Lauren Rubenstein

Director of Media & Public Relations at Wesleyan University

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.

We know that not all students are fortunate enough to be able to make arrangements to go home on such short notice. [Through a petition process, Wesleyan has made it possible for a small number of students, who are housing-insecure or unable to return home, to remain on campus.] Students may also feel especially overwhelmed if they have limited resources in a range of areas. These can be tangible resources, like money; interpersonal resources, such as having someone to talk to; or even psychological resources—having the psychological strength and coping strategies to deal with this change.

In addition, a residential college campus is a very intimate social environment, and we know that within a university setting, interpersonal relationships are extremely important for emotional adjustment. Furthermore, as students often use their relationships to navigate their sense of identity and belonging, not having that direct contact with roommates and friends can potentially be detrimental to their overall well-being. This is especially true for seniors, who expected this last semester to be a heightened time of social engagement with friends and peers, visiting places for the last time, etc. For them, particularly, knowing that they’re having to leave an environment they’re really comfortable in is heartbreaking. The loss of this interpersonal contact may impact students’ psychological well-being and sleep quality.

You have studied sleep and psychological well-being among young people in the context of a natural disaster. Are there any relevant lessons for the current situation?

The study we did looked at associations between the experience of a natural disaster and coping strategies, as well as possible links with sleep among high school-aged and college-aged students on my home island of Dominica. This was a cross-sectional study, so we can’t make conclusions about directionality or causation. One variable we looked at was rumination—replaying thoughts of an event over and over in one’s mind. Typically, rumination is considered a construct that has negative implications for well-being, because this cycle may prevent an individual from adjusting to whatever negative situation they’re going through. Not surprisingly, in our study, we found that individuals who scored high on rumination also reported higher scores on PTSD symptoms from the storm, but interestingly, these individuals also scored high on measures of post-traumatic growth (the belief that one’s psychological well-being is improved as a result of going through a negative/traumatic experience). We know that individuals who are struggling to process a traumatic event often have contradicting or mixed emotions, and these can serve as a vehicle to promote personal growth. For example, in reading the news, you might feel really overwhelmed about everything that’s going on. But at the same time, that negative feeling might motivate you to reach out to a neighbor, or to do something for yourself that brings you calm.

How can faculty help to mitigate the negative psychological effects of this experience on students?

I believe that many faculty members, myself included, are using this first week of distance learning as an adjustment week, helping students to grieve and heal by talking about things going on in their lives. (This was recommended to me by a colleague, Assistant Professor of Psychology Alexis May, who is a clinical psychologist). We’re trying to let students know that they have the support of their professors, and that we’re all in this together. I know a lot of faculty are offering students extra flexibility, and are working to make the syllabus more manageable. Our students may have circumstances in their lives that we don’t know about, so we must create space so they can share with us if they’re comfortable. Just being empathetic with our students is really necessary at this point.

We’re all spending a lot more time on our technological devices these days, with education and every other aspect of our lives having moved online. What does the research say about the effects of technology use on sleep?

There is a good bit of research on technology use and sleep. It’s a field that’s evolving as rapidly as the technology we use, though sometimes the research lags behind a bit.  Many studies have focused on the amount of time individuals spend on technology. One theory is that there’s a sort of displacement going on, where the more time we dedicate to technology use, regardless of the type of technology, that’s time taken away from other activities, including sleep. We often don’t prioritize sleep in our lives, and this is especially true for people who are overwhelmed with other demands like school or work. There’s also research looking at bedtime procrastination—delaying the time it takes to initiate sleep (e.g., because we’re sitting in bed using our phones). And most of the content we encounter on our phones is not very soothing these days.

Another line of research looks at the content and context of technology use, particularly close to bedtime. You might see a different effect on sleep quality if you’re playing a highly arousing video game just before bed versus watching a relaxing TV show. Given that we live in a world where information is readily accessible at our fingertips, we need to be extremely diligent about pacing our exposure to news and media content that can be upsetting and depressing. Being exposed to updates about the coronavirus pandemic can motivate us to keep ourselves and loved ones safe. However, constant access to that type of information can stir up feelings of anger, frustration, confusion, and fear that might be debilitating to the point where we are not able to create that sense of calm that is required for a good night’s sleep. This can lead to a vicious cycle because when our sleep health is compromised, we tend to be more susceptible to negative emotions.

For people whose lives have been turned upside down, do you have general advice about maintaining good sleep health?

Try to keep a routine of consistent bedtimes and wake times in order to create a sense of normalcy when it comes to sleep hygiene. This is always valuable, but it’s especially important at a time when everything feels like it’s turned upside down. Also, try not to spend too much time on your phone engaging with upsetting news or information. Many smart phones have good time management features that can be helpful in limiting exposure to news and information that’s detrimental to mental health.

What are you researching currently? 

We launched a study earlier this year looking at associations among negative life experiences, spirituality, and sleep. The idea for the study came to me at church when my pastor talked about using prayer as a form of coping (particularly when we are going through certain experiences that keep us up at night). Our subjects include people who have had a negative experience (e.g., change in living and health conditions). We’re interested in how spirituality might be linked to sleep, perhaps through the use of religious practices as a form of coping. We’re also looking at age as a possible factor that may influence results because the significance of religion and spirituality may change as we age. Although this is not a question that we can assess with this study, I think it is interesting to think about the different coping strategies that individuals of different faiths are currently using to make sense of this pandemic.

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.

Wesleyan in the News

NewsWesleyan in the News

1. Hartford Courant: “Jeanine Basinger, the ‘Professor of Hollywood,’ Is Wesleyan University’s Homegrown Screen Legend”

Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, Emerita Jeanine Basinger, whom this article notes has been dubbed “the professor of Hollywood” and “an iconic figure in American cinema, one of the most beloved and respected film history professors in the history of film studies” by The Hollywood Reporter, is interviewed on the occasion of her 60th year at Wesleyan, and the 50th since she created its film program. She talks about her next book on American film comedy, shares some of her favorite things, and muses on which actress would play her in a movie of her life.

2. Los Angeles Review of Books: “‘We Need More Vigorous Debate’: A Conversation with Michael S. Roth”

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, managing editor of Modern Intellectual History, interviews President Michael Roth in connection with his latest book, Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses. Roth discusses his career path from intellectual historian to university administrator and professor, and offers his unique perspective on debates surrounding freedom of speech and political correctness.

3. Los Angeles Times: “Kirk Douglas Dead at 103; ‘Spartacus’ Star Helped End Hollywood Blacklist”

Jeanine Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, Emerita, comments on Kirk Douglas’s legacy following the film icon’s death at 103. Recalling when she first saw him on-screen in the 1940s, she said, “He wasn’t a traditional leading man, really, in looks, and yet he had an unmistakable charisma and power on screen—not just the glamour of the movie star, though he did have that, but real acting chops. So you knew he was going to be a star.” She added, “He was a very modern American antihero type, but he could also play anything, really.”

Slowik in The Conversation: Oscar-worthy Scores Unlock a Film’s Emotional Heart

Michael Slowik '03

Assistant Professor of Film Studies Michael Slowik ’03

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, Assistant Professor of Film Studies Michael Slowik ’03 writes about how film scores can “convey and amplify a film’s emotional landscape” by considering two films nominated for 2020 Oscars for best score.

The secret to the success of two Oscar-nominated scores

Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards an Oscar to the film with the best original score.

The best scores—like those from Lawrence of Arabia and Black Panther—convey and amplify a film’s emotional landscape.

How do composers pull this off?

Back in 2014, I wrote a book examining the musical methods of early sound films. Ninety years later, some of the basic techniques developed during that era remain relevant. They include what industry professionals call “spotting,” which refers to when music appears in the film, and decisions about which musical styles to incorporate.

This year, two very different Oscar-nominated scores—those from Marriage Story and Joker—show how style and spotting can have major effects on a viewer’s engagement and emotional experience with a film.

Sounding out the breakdown of a marriage

Marriage Story tells the story of a married couple whose separation leads to an increasingly bitter and contentious divorce.

The film’s score, composed by Randy Newman, uses music in a classical style—but mainly during moments of kindness and human connection.

In the film’s lengthy opening, for example, we hear Charlie and his wife Nicole describe what they love about each other. During this sequence, the audience hears strings, flute, harp and piano. Perhaps Newman chose classical music because, for many listeners, its sounds can evoke the perfection of a past era. He splices these sounds with dialogue reflecting what most people want from their romantic relationships: warmth, trust and mutual support.

Cohan in The Conversation: A Clue to Stopping Coronavirus

Fred Cohan

Fred Cohan

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, Fred Cohan, professor of biology, Huffington Foundation Professor in the College of the Environment, PhD student Kathleen Sagarin, and Kelly Mei ’20 explain how viruses like coronavirus—and several others over history—spread from animals to humans, what determines the size of the outbreak, and how behavioral modifications and technology can stop the spread.

A clue to stopping coronavirus: Knowing how viruses adapt from animals to humans

As the novel coronavirus death toll mounts, it is natural to worry. How far will this virus travel through humanity, and could another such virus arise seemingly from nowhere?

As microbial ecologists who study the origins of new microbial species, we would like to give some perspective.

As a result of continuing deforestation, “bushmeat” hunting of wild animals and caring for our domestic animals, the novel coronavirus will certainly not be the last deadly virus from wild animals to infect humans. Indeed, wild species of bats and primates abound in viruses closely related to SARS and HIV, respectively. When humans interact with wild animal species, pathogens that are resident in those animals can spill over to humans, sometimes with deadly effects.