said, “We thought, well, what if the ocean finally got fed up with taking all of our crap, and started talking and didn’t stop until we actually shut up and listened?” American Theatre, a leading publication in the theater industry, writes: “Ocean Filibuster recalibrates the human experience by reminding us of the comparatively small scale and depth of our own existence.”

Engage 2020 Off to a Running Start

E2020Wesleyan’s new Engage 2020 Initiative (E2020) is facilitating student educational experiences in the public sphere ahead of the 2020 elections. As part of this initiative, Wesleyan also is highlighting the contributions of higher education more broadly in promoting democracy.

Over the past few months, Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78 has been speaking with other higher education leaders about the “shared responsibilities of higher education institutions for developing civically engaged citizens and contributing to the civic life of the United States.”

While the particulars of this work may look different at each institution, leaders at schools around the US have registered their commitment to three core principles:

  1. Developing civic preparedness is a core element of the mission of American higher education.
  2. Participating in American political life helps students learn from a diversity of ideas and people while developing skills for lifelong, active citizenship.
  3. Empowering students and teachers to engage with the complex issues facing the country are crucial facets of higher education’s contributions to the common good.

So far, over 60 other colleges and universities have joined Wesleyan in affirming these principles. These schools represent a broad cross-section of higher education, including public and private institutions, liberal arts colleges and research institutions, secular and religious colleges. A full list of these institutions, which will be continually updated as new schools sign on, can be viewed here.