Check out Occidental faculty members’ scholarly accomplishments from 2020!
Articles, Essays, and Chapters
Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) has upended our modern lives in unimaginable ways, questioning the very basis of our political economy. In a special virtual issueof Politics and the Life Sciences (PLS) on Coronavirus: Politics, Economics, and Pandemics, co-edited by DWA Prof. Sophal Ear, the articles provide insight on what we might learn going forward by looking at past research appearing in the pages of PLS.
French Prof. Arthur Saint-Aubin's new essay, "Chuck Berry's Autobiography: Rock Music, Racial Practice, and One Black Man's Problematic Relationship with White Women," examines the autobiography of Chuck Berry--the "Father of Rock & Roll"-- as a narrative that functions, inadvertently, to expose how racial practice determines how rock music is made and listened to in the US. Saint-Aubin demonstrates how Berry’s account of his life story, though not necessarily accurate in every detail, helps readers to understand how rock music, a genre initiated by and whose first stars were black performers, has evolved into a genre dominated by white men. Berry’s account of his life as a songwriter and performer exposes, in addition, the racial and gender ideologies that underpin the historically fraught relationship between black men and white women.
Urban Environmental & Policy Prof. Mijin Cha and co-authors published a new paper, "Environmental Justice, Just Transition, and a Low-Carbon Future for California" that presents the results of a community-informed research project analyzing the challenges and opportunities of a just transition for environmental justice communities in California. Through interviews, case studies, and original data analysis, a framework for just transition policy development is presented built on four pillars: strong governmental support, dedicated funding streams, diverse and strong coalitions, and economic diversification.
In a new article, "'Improbable Spectacles': White Supremacy, Christian Hegemony, and the Dark Side of the Judenfrage," Religious Studies Prof. Ben Ratskoff argues that the twin premises of American liberal democracy—racial whiteness and political forms that 'materialize' Christianity—explain how Jews can be both the targets of white supremacists and among the members and ideologues of Trump’s xenophobic, racist administration. Supplementing Karl Marx’s observation in On the Jewish Question that the United States was a nation state without a Jewish question with a reading of debates around the 1790 Naturalization Act, Ratskoff observes that from the perspective of U.S. law, Jews have always been classified as white, and thus 'implicated in racial whiteness.' Yet while racial whiteness historically 'neutralized religious differences between Europeans,' establishing an abstract individual equivalence within a civil society that rested on the subordination and exploitation of non-whites, that whiteness, Ratskoff insists, has never been monolithic: it neutralizes but does not dissolve religious difference, leaving Jews subordinate within a genealogically when not overtly—Christian (and particularly Protestant) political formation. The ambiguities of American Jews’ racial and political status today can be traced back to this foundational tension.
Citizen scientists can help professional scientists amass much larger datasets than would be possible without their input, but the quality of these data may impact their utility. Therefore, it is imperative to develop standard practices that maximize the accuracy of data produced by citizen scientists. One method increasingly used to improve data accuracy in citizen science-based projects is just-in-time training (JITT), in which volunteers are given on-demand resources to train them on the spot or in conjunction with the research they are performing. In a new article by Biology Prof. Amanda Zellmer and co-authors, "Just-in-Time Training Improves Accuracy of Citizen Scientist Wildlife Identifications from Camera Trap Photos," they examine whether JITT improves citizen scientist accuracy of subject identification, specifically wildlife identification from camera trap photos. Ninety-four participants with varying degrees of experience in biology were asked to identify photos from camera traps in Los Angeles, California set to capture photos of wildlife in an urban habitat. Without access to JITT, citizen scientists with no background in biology had lower accuracy than professional biologists. However, when participants with no background in biology received JITT, they were able to identify wildlife with a similar level of accuracy as professional biologists. There was a significant interaction between biology background and training treatment. The increase in accuracy of novice citizen scientists who received JITT was due primarily to fewer misidentifications of species overall but also to increased confidence in classification of species. From these results, the authors conclude that the use of JITT can significantly improve subject identification accuracy for citizen scientists with no background in biology.
People who hold scientific explanations for natural phenomena also hold folk explanations, and the two types of explanations compete under some circumstances. In a new paper, "Competing Explanations of Competing Explanations: Accounting for Conflict Between Scientific and Folk Explanations," Psychology and Cognitive Science Prof. Andrew Shtulman and co-author explore the question of why folk explanations persist in the face of a well‐understood scientific alternative, a phenomenon known as explanatory coexistence. They consider two accounts: an associative account, where coexistence is driven by low‐level associations between co‐occurring ideas in experience or discourse, and a theory‐based account, where coexistence reflects high‐level competition between distinct sets of causal expectations. We present data that assess the relative contributions of these two accounts to the cognitive conflict elicited by counterintuitive scientific ideas. Participants (134 college undergraduates) verified scientific statements like “air has weight” and “bacteria have DNA” as quickly as possible, and we examined the speed and accuracy of their verifications in relation to measures of associative information (lexical co‐occurrence of the statements' subjects and predicates) and theory‐based expectations (ratings of whether the statements' subjects possess theory‐relevant attributes). Both measures explained a significant amount of variance in participants' responses, but the theory‐based measures explained three to five times more. These data suggest that the cognitive conflict elicited by counterintuitive scientific ideas typically arises from competing theories and that such ideas might be made more intuitive by strengthening scientific theories or weakening folk theories.
In a new paper, "Congruence primes for automorphic forms on unitary groups and applications to the arithmetic of Ikeda lifts," Mathematics Prof. Jim Brown and co-author provide a sufficient condition for a prime to be a congruence prime for an automorphic form f on the unitary group U(n,n)(A_F) for a large class of totally real fields F via a divisibility of a special value of the standard L-function associated to f. We also study p-adic properties of the Fourier coefficients of an Ikeda lift I(ϕ) (of an elliptic modular form ϕ) on U(n,n)(A_Q) proving that they are p-adic integers which do not all vanish modulo p. Finally we combine these results to show that the condition of p being a congruence prime for I(ϕ) is controlled by the p-divisibility of a product of special values of the symmetric square L-function of ϕ.
UEP Prof. Mijin Cha contributed a chapter to We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style, a new volume edited by UEP Prof. Peter Dreier, Michael Kazin, and Kate Aronoff. Prof. Cha's chapter, "We the People: Voting Rights, Campaign Finance, and Election Reform," argues that democratic reforms are needed in order to adopt policy measures advocated by democratic socialists. She discusses the distorting influence money has in our political system and details the wide-scale voter suppression efforts under way, specifically targeted towards voters of color and low-income voters. Prof. Cha concludes by offering a policy agenda that ensures every vote is counted and our electoral system is no longer dominated by monied interests.
Prof. Ben Ratskoff (Religious Studies) published a chapter in the first essay collection to consider the Caribbean’s relationship to Jewishness through a literary lens. Caribbean Jewish Crossings takes a pan-Caribbean approach, with chapters addressing the Anglophone, Francophone, Hispanophone, and Dutch-speaking Caribbean. Prof. Ratskoff's chapter, "Splattering the Object: Césaire, Nazi Racism, and the Colonial," argues that Aimé Césaire's particular surrealist style and unique rhetorical figures of the choc-en-retour and the horticultural graft align Nazi racism within the scope of European colonialism and, in contrast to the conventional discourse on racism, as continuous (rather than deviant from) Western humanism. In turn, Césaire de-exceptionalizes the Jewish experience of Nazism as racism’s urtext while suggesting the incorporation of European Jewish history into anti-colonial critique.
History Prof. Sharla Fett's new chapter, "'Fugitive Liberated Congoes': Recaptive Youth and the Rejection of Liberian Apprenticeships, 1858-1861" examines the experiences of recaptive African youth, removed from illegal slave ships by the U.S. Navy and then transported to Liberia during the peak era of American slave trade suppression. Under the Liberian apprenticeship system thousands of young people were contracted out to six hundred Americo-Liberian households and missionary stations. Yet, recaptive shipmates of illegal slaving vessels often viewed Liberia as one more stop in a long series of forced migrations. In the initial period of resettlement, many responded to detention and apprenticeship with protest and collective attempts at escape. A close analysis of the records of U.S. Agent for Recaptured Africans John Seys, together with missionary accounts, indicates that a sizeable group of recaptives rejected their apprenticeship under the colonial hierarchies of Liberian society as an arrangement akin to the slavery from which they had purportedly been rescued. By examining recaptured Africans’ resistance to the terms of Liberian apprenticeship soon after their arrival, we catch a glimpse of both their initial hopes and the true cost of surviving enslavement and becoming Liberian “Congoes.”
Chemistry Prof. Jeff Cannon, Emeritus Prof. Don Deardorff, and Oxy undergraduate co-authors, Scott Niman, Mark Paulsen, Anasheh Sookezian, Meghan Whalen, Christopher Finlayson, Collrane Frivold, and Hilary Brown published a new article: "Development of a Combined Enzyme- and Transition Metal-Catalyzed Strategy for the Synthesis of Heterocycles: Enantioselective Syntheses of (–)-Coniine, DAB-1, and Nectrisine." The enantioselective syntheses of (−)-coniine, DAB-1, and nectrisine have been developed, utilizing a complementary strategy of enzyme- and transition metal-catalyzed reactions. The initial stereocenter was set with >99% enantioselectivity via an enzyme-catalyzed hydrocyanation reaction. Substrate incompatibilities with the natural enzyme were overcome by tactical utilization of ruthenium-catalyzed olefin metathesis to functionalize an enzyme-derived (R)-allylic fragment. The piperidine and pyrrolidine alkaloid natural products were obtained by a route that leveraged regio- and stereoselective palladium-catalyzed 1,3-substitutive reactions.
DWA Prof. Anthony Tirado Chase's new chapter, "Broadening Human Rights: The Case for a Pluralistic Approach" (co-written with Indiana University professor Hussein Banai, a former Oxy colleague) asks if and how human rights could help constitute an alternative to rising populist xenophobia. Chase and Banai argue that this question implies a challenge rather than a definitive answer. The challenge is if human rights are discursively and conceptually capacious enough to be (re)conceptualized in two essential ways. The first of these is to foreground how it is that human rights might specifically address embedded structural inequalities in local and global political economies. A second challenge is if human rights can be re-conceptualized to move beyond modest reformism toward informing ambitiously pluralistic foundations of political community.
Small and medium multifamily properties—defined as buildings having between 2 and 49 units—house over 20% of the U.S. population, yet they remain an understudied segment of the housing market. Using a rich, transaction-level dataset in eleven major urban counties, UEP Prof. Seva Rodnyansky and co-authors' new paper ("Why Are Small and Medium Multifamily Properties So Inexpensive?") finds that they transact at a significant price discount relative to both single-family and large multifamily properties on a per square foot basis. Controlling for both unit- and building-level structural characteristics, small multifamily structures (with 2 to 4 units) transact at a 13.2% discount relative to single-family houses. Further analysis shows that neighborhood characteristics can explain 48.5% of this difference, leaving a sizable residual unexplained. They also find that medium-sized multifamily structures (5 to 49 units) are similarly discounted relative to larger multifamily buildings. This persistently remaining discount may result from asset-specific characteristics. On balance, the analysis reveals a U-shaped price gradient, with the greatest discount for the smallest multifamily properties (2 to 9 units) and a diminishing discount for greater building size.
Books & Edited Volumes
Clinton's nomination by a major party changed the political landscape in significant ways, and the results of the 2016 election provoked a large number of women to run for office at all levels of government. In a new book by CTSJ Prof. Caroline Heldman and Lori Han, Madam President? Gender and Politics on the Road to the White House, critically analyzes the barriers facing women on the road to the White House―from gender stereotyping to biased media coverage, the conflation of masculinity and the presidency, gendered conceptions of leadership, and more.
English Prof. James Ford's first book, Thinking through Crisis: Depression-Era Black Literature, Theory, and Politics, was published with Fordham University Press In the book, Ford examines the works of Richard Wright, Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes during the 1930s in order to articulate a materialist theory of trauma. Ford highlights the dark proletariat’s emergence from the multitude apposite to white supremacist agendas. In the works of these thinkers, Ford argues, proletarian, modernist, and surrealist aesthetics transform fugitive slaves, sharecroppers, leased convicts, levee workers, and activist intellectuals into protagonists of anti-racist and anti-capitalist movements in the United States. As such, the book intervenes in debates on the 1930s, radical subjectivity, and states of emergency.
We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism--American Style, edited by Prof. Peter Dreier (Politics and UEP) and co-editors, offers a road map to making a socialist alternative a reality, giving readers a practical vision of a future that is more democratic, egalitarian, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable. The book includes a crash course in the history and practice of democratic socialism, a vivid picture of what democratic socialism in America might look like in practice, and compelling proposals for how to get there from the age of Trump and beyond. With contributions from some of the nation's leading political activists and analysts (including UEP Prof. Mijin Cha), We Own the Future articulates a clear and uncompromising view from the left--a perfectly timed book that will appeal to a wide audience hungry for change.
Grants, Fellowships, & Residencies
Skin lightening and skin bleaching creams, soaps, lotions, and other cosmetics products that lighten or change skin tone are used by women and men around the world.The skin lightening market is a multi-billion-dollar industry and fast growing, estimated at $6 billion worldwide.The Food and Drug Administration has little authority over cosmetic products, so many ingredients in U.S. cosmetics have limited health and safety data. However, one chemical historically used to lighten skin is mercury, which, unlike many other ingredients in cosmetics, is a known neurotoxin with serious negative public health consequences. In a new project Taking Stock, led by UEP Prof. Bhavna Shamasunder, Occidental College, BeautyWell, and Sierra Club’s Gender, Equity, and Environment Program will collaborate to examine the durability of the skin lightening cosmetics market and impacts to women of color's health, despite efforts among scientists, public health practitioners, clinicians, and global policy efforts to educate, inform, and limit mercury’s use in cosmetics. Through archival research, the first part of this study examines the skin lightening market and how mercury came to be added to products as an ingredient, and efforts by companies to replace this chemical for less toxic alternatives.The second part of this research examines how diverse communities perceive scientific and public health information about chemical toxicity, what are reasons consumers purchase skin lightening products, and whether and how scientific and public health data influences consumer choices. Overall, through interviews and focus groups with immigrant communities in Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and New York City, this project aims to better understand whether and how the “public understanding of science” intersects with issues of race and immigration in the United States context.
UEP Prof. Mijin Cha and Prof. Manuel Pastor (USC) received a $125,000 grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation to continue their state-level just transition work. As co-PIs, Profs. Cha and Pastor will explore what policies are needed to help equitably transition fossil fuel workers and communities into a low-carbon future, known as 'just transition' and what political conditions must be necessary to advance those policies. The project will analyze just transition and political conditions in CA, KY, LA, and NY.
Symbiotic partnerships involving two or more species are widespread in nature and we can expect to find them in every type of environment, from rainforests, to urban landscapes, to the oceans. Prof. Shana Goffredi (Biology) has been awarded a $213,809 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the identity and role of symbiotic bacteria in numerous groups of blood-feeding marine invertebrates, from leeches to isopods. The proposed research--titled 'Marine Vampire microbiome Project (MVP): Blood-feeding marine invertebrates, and their bacterial accomplices'--combines a variety of molecular, imaging, and experimental approaches to examine whether internal bacteria positively influence the success of this unusual group of marine parasites. Integrated with this proposal are research opportunities for undergraduates, the expansion of a course that incorporates active exploration of symbioses, and an interactive exhibit at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium.
Math Prof. Jim Brown was awarded a $23,750 grant by the National Security Agency and a $19,125 grant by the National Science Foundation to support the conference "Building Bridges: 5th EU/US Workshop on Automorphic Forms and Related Topics." This is a workshop for researchers from around the work to get together and share their research results in the field of automorphic forms. The workshop will take place at the University of Sarajevo. (This workshop immediately follows the summer school funded by the NSF.)
Exhibits, Performances, Films, Scripts, and Compositions
Art & Art History Prof. Linda Besemer’s art is currently on disply in the queer abstraction exhibition at the Nerman Museum. This exhibit features the work of twenty artists who create abstract art to convey the complexities of sexuality and gender identity in the 21st century. Alternative identities, desires and communities are explored through the artists’ manipulation of color, form, texture and materials. Many of these works defy the categories of painting or sculpture, while others camouflage reality in the guise of abstraction. Underlying the art is a fundamental and defiant commitment to pushing the limits of abstract art’s capability. Queer abstraction invites all visitors to leave preconceived notions of the body, sex, gender and love behind and discover abstraction’s queer possibilities.
Awards, Appointments, and other Accomplishments
Biology Prof. John McCormack's National Science Foundation funded project to resurvey Mexico's birdlife was the subject of a video short published on Biographic's website. "Records of Change" follows Prof. McCormack and the Moore Lab as they travel to remote locations in Mexico and work with locals to assess how birds are coping with environmental stressors. The Moore Lab's bird specimens play a key role in providing a link to past bird communities recorded before industrialization changed Mexico's habitats forever.
History Prof. Sharla Fett presented a keynote address at a workshop titled "Postcoloniality and Forced Migration" at the University of Aalborg in Copenhagen, Denmark. This interdisciplinary and international conference brought together scholarship on borders, forced migration, and political theory, with critical research on humanitarianism, colonialism and slavery. The keynote was titled "Externalizing the “Problem” of Slave Trade Refugees: U.S. Slave Trade Suppression 1819-1861."
When Biology Prof. Joseph Schulz’s lab submitted an abstract related to the on-going research in his lab to the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology’s Annual Meeting--entitled "The Cone Snail Strikes Back: A Biomechanical Study of an Ultrafast Prey Capture"--it was selected for a talk (instead of a poster) and was selected as part of a selection of exciting new research to include in the meeting press. The Society conveyed that "Every year our committee picks some of the most exciting research being presented at the annual meeting to present to the general public and the press. Of the nearly ~1900 abstracts that were submitted, your abstract rose to the top of our list."
MAC Prof. Allison de Fren's scholarly video essay Mad Science/Mad Love and the Female Body in Pieces (2018), which examines a sub-genre of the Frankenstein film in which a mad doctor attempts to revive a disfigured/dead daughter/fiancée by stealing parts from female victims, was included in Sight&Sound's best video essays of 2019 list!