Saturday's Bicentennial Colleges Cover Range of Topics
Bicentennial Colleges and tours continued on Saturday of Kickoff Weekend. Professors Douglas Ambrose and Robert Martin discussed the life and legacy of Alexander Hamilton; faculty authors read from their works; and Professor Rick Werner talked about the idea of happiness as put forth in the Declaration of Independence. Others included:
Talk and Discussion with playwright Rajiv Joseph and Brad Fleischer ’00 – Alex Pure ‘13
Since debuting in Culver City, Calif., in May 2009, Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo has become a culturally significant production: the play has won several prestigious awards (including being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize); it has traveled across the country to premiere on Broadway; and it has even starred an appropriately scruffy Robin Williams (yes, that Robin Williams) in the title role. Nevertheless, the play harks from modest roots – that is, from a 2003 news story, that had been relegated to the back pages of The New York Times. Upon taking to the podium, playwright Rajiv Joseph presented this tiny news clipping to the audience.
The clipping recounted the story of two American soldiers stationed in Baghdad: one, who stuck his hand into the cage of a hungry Bengal tiger and was promptly amputated, and the other, who shot the tiger to death in retaliation.
Upon reading the article for the first time, Joseph was enraptured. “The story was surreal and bizarre, not among the normal stories coming from the area,” he said. There was just one problem, he explained: “I had to figure out what you do with a fascination when you don’t know why it fascinates you.”
Joseph said that during his second year of grad school he took the first step toward writing Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo as it exists today. He decided to adapt the tiny news story into a 10 minute play.
Joseph, with the help of two Hamilton theater concentrators, then performed these 10 minutes’ worth of material. The audience watched as two American soldiers expressed their dismay at having been stationed in a “boring” zoo; meanwhile, the tiger expressed its own dismay at having been placed in confinement. As the scene played on, it became clear that the three characters, despite their obvious differences, had something in common: they were all far from home, each trapped in their own physical and emotional cages.
Once the performance was over, Joseph explained that this initial draft had been promptly dismissed by his peers at the time of its composition. As a result, he placed the story on the backburner. It remained there until he graduated, at which point Joseph returned to the play and expanded it.
The initial 10 minutes became the very first scene of the full-length drama. Joseph transformed the simple story into a larger ontological mystery in which the tiger, having been killed in the first scene, embarks “on a spiritual journey, wondering why he’s not gone, why he’s still walking around, why he’s seeing the sort of things he’s seeing in Baghdad at the time.”
Joseph proceeded to show the audience other sources of inspiration for his play: a news clipping regarding leper colonies in the Middle East; a photo of the Bush twins looking “shaken” while visiting wounded soldiers; a story of a 9/11 survivor who had his entire back tattooed with the names of those he lost that day; an article stating that 40 percent of Americans believe in ghosts; the trailer of the movie Adaptation; some scenes from the little-known documentary Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. Joseph explained that each item, despite its seeming irrelevance, contributed in its own way to the conception of Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo.
“The creative process is unpredictable,” Joseph said. “It reminds me of a quote from the film Stand and Deliver: ‘You’re in a dark room searching for a black cat that isn’t there.’ Well, I think that if you stand there long enough, maybe light will fill the room. And even if the cat isn’t there, you’ll finally see something else that is.”
How Hamilton Works: What Students Gain From College – and How – Cecelie Pikus ’13
When choosing what college to attend, many students are drawn toward the appeal of the “liberal arts education.” Some parents, however, may question what the real advantages are in attending a liberal arts school, such as Hamilton. In a Bicentennial College on Saturday, Professor Daniel Chambliss explained what the long-term benefits are for students enrolled in Hamilton College.
Chambliss demonstrated through the Mellon Assessment Project, a series of research studies and hypotheses funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, that Hamilton students have significant advantages over students at other liberal arts colleges and NESCAC schools. Throughout this study, Chambliss and his colleagues tracked 100 Hamilton students in the freshman class of 2001 through their four years at Hamilton and their four to five years after graduation.
Chambliss explained that one of the most important benefits of Hamilton College is the relationship between the student and the professor. Through his research, he discovered that more than 80 percent of students felt they had a close and personal relationship with a faculty member other than their academic advisor. He also posed the question, “If you could go back in time, would you choose Hamilton again?” to his research students. If, at some point throughout their four years, a student was invited to a professor’s house, the students were more inclined to say “yes” to this question, therefore demonstrating how the relationships with their professors helped improve their overall experience at the college. “If, during your freshman year, you can make two to three friends and form a relationship with one to two professors, you will be all set,” Chambliss explained.
The researchers also analyzed the level of writing of these 100 students and concluded that most Hamilton students greatly improve their writing over their four years, especially during their first year. Yet again, faculty comes into play; Chambliss stated that even one individual meeting with a faculty member about a paper could change a student’s whole outlook on his or her writing.
He also came to the conclusion that students at Hamilton become more advanced critical thinkers by the time they are four to five years out of college. “The students learn to see things in new perspective,” Chambliss said. “Only through studying abroad do Hamilton students experience big ‘life perspective’ changes in college,” he added.
But with the good must come a little bad. Through his research, Chambliss concluded that “Hamilton’s formal advising program is mostly irrelevant,” with only 40 percent of students feeling as if they had a close and personal relationship with their academic advisor.
In addition, Chambliss addressed the looming debate surrounding Hamilton’s no distribution requirements and how it has affected students. His research illustrated that since 2005, when the distribution requirements were dropped, students are far less likely to take science courses simply because they don’t have to. One parent raised the unavoidable question, “How can you call this a liberal arts education when students only focus so narrowly?” Chambliss admitted that this question is the biggest issue surrounding the debate on course requirements.
Google Earth and Desert Eyes: A Tale of Enigmatic Structures in the Western Desert of Egypt - Clark Louie ‘14
Professor of Geosciences Barbara Tewksbury’s Bicentennial College detailed the impressive contributions that Google Earth has made in identifying geological features in Western Egypt. Tewksbury is involved in several projects examining unique formations she calls “desert eyes.” Her interest in these features was sparked back in 2008, when she was examining Google Earth while her students were working on the Geographical Information Systems (GIS).
“In class I have my students work on the GIS program, and I found myself bored, so I decided to take a look at some of the geological features in Egypt,” Tewksbury recalled. She initially focused on Lake Nasser, one of the safety water sources in Egypt in case of drought. Near Lake Nasser are the Toshka lakes, spill-over lakes from the water of Nasser.
Tewksbury noticed splotchy patterns not far from the Toshka lakes and. She recalls, “They were eye-like images on screen.” Tewksbury was amazed not only at the appearance but the scale of these features. Each was about 600 meters long. As she scoured the map further, she noticed more than hundreds of thousands of the “desert eyes” sprawled across Egypt.
A self-proclaimed “pattern junkie,” Tewksbury had to investigate. She noted that some circular features are just surface deposits like salt. But other circular features are actually bedrock layers. These bedrock layers have ragged edges that represent the structure domes. The domes are cut by faults, which confirm they are bedrock layers, not lake deposits. These formations are easy to miss and Tewksbury said she was “amazed that these have existed for many years and no one has discovered them or took notice of them before.”
So how did these features remain largely unrecognized? The western desert of Egypt is extremely barren with few roads, and temperatures are higher than 90 degrees even in the winter. For comparison’s sake, Tewksbury used Google Earth to pull up images of the east coast of the U.S. and Egypt. The bustling roads and highways of the east coast are about as far opposite from the roads of western Egypt as one can get.
Tewksbury is fully utilizing the potential of Google Earth in Egypt. She discussed several projects she’s involved in around the western Egyptian area, including one along the Asyut-Kharga Road. “I was intrigued by a 1987 geological map of the area and decided to compare it to the modern Google Earth map,” she said.
Tewksbury is now working with Asmaa Dokmak, a student from Alexandria University. They communicate through Skype, comparing Google Earth maps and notes they had entered in Google Earth and were able to plan their eventual fieldwork that will happen in both the fall and winter of this year.
Now Tewksbury is planning fieldwork with NSF, examining more “desert eyes” in Farafra and Aswan and the area between Farafra and Asyut. The crew will include U.S. students and faculty as well as five faculty and students from universities in Egypt. To learn more about Tewksbury’s research and fieldwork visit here.
The Year Without a Summer - 1816 – Pat Dunn ‘12
It is a well-known fact that climate is variable and subject to slow, cyclical change. What is uncommon, and what happened to the world in 1816, four years after Hamilton’s founding, is a sudden, drastic change in climatic conditions. Silas D. Childs Professor of Biology David Gapp addressed an audience in the newly dedicated Taylor Science Center about the local and global impact of the curious conditions of 1816, the year without a summer.
The small Indonesian island of Sumbawa was rocked on April 5, 1815, by the eruption of the volcanic Mount Tambora. The eruption, which initially killed an estimated 12,000-15,000 people, continued sporadically erupting for three months, eventually spewing more than 100 cubic kilometers of dust and particulate matter into the air. The stratospheric dust was thick with sulfate, which reflected and prevented sunlight from reaching the earth’s surface, and the next year and a half was subsequently characterized by much colder-than-average temperatures in eastern Europe and the United States.
July, 1816, in Central New York was subject to an incredibly variable weather—two or three days in the 70s would be followed by several consecutive nights of frost. Farmers on the east coast were especially hard-hit; month-long droughts plagued the southern states, and farmers in the northeast saw the majority of their crops—corn especially—destroyed by the continuing cold. The crop failures motivated an exodus of New England farmers to lands being sold by the government in the Midwest.
The extremity of 1816 remains an anomaly in the history of global climatic conditions, but one that has largely been forgotten. Gapp emphasized the value of adaptability and preparedness in the future.