A Glimpse into the Research and Creative Work of ALLEGHENY
Serving on the faculty at a liberal arts college requires a fine balancing act: the expectations for teaching and mentoring students are the highest in higher education, and yet those same teachers are expected to maintain a rigorous program of professional development.
For the five Allegheny faculty interviewed for this article, however—and, they would be the first to say, for their colleagues across campus—engaging in research and creative activity is not a matter of simply meeting expectations. It complements and informs their teaching, it connects them to colleagues around the globe, and it brings them tremendous personal satisfaction as they work in labs, libraries, theatres, and the world outside campus to unravel mysteries, contribute to scholarship, create new and distinctive work, and solve real-world problems.
In many cases, Allegheny faculty are also able to integrate students into their work: students often cite getting to work alongside faculty in research and creative projects as one of the most exciting and rewarding components of their Allegheny education. But whether or not it lends itself to student contributions, the work that faculty do often models for students the joy of tackling a problem and making it their own, thus helping to produce and inspire the next generation of scholars.
The Model Pays Off
It’s a little counterintuitive: we expect liberal arts grad-uates to get a well-rounded education—breadth in addition to depth is the liberal arts’ bread and butter—but we might expect that researchers who want to learn their trade would flock to research universities. It’s what research universities do, after all.
The numbers reveal otherwise, however. Although residential liberal arts colleges educate about 3 percent of American college graduates, those colleges produce almost twice as many students, proportionately, who go on to earn Ph.D.s in science as do other institutions. Almost 20 percent of scientists elected to the National Academy of Sciences during a recent two-year period were liberal arts graduates.
Perhaps not so surprising—but just as impressive—liberal arts colleges were shown in one study to have produced 8 percent of the nation’s wealthiest CEOs as listed in Forbes magazine; 9 percent of Fulbright scholarship winners; and, in an almost forty-year period, disproportionately high percentages of Pulitzer Prize winners: 23 percent of the prizewinners in drama, 19 percent in history, 18 percent in poetry, 8 percent in biography, and 6 percent in fiction.
Liberal arts institutions have also produced 19 percent of U.S. presidents, including Allegheny’s own William McKinley as well as the incumbent: Barack Obama began his undergraduate education at Occidental College and finished it at Columbia University.
But the successes associated with the teacher-scholar model are hard-won. Even the most dedicated teacher and scholar comes up against the same insurmountable problem as the rest of us: barring a research breakthrough in temporal physics, there are only so many hours in the day.
Professor of English Diane D’Amico notes that she was able to write her book on Christina Rossetti only because at the time she had been granted a Humanities chair, with its reduced teaching load.
“What I find I can do during a regular academic year is limited,” she says. “Therefore, I have focused on writing articles, not another book. For an article, I can narrow my research down to a single question concerning Rossetti: What did it mean for a Victorian woman to have breast cancer and to decide to have a mastectomy? What did it mean for a woman poet to be living in a Georgian town-house? I find I research extensively in the summers and then during the semester I can dip back into my research as time allows in order to develop the journal article. But there are still certain points in the semester when I have to set all of this aside so I can focus on grading.”
Major works such as Professor of History Barry Shapiro’s book on traumatic politics and the early French Revolution and Professor of Theatre Beth Watkins’s new play Chewing Your Fingers to the Bone were both developed for the most part over the course of sabbaticals.
Finding funding for research and creative activity can be equally challenging. “At a liberal arts college, it’s hard to find the time to write grant proposals, so you may not be as competitive as faculty at research universities,” notes Associate Professor of Economics Steve Onyeiwu. “For some grants, you’d almost have to shut down all your work and do nothing but work on the grant proposal.
Institutional support—money that the College can provide to faculty and students, often through the generosity of alumni—often makes a critical difference. Christine Scott Nelson ’73, who has served as chair of the College’s board of trustees since 2007, endowed a research fund during the last capital campaign.
Support from that fund allowed Associate Professor of Geology Ron Cole ’87 to work with two students in Alaska during summer 2008. The data they collected formed the bedrock for a successful grant application to the National Science Foundation, which will provide more than $219,000 over the course of three years for Cole’s continued research on volcanism and mineral resources in Alaska. As many as twelve Allegheny students will participate in the work, which will take them from Meadville to Alaska to what Cole calls a “world-class geochemical laboratory” in Taipei, where they’ll have the opportunity to work with a colleague of Cole’s at National Taiwan University.
Dean of the College Linda DeMeritt makes a point of announcing faculty accomplishments, including grants, at monthly faculty meetings. “Although as we talk about Allegheny to prospective students, we tend to emphasize the quality of our teaching, it’s true as well that we have a remarkable community of scholars here, including men and women with international reputations in their fields,” she says. “That students benefit so directly from our faculty’s scholarship—and often make their own contributions to it—is worth celebrating every chance we get.”
Steve Onyeiwu has a great deal of respect for economists who focus solely on theory. It’s just not the kind of economist he wants to be. “I am an economist who believes economics should be about solving problems,” Onyeiwu says.
“Some economists build models—and they do good and necessary work—but I belong to the group who believe that even as we formulate abstract theories, economics should be relevant to the problems the world faces.”
Onyeiwu applies this philosophy to both of his current areas of research, one close to home in Meadville and the other much farther afield: in Africa.
Since his days as a Ph.D. student, Onyeiwu has been interested in how firms gain a competitive advantage. How do they become leading firms? What kind of investments do they make to attain that status? How do companies use technological innovation to their competitive advantage?
“There are so many factors that contribute to competitive advantage,” Onyeiwu says, “including luck.”
Although his dissertation was on the Nigerian textile industry—Onyeiwu was born and raised in Nigeria—and how they competed, he discovered upon arriving in Meadville that Crawford County was fertile ground in which to transplant his research.1 Onyeiwu is now focusing this branch of his work on the regional tool and die industry.
“We are surrounded by small companies that are very innovative,” Onyeiwu notes. “I am astounded at all of the technological innovations used by small companies in Crawford County. But at the same time these small companies are struggling because of 9/11 and competitive pressures from China.”
Onyeiwu’s second area of research—the economics of developing countries, especially in Africa—has allowed him to cross disciplinary lines and work with colleagues like Eric Pallant, in the environmental science department. Onyeiwu is especially interested in issues related to poverty and the impact of globalization on the poor in African villages. Using the poverty headcount index—the percentage of people who live below $1 per day—and access to basic necessities as benchmarks, Onyeiwu found that the impact of globalization on poor villagers in Nigeria has been marginal.
“The fun part of the research is when students start to make phone calls and people are rude to them,” Onyeiwu says. “I tell them, ‘Welcome to the world of research. Any research that is easy is probably not good research. You have to expect frustrations and challenges. A good researcher learns how to work around obstacles.’”
With Pallant and Molly Hanlon ’09, Onyeiwu is about to publish an article about the sustain-ability of agriculture in Africa, a topic they presented on at a conference in Senegal. The project began on an Experiential Learning term that Onyeiwu and Pallant led to Ghana, Togo, and Burkina Faso.
Onyeiwu has found that generally it’s difficult to include students in his research on the economics of African countries—both because of the travel involved and the sophistication of the economic tools needed for the research—but he says that Allegheny students represent tremendous value-added to his research on the tool and die industry.2
“They make phone calls, participate in designing questionnaires, explore which companies to interview, and how to distribute our findings,” Onyeiwu says. “Many of the tool and die owners are very private people, but I find that many of the shops we interview agree because they’ve heard that students are involved. Student involvement is a persuasive tool when I approach tool and die companies—it helps me gain access.”
One of the greatest benefits for students, Onyeiwu says, is to see the tools they learn in the classroom put to practical use on current problems. “My tool and die work changes its focus a little every year,” he notes. “Every year I ask my students, ‘What are the issues this year? Let’s go investigate what’s going on.’ ”
When Onyeiwu decided to research the tool and die industry, then president Richard Cook introduced him to Rob Smith ’73, president and owner of Acutec, a leading precision machining company. “That’s one of the pluses of doing research at a small liberal arts college,” Onyeiwu says, “that the president of the college can be so interested in faculty research that he would help make those connections for a junior faculty member. At a big research university, you probably would never even meet the president, let alone get to talk to him about your research.”
When Diane D’Amico first encountered the work of pre-Raphaelite poet Christina Rossetti in graduate school, Rossetti wasn’t a major figure in the courses she was taking. “Women Victorian poets tended to be ignored,” D’Amico says. “But I was struck by the power and the beauty of Rossetti’s poetry, and I thought, ‘This is worth spending my time on.’ ”
Since that time Rossetti, who wrote more than a thousand poems, has increasingly gained stature in the literary world—and D’Amico has become one of the preeminent Rossetti scholars in the world. The research she has done on Rossetti also informs D’Amico’s work with students in the classroom.1
National Endowment for the Humanities Chair in the mid-1990s, D’Amico wrote the book Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time, published by Louisiana State University Press. Now, through a series of articles, D’Amico has been crossing disciplinary boundaries to explore Rossetti’s life and work through fields including religion, medicine, and architecture.
“What I noticed in the scholarship was a tendency to dismiss her faith—she was High Church Anglican—as unimportant or to view it through a Freudian lens as a substitute for her not marrying,” D’Amico says. “I thought we needed to take her religious beliefs more seriously and read her poetry through that lens.”
Scholars had also tended to underplay a major event in Rossetti’s life: the mastectomy that she underwent in her home in 1892. “That got me interested in the history of medicine. What did it mean for Rossetti to have breast cancer and to decide to have that surgery?” D’Amico says. “What struck me was that the early biographers avoid saying breast cancer almost intentionally until the 1970s. There was a great reluctance to talk about it and to use that language. That’s part of the reason why it’s hard to get at the story.”
Although it may be surprising to realize that mastectomies were performed in the nineteenth century, D’Amico says it was not an unusual operation. The hospital surgical records of George Lawson, who regularly performed mastectomies, still exist, although the records related to his private patients, including Rossetti, have been lost.
D’Amico’s interest in architecture grew out of a visit to Rossetti’s home, a Georgian row townhouse in London.2 Although 30 Torrington Square is now a collection of private apartments, D’Amico received permission to tour the house, where Christina Rossetti died in 1894.
“I think for many years now when students come to Allegheny they haven’t had vast experience reading poetry,” says D’Amico. “But I have found that if you place it in the context of the time and make connections to the social and cultural issues of the time, you can make it accessible. I’ve had wonderful discussions in classes.”
“I became interested in how physical place might have informed and shaped her poetry,” D’Amico says. “For her it’s especially important because in her later years she spent most of her time in that house and most of her mature poems were written there.”
D’Amico’s manuscript on Rossetti’s house and how it shaped her poetry will appear in the Spring 2010 issue of The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies and will feature photos by her husband, psychology professor Bill DeLamarter. The photography includes shots of windows, D’Amico notes, “to give readers a sense of Rossetti looking out through her windows.”
“If we apply architectural terms to Rossetti’s later poems,” D’Amico says, “then her poems become windows, offering readers brief glimpses of light coming from a world just beyond the window.”
D’Amico has also made connections with descendants of Christina’s brother, William, the only one of the four Rossetti siblings to have children. Through those connections, she learned that the family still owns Christina’s writing desk—another glimpse into the poet’s world.
D’Amico has also researched nineteenth-century “penitentiaries,” which she explains were not prisons but ratherinstitutions that prostitutes entered, as “penitents,” to learn the respectable skills of laundry, needlework, and other useful work. Rossetti volunteered in penitentiaries and may have read to the women there.
Caryl Waggett’s research on lead poisoning in rural areas grew out of a classroom lesson that didn’t go quite as planned. A new faculty member in the environmental science department in 2003,1 she was teaching her first class and what she hoped would become her signature course: environmental health.
“I chose the topic of lead poisoning so students could see a success story. We’ve seen the rates of lead poisoning in children drop because of the regulations initiated starting back in 1978,” Waggett says. “So this would be an example for students: ‘See how we can accomplish things! You see, the country can identify and prioritize and solve these problems.’ There are a lot of environmental problems that are cool success stories.”
Before coming to Allegheny, Waggett focused her research on Lyme disease. She dissected some 14,000 ticks in the course of her research and conducted a three-year epidemiological study at a northern California commune at high risk for the disease. She still works with students at Allegheny who want to study Lyme disease and West Nile virus.
But once Waggett and her students started looking into the topic further, they discovered two things: Crawford County has many of the risk factors for lead poisoning—such as a high poverty rate and a high percentage of hous
ing that pre-dates the regulations against lead paint—and because lead poisoning had always been considered an urban problem, fieldwork hadn’t been done in rural areas. They set to work, aided by a Shanbrom Collaborative Research Grant, funded by Dr. Edward Shanbrom ’47 and his wife, Helen. Waggett and her students looked at fifty homes in the area and found enough evidence to suggest the potential for high incidences of lead exposure among the county’s children.
Just a year after that first course, and using the data gathered with their Shanbrom grant, Waggett successfully applied for a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. Through a partnership with Meadville Pediatrics, they found that 10.4 percent of children in the county had elevated blood lead levels that could result in severe neurological problems associated with lead poisoning. That compared to 4.9 percent of children in Pennsylvania and 1.4 percent of children nationwide.
That initial work has now expanded into Healthy Homes–Healthy Children (HHHC), a program that supports parents in northwest Pennsylvania in their efforts to ensure their families’ health. In addition to its research program, HHHC not only provides free in-home testing for lead, mold, radon, and other hazards but also conducts educational outreach.
“Students helped me restructure the nature of the program from lead to Healthy Homes,” says Waggett, who is also Allegheny’s representative to the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors.2 “We’ve expanded beyond lead to all the issues that affect children’s health in the home. How do you prioritize lead when there are all these other issues affecting children’s health? Parents would ask us that: ‘What should I do first when my child has asthma and we live in an old home that likely has lead paint residue?’ ”
Allegheny students continue to be an integral part of Waggett’s research program and the heart of HHHC’s outreach efforts. “Students are the ones who figured out that we should be going into children’s classrooms: it educates teachers, it educates students, and the children go home and talk about the programs with their parents,” Waggett says. “In addition, our students are able to connect with the community in a way that is not threatening. And students bring an energy to the work. As soon as the light bulb goes on for them, they turn energy into action.”
As for the lesson students took away from that first class? Even better than learning about an environmental success story is being able to create one of your own.
Waggett co-chairs a working group on the environment and health. She has been collaborating with the Institute of Medicine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and others to develop a strategy that will aid all undergraduates as educated citizens and future political, business, and community leaders to understand the health implications of human actions in the environment.
“The very idea of ‘psychohistory’ makes many traditional historians uncomfortable,” according to Barry Shapiro. But by applying a psychological lens to history, Shapiro has created what scholar David Troyansky calls “a work of creativity and daring”: Traumatic Politics: The Deputies and the King in the Early French Revolution, published last year by Penn State University Press.
“I wrote the first draft during my last sabbatical,” Shapiro explains. “A research fellowship at the Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute gave me access to practicing psychoanalysts. But I’d been interested in psychoanalysis over the years. And in the last ten years I’ve worked, in a number of published articles, to integrate the role of human experience and human emotions into the study of how history has unfolded the way it has and how people’s conduct is driven by their emotions as much as by their ideas.”
In Traumatic Politics Shapiro examines how the early experiences of the deputies of the first Revolutionary Assembly, when the king’s troops surrounded the assembly and the deputies feared for their lives, affected the decisions they made as they constructed a new constitution and decided the fate not only of the monarchy but of the monarch himself.
“Even though there was no major violence at that time—the blood and gore of the guillotine would come later—even though it wasn’t a massive trauma like a geno-cide, these deputies were traumatized by the fear of violent death,” Shapiro notes. “In the immediate aftermath of that trauma, their behavior was shaped and skewed by the experience they had, as they fluctuated between denial and a revisitation of the trauma they experienced.”
Barry Shapiro says that students in Citizenship, Democracy, and the French Revolution sometimes do change the course of history: “Once the Assembly voted not to execute the king—but the students playing the crowd threatened another revolution, and the deputies eventually gave in to their demand for Louis’s death.”
For the last three years Shapiro has brought these ideas into the classroom with Citizenship, Democracy, and the French Revolution, a course partially funded by Project Pericles, which supports courses connected to civic engagement. Unique at Allegheny, and perhaps in the country, Shapiro’s course focuses on role-playing, giving students the opportunity to understand history through an emotional connection to the events they’re studying.1
The class studies two crises of the French Revolution: when Louis XVI tries to escape from Paris in 1791, and the Assembly has to decide what to do with him, and the trial of the king in 1792–93, which leads to his execution.
Shapiro gives two weeks of background for the course before students take the reins. For each crisis students divide into two factions, left and right. Some take on the personae of well-known figures such as Danton or Lafayette. Others assume generic roles, such as a seamstress or an uncommitted delegate. For the second crisis, students switch sides and reverse roles, with those who played named individuals taking on less prominent roles and vice versa.
“But they don’t have to do exactly what the people in history did,” Shapiro says. “Students can go off on a tangent or even go off the rails. But it has to be plausible. It has to be within the parameters of what the character might have done. And that allows us to explore the question to what extent is history inevitable?”2
Do the results of Shapiro’s research on traumatic politics in the French Revolution have relevance to politics today, particularly in the United States? “The very terms ‘the left’ and ‘the right’ originated in the French Revolution,” Shapiro reminds us.
“My own interest in the French Revolution originally derived from living in the 1960s and being upset by the polarization and mutual lack of understanding and respect that had coalesced around Vietnam and cultural issues,” Shapiro says.“I had hoped to better understand what happened in the 1960s through the lens of the French Revolution.”
I get embarrassed using the word playwright,” says Beth Watkins. “It’s not what I do.” But even if Watkins prefers not to call herself a playwright, the fact is that she works with students and other colleagues to create remarkable original pieces for the stage at Allegheny, including November’s Playshop production Chewing Your Fingers to the Bone.1
The play was inspired by “An Error in the Code,” an article by Richard Preston in The New Yorker that relates the diagnosis and treatment—and the human anguish—of a rare genetic disorder, Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, which causes its victims to actively work against their own self-interest, including terrible acts of self-mutilation.
Watkins and local puppeteer Brian Thummler had been looking for an opportunity to work together after Thummler created shadow puppets for Venus, another Playshop production. Watkins also knew that she wanted to develop a devised theatre piece, which a company creates through improvisational rehearsals rather than by starting from a script.
In 2005 Playshop Theatre debuted Chick Joint, a play that Beth Watkins adapted from the prison correspondence of Jesse Carr, a twenty-year-old college student who was arrested with eighty other human rights activists for trespassing onto the property of the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.
In September 2008 Watkins invited a small group of stu-dents to join her and Thummler on the project. Thus began the back and forth of a fifteen-month collaboration.2
“We had a series of two- and three-hour rehearsals in fall 2008,” Watkins says. “In January 2009, while I was in England on sabbatical, I wrote two sequences: an opening for the play and a story centered on King Fox. I was drawing on the memory of what we had worked on and stitching those ideas together in a way that was theatrical. The actors’ improvisations would spur my work on the narrative, which would take us back to the rehearsal hall.”
In addition to dramatizing real-life events described in Preston’s article, the play employs fantastical stories within the story: Hephaestus, Zeus, and Hera all make an appearance in a comic retelling of the Greek myth of Pandora’s box, and the King Fox fable uses puppets to tell a variation of the Bluebeard tale. The two characters in the play who have Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, Joey and Mike, are also represented by puppets.
“Although Brian and I led the project, the students were very much co-creators,” Watkins says. “They would bring additional material to the rehearsal. And they brought their individual talents to the work: one student had ballet and one had tai chi, for example, and they brought those talents to choreograph a musical number. The students made significant contributions to the play, and I think they really felt they owned the piece.”
Watkins also drew on the expertise of colleagues Jeff Hollerman and Lee Coates, who both teach in the neuroscience program.
With the high-risk creative process that devising seems to present, was there ever a point for Watkins when she thought, “This is never going to work?”
“I’ve had two experiences in the past where I adapted work from other media, but I’d never sat down before without a lot of other material to build on,” Watkins says. “I don’t know that I ever thought ‘This is never going to work.’ But when I was sitting in Stratford trying to write, I did think, ‘I wonder if I’m going to get a play out of this?’”
Students in the cast of Chewing Your Fingers to the Bone—Stephanie Armstrong, Kaitlin Mackenzie, Camilo Matos, Jordan Metcalfe, Sara Odioso, Michael Andrew Pirrone-Brusse, Stephen Reaugh, and Dan Winston—include an equal number of theatre majors or minors and students who are majoring in other fields. Philadelphia composer Bob Michel wrote five original songs for the show. Student musicians Nick Adamson, Heidi Kleppen, and Isaac Salapa accompanied the cast as well as created a musical “soundscape” and effects for the production.