Faculty

Stemler: Schools’ Mission Statements Can Guide Educators, Homeschooling Parents Amid Social Distancing

Steve Stemler

Steve Stemler

Steve Stemler, associate professor of psychology and co-coordinator of education studies, has spent two decades systematically studying the purposes of school. He is the co-author, together with Dr. Damian Bebell, of The School Mission Statement and maintains the web resource purposeofschool.com. He is the author of an op-ed recently published in The Hartford Courant that provides advice for parents who are now educating their children at home due to coronavirus-related school closures.

You’ve done a good deal of research on the purpose of school, a topic on the minds of many parents these days as they’re getting an up-close look at their children’s daily school experiences. Can you tell us how you went about studying the purpose of school? 

One of the main techniques I use to study school purpose involves systematically analyzing and coding the content of school mission statements. School mission statements have a couple of advantages. First, they are the one common denominator that all schools share. In order to be accredited, schools are required to have a mission statement, so that provides a very nice common element. In addition, they are typically short statements that are meant as public documents that communicate the fundamental values of the school. I have also conducted survey, focus group, and interview research on the dimensions of schooling that people find important.

Shapiro Remembered for “Magnificent Translations,” Witticisms

Norman Shapiro, professor of french.

Norman Shapiro

Norman Shapiro, Distinguished Professor of Literary Translation and Poet in Residence, formerly professor of romance languages and literatures, died April 3 at the age of 89.

Shapiro arrived at Wesleyan in 1960 after receiving his BA and MA from Harvard University, completing a Fulbright Fellowship at Université d’Aix-Marseille in France, and returning to Harvard for his PhD. He stepped down from regular duties in 2017 but continued in his roles as Distinguished Professor of Literary Translation and Poet in Residence.

In addition to his classes in Romance languages and literatures, Shapiro also taught American Sign Language and served as the faculty advisor to DKE for almost 60 years. For their 50th reunion book, the class of 1965 named Shapiro as the faculty member who had the biggest impact on their post-Wesleyan lives. One former student was quoted as saying, “Those of us who had the privilege of knowing Norm as a counselor and mentor will remember his natural ability to guide us through our transition from childhood to adulthood. He ‘got us.’”

Plous: Learning from Social Psychology at a Time of Crisis

Scott Plous

Scott Plous

Professor of Psychology Scott Plous is a social psychologist whose research focuses on prejudice and discrimination, decision-making, and ethical issues relating to animals and the environment. He has a long-standing interest in web-based research and teaching, and has taught a Social Psychology massive open online course (MOOC) on the Coursera platform since July 2013. We spoke to him about what social psychology can teach us in these challenging times.

What are you teaching this semester, and how have you adapted your course for distance learning?

I’m teaching an advanced seminar on the Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination. Because the class has only 15 students, it’s been relatively easy to teach online using Zoom. I simply tile the full class in gallery view so I can see everybody, and all the students can see each other as well. I’m able to play videos, share PowerPoint slides and PDF documents, and even hold pop quizzes. Zoom also allows us to hold breakout sessions, and I can jump between several small groups of students as they have conversations. I’ve found that Wesleyan students are incredibly generous and forgiving if there’s a technical glitch or a little bit of a learning curve. They’ve been tremendous good sports, and we’re finding our way together.

Wesleyan in the News

NewsWesleyan in the News

  1. Inside Higher Ed: “Contagious Civic Engagement”

In this essay, Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth ’78 calls for a “virtuous contagion” to stimulate voting and other forms of civic engagement among young people, and writes about how this can still be possible at a time of social distancing. “The best way to attack cynicism, apathy or voter suppression is through authentic civic engagement between elections,” he writes. “One of the great things about this kind of engagement is that it is contagious. As we replicate efforts to bring people into the political process, we create habits of engagement and participation. Concern for the public sphere—like a virus—can spread. Usually this happens through face-to-face interaction, but now we must turn to virtual tools—notorious in recent years for being deployed to misinform or stir hatred—to strengthen networks for democracy.”

2. WSHU Public Radio’s “Off the Path from New York to Boston”: “Be(a)man”

Visiting Assistant Professor of African American Studies Jesse Nasta ’07 is interviewed for this NPR podcast, which examines the histories behind sites from New York to Boston. He discusses the Beman family, who founded the Beman Triangle neighborhood of freed African American slaves, as well as Middletown’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. “There’s so much amnesia around New England slavery,” said Nasta. “But the other part of it is how [the Bemans] emerged from enslavement by the 1800s, built free communities, built free churches, forged the Underground Railroad. And if you think about it, the church that they founded is still going strong two centuries later.”

3. Diverse: Issues in Higher Education: “Celebrating Women in the Academy”

Associate Professor of Chemistry Erika Taylor, who serves as faculty director of the McNair Program, is honored as one of the Top 35 Women in Higher Education. The profile notes: “Her research group has included over 75 students to date, spanning high schoolers to Ph.D. students, with women and other underrepresented students comprising more than three-quarters of her lab members. In addition to her research, she has been a passionate advocate for diversity, lending time and energy to provide opportunities in science for female, minority and low-income students. Taylor was awarded the Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching for her passion and dedication to supporting the academic and personal development of all of her students. Her track record of mentoring diverse students culminated in being named Wesleyan University’s McNair Program faculty director in 2018. Beyond Wesleyan, she founded and continues to run a Girls in Science camp for elementary through middle school aged girls, which highlights the diversity of women that exists in science and raises funds to enable nearly half of the students to participate tuition free.”

4. Associated Press: “Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime? Echoes of ’30s in Viral Crisis?”

Richard Grossman, professor and chair of economics, spoke to the AP for an article comparing the current economic crisis, sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Great Depression of the 1930s.“There are more levers now for the government,” he said. “There’s a lot now that the government can do that it wouldn’t even have thought of doing in the 1930s.” One example is a rarely used 1950s-era level that Trump invoked last week, the Defense Production Act, which empowers the government to marshal private industry to accelerate production of key supplies in the name of national security.

5. The New Yorker: “Breaking Transmission: The Fight Against the Coronavirus Offers a Strategy for Cutting Carbon”

Citizen Outlaw, a book by Charles Barber, writer-in-residence in Letters, was cited in this article on interrupting cycles to solve serious problems as diverse as gang violence, the coronavirus, and climate change. “Jumping in at exactly the right time makes all the difference,” explains Barber, who has written extensively on mental-health and criminal-justice issues. He cites studies showing that, otherwise, a single death can lead to a cascade of violence. In an Illinois study, for instance, “a single incident . . . was linked through the victim’s social networks to 469 separate violent incidents.”

6. The Hartford Courant: “Learning from Home and Learning from School Have a Lot in Common”

In this op-ed, Associate Professor of Psychology Steve Stemler offers advice to parents who are now responsible for educating their children at home due to COVID-19-related school shutdowns. Drawing on his research on the purpose of school, he writes: “Many school districts are providing families with some form of online curriculum that includes instruction on all the academic subjects covered in schools. But, as educators know, schools strive to develop not just strong readers and mathematicians but also humans who are emotionally resilient and socially capable, who will contribute to the world as good citizens. Parents may have more to teach their children than they think.”

7. The New York Review of Books: “Pandemic Journal: Michael S. Roth, Middletown, Connecticut

Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth ’78 wrote a first-person account of the impact that COVID-19 has had on the University. He said, “Wesleyan is a residential school, one with a strong sense of engaged and community-based learning. Now, faculty are giving seminars and singing lessons at a distance, but we all know that the fabric of liberal education here comes from mutual entanglement.”

Alumni in the News

1. NPR: “David Biello: A Journey Into Uncharted Territory

In this experimental episode of TED Radio Hour, TED Science Curator David Biello ’95 takes listeners to uncharted places, such as outer space, the deep ocean, and our own brains.

2. Rolling Stone: “‘Blow the Man Down’: A Maine Noir with Money, Murder and Matriarchy

The debut feature film from Bridget Savage Cole ’05 and Danielle Krudy ’07, now streaming on Amazon, is reviewed. The New England noir’s review is favorable: “Blow the Man Down winds its way around the notion that behind every small town’s facade is a whole mess of secrets.”

3. Jazz Journal: “Chris Dingman: Embrace

Chris Dingman ’02 was interviewed about his latest album, Embrace. Embrace received a good review in the article. The album was referred to as “a beautifully warm ensemble sound, and the publicity cites influences from West African traditions and South Indian music, which Dingman has studied.”

4. Cord Cutters News: “Apple’s First Original Movie ‘The Banker’ Is Now Available to Stream

AppleTV+ released its first major movie, The Banker, starring Samuel L. Jackson, produced by Joel Viertel ’97. The article says, “The strong acting seems to be enough to carry the film – it got a 100% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes.”

Kolcio, Weiner, Winston to Serve as New Directors

In July, three faculty will begin new appointments at Wesleyan.

Katja Kolcio will succeed Peter Rutland as director of the Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life; Stephanie Weiner will succeed Sean McCann as director of the Shapiro Center for Writing; and Krishna Winston will succeed David Beveridge and Alex Dupuy as director of the Wasch Center for Retired Faculty.

Katja Kolcio

Katja Kolcio

Katja Kolcio, associate professor of dance, received certificates from Free Ukrainian University and from Kyiv Institute of Art and Culture; and her PhD from The Ohio State University. Her work specializes in the role of creative physical engagement in education, research, and social change. She has received choreographic fellowships from the New England Dance Fund and New York State Council of the Arts. Recent projects include collaborating on Facing Disasters: A Provocation/Invitation, and This Side of the Curtain: Ukrainian Resistance in Uncertain Times, a panel and performance designed around the topic of social action in an uncertain political context. She presented her research in Washington, D.C., at an event hosted by the Congressional and Senate Ukraine Caucuses in March 2020.

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.

Cote PhD ’18, Hecht MA ’19, Taylor Co-Author New Paper in Biochemistry

Joy Cote PhD ’18, Cody Hecht ’18, MA’19, and Erika Taylor, associate professor of chemistry, are the co-authors of a study that explores how opposite charges on our substrate and enzyme cause a protein to change shape when the substrate binds.

The study, titled “Opposites Attract: Escherichia coli Heptosyltransferase I Conformational Changes Induced by Interactions between the Substrate and Positively Charged Residues,” appears in the February 2020 issue of Biochemistry.

“If you can imagine how the opposite charges of magnets are attracted toward each other, then you understand the results of this paper,” Taylor explained. “The enzyme uses positively-charged amino acids to attract its substrate, which has many negatively charged regions. The attraction of the enzyme to the substrate even causes the shape of the protein to change, closing in on the substrate, like the way the fingers of your hand might bend to grasp a ball.”

The researchers describe how they introduced mutations into the amino acid sequence of this protein, and observated how these mutated residues impact the reactivity and protein behavior both in laboratory experiments and in computational studies.

“The amazing thing about these interactions is that they allow the protein to be stable at 203 degrees F, which is almost the boiling point of water, when normally proteins from Escherichia coli are only stable near human body temperatures,” Taylor said.

Although it isn’t clear exactly how the protein becomes so stable, the researchers are intrigued by how the interactions of these charged groups play a major role in that stabilization process.

Taylor Named a “Top 35 Woman in Higher Education” by Diverse

Erika Taylor

Erika Taylor

Erika Taylor, associate professor of chemistry, is honored for being among the “Top 35 Women in Higher Education” in the March 20 issue of Diverse.

Taylor joined the Wesleyan faculty in 2007 and teaches courses in the areas of organic chemistry, biochemistry, environmental chemistry, and bio-medicinal chemistry, among others.

She’s also associate professor, environmental studies, and associate professor, integrative sciences, and takes a multidisciplinary approach to investigating problems at the biological chemistry interface.

Diverse acknowledged Taylor for “striv(ing) to find ways to exploit enzymes found in nature to perform reactions that can help advance the fields of chemistry and medicine.” Her research group has included over 75 students to date, spanning high schoolers to PhD students, with women and other underrepresented students comprising more than three-quarters of her lab members.

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).