In the Media

Sheehan-Connor Advocates in Orlando Sentinel for Raising the Gas Tax

Damien Sheehan-Connor

Damien Sheehan-Connor

Assistant Professor of Economics Damien Sheehan-Connor is the author of an oped in the Orlando Sentinel (available to subscribers) arguing that raising the gas tax would not only help the environment, but would save lives on the road.

Sheehan-Connor considers the findings of a new study out by the National Safety Council, which suggested that automobile accidents are on the rise again after years of decline. While many factors could potentially contribute to this reversal, he writes that it’s likely that two seemingly positive developments–lower gas prices and stricter fuel economy standards imposed by the government–have played an important role. How? Lower gas prices have encouraged consumers to buy bigger, less fuel-efficient vehicles, while government regulations require automakers to produce lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicles. The end result: greater divergence in the weights of vehicles on the road.

He writes: “Whether a given two-vehicle accident is fatal depends critically on how well matched are the weights of the vehicles involved. The results of a paper I authored in last month’s Economic Inquiry make the point starkly. It found that in severe accidents between two vehicles of average weight, 25 percent of vehicle drivers are expected to die. But in severe accidents between full-size pickup trucks and compact cars, the death rate is a whopping 40 percent—or 60 percent higher.”

To counter this, Sheehan-Connor suggests turning to higher gas taxes, rather than stricter fuel economy standards.

The politics of gasoline taxes are difficult, but the benefits are compelling. First, the environmental benefits from reduced carbon emissions would exceed the cost of foregone gasoline consumption. Second, the efficiency of the tax system could be improved by implementing the tax in a revenue-neutral fashion. Income tax rates, which do impose some efficiency costs to the economy, could be lowered and the revenue replaced by the gasoline tax, which has efficiency benefits. Third, gasoline taxes are far simpler, and thus less costly to implement, than the 577 pages of regulations that make up the most recent fuel economy standards. And finally, our roadways would be made safer. Other than the word “tax,” what’s not to like?

New Short Story by Scibona Published in Harper’s

Salvatore Scibona, the Frank B. Weeks Visiting Assistant Professor of English, is the author of a new short story published in the September 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

Titled, “Tremendous Machine,” the story follows Fjóla Neergaard, a failed fashion model, lacking direction, and living in seclusion at her wealthy parents’ vacant Polish country house. She sets out to purchase a sofa for the house, which contains almost no other furniture, and finds herself in an odd store full of pianos. She purchases a piano and signs up for lessons with an elderly, once famous pianist.

Scibona shared some thoughts about the inspiration of his new story from the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., where he was a fellow this summer.

“A few years ago, never having played an instrument before, I bought a piano and started taking lessons. This became an obsession to an unhealthy degree. I got tendonitis and had to stop playing for a while. Then I started again with a new teacher who became an inspiration. When I first started teaching at Wesleyan, I plotted my movements on campus to hit the practice studios in the basement of the CFA between classes.

“Around the same time, I took a trip to Poland, principally to the former Jewish Quarter of Krakow, a place that now has become a tourist destination, but that in the early ’90s when the story takes place bore little public acknowledgment of its history.

“The story is about a young Danish woman who has failed as a fashion model and is living in spartan desperation at a Polish estate her wealthy parents have purchased as an investment, with no intention that anyone should ever live there. In the ruins of her hopes, she happens on a piano warehouse and has one of those grace-bitten moments in life when something that feels like your true calling clubs you in the back of the head.

“The central mystery of the story, to my understanding, is that once Fjóla (that’s her name) starts playing she discovers a stamina, a talent, and a will that seems to come from nowhere at all. But nothing comes from nothing. And the story wants to know where this came from, this hidden gift.

She has superpowers. She discovers them by accident, and they save her. But where did they come from?”

Scibona, who in entering his third year teaching at Wesleyan, spent about a year working on the story. He wrote most of it in his apartment at Lawn Avenue and Brainerd Road. A recent Wesleyan graduate inspired the first name for the protagonist’s father in the story.

Scibona teaches fiction writing (Techniques, Intermediate, Advanced) and a First Year Seminar called Three Big Novels, an occasion for frosh to cut their teeth on some grand good novels. This year they will be reading Moby Dick, Anna Karenina and A House for Mr. Biswas.

Scibona’s other stories include “The Hidden Person,” which appeared in Harper’s, and “The Kid,” which was published in The New Yorker. His novel The End was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Poisson Discusses Simone de Beauvoir on France Culture Radio

Catherine Poisson

Catherine Poisson

Associate Professor of French Catherine Poisson recently participated in a radio series on the French writer and intellectual Simone de Beauvoir. The series aired the week of August 17-21 on the France Culture network; it can be heard online here.

Taped in Paris, New York and Chicago, the Grande Traversée (the “great crossover”) show sought to reveal another Simone de Beauvoir, considering every stage of her life–from the dutiful daughter to the independent and engaged woman to, finally, breaking the taboo of old age. It showed her as passionate and multi-voiced—intimate and political, unleashed in her youth diaries and love letters, audacious in her novels, rigorous in her autobiography.

Appearing in multiple episodes in the series, Poisson discussed the personal and literary companionship of Beauvoir with Jean-Paul Sartre and Nelson Algren. She also talked about Beauvoir’s complex relationship with America, and read excerpts from America Day by Day, Beauvoir’s book recounting the four-month journey she took from coast to coast in the U.S., immersing herself in the country’s culture, customs, people and landscape.

Jenkins Profiles a Popular and Provocative Puppet Master

Ron Jenkins

Ron Jenkins

Professor of Theater Ron Jenkins writes in The Jakarta Post about Wayan Nardayana, a popular and provocative puppet master in Bali who “combines the political insight of a social activist with the spiritual wisdom of a priest and the comic instincts of a master entertainer.”

Jenkins describes the artist’s recent performance at a celebration of the birthday of Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno. “The dalang’s ability to make connections between sacred texts, Indonesian history and contemporary reality is at the core of his art,” Jenkins writes.

Nardayana tells the audience, “Indonesians today can also harness the power of their ancestors to inspire them to take the actions to make their country as strong as the other great nations of the world. Sukarno is one of those ancestors and remembering him is one way our generation can preserve our cultural identity and use it to take the actions necessary to create freedom today.”

President Roth Makes the Case for a Broad, Contextual Education

Michael Roth

Michael Roth

Writing for Inside Sources, President Michael Roth made the case for a broad, contextual education, in a counterpoint to an essay by Eastern Kentucky University President Michael Benson, arguing for education that provides “a transferable set of skills.”

Roth writes that the types of contentious debates currently raging over the value of a college education are as old as America itself, something he explores in-depth in his book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. He writes:

Several of the Founding Fathers saw education as the road to independence and liberty. A broad commitment to inquiry was part of their dedication to freedom. But critics of education also have a long tradition. From Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century to today’s Internet pundits, they have attacked its irrelevance and elitism — often calling for more vocational instruction.

Yet Franklin was also dismissive of anti-intellectual displays, and believed that earlier and earlier specialization would make Americans “less capable citizens and less able to adjust to changes in the world of work.”

Roth writes:

Citizens able to see through political or bureaucratic doubletalk are also workers who can defend their rights in the face of the rich and powerful. Education protects against mindless tyranny and haughty privilege. Liberal learning in the American tradition isn’t only training; it’s an invitation to think for oneself. Broadly educated citizens aren’t just collections of skills – they are whole people.

It’s no wonder that in a society characterized by radical income inequality, anxiety about getting that first job will lead many to aim for the immediate needs of the marketplace right now. The high cost of college and the ruinous debt that many take on only add to this anxiety. In this context, some assert that education should just focus on practical skill building.

But when the needs of the market change, as they surely will, the folks with that narrow training will be out of luck. Their bosses, those responsible for defining market trends, will be just fine because they were probably never confined to an ultra-specialized way of doing things. Beware of critics of education who cloak their desire to protect privilege (and inequality) in the garb of educational reform.

Courant Explores History of Astronomy at Wesleyan Ahead of Centennial Celebration

cam_vvo_2013-0102225113Ahead of the centennial celebration of Wesleyan’s Van Vleck Observatory, The Hartford Courant explored a bit of observatory history, including some recent discoveries of rare artifacts.

A team of Wesleyan professors and students, together with the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford, is preparing for an exhibit this spring, “Under Connecticut Skies: Exploring 100 Years of Astronomy at Van Vleck Observatory in Middletown, Connecticut.”

“We’ve been looking into every nook and cranny to see what we have here,” Associate Professor of History Paul Erickson told the Courant. One exciting find: a rare early mechanical model of the solar system, long believed to be lost, known as “Russell’s Stupendous and Magnificent Planetarium or Columbian Orrery.” Back in the 1830s, the device traveled the country in a wagon to be exhibited to big crowds.

According to the story:

Some of the other finds include an early 18th century French refractor telescope and a late 19th century mechanical calculating machine known as “the Millionaire.” The Swiss-made machine was employed in the principal research of the observatory, attempting to calculate stellar distances. “Astronomy involves a lot of number crunching, so this was a very useful tool before the computer,” Erickson said.

Of particular interest is the observatory guestbook, which records the visits of world-famous astronomers, such as Harlow Shapley, the first scientist to correctly estimate the size of the Milky Way, and Edwin Powell Hubble, for whom the Hubble Telescope is named. There is also a visit in the 1920s of a young Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the Indian-born astrophysicist who went on to win the Nobel Prize.

Read more about a project to restore the Van Vleck Refractor telescope here. The project is set to wrap up this summer.

Johnston Reveals Truth About Bombings of Hiroshima, Nagasaki in Op-Ed

johnston550Seventy years later, it is widely believed that President Harry S. Truman made a decision to authorize the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The truth, writes William Johnston in the Hartford Courant, is that he never did, at least not explicitly.

Johnston, professor of history, professor of East Asian Studies, examines in an op-ed how history has been rewritten surrounding the bombings. In fact, Truman’s first explicit decision about atomic bombs was to later order that their further use be stopped without his “express authority.” But in summer 1946, Johnston explains, the need arose to write an alternative narrative, as the bomb’s horrific effects on the people of Japan were revealed, and critics started asking whether the atomic bombings had been necessary, or even truly effective in ending the war.

Johnston writes:

The historian’s job is to explain the past using the most complete evidence available. That evidence shows both that Truman’s most substantial atomic decision was to demand his express authority for future bombings and that the bombings’ role in ending the war was ambiguous.

We may not like it when history is fuzzy, but that’s how it is.

It is more important now than ever that we understand history’s ambiguities, especially when it comes to the history of World War II and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Our country today faces many national security threats, from terrorism to global warming. A healthy democracy requires a well-educated populace, and history plays a major role in that education. Science, technology engineering and math cannot replace it.

The 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Japan is a good time to recall their history and meaning. We need to remember where we have been while keeping an eye on the future. It is hard for those who are blind to the past to have a clear vision for the future.

Johnston is also professor of Science in Society, and professor in the Environmental Studies Program.

Ulysse Reflects on Sandra Bland’s Self-Possession, Neo-Black Codes of Conduct

Writing for Africa is a Country, Professor of Anthropology Gina Athena Ulysse reflects on the story of Sandra Bland, an African-American woman who was arrested by a state trooper during a traffic stop in Waller County, Texas and was later found dead in her jail cell. Video footage from a dashboard camera found the trooper had threatened Bland with a Taser after she refused to put out her cigarette and the encounter escalated. Her death was found to be a suicide, though her family has doubts.

Ulysse writes that she identified with Bland, and responded strongly to images and videos of the young woman while she was alive.

There is a radiance that emanated from her, which came from a fierce black woman on a quest of self-discovery with all of its ups and downs, a black woman determined to be of significance in this unjust world, a black woman who, as her mother described was “an activist, sassy, smart, and she knew her rights.” She was using her knowledge and skills to creatively create her life. Sandra Bland was not uppity. That may have been a perception of her by a white officer of the law clearly insecure in his position of authority who had no idea who he is when faced with someone like her. Sandra Bland embodied a rare charismatic self-possession that disrupts social orders. […] This way of being in the world is one for which black women who do not submit continually pay a very high price. Within the social limits of white imagination, complexity is never ours, black women like Sandra Bland, black women like us, are be reducible to four, maybe five, stereotypes at the most.

Ulysse, too, has been pressured many times to “keep my mouth shut, stay in my place, not question my seniors, or watch my comportment too often by white men and women in power.” She writes, “Every time I consider Sandra’s reaction, I identify with it. Her response whatever else you may think of it, was an act of self-possession. Her constitutional rights were being violated and she simply would not stand for it.”

Ulysse concludes:

As black people, we live with the continuities of slavery and the Jim-Crow era when state sanctioned slave codes determined how we expressed fundamental parts of our “partial” personhood. We are being ruled by neo black codes of conduct enforced by social and legal machinery that demand we submit in the presence of white power or else become part of a landfill of hashtags. Sandra Bland refused because she knew her rights.

Loui’s Study of Chill-Inducing Music Featured in BBC

Psyche Loui is assistant professor of psychology, assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior.

Psyche Loui is assistant professor of psychology, assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior.

When Psyche Loui first heard Rachmaninov’s Piano Concert No. 2 on the radio as a college student, she still remembers the chill that went down her spine, the fluttering in her stomach and the racing heart. Now an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience and behavior at Wesleyan, Loui studies this phenomenon–which she refers to as “frissons” or “skin orgasms”–in her lab. She recently co-authored a paper with Luke Harrison ’14 in Frontiers in Psychology reviewing the evidence and theories in this area, and spoke to the BBC about their findings.

Loui, also an accomplished pianist and violinist, points out that the sensations associated with music can be as varied as trembling, flushing and sweating, and sexual arousal. People can often pick out particular measures in a song that trigger such sensations, allowing researchers to pinpoint specific features that are most likely to trigger the sensations in listeners.

Sudden changes in harmony, dynamic leaps (from soft to loud), and melodic appoggiaturas (dissonant notes that clash with the main melody, like you’ll find in Adele’s Someone Like You) seem to be particularly powerful. “Musical frisson elicit a physiological change that’s locked to a particular point in the music,” says Loui.

Researchers have been able to use fMRI scans to map out the regions of the brain that respond to music, and chart the mechanisms that correspond to this phenomenon.

One major component seems to be the way the brain monitors our expectations, says Loui. From the moment we are born (and possibly before), we begin to learn certain rules that characterise the way songs are composed. If a song follows the conventions too closely, it is bland and fails to capture our attention; if it breaks the patterns too much, it sounds like noise. But when composers straddle the boundary between the familiar and unfamiliar, playing with your expectations using unpredictable flourishes (like appoggiaturas or sweeping harmonic changes), they hit a sweet spot that pleasantly teases the brain, and this may produce a frisson.

For instance, violated expectations seem to startle (albeit gently) the automatic nervous system, in its most primitive region, the brain stem – producing the racing heart, the breathlessness, the flush that can signal the onset of a frisson. What’s more, the anticipation, violation, and resolution of our expectations triggers the release of dopamine in two key regions – the caudate and the nucleus accumbens, shortly before and just after the frisson. You see a similar response when people take drugs or have sex, which may explain why we find shiver-inducing songs so addictive, says Loui.

Basinger Comments on Why Today’s TV is So Good

Jeanine Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, curator of the Cinema Archives, spoke with The Huffington Post about why today’s television is so good. TV has come a long way since 1961 when Federal Communications Commission Chairman Newton Minow proclaimed television “a vast wasteland” in an address to the National Association of Broadcasters. The article explores how advances in technology and television production have vastly improved the experience for viewers.

One of the biggest changes was the introduction of DVR and streaming services, which mean we’re no longer slaves to the television schedule, required to sit on the couch for an hour when our favorite show airs.

“I think that’s a very ‘old people’ view, that we’re all just sitting around on our couch and eating cookies,” Basinger told The Huffington Post. “That’s very 1960s. I don’t think people do that anymore. We can control our viewing of TV, when we watch it and how we watch it.”

The writer also argues that “TV is now the definitive space for starting a dialogue around social issues.”

“TV has become a global forum of discussion, information, entertainment and intellectual stimulation,” Basinger agreed. “Watching TV doesn’t eliminate your intellectual life. It actually adds to it.”

Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education Featured on ‘Where We Live’

WNPR’s “Where We Live” explored college prison programs, a dwindling resource that has been shown to be one of the most effective ways to prevent recidivism, in a conversation featuring Dara Young, program manager for Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education, and Michael McAlear, associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, who teaches in the program.

Young was asked why teaching the liberal arts is effective in prison programs.

“The type of thinking that we hope to encourage through a liberal arts education is particularly important when we’re talking about people who are incarcerated,” said Young. “We regularly hear from our students that the experience of taking liberal arts classes is just transformative. When you expose people to new ideas, to new ways to thinking about the world, it helps them to understand how they got to where they got, and what the mistakes were that they made along the way that helped them to reach this point in their life. I think it also helps them understand what the opportunities are for them to change and to become different, so when they are released, […] they come out as better people than they were when they started.”

Mehr-Muska, Ottaviano ’17 Discuss Interfaith Relations at Wesleyan

University Protestant Chaplain Tracy Mehr-Muska and Lydia Ottaviano ’17 were interviewed on the WESU 88.1 FM show “Reasonably Catholic” about a new interfaith organization on campus that is working to build ties between the various faith traditions.

Ottaviano is a member of the new interfaith council, which planned the first Faith Shadowing Week this spring. During the week of April 19, students attended regularly scheduled meetings of various religious and spiritual groups other than their own, including several Christian fellowship group meetings and bible studies, Shabbat services, Buddhist Faith Fellowship, Wesleyan Mindfulness Group, Quaker Meeting, Catholic Mass, Muslim Jumma Prayers and Vespers. The week concluded with a campus-wide interfaith dinner that was attended by about 30 students

“It really came from a genuine interest on the part of the students,” said Mehr-Muska said of the interfaith council’s planning.

 

Ottaviano explained that while the council had originally intended to pair up students of different faith traditions, the high degree of interest in Faith Shadowing Week led them to change that plan. Instead, students in small groups attended events held by different faith traditions. This helped students learn about and get comfortable with the unfamiliar traditions.

“Those who were able to participate and attend events other than their own really found it enjoyable and enlightening, in that they were able to learn and appreciate a little more about their own traditions just by experiencing those of others faiths,” said Ottaviano. She also got some new ideas by observing meetings of other faith communities.

 

“I think that the sense of community is really what bubbled to the top” for students visiting other faith communities, said Mehr-Muska. She said the week allowed the students to identify and celebrate common ground.

Read more about the Faith Shadowing Week here.