In the Media

Ron Jenkins Discusses Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’

Ron Jenkins

Ron Jenkins

Professor of Theater Ron Jenkins participated in a discussion on WNPR’s The Colin McEnroe Show about Dante Aligheri’s 14,000 line epic poem, “The Divine Comedy,” of which “Dante’s Inferno” is the most famous section. This adventure story is based on Dante’s real life in 14th century Italy, where he was a city official, diplomatic negotiator, and a man who dared to cross the Pope. Jenkins has taught Dante at Wesleyan and in prison courses.

“I discovered that I could learn a lot about Dante by teaching it in prison. I brought my Wesleyan students and my Yale students into prison to work with him,” said Jenkins. “I discovered that a lot of stereotypes are shattered by going into a prison with a text like that because although the commonplace understanding of Dante is a writer who writes about hell and awful, horrible things, the men in prison immediately understood that this was a poem about hope. They immediately identified with Dante. One of the reasons they identified with Dante is he was not only in exile, but he was a convict. He was convicted of crimes, that’s why he was put in exile. As soon as men in prison hear that, they pay attention more closely. […] They identify with Dante’s journey through hell, through purgatory, to a better place, and they can connect to that. They latch onto the hope that’s in Dante’s poem. […] They want to think about where they can go when they leave prison, if they can leave prison, or where they can go spiritually even if they can never leave prison.”


Wesleyan Astronomers Detect Shock Waves from Exoplanet

Astronomers at Wesleyan have detected shock waves produced by a high-speed “hot Jupiter” exoplanet caught in a tight orbit around its host star, io9 reported. The story explains:

It’s a potential indication of an incredibly powerful magnetic field around the planet.
Also known as “roaster planets,” hot Jupiters are so named because they have many characteristics in common with the largest gas giant in our solar system, most notably mass. But they have much hotter surface temperatures because they orbit much closer to their parent stars.

Researcher in Astronomy Wilson Cauley has published a new study on the topic in the Astrophysical Journal. io9 quotes Cauley’s website:

If the planet is moving supersonically through the stellar wind or coronal plasma, a bow shock will form between the planet and the star at an angle that is determined by the relative velocity of the planet and the plasma. If the planet has a magnetosphere, the bow shock will form where the pressure between the plasma and the magnetosphere balance. For planets with strong magnetic fields, the bow shock can form many planetary radii ahead of the planet in it’s orbit. If the compression of the stellar wind material in the bow shock is high enough, the line-of-sight column density of material in the bow shock between us and the star can be high enough to produce a visible absorption signature in the stellar spectrum. This absorption signature occurs before the planet normally transits the star.

President Roth Remembers Carl Schorske

The Washington Post published a remembrance by President Michael Roth of Carl Schorske, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who died this month at age 100. Schorske taught at Wesleyan for many years, and was a mentor to Roth.

Roth writes:

Carl was the great historian of anti-historical thinking. What does that mean? He charted how at times a wave of culture makers attempted to break free of any connection to the past. But Carl, with care and precision, wove their rejection of history into a narrative that made meaning out of context and change over time. In his masterwork,  “Fin de Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture,” he explored “the historical genesis of modern cultural consciousness, with its deliberate rejection of history.”

[…] Carl was an extraordinary teacher —  erudite, humane and sensitive to the different ways that students learned. He was an activist, a scholar and a pedagogue. These aspects of his personality all worked together in his intellectual practice as a scholar-teacher. When he was teaching a subject he was deeply engaged with as a scholar, he said he “was really cooking with gas.” He took culture seriously, and he took enormous pleasure in it, too. That seriousness and capacity for pleasure was something that his students were so fortunate to share in.

Roth was also quoted in a New York Times obituary of Schorske.

“Many of us academics write like klutzes,” Roth said. “What Schorske did in each essay was write in a way that lived up to the intellectual and aesthetic standards of the culture makers he had studied.”

Tucker on the Wild West, Hollywood and Gun Control

Jennifer Tucker

Jennifer Tucker

At a time when gun deaths are spiking and Congress has failed to enact significant legislation to tackle the problem, Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker writes an op-ed looking at how we got here. She contends that it is Hollywood’s version of history—not reality—that is behind the belief that guns have been a critical part of American culture over centuries. She writes:

The 1953 movie “Shane” exemplifies the narrative of a “good man with a gun.” Responding to a woman’s wish that guns be banished, Shane replies: “A gun is just a tool, Marian. It’s as good or bad as the man that uses it.”

This notion is central to the National Rifle Association’s worldview. But it is a classic and tragic example of what Oxford professor Margaret McMillan has called “bad history,” or picking only a small part of a complex story.

In reality, the 19th century Wild West was the setting for the passage of some of the nation’s first gun control laws, and it was widely understood that civilized people did not walk around carrying guns. It wasn’t until the 1980s when laws liberalizing concealed carry swept the country, and the most profound changes in gun law occurred in 2008 and 2010.

Tucker concludes:

Our “gun industrial complex” is not the inevitable outcome of two centuries of gun-possession; it is the result of changes in the law and cultural attitudes over the past couple of decades.

Today, 36 states have adopted “shall-issue” laws.

Texas allows unlicensed people to carry semi-automatic rifles in public. In May, the NRA fought the efforts of Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin to restrict guns at parks, fairgrounds and recreational areas. And with a proliferation of guns in homes — which is associated with a twofold increase in the risk of homicide — 2013 saw 1,670 children die by gunshot and an additional 9,718 injured.

Guns might not kill people but guns get people killed.

Gun owners should familiarize themselves with the true history of the frontier. Regulation advocates should make more of the fact that history is on their side.

Tucker is also associate professor of science in society, associate professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, and associate professor in the environmental studies program.

Roth Reviews Black Earth in The Washington Post

President Michael Roth reviewed Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder in The Washington PostWhile many other historians have emphasized structural elements that made the Holocaust possible, Snyder focuses on Hitler’s personal ideology “as essential for grasping the history of Nazi efforts to eliminate Jews from the planet.”

Roth writes:

In “Black Earth,” we are reminded that for Hitler, Jews were the explanation for everything that went wrong. The health of the human race was dependent, he shrieked, on protecting it from Jewish pollution. There was talk among Nazis and others of isolating the malignancy — maybe shipping Jews to Madagascar would work. But Hitler decided that there was a greater purpose to the military conflict he had launched initially just for “room to live.” And that was the ultimate extermination of the Jews. His Final Solution.

The Führer’s worldview inspired Germans to become “entrepreneurs of violence”; he needed innovative techniques for mass murder to kill not only Jews but also the many other enemies blocking Germany’s historical destiny. By destroying a variety of European states, Germany created conditions of lawlessness that legitimized unthinkable atrocities. Ordinary men (mostly men) killed people — even little children — at close range and then returned to their regular routines. Some needed more alcohol to get by, but get by they did. They rounded up men, women and children, shot them in the head or the neck, piled up the corpses, covered them with dirt and then went home to their families.

“Black Earth” explains how this became possible — and it took much more than ideological fury. Destruction of political structures and social norms was necessary.

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.