Tag Archive for History Department

Grimmer-Solem Delivers Talk at Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences Meeting

Erik Margot Kohorn

Erik Grimmer-Solem

Associate Professor of History Erik Grimmer-Solem presented a talk, “The Wehrmacht Past, the Bundeswehr, and the Politics of Remembrance in Contemporary Germany,” at the meeting of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences (CAAS), April 12.

Grimmer-Solem also is associate professor of German studies and a tutor in the College of Social Sciences. His expertise is in modern German history with specializations in economic history, the history of economic thought, and the history of social reform. He has also developed research interests in German imperialism, German-Japanese relations before 1918, and Germany in the two world wars.

Grimmer-Solem discussed his research, which uncovered the involvement of a Wehrmacht general, honored in public as a member of the military resistance to Hitler, in massive war crimes and crimes against humanity. He discussed how his findings were received by the German public, how that resulted in the official renaming of an air force base, and what that reveals about German perceptions of the war of destruction waged in the Soviet Union by the German army. The talk explored the deep involvement of the Wehrmacht in the Holocaust, the Janus-faced nature of many members of the German military resistance, and the ongoing problem of basing contemporary Germany’s military tradition and “official memory” on aspects of this tainted legacy.

CAAS, chartered in 1799, is the third-oldest learned society in the United States. Its purpose is to disseminate scholarly information through lectures and publications. It sponsors eight monthly presentations during the academic year, hosted by Wesleyan and Yale, that are free and open to the public, allowing anyone to hear distinguished speakers discuss current work in the sciences, arts, and humanities.


Smoklin Contributes to “Year of Russia” at KSU

Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock

Victoria Smolkin

Participating in Kennesaw State University’s “Year of Russia” program, Assistant Professor of History Victoria Smoklin presented on the current state of US-Russia relations. KSU’s “Year of Russia” invites academics, artists and dignitaries “to promote a deeper appreciation for and understanding of Russia and its people.”

During her presentation Smoklin discussed ideological struggle over national identity in contemporary Russia. She noted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s involvement in this struggle. His strategic engagement with his country’s history he has led to an unprecedented gain approval ratings. In particular, she cited Putin’s construction of a 54 foot tall statue of the 10th century Slavic leader and proponent of Orthodox Christianity, Vladimir the Great.

Commenting on Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Smoklin argued that Russia’s actions suggest not merely a desire to seize control of the area but rather to assert its claims. This increasing expansion is part of Putin’s desire to create “a spiritual geographic entity” that will replace the “narrative of liberal democracy” that inadequately supported Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

You can learn more about “Year of Russia” online here.

Experts Discuss Fake News, Then and Now at History Matters Panel


On March 7, the History Department sponsored a History Matters Panel on “Fake News: Then and Now.” Speakers included Courtney Fullilove, assistant professor of history, assistant professor of environmental studies, assistant professor of science in society; Ying Jia Tan, assistant professor of history, assistant professor of East Asian studies; and Erik Grimmer-Solem, associate professor of history, associate professor of German studies.

Tucker Comments on Victorian Pseudoscience, Romance

Jennifer Tucker

Jennifer Tucker

The pseudoscientific myths about love and sexuality that abounded in the Victorian era, many of which seem “cruel and oppressive” by today’s standards, could also offer women relief from the era’s “rigid gender politics,” according to Associate Professor of History Jennifer Tucker, who comments on the topic for a Broadly article.

For much of the 19th century, the Western world was fascinated with a variety of pseudosciences, or theories that lack a basis in the scientific method.

“Definitions of science were malleable and hotly contested in the 19th century,” said Tucker, who is also associate professor of science in society, associate professor of feminist, gender and sexuality studies, and associate professor of environmental studies. “Far from being on the sidelines of intellectual life, spiritualism and other unconventional forms of knowledge often provided a means for Victorians from a variety of different social backgrounds to question scientific authority and to ask what counted as a proper science, or as a ‘scientific practice.'”

“One of the great myths about the Victorian age [was] that it was sexually repressive; on the contrary, Victorian society was obsessed with sexual reform, heterosexual and homosexual love, lust, and sex (as well as of the policing of sexual desires),” added Tucker. “Love and sex were both controversial and politicized.”

Pseudoscientific theories included phrenology (which was used to explain the different propensities of men and women toward love and sexual desire); the use of love potions made of dangerous ingredients such as arsenic and belladonna; beauty face masks made of raw beef; cures for low libido such as bull testicles; and vibrators used to treat “hysteria” in sexually frustrated women.

According to the story, “Victorians were also surprisingly progressive on what would eventually evolve into more enlightened views on gender.

“Theosophists [occult philosophers] believed that life in male and female bodies taught different lessons; for some, this meant that it was necessary for the Ego to incarnate many times as both female and male,” Tucker explains. “Many theosophists believed, for example, that in their evolutionary progress men reincarnated as women, and women as men. Therefore at any given time, as one believer in this theory said in 1892: ‘We have… men in women’s bodies, and women in men’s bodies.'”

7 Faculty Promoted, 4 Awarded Tenure

In its recent meeting, the Board of Trustees conferred tenure on four faculty members. They are Associate Professor of Government Erika Franklin Fowler, Professor of African American Studies Kali Gross, Associate Professor of English and American Studies Amy Tang, and Associate Professor of Chemistry Erika Taylor. They join eight other faculty members who were awarded tenure earlier this spring.

One faculty member, Louise Neary, was promoted to adjunct associate professor of Spanish.

In addition, six faculty members are being promoted to full professor:

J. Kehaulani Kauanui, professor of American Studies and anthropology
Matthew Kurtz, professor of psychology
Cecilia Miller, professor of history
Cláudia Tatinge Nascimento, professor of theater
Andrea Patalano, professor of psychology
Michael Singer, professor of biology

Brief descriptions of their research and teaching appear below:

Associate Professor Fowler specializes in political communication and directs the Wesleyan Media project, which tracks and analyzes all political ads aired on broadcast television in real-time during elections. Her work on local coverage of politics and policy has been published in political science, communication, law/policy, and medical journals. Most recently, she co-authored Political Advertising in the United States (Westview Press, 2016). Professor Fowler teaches courses on American Government and Politics; Media and Politics; Campaigns and Elections; and Polls, Politics and Public Opinion.

Professor Gross is a scholar of African American history whose research concentrates on black women’s experiences in the United States criminal justice system between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her book, Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America (Oxford University Press, 2016), explores a crime and trial in 1887 against broader evidence of biased police treatment of black suspects as well as violence within the black community. Professor Gross will offer courses on race, gender and justice and Black Women’s Studies.

Professor Kauanui’s research lies in the fields of comparative colonialisms, indigenous politics, critical racial studies, and anarchist studies. Her book, The Paradoxes of Hawaiian Sovereignty (Duke University Press, due in 2017), explores the cultural and legal politics of the contemporary Hawaiian nationalist movement in relation to land, gender, and sexuality. Professor Kauanui teaches courses on Colonialism and Its Consequences; Race and Citizenship; United States in the Pacific Islands; Hawai’i: Myths and Realities; Decolonizing Indigenous Middletown; and Anarchy in America: From Haymarket to Occupy Wall Street.

Professor Kurtz’s research seeks to clarify the cognitive and social impairments associated with schizophrenia, to develop and assess behavioral treatments for these impairments, and to critically evaluate the history and current status of ideas regarding treatment of the severely mentally ill. He has received significant grant support from the NIH, and has received a Fulbright-Nehru U.S. Scholar Award for Academic and Professional Excellence. He offers courses on Schizophrenia and Its Treatment, Clinical Neuropsychology, Statistics, and Behavioral Neurobiology.

Professor Miller is a European intellectual historian with a focus on the long eighteenth century. Her recent book, Enlightenment and Political Fiction: The Everyday Intellectual (Routledge, 2016), examines five works of fiction to argue that the accessibility of political fiction in the eighteenth century made it possible for any reader to enter into the intellectual debates of the time and that ideas attributed to philosophers and political and economic theorists of the Enlightenment actually appeared first in works of fiction. She offers courses on European Intellectual History, Political Fiction, Theories of Society, and Contemporary Europe.

Professor Tatinge Nascimento is a theater artist and scholar with a special interest in experimental performance and Brazilian contemporary theater. She has performed and published internationally, and most recently is the author of a book manuscript, The Contemporary Performances of Brazil’s Post-Dictatorship Generation, under review with Palgrave Macmillan for the series Contemporary Performance InterActions. At Wesleyan she directs main stage productions and teaches courses on acting, theory, and performance studies.

Adjunct Associate Professor Neary teaches beginning and intermediate Spanish. She is currently collaborating with a colleague on an online Spanish course for the general public, titled Wespañol, and with McGraw Hill on a test bank project for an elementary Spanish language textbook. She has served as head of Spanish, has chaired the Romance Languages and Literatures Honors Committee, and has served on the Language Resources Center Faculty Committee.

Professor Patalano is a cognitive scientist whose research focuses on mental and neural processes involved in human reasoning, judgment, and decision making. Her lines of research address indecisiveness and decision deferral, clinical and neural correlates of discounting, numeracy and choice behavior, and the role of categories in thought. She teaches courses on Cognitive Psychology, Psychological Statistics, Decision Making, and Concepts and Categories.

Professor Singer is an evolutionary ecologist whose research focuses on the plant-feeding habits of caterpillars in the context of threats from predators and parasites of caterpillars. He uses this research focus to inform issues of broad biological interest, such as animal medication, dietary specialization, dynamics of ecological networks, and evolutionary diversification. He teaches courses on Ecology, Conservation Biology, Evolutionary Biology, and Plant-Animal Interactions.

Professor Tang’s research focuses on the relationship between aesthetic form and politics in Asian American literature and theory. Her first book, Repetition and Race: Asian American Literature After Multiculturalism (Oxford University Press, 2016), explores how Asian American writers use structures of repetition to register, and creatively inhabit, the impasses generated by multiculturalism’s politics of identity and recognition. She teaches courses on Asian American Literature, Afro-Asian Intersections, and Literary and Cultural Theory.

Associate Professor Taylor’s multidisciplinary research investigates problems at the intersection of biology and chemistry. Her work strives to advance medicine and environmental sustainability with two long-term goals – developing bacterial enzyme inhibitors and other small molecules with medicinal applications, and engineering microorganisms to improve the efficiency of biomass to biofuel conversion. Professor Taylor has received significant grant support from both the NIH and the Department of Energy, enabling numerous impactful publications in her field. She offers courses in Organic Chemistry, Environmental Chemistry, Biological Chemistry, and Biomedicinal Chemistry.

Miller’s New Book on the Enlightenment and Political Fiction

Miller BookCecilia Miller, associate professor of history and tutor at the College of Social Studies, is the author of Enlightenment and Political Fiction: The Everyday Intellectual, published by Routledge, 2016.

The book argues that much of the important political and economic theory of the era emerged first in works of fiction rather than in theory.

“Unlike studies of the Enlightenment which focus only on theory and nonfiction,” Miller states in her abstract, “this study of fiction makes evident that there was a vibrant concern for the constructive as well as destructive aspects of emotion during the Enlightenment, rather than an exclusive concern for rationality.”

Van Vleck Observatory Celebrates Centennial with Exhibition, Event Series

Wesleyan’s iconic observatory dome was built to house the Van Vleck Refractor, used in research until the early 1990s. Photo by John Van Vlack.

Wesleyan’s iconic observatory dome was built to house the Van Vleck Refractor, used in research until the early 1990s. (Photo by John Van Vlack)

The building was named for Professor John Monroe Van Vleck, who taught mathematics and astronomy at Wesleyan from 1853 until his death in 1912.

The building was named for Professor John Monroe Van Vleck, who taught mathematics and astronomy at Wesleyan from 1853 until his death in 1912.

Wesleyan’s Van Vleck Observatory is celebrating its centennial this spring, with a series of events and an exhibition beginning in early May.

On May 6, the observatory’s library will reopen to the public with an exhibition on the history of astronomy at Van Vleck. Developed by a team of faculty, students, and staff, the exhibition will use the observatory’s extensive collection of scientific instruments, teaching materials, photographs, drawings, and correspondence to illustrate both the changes in astronomical research and teaching over the past century, and the observatory’s consistent mission of conducting instruction and research under the same roof. The exhibition will incorporate the history of science into Van Vleck’s existing public outreach programs through period lectures, demonstrations of historic artifacts, and gallery talks.

“The Millionaire” Mechanical Calculator. Useful for determining distances to stars, this late 19th-century calculator had high precision (eight significant figures) and is still in perfect working order. (Photo by John Van Vlack)

“The Millionaire” Mechanical Calculator. Useful for determining distances to stars, this late 19th century calculator had high precision (eight significant figures) and is still in perfect working order. (Photo by John Van Vlack)

The exhibition was spearheaded by Roy Kilgard, support astronomer and research associate professor of astronomy, Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy, associate professor of integrative sciences, Amrys Williams, visiting assistant professor of history, and Paul Erickson, associate professor of history, associate professor of environmental studies, associate professor of science in society.

More events are planned in the run-up to the exhibition opening. On May 1, the Wesleyan Orchestra will hold a concert featuring astronomically themed music, including John Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis, which was composed using star charts from the Van Vleck Observatory library. On May 3, Special Collections & Archives will host an exhibition, “A Stellar Education: Astronomy at Wesleyan, 1831-1916.” Located on the first floor of Olin Library, the exhibition documents the study of astronomy at Wesleyan from the university’s opening through the construction of the Van Vleck Observatory. On May 4, the History Department is hosting David DeVorkin, senior curator at the National Air and Space Museum, who will give a talk situating Van Vleck in the history of American observatories.

Panel Moderated by Smolkin-Rothrock Discusses the Refugee Experience

On Feb. 17, the Allbritton Center hosted a panel discussion on “The Refugee Experience,” the second in a three-part series titled, “The Refugee Crisis: The Development of the Crisis and the Response in Europe.” Moderated by Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock, assistant professor of history, assistant professor of Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian Studies, it featured discussion between Steve Poellot, legal director at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP); Mohammed Kadalah of the University of Connecticut Department of Literature, Cultures and Languages, who was recently granted asylum after fleeing Syria in 2011; and Baselieus Zeno, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst and a Syrian refugee. Read more about the full series here. (Photos by Rebecca Goldfarb Terry ’19)


From left, Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock, Mohammed Kadalah, Baselieus Zeno, Steve Poellot.


Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock.


Steve Poellot.

From left, Mohammed Kadalah, Baselieus Zeno, and Steve Poellot

From left, Mohammed Kadalah, Baselieus Zeno, and Steve Poellot.

Baselieus Zeno

Baselieus Zeno.

Mohammed Kadalah

Mohammed Kadalah.

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History Matters Series Focuses on American Political Primaries

On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, undergraduate students and a panel composed of Wesleyan faculty gathered in the Public Affairs Center for a discussion on the history of American political primaries. The event, “Primary Lessons,” was a part of the History Matters Series sponsored by the History Department.

On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, Feb. 9, undergraduate students and a panel composed of Wesleyan faculty gathered in the Public Affairs Center for a discussion on the history of American political primaries. The event, “Primary Lessons,” was a part of the History Matters Series sponsored by the History Department.

In his comments, Professor of History Ronald Schatz delved into the history of American political primaries. Beginning just after the Civil War, he covered several pivotal moments of the 19th and 20th century that shaped this fundamental component of the American electoral process.

In his comments, Professor of History Ronald Schatz delved into the history of American political primaries. Beginning just after the Civil War, he covered several pivotal moments of the 19th and 20th century that shaped this fundamental component of the American electoral process.

Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock on the History of the Russian New Year’s Tree



A hundred years ago, Christmas in Russia looked a lot like Christmas in America, with trees, presents and twinkling lights. All that changed with the Russian revolution, Assistant Professor of History Victoria Smolkin-Rothrock told NPR in an interview about the history of the Yolka, or New Year’s tree.

“The tree comes to be seen as a symbol of both the bourgeois order, which is one kind of class enemy, and of religion in particular, which is another kind of class enemy,” explains Smolkin-Rothrock. “There are very explicit statements that essentially unmask the Christmas tree for the class symbol that it is. It becomes clear that one does not have Christmas trees without political sympathies and allegiances falling into question,” a dangerous thing in the Soviet era.

In 1935, though, there was a letter in Pravda, the official paper, saying things had changed.

Smolkin-Rothrock sums up the argument of one high-ranking Bolshevik: “Here we are, and Socialism has been built, and why would we deprive those children who had never had a Christmas tree of their own of the pleasure of the tree?”

So, the tree was redeemed. And it moved up the Orthodox calendar, becoming completely secular. Today, New Year’s trees can be found in the homes of many Russian Jews.

Smolkin-Rothrock is also assistant professor of Russian, Eastern European and Eurasian studies.

Several Wesleyan Projects Awarded NASA’s CT Space Grants


Jesse Tarnas ’16 (left) one of this year’s award winners, accompanied Associate Professor of Astronomy Seth Redfield (second from right) on an observing run at the Kitt Peak National Observatory to do research on exoplanet atmospheres. Also pictured are Estella Barbosa Souza, now a graduate student in physics at Yale University, and Adam Jensen, previously a postdoctoral researcher at Wesleyan.

Four Wesleyan undergraduates and a faculty member received awards in the latest call for proposals from NASA’s Connecticut Space Grant Consortium.

Astronomy major Rachel Aronow ’17 was awarded an Undergraduate Research Fellowship in the amount of $5,000 for her project, “Planet Formation and Stellar Characteristics in Tatooine-like Systems.” She is working with Bill Herbst, the John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy, studying Tatooine-like systems (named after the fabled home system of Luke Skywalker), which are planet-forming disks that surround a close pair of stars that are in orbit around each other. Aronow conducted research with Herbst last summer, and these funds will support further work this academic year and possibly next summer.

Two students each received Student Travel Grants of $1,000. Melissa Lowe ’17, an earth and environmental sciences major, is working with James Greenwood, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences, and will use the travel grant to present research at the Lunary and Planetary Conference in Houston, Tx. in March. Jesse Tarnas ’16, an astronomy and physics double major with a minor in planetary science, is working with Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy, associate professor of integrative sciences, on a project using data from the Kepler Space Telescope to measure the atmospheric and planetary properties of distant exoplanets. He is working on a senior thesis and will present preliminary results at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Florida this winter. He is also attending the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco to present research he did as part of a summer research program at NASA Ames Space Academy.

Aylin Garcia Soto ’18 was awarded a $5,000 Undergraduate Scholarship, given to a student preparing for a career in STEM. Last summer, Garcia Soto worked at Williams College as part of the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium (KNAC) Research Experience for Undergraduates program, of which Wesleyan is a member.

Finally, Amrys Williams, visiting assistant professor of history, was awarded a Faculty STEM Education Programming Grant of $5,000 for the “Under Connecticut Skies” project. She is leading an effort that involves several faculty in the Astronomy Department, History Department, and Science in Society Program to create a museum exhibit in the library of the Van Vleck Observatory inspired by the celebration of the observatory’s centennial anniversary. Supported by the Connecticut Humanities Council, Williams led research with a team of student last summer into possible exhibit topics. This NASA CT Space Grant award will support the implementation of the exhibit.





Anthropology, Archaeology Collections Offer Hands-On Learning

At right, Ying Jia Tan, assistant professor of history, taught his class, History of Science and Technology in Modern China, in Wesleyan's Anthropology and Archaeology Collections. 

At right, Ying Jia Tan, assistant professor of history, taught his class, History of Science and Technology in Modern China, in Wesleyan’s Anthropology and Archaeology Collections. The class’s reading correlated with artifacts displayed in the collections. Pictured at left is Jessie Cohen, lab manager.

TJ Blackburn '16 listens to a classroom discussion while examining skulls from three different time periods. 

TJ Blackburn ’16 listens to a classroom discussion while examining skulls from three different time periods.

In the 1920s, a team of scientists working in the Zhoukoudian cave system in Beijing, China unearthed Peking Man, a roughly 700,000 year-old sample of Homo erectus. After the communist revolution of 1949, Peking Man became a prominent figure in bringing science and the story of human evolution to the masses.

As part of the required reading for the HIST 368 class, History of Science and Technology in Modern China, Ying Jia Tan, assistant professor of history, is having his students read The People’s Peking Man, written by Wesleyan alumna Sigrid Schmalzer ’94. The People’s Peking Man offers a skilled social history of 20th century Chinese paleoanthropology and a compelling cultural history of assumptions and debates about what it means to be human.

On Nov. 11, Tan brought his students to the Wesleyan University Anthropology and Archaeology Collections (WUAAC) to offer them a tangible and hands-on lesson to complement their reading.

Jessie Cohen, lab manager, prepared for the class by displaying fossil and extant replicas including Australopithecus afarensis (“Lucy”), Homo erectus (“Peking Man” and “Java Man”), and Homo sapiens. She also included several stone tools which originate from the Paleolithic era, a prehistoric period in human history that lasted approximately 2.5 million years. These particular stone tools are associated with specific dates and locations that overlap with Homo erectus production and usage.

“The juxtaposition of these widely ranging fossil replicas, modern Homo sapiens, and stone tools is representative of the changing environment, physical demands, and technological advances noted throughout human evolution,” Cohen explained.

She also displayed a Chinese newspaper / Chinese-American school brochure came to the collection by way of missionaries in the early 1900s.

“I thought it would be a great idea for the students to see the replicas of Peking Man and think about how the Peking Man was constructed by anthropologists,” Tan said.