This Isn’t an Election Crisis—It’s a Crisis of Trump, Says Alan Hirsch ’81

Submitted on Tuesday, 11/24/2020, at 7:45 PM

“I think this crisis really owes itself to the character of the person in the Oval Office, not to our electoral system, even though that system could surely be improved,” says Alan Hirsch ’81 in a recent interview with Andrew Keen for the Keen On podcast. Hirsch is a professor at Williams College and author of the 2020 book A Short History of Presidential Election Crises.

“An election crisis is one where after the voting is done, we don’t know who won,” Hirsch continues. “But now we know who won. That’s not really up for dispute. But we have a president who refuses to acknowledge that reality and possibly is willing to go to great lengths to try to impose his own reality, and that’s the crisis, if there is one.”

The interview delves into several major election crises in U.S. history, including those in the 1800 presidential race between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr and the 2000 race between George H.W. Bush and Al Gore. Keen and Hirsch also discuss possibilities for abolishing or reforming the Electoral College, a system that Hirsch believes makes elections especially vulnerable to crises.  

Speechwriter Dan Cluchey ’08 is “Exhausted and Hopeful” After Biden’s Campaign

Submitted on Thursday, 11/19/2020, at 11:54 AM

Maine’s Portland Phoenix profiles Dan Cluchey ’08, one of the three major speechwriters for Joe Biden during his recent presidential campaign. “With the presidential campaign now giving way to a transition effort, Cluchey isn’t sure what’s next for his career,” writes reporter Elizabeth Clemente, “but he admits he has had quite the ride from his childhood in Cape Elizabeth to his life in Washington, D.C.”

The article traces Cluchey’s career from Amherst College, where he first became interested in writing speeches; through Harvard Law School; and into his speechwriting jobs for President Barack Obama’s administration and later for Biden. It touches upon the challenges of crafting speeches for a socially distanced, virtual environment in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cluchey praises the diversity of people who advised him in writing about such issues as Black Lives Matter and transgender rights: “We were just fortunate to have a campaign that looked like America in all respects and to have their input not as some sort of afterthought but as a critical part of the process.”

The article also includes mentions and photos of Cluchey’s wife, lawyer Miriam Becker-Cohen ’11.     

Professor Mona Oraby on Faculty-Student Collaboration During COVID-19

Submitted on Monday, 11/16/2020, at 5:19 PM

In a post for the Islamic Law Blog, Assistant Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought Mona Oraby writes about participating in the Students as Partners Faculty Learning Community, hosted by Amherst’s Center for Teaching and Learning. Through this pilot program, each faculty participant chose a student partner to provide feedback on the professor’s teaching of a particular course.

“I chose to collaborate with Sophia Friedman [’21], one of my departmental advisees who has taken two of my courses,” Oraby writes. The advisee became an advisor regarding the professor’s Spring 2020 “Islamic Constitutionalism” course. “It was by working with her that I realized more fully the importance of soliciting and incorporating student feedback on how we teach, not just what we teach—as we teach. By mid-semester Sophia and I had a shared understanding of the classroom environment and the learning styles of students enrolled in the course. We developed a range of strategies for different students that would encourage each one to contribute more actively and substantively to classroom discussion.”

Oraby describes how this collaboration continued even after COVID-19 necessitated a shift to teaching the course remotely. She discusses how the pandemic and the summer’s political upheaval surrounding the killing of George Floyd both underscore the urgent need for adaptability in the quest for accessible and equitable learning environments.

Eli Harris '15's UVC Lamp Fights COVID in Restaurants, Classrooms and Beyond

Submitted on Friday, 11/13/2020, at 2:55 PM

The Santa Barbara Independent profiles Eli Harris ’15 as a co-founder of R-Zero, a company whose relatively inexpensive, movable lamp shines ultraviolet rays to kill 99.99 percent of nearby microorganisms. The lamp, called the R-Zero Arc, is now being used in restaurants, hotels, classrooms and other spaces around the country to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The article describes Harris’s path from his youth in Santa Barbara, Calif., to enrolling at Amherst with the intention of entering the foreign service, to winning a Fulbright scholarship at the U.S. Embassy in China, to becoming an entrepreneur. Harris created, but later sold his shares in, a lithium ion battery company called EcoFlow.

The article also explains the development of the R-Zero Arc lamps; the legal and economic factors at play in pricing and selling germicidal lamps; and their potential for use in businesses, schools and hospitals to combat not only COVID but also influenza, food poisoning and other germ-related public health threats. It includes photos and quotes from Santa Barbara-area establishments that are already using or planning to use Arc lamps.  

Professor Ilan Stavans’ New Book Retells Epic Mayan Creation Story Most of Us Don't Know

Submitted on Tuesday, 11/10/2020, at 2:54 PM

“Stavans is the author of Popol Vuh: A Retelling, a prose rendition of the heroic epic poem about the creation of the world as told by the K'iche' Maya people of Guatemala,” reports Arturo Conde of NBC News. “The book, with stunning illustrations by the Salvadoran folk artist Gabriela Larios, is out Tuesday.”

“The preservation of the Popol Vuh is a story about indigenous oppression, survival and endurance. But it also shows how colonizers can have within themselves the ability to rescue a culture, give voice to a people as an outsider," says Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst. The epic poem, believed to have been passed down through an oral tradition for more than 1,000 years, was first put in writing by K'iche' nobility in the 16th century, and first translated into Spanish by Dominican friar Francisco Ximénez in the early 18th century.

The NBC News article tells more about the poem’s history, its structure and Stavans’ new version of it, comparing it to Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Netflix series Stranger Things.

Professor Lawrence Douglas: “The Delays in the U.S. Election Result Mean Our System Is Working”

Submitted on Thursday, 11/5/2020, at 2:15 PM

“The fact that we don’t yet know who our next president will be is not evidence of a system malfunctioning,” writes Professor Lawrence Douglas in a Nov. 4 op-ed for The Guardian (U.S.). “It is proof that election officials around the country are taking the requisite time to make sure that all ballots—including all those cast by mail—are properly tallied.”

Douglas, the James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought, points out that counting mail-in ballots is a labor-intensive process, the timing and procedures for which vary state by state. He criticizes President Donald Trump’s partisan “fearmongering” attempts to rush and undermine confidence in the election process, as well as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s “sloppy concurrence” with the president’s efforts, noting that suspicion of the “blue shift” in late-counted ballots was also voiced by Republicans during the 2018 elections.

“[P]atience is the order of the day,” writes Douglas. “The integrity of the electoral system demands no less.”

Remote Antidote: College Students’ Tin Can Learners Offers Kids Fun Engagement

Submitted on Tuesday, 11/3/2020, at 3:39 PM

“The idea is to create joyful learning for students in fourth through eighth grades during the days of online school,” says Tessa Levenstein ’22 in an Amherst Bulletin article about Tin Can Learners, a Zoom-based enrichment program she co-created with four other college students.

Through the program, families pay what they can for after-school classes in science, math, art and other subjects, as well as tutoring sessions and “Friday fun day,” led by the college students. The idea grew out of the spring 2020 online Harry Potter class that Levenstein co-taught with Wesleyan student Michayla Robertson-Pine for the children of Amherst College faculty and staff.

The Bulletin quotes Vanessa Walker, an Amherst history professor whose son is enrolled in Tin Can Learners: “As a parent, I love that these programs engage the kids educationally but make it a lot of fun,” Walker says. “Perhaps even more importantly in this moment, they really do a wonderful job of creating a sense of community among the kids.” 

“Female Husbands: A Trans History” Delves Deep into Culture and Norms

Submitted on Monday, 11/2/2020, at 4:29 PM

On, a portal for New Jersey’s LGBT community, Lana Leonard reviews Female Husbands: A Trans History, by Associate Professor of History Jen Manion. The new book examines cases from Anglo-American history of people assigned female at birth who, in Manion’s words, “assumed a legal, social, and economic position reserved for men: that of a husband.”

Female Husbands arrives as a priceless truth to uncovering the oversimplification and erasure of trans and queer life in Western history,” writes Leonard. The review describes a case covered in the book: that of respected 18th-century tavern owner and female husband James Howe of Poplar, England, whom a neighbor eventually extorted and threatened into reverting to life as a woman. The review also acknowledges the book’s examination of white privilege and the legal system as they affected the lives of female husbands.

“People have been denied their history,” the review quotes Manion as saying. “I hope my book acts as a bridge, that you could give [Female Husbands] to a straight, cis person and say read this and it’ll make sense to them because it is history, right? It’s pretty straightforward but at the same time it’ll give them a window into our life.”

Professor Kiara Vigil on Why It Is Important to Highlight Roles of Native Americans in History

Submitted on Monday, 11/2/2020, at 2:06 PM

On Oct. 12, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Associate Professor of American Studies Kiara Vigil appeared on public radio to discuss the importance of learning and teaching Native history.

Vigil, whose ancestry is Dakota, Apache, Irish and Mexican, spoke of her experiences as a child in the Boston area, learning about her Native heritage in ways that went beyond what little she was taught in school. “So I had to kind of do supplementary reading on my own. And that just continued throughout life,” she said. “And so it's not surprising to me that I found my way into being a teacher of history, a teacher of literature and culture.”

The professor also described teaching her Spring 2020 course “Native Futures”. Many of the students, she said, were Indigenous—from “Hawaii and Chumash country, Ojibwe and Lenape, Pottawatomie”—and “in almost every single text we've read, there was something that spoke to their community or their people.” Vigil also recalled how a white student from upstate New York was able to learn about her own hometown’s connections to Mohawk history, showing how “it's not just one person's history or story to inherit. It's all of ours.”

5 Fast Facts You Need to Know About Aaron Latham ’66

Submitted on Monday, 11/2/2020, at 2:06 PM

Though the headline identifies him as “Lesley Stahl’s Husband,” a roundup of facts about Aaron Latham ’66 goes beyond his 43-year marriage to the 60 Minutes correspondent, also describing his early life, writing career and current engagement in boxing as a therapy for Parkinson’s disease.

According to the article, Latham grew up playing football in Texas and Arizona, and decided to become a writer in order to fulfill the unrealized dreams of his mother. After graduating from Amherst and then Princeton, Latham began writing books, articles for major magazines and newspapers, and eventually Hollywood screenplays. His writing is the basis for the 1980s John Travolta movies Urban Cowboy and Perfect.

The article details how Latham and Stahl met while reporting on the Watergate scandal and later had a daughter together—Taylor Latham ’99. It concludes by describing Latham’s Parkinson’s diagnosis and therapeutic boxing regimen, which he discussed during an Amherst reunion panel several years ago.

Chasing Shadows: A Deeper Look at Botanist Alvan W. Chapman, Class of 1830

Submitted on Friday, 10/23/2020, at 12:56 PM

An article in The Times of Apalachicola, Fla., profiles Dr. Alvan W. Chapman, an 1830 Amherst College graduate who “brought the study of botany out of New England to the expanding United States, especially to the then Territory of Florida.” Chapman’s former home and the Chapman Botanical Gardens are esteemed sites in Apalachicola today.

The article, written by Caty Greene, president of the Apalachicola Area Historical Society, surveys some of the writings about Chapman, which in turn shed light on his physical appearance, his personal and professional relationships, his involvement with the local community and his botanical fieldwork, which continued into his 80s. His popular book Flora of the Southern United States was first published in 1860, with further editions released decades later. 

The piece additionally describes how Chapman, who was originally from Southampton, Mass., and was also a physician, worked to inform and support the Union forces during the Civil War. 

Evolutionary Microbiologist Vaughn Cooper ’94 on Tracking COVID-19 Through Its Genome

Submitted on Wednesday, 10/21/2020, at 4:03 PM

Vaughn Cooper ’94, an evolutionary microbiologist at the University of Pittsburgh, spoke with The Washington Post’s Bob Costa on Oct. 19 about the Cooper Lab’s use of cutting-edge technology to track genetic changes in the coronavirus in order to trace and control the virus’s spread.

After gene sequencing, “we have a complete record of all 29,000 sort of nucleotides or letters in the RNA alphabet of the coronavirus genome. And then we can compare that sequence first with the original isolate that was sequenced in Wuhan, China, but we can also compare that sequence with literally every other sequence ever decoded on the planet,” Cooper explained. “And in the context of, say, contact tracing, what it allows you to do is determine whether the virus that you're looking at came from a close relative or perhaps came from sort of general community spread.”

The extensive interview also includes, among other details, Cooper’s commentary on the lack of coordination in the United States’ federal response to COVID-19; comparison of U.S. gene-sequencing progress to that in Australia and other nations; and explanation of the importance of gene sequencing in developing a vaccine and adjusting it in the future, as the virus evolves.  

Life in the "Bubble": Amherst College Students Feeling Locked Down but Safe

Submitted on Thursday, 10/15/2020, at 2:49 PM

“I feel like the college is taking the best precautions possible, but the bitter part is being barely able to do anything,” says Lucheyla Celestino ’23, one of several Amherst students quoted in a Daily Hampshire Gazette article that details the successes and struggles of the College’s pandemic plan.

The article, by Jacquelyn Voghel, also quotes communications from President Biddy Martin. It describes the geographical, social and recreational restrictions placed on students living and studying within Amherst’s “campus-centered bubble,” and how the students have generally been willing to comply with the rules in order to prevent COVID-19 from spreading within and around the College. The students interviewed express some boredom and grief, but also say they feel safe and appreciate being on campus with friends.

The piece briefly hints at possible adjustments and enhancements to campus life for the spring semester (though most of the restrictions will likely remain in place) and also compares and contrasts Amherst’s approach to those of Hampshire, Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges and UMass Amherst.   

Professor Austin Sarat Compares 2020 Vice Presidential Debate to 1988 Campaign

Submitted on Friday, 10/9/2020, at 2:09 PM

In a piece for The Conversation, Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science, associate provost and associate dean of the faculty, cites parallels between tactics used by Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris in the Oct. 7 debate to those used in the 1988 presidential race.

“Like that year’s Democratic presidential candidate, Michael Dukakis, who famously said that the campaign was about competence not ideology, Harris went after what she described as the Trump administration’s incompetence …” writes Sarat. In response, Pence “borrowed a strategy of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign and insisted that Biden and Harris represent just another, out-of-the-mainstream iteration of the Democrats tax, spend and regulate agenda.”

Sarat additionally compares the way Pence blamed the Obama-Biden administration for the Islamic State Group’s 2013 capture and murder of U.S. humanitarian Kayla Mueller to “Bush’s use of the so called Willie Horton ad to discredit Dukakis.”

The Conversation article also includes debate commentary from Cynthia Young, associate professor of African American studies at Pennsylvania State University.

Manuela Lavinas Picq on the Spreading of Faith, and Disease, in the Amazon

Submitted on Thursday, 10/8/2020, at 12:16 PM

Manuela Lavinas Picq, Karl Loewenstein Fellow and visiting associate professor of political science, argues in The New York Times that evangelical Christian missionary initiatives in the Brazilian Amazon threaten Indigenous peoples, especially now that the missionaries have increased support from President Jair Bolsonaro and might carry the coronavirus with them.

In the opinion piece, part of the Times’ series “The Amazon Has Seen Our Future,” Lavinas Picq describes elements of the recent history of evangelical incursion into Indigenous territory and the effects of missionary involvement with the medical care and politics of Indigenous populations.

“For many years the Brazilian government tried to protect tribes that chose to live in isolation from these incursions. Now the government is essentially backing the missionaries,” she writes. “The major danger now is that Covid-19 may kill so many people that it could result in the decimation of entire ethnic and tribal groups.”