Catherine Sanderson: How Masks Became The New Normal

Submitted on Friday, 5/22/2020, at 11:31 AM

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, head and face coverings were not widely worn in Western countries. Now that social norm is changing, and Scientific American recently went to Catherine Sanderson, Amherst’s Manwell Family Professor of Life Sciences (Psychology), to discuss the dynamic of a new habit becoming an everyday habit.

“Social norms can change rapidly, and it doesn’t take everybody,” said Sanderson, author of the new Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels (Harvard University Press).

She cited an online experiment conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, in which subjects engaged in social coordination to assign names to an object. The experiment concluded that it only took a quarter of the participants to set the tone.

“They become the social influencers, the trendsetters,” Sanderson said. “You get this sweep.”

“As somebody who studies social norms, it’s astonishing. It’s like a flip in a blink of an eye in terms of this change,” she told the CBC’s Mark Gollom.”I think what we’ve seen is that this is just an unprecedented time. And that’s something that leads to very, very fast shifts.”

Reading With Ilan Stavans

Submitted on Friday, 5/22/2020, at 11:26 AM

"Isolation has its benefits” for bookworms like Ilan Stavans, Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture, who recently shared with the Daily Hampshire Gazette what he's been reading while social distancing.

“Part of me has always wanted to be a hermit; I have now been granted the chance,” he remarked. He listed Jorge Luis Borges, Edmund Wilson, Gabriel García Márquez, William Shakespeare and Hannah Arendt as some of his current pandemic reads.

“I’m at an age, 59, when I am attracted to ‘proven’ books, not only those that have survived the test of time but books that, when I finished reading them long ago, I remember having a sense of companionship,” he told the Gazette.

Those wanting to get in on the reading with Stavans might be interested in his online book club, which was the subject of another story in the Gazette. “Restless Reads,” a virtual book club co-sponsored by Stavans’s publishing company Restless Books and the Jones Library in Amherst, last month hosted an international discussion with about 100 people talking about Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” over two sessions. The group plans to hold monthly zoom sessions about classic titles from the publisher’s catalog.

Jared Gardner '87 on Giving the Virus a Face

Submitted on Friday, 5/22/2020, at 11:22 AM

Illustrating or even anthropomorphizing something as intangible as a virus can help convey critical information to the public about safety and health. But in the past doing so has also stoked racism and xenophobia, Jared Gardner '87, an English professor at The Ohio State University interested in medical humanities and cartoons, told NPR recently.

"A lot of the early anthropomorphizations are less about disease and more about pain, like little dogs biting our feet for gout, for example,” he said.

However, “racism and xenophobia are deep in the genome of comics and cartooning," he told NPR’s Neda Ulaby. During the great flu pandemic of 1918, which was erroneously believed to come from Spain was portrayed as “a mosquito dressed up in a kind of toreador's cape, with what the cartoonist is imagining as a Spanish hat," Gardner said.

He noted that some cartoonists early in the COVID-19 epidemic used problematic images such as the octopus to stand in for China. This particular image hearkens back to those used by Nazi cartoonists to represent Jews back in the 1920s and '30s.

"It's often represented as a figure for an insidious foreign invader working its way into every element of society," Gardner said. Thankfully, “they're backing away from that kind of imagery. The initial xenophobia you saw in some mainstream cartooning has disappeared,” he said.

Jen Manion: Charting the History of the Female Husband

Submitted on Monday, 5/18/2020, at 8:10 AM

In a recent essay for Aeon, Jen Manion, associate professor of history, chronicles the history of the "female husband,” the subject of their newest book, Female Husbands: A Trans History (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

“Far from being a recent or 21st-century phenomenon, people have chosen to trans gender throughout history,” they write. “Early and mid-19th-century American legal authorities knew that gender could easily be changed … In many cases of female husbands, members of their own community are more understanding and sympathetic towards them. Years, even decades, of being neighbours, friends or coworkers were not instantly undone upon learning about their unconventional gender.”

Describing their research, which looks at people assigned female at birth who lived as men in the United Kingdom and United States from 1746 to the early 20th Century, Manion told the Windy City Times: "I was able to show that these stories were not just made up by newspaper editors … These couples had legal marriage licenses that I found in the archives. I dug a layer deeper to fill in the context of their lives, the people who encountered them and how they moved through society."

Dhingra: Is CARES Widening The Education Gap?

Submitted on Monday, 5/18/2020, at 8:06 AM

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES), an emergency funding package being proposed by the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, might have the opposite effect of its stated intent of helping low-income students, writes Professor of American Studies Pawan Dhingra in a recent column for Arc Digital.

Citing a similar move to direct federal funds in supporting private tutoring companies under the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act, Dhingra notes, “as tutoring companies proliferate in cities buoyed by money from federal programs, it’s not just disadvantaged kids taking part. Families with children in highly-ranked schools, who should be the most satisfied with their schools, increasingly seek out the extracurricular learning these private companies offer. As a result, many of these centers serve a clientele with disposable income.”

“With more federal money now heading towards tutoring, we can expect what we’ve observed in recent years’ efforts to put federal money towards tutoring for disadvantaged students to continue: the widening rather than shrinking of the education gap,” he concludes.

Teaching Math in Quarantine, with Abby Freireich ’01

Submitted on Monday, 5/18/2020, at 7:58 AM

One of the toughest jobs parents may be finding under pandemic quarantine may be their new role as homeschool teachers, especially regarding math.

Educator Abby Freireich ’01 recently penned a piece for the New York Times on how to help your kids when you may not be a “math person.”

First rule: don’t tell your kids how much you hated or were a terrible math student.

“If kids hear your negative messaging, they are more likely to develop a poor long-term view both of math and of themselves as math students. Instead, emphasize that you understand that a problem is tricky and that what matters is that they work to solve it. The focus should be on the process of figuring it out,” Freireich and co-author Brian Platzer write.

Other tips include rephrasing what the question is asking, visualize and draw pictures, record each part of the problem step-by-step, and slow down. Also, be proactive about seeking out a teacher’s help, and try to tackle the hardest work early in the day, when students have the most energy.

Learning To Be Brave: Sanderson

Submitted on Wednesday, 5/13/2020, at 11:55 AM

Catherine Sanderson, Amherst’s Manwell Family Professor of Life Sciences (Psychology), the media’s go-to expert on happiness, has now been getting attention for her new book, which takes a look at why so many apparently well-intentioned people remain bystanders in the face of bullying, harassment, and other social evils.

Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels was recently the subject of an article in The Guardian (under the book’s UK title, The Bystander Effect), and an interview with Texas public radio station KERA’s program, Think.

“One thing Sanderson says we all must nurture, and build in ourselves is the ability to overcome social awkwardness,” wrote The Guardian’s Amelia Tait. “Time and time again, she notes how social pressures facilitate inaction. Put simply: if we are around others, we base how we act on how they’re acting. Many of us might avoid speaking out for fear that we’ve misjudged a situation – after all, if it really was that bad, wouldn’t others be speaking up, too?”

“My hope is that reading this book will help people understand that they have a choice and they can act,” Sanderson said. “It doesn’t have to be a courageous act, it doesn’t have to be confronting the person shouting slurs on public transport, it can be going over and sitting with the victim and pretending that you know them to interrupt the situation.”

UPDATE: Listen to a recent interview with Chicago radio station WGN-720, and read an excerpt from an interview with Corporate Crime Reporter.

Theater, at a Distance

Submitted on Friday, 4/17/2020, at 10:30 AM

What happens to theater when you can’t be in the same room as your fellow actors? The Valley Advocate recently spoke with theater educators, including Ron Bashford, chair of Amherst’s theater and dance department, about the new reality under COVID-19 social distancing and remote learning.

For him, it provides challenges, but also opportunities.

Bashford told the Advocate’s Chris Rohmann the current situation “gives us the chance to do very close reading of play texts, since we cannot explore the physical side in the same way … We have a bit more time to dig deeper into language, sub-text, and psychological aspects of character and relationship.”

“Scene work hasn’t entirely gone out the window. Instead of the short one-acts originally planned, students will be doing radio plays, gathering remotely around the virtual studio microphone. Work on monologues is being repurposed into coaching on how to prepare for an audition video,” Rohmann wrote.

Blood Relations: How a Pandemic Changed Charles Drew's Path

Submitted on Friday, 4/17/2020, at 10:17 AM

The Washington Postrecently featured the story of how the 1920 death of 13-year-old Elsie Drew, just one individual case from the great Spanish Flu pandemic of the last century, changed medical history. The loss of his sister would propel Charles Drew, Class of 1926, into a medical career.

“Charles had expressed a desire to become an electrical engineer, but at Amherst, he decided to turn in another direction,” wrote the Post’s John Kelly. “Instead of becoming an electrical engineer — or a coach or professional athlete — Charles R. Drew became one of America’s most celebrated doctors, lauded for his research into blood and his pioneering work establishing blood banks.”

Speaking with Drew’s daughter, Charlene Drew Jarvis, Kelly writes about how Drew was horrified to discover that the first blood banks, built upon his work, initially didn’t let African Americans donate, and that their blood was segregated when they were.

“It must be held as a basic principle of our thinking and a continuing hope that in the not too distant future, plans for the medical care of patients or the training of medical personnel will not be made on the basis of race or economic status,” Drew wrote in papers that his daughter later discovered.

Sarat on COVID-19 and the Law

Submitted on Friday, 3/27/2020, at 11:36 AM

In the face of the U.S. Supreme Court recently postponing two upcoming weeks of oral arguments because of the coronavirus outbreak, Austin Sarat, William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, devoted a recent column in The Conversation to the legal impacts of the pandemic.

“As someone who has studied law and catastrophe, I think that the court should be focused less on the precedent set when courts need to adapt to conditions such as the coronavirus crisis – and more on their readiness and capacity to continue to discharge their obligations under the Constitution,” he wrote. “Stopping their work has repercussions for citizens and government officials needing resolution of disputes and authoritative interpretations of the law.”

He cited videoconferencing and other technological tools to limit face-to-face interactions as ways to keep courts in session while limiting the spread of disease.

“Because of their reverence for tradition, courts are not known as particularly nimble and adaptive institutions. But their existing preparations will help. However, some lawyers and scholars worry that in a time of catastrophe due process of law will fall by the wayside in the name of expediency,” Sarat wrote.

From Alexa to Westworld: Jeffrey Wright ’87

Submitted on Friday, 3/27/2020, at 11:34 AM

In a March 13 interview with Parade, Jeffrey Wright ’87 spoke about his return to big screen this fall in the James Bond movie, No Time to Die, and his continuing work for HBO’s sci-fi thriller Westworld.

His work on the latter has had an impact on his feelings about technology: “I definitely am wary of having devices open and listening and recording conversations and interactions in our house. It’s clearly a portal for mischief. The show has deepened my sense of caution around these things.”

“I think in many respects, the technology that we’ve all become so merged to in the last decade and a half or so, has created greater efficiencies and, in some regard, greater productivity and connectivity,” he added. “But at the same time, the opposite can be said. We are less productive in some ways because we get drawn into the dopamine traps that are set for us by these devices.”

The 2020 World Happiness Report: Sanderson

Submitted on Friday, 3/20/2020, at 1:57 PM

It might seem odd to some that 2020 World Happiness Report, an annual survey of how satisfied people worldwide are with their lives, is coming out in the midst of a pandemic, but that’s exactly the point, Catherine Sanderson, Amherst’s Manwell Family Professor of Life Sciences, told The New York Times.

“Perhaps the most important thing about this report is that it says we should care about happiness,” she said, “that this is something we should measure.”

She said the report “is a call to American institutions to study happiness the way they analyze SAT scores, obesity rates and the gross domestic product.”

Finland topped the 2020 list, while the US’s ranking has dipped to No. 18, down from a peak of 11 in 2012.

Michele Deitch '82 on Prisons and COVID-19

Submitted on Friday, 3/20/2020, at 1:56 PM

The spread of COVID-19 has emphasized the need for prison reform, Michele Deitch '82, an attorney specializing in oversight of correctional institutions and prison and jail conditions, said recently.

Speaking with the financial news and analysis blog Naked Capitalism, she said, “because [prisons] are so densely populated and there is little ability to implement social distancing strategies [ … ] it is urgent for all places of detention to immediately reduce the number of people who are incarcerated.”

“Think of these institutions as bathtubs,” she said. “First, we have to turn off the spigot, to reduce the number of people entering the facilities; and second, we have to open the drain, to accelerate releases of people who are already incarcerated.”

Deitch is a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin, with a joint appointment at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the School of Law.

Picking a College, Long-Distance

Submitted on Friday, 3/20/2020, at 1:56 PM

With social distancing the new normal, college admissions staff have had to roll with the reality of putting a campus on hold. The New York Times spoke with Cate Granger Zolkos, dean of admission at Amherst College, and her colleagues at other schools about long-distance campus visits.

“We will enroll, as planned, a typical class of 473 incoming first-year students,” she told the New York Times.

“The admissions staff encourages prospective students to visit the college website, take a virtual tour, and learn more about student life by reading the student blogs linked there,” the Times wrote.

Will the India Trip Bring Votes Home: Pawan Dhingra

Submitted on Friday, 3/6/2020, at 7:00 AM

Looking at President Donald Trump’s upcoming trip to India, China Daily turned to Pawan Dhingra, professor of American studies, to ponder whether the Feb. 24 visit to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state of Gujarat would help get Trump the Indian-American vote in the fall election.

"There is a great affection for Modi among many – not all –- Indian Americans, especially Hindus, but that does not translate into a similar affection for Trump,” Dhingra told China Daily.

"However, if Modi can make the case that Trump is good for India and for what Modi wants to accomplish both in India and for India worldwide, then that could matter for Indian Americans," he added. Still, he concluded, “I do not think most Indian Americans will vote for him.”

UPDATE: China Daily subsequently reported that the visit was "long on optics," and Dhingra added, "Trump's visit was more pageantry than substance."