Occidental’s Eleven

By Dick Anderson

Behind the screens with the College’s largest-ever entering group of tenure-track faculty

As a prospective student visiting campus, Benjamin Weiss ’16 recalls being “charmed by bucolic scenes of Oxy faculty walking and talking with students—an image of Professor Ford walking with a student near Booth Hall stands out in my mind. At Oxy, I formed strong relationships with academic mentors and got to participate in the post-class walk-and-talk.” Four years after his graduation, Weiss is back at Oxy on the other side of the conversation, as an assistant professor of sociology: “As a faculty member, I am excited to provide for my students the same empathetic and rigorous mentorship I benefited from so greatly while an undergraduate,” he says.

Weiss is the youngest of 11 new tenure-track faculty to join the College this fall—the largest cohort in Oxy history. (All were hired before the pandemic; that number includes a holdover from 2019.) We asked them to tell us about themselves, the challenges of teaching remotely, and what they most look forward to upon returning to campus. Their answers have been abbreviated for space.

What attracted you to Occidental?

Stephen Klemm, assistant professor of comparative studies in literature and culture: The atmosphere of the small liberal arts college, especially here within such a dynamic place as Los Angeles, has always attracted me. I’m also particularly impressed with the students and the approach to learning that they have here. At Oxy, students demand that their education does not consist in a mere transfer of knowledge but involves active engagement intellectually, emotionally, and politically, which is something I admire.

Irina Rabkina, assistant professor of computer science: I first visited Oxy with my parents as a high school junior (long before Oxy even had a computer science department!). That visit convinced me that I belonged at a liberal arts college for undergrad, and indirectly led me back here years later. I am particularly excited about how ingrained the Computer Science Department is with the liberal arts curriculum here at Oxy, and about how collaborative and interdisciplinary it is.

Robert Sanchez, associate professor of philosophy: Professionally, it has always been my goal to teach at a small private liberal arts college, which I believe can offer the best overall education. Personally, coming to Oxy was coming home: I went to preschool in Eagle Rock before attending both Eagle Rock Elementary and Eagle Rock High School. I already feel a special commitment to the place, institution, and community.

Igor Logvinenko, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs: I am a big fan of the liberal arts college experience, having attended one as a student and taught at another during the previous five years. But what attracted me to Oxy in particular was the diplomacy and world affairs program and the opportunities offered by the Young Initiative in Global Political Economy. The combination of scholarly rigor, high-caliber teaching, and possibilities for engagement in real-world policymaking—both at the local level in L.A. and at the global level with the United Nations—are one-of-a-kind here.

Jason Wong, assistant professor of economics: First and foremost, what attracted me to Oxy were the critical and engaged students, who are excited about intellectual inquiry and who are not shy to ask pointed questions and challenge underlying assumptions. I was also drawn to Oxy as a premier urban liberal arts college in the heart of Los Angeles. The region is stimulating to me as an urban and environmental economist.

But if I am allowed to disclose: My interview for the job at Oxy was easily my favorite experience on the job market. My now-colleagues from the Economics Department took a keen interest in my work and appreciated my development as a teacher. But above all, they really tried to get to hear my story and development as a scholar and as a person. I am so proud to join one of the most diverse economics departments, where three of four of our full professors are women and 50 percent are persons of color. That is not to say we don’t have work to do: We have formed three equity and inclusion working groups this semester and changes are underway in classroom climate and experience, curriculum, and access to resources.

Mai Thai, assistant professor of sociology: I was drawn to Oxy’s institutional mission, its tight community, its vibrant sociology program, and its investment in faculty as scholars and teachers. Equally important is Oxy’s proximity to pho. And tacos. And pho tacos.

How has remote learning impacted your approach to teaching?

Amanda Tasse, assistant professor of media arts and culture: I’ve found it useful to balance screen-mediated experiences with those that are more physical, tangible, and embodied—such as journal writing, sketching, explorations of real-world spaces. I’ve deliberately built in space for students to have a sense of community and reflection, something that happens more organically when in person.

Emerging media is my field, so I am personally very curious about how this unique moment in time is forcing all of us to radically question, experiment with, and innovate on our teaching. I am inspired by all of the interesting approaches fellow faculty are trying out, and their willingness to share as we all tackle this challenge.

Katarzyna Marciniak, professor of global and transnational media: I am still very rigorous, but definitely more flexible as I allow my students to submit their work past the deadline. I also encourage them to revise work that hasn’t yet reached a level of excellence. In these complex times, when many of our students are confronting precarious circumstances, I want to make sure they feel fully supported in my classes.

Will Power, assistant professor of theater: Over the summer, I put aside my writing for six or seven weeks to take advantage of the workshops that Occidental’s Center for Teaching Excellence was providing. Then I started to think about my courses through that lens of a heightened technological experience. So now I might talk for 10 or 15 minutes before we do breakout groups. Or I might do a PowerPoint presentation, show a video, or have a guest artist. I’m trying to make the remote experience dynamic.

Rabkina: As I was planning my remote classes, it became clear that flipped classroom [an instruction model in which students watch recorded lectures for homework and complete their assignments, labs, and tests in class] was also a great way to give students the flexibility they need this semester. I am teaching from home in Eagle Rock, with one or both cats cuddled up behind my monitor—and occasionally making an on-screen appearance.

How have you been connecting to students? How are their spirits?

Sanchez: I like to think of philosophy as a conversation, so to make sure my students and I have a meaningful discussion, and they with one another, I have scheduled small tutorial groups (roughly five to six per group) throughout the week. Each group meets for roughly 40 minutes and I believe our class discussion is very close to meeting in person. Students’ spirits seem high. Some have expressed their appreciation for the hard work their professors are putting in, and though the situation is challenging and not ideal, students have reported that they’re learning a lot and that it’s much better than last semester. I think we all have the sense that we’re doing our best and that we’ll get through this together.

Logvinenko: Besides the usual office hours and in-class group work, I have attended (remotely) events organized by student organizations and also made myself available to our majors who are not currently enrolled in my classes. But none of this is a substitute for in-person communication. Overall, I doubt any students prefer remote learning over on-campus instruction, but I have been impressed with Oxy students and their willingness to deal with all these new challenges. My general sense is that both students and faculty think that the shift to remote instruction has gone better than anticipated.

Viviana Beatriz MacManus ’03, assistant professor of Spanish and French studies: For many of my colleagues and students, the switch to online teaching and learning last March was difficult and disruptive. For me personally, it coincided with the start of my maternity leave (my son Leonardo Velázquez is now 6 months old), so it was a bit hectic arranging the remainder of my semester to move online, planning the arrival of my first child, and ensuring that the personal and academic needs of my students were being met. I am currently still on parental leave; however, I have missed my students very much and I am quite excited to resume teaching in the spring semester.

Power: We don’t have a chance to have spontaneous connections on campus, which I was really looking forward to. Office hours have been pretty cool—we’re talking not just the classwork but also about what’s going on in life. We might also talk about the election. One student and I talk about basketball. As a professor, you’re like a mentor or a guide—you’re not a psychologist, but if a student has something on their mind, maybe you can offer some insight and support.

Weiss: I’m so impressed by my students’ tenacity and good-naturedness. Despite their many challenges and disappointments, students are engaging fully, extending empathy to their peers and to me, and even sometimes laughing at my jokes. Although relationship formation is tougher in the virtual environment, we’re getting to know each other more quickly than I imagined. Students in my Deviance class, for example, already make fun of me for using ketamine as my example every time I bring up drug use.

How do you balance your research with your teaching, and how much do the two intersect?

Klemm: Fortunately for me, my research and teaching do intersect. My research focuses on the intersections of aesthetic theory, philosophy, and the history of science in German literature and philosophy around 1800. I am particularly interested in the ways in which developments in the natural sciences opened a space for thinking about nature, culture, and subjectivity in non-teleological, open-ended ways.

My current book project focuses on the way in which Romantic metaphysics and literary theory take up these ideas to develop a theory of cultural transformation in which cultures and people are not seen as closed, static entities but opened up to the finitude of existence and with it, the possibility for open-ended transformation. My courses in German language and literature reflect these dynamics in everything from our discussions about Germany as a dynamic multicultural society to classes that address these ideas in texts as disparate as the literature of Kleist and Kafka to the reflections of Nietzsche in the lyric poetry of the Frankfurt hip-hop artist Azad.

Sanchez: To cite just one example of how my research and teaching overlap, this spring I’m teaching a CSP titled The Color of Humanity, which will chart the history of dehumanization in Latin America and the philosophical theories that underwrite it, beginning with the conquest and colonization of the Americas and continuing today in all manner of exclusion based on the idea that some humans are not fully human (slavery, racism, anti-immigrant laws, police brutality, etc.). And I am starting a new book on the development of 20th-century Mexican humanism, which I will argue is a response to the legacy of the above history and which has the potential to theorize about what it means to be human but do so in an inclusive key.

Wong: My research infiltrates my teaching both topically and methodologically. As I teach topics like global public goods and international cooperation, a natural extension is to connect to topics that I spend a lot of time thinking about, such as the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. As I have gained experience in academic research, I am able to offer better guidance in shaping students’ research projects and provide workshops on formulating research questions and academic writing.

A few of my new research projects have been inspired by conversations with my former students, who in turn work with me as research assistants. Teaching also helps me think deeper about the underlying mechanisms at play and the appropriateness of methodologies. My experiences as a teacher also helped me communicate my work more clearly and engagingly. So, I have my students to thank for my research progress!

Logvinenko: I am very fortunate because in my current position my teaching and research interests overlap almost exactly. I teach courses on authoritarianism, Russian and Eurasian politics, global political economy, and international relations. These also happen to be the very topics of my academic research! In the next few years, I would like to introduce more practical, policy-relevant elements into both my teaching and research. But the inexhaustible opportunities for new discoveries is what I find most exciting about my profession.

Amanda and Katarzyna, how does the liberal arts approach to film studies and other media forms differ from film schools?

Tasse: In my experience at other film schools, technique and production polish are sometimes emphasized much more than content or critical thinking skills. Students create beautiful work but can be afraid to take risks or go beyond the status quo. The liberal arts approach provides a foundation for students to think beyond existing systems and structures, to dynamically engage with social issues, to know themselves, develop their voice, and to have a lot to say!

Marciniak: One of my favorite courses I teach is Introduction to Visual Cultures and Critical Theory. It encourages creativity, experimentation, risk-taking, and critical thinking while grounding such approaches in a history of ideas—this is what distinguishes MAC from other programs teaching media.

Viviana, how does it feel to be teaching back at your alma mater? How has Oxy changed since your student days?

MacManus: There have been some obvious cosmetic changes since my time as an undergrad (Berkus Hall is new, as well as the Green Bean), but one notable change has to do with the student body. Most of the students I have taught demonstrate not only a sophisticated grasp of rigorous, theoretical academic material but they also exhibit a fervent commitment to challenging systemic inequalities in their communities and their worlds.

What do you look forward to most about returning to campus?

Marciniak: I am a gestural teacher. I love the theatrical aspect of our pedagogical performances, so I have missed the bodily realities of teaching the most. In my classes, I enjoy seeing how my students roll their eyes, how we laugh and sigh together, how we thrive in a climate generated by our enthusiasm and wonder.

Wong: I look forward to those in-person interactions with students the most—those random conversations about the seemingly most trivial things that ends up turning into a meaningful and exciting research project. Seeing the faces light up in an “Aha!” moment, realizing how the economics model we had just learned can be applied to understand real-world challenges. I want to pop by the events of the language departments and converse with students and staff in German, Chinese, Japanese, and French. I still have much to learn!

Thai: I look forward to experiencing what sociologists call a “collective effervescence.” You know the excitement and energy that come from shared experiences? That physical sensation when everyone is present and invigorated with each other? It’s hard to generate those emotions when people are muted or their videos lag. Alternatively, what I will miss from remote life is how we are all the same size online; smaller people don’t have to work as hard for others to see us.

Weiss: The smell of the eucalyptus trees! And learning how tall my students are—I’ve only met them from the torso up.

Mixed Media: New Faculty Edition

Occidental’s new cohort of tenure-track faculty is nothing if not prolific. Here’s a sampling of forthcoming or recently published books for your reading pleasure:

The Oxford Handbook of Communist Visual Cultures,
co-edited by Katarzyna Marciniak (Oxford University Press)

Disruptive Archives: Feminist Memories of Resistance in Latin America’s Dirty Wars, by Viviana Beatriz MacManus ’03 (University of Illinois Press, December)

Latin American and Latinx Philosophy: A Collaborative Introduction, edited by Robert Sanchez (Routledge)

Global Finance, Local Control: Corruption and Wealth in Contemporary Russia (tentative title), by Igor Logvinenko (Cornell University Press, 2021)