From art and art history and Black studies to music, politics, and psychology, Oxy welcomes eight new voices to the classroom
Occidental welcomed eight new tenure-track faculty to the classroom last semester—and for Isaac Hale ’11 (assistant professor, politics), it was a return to familiar terrain. “The campus feels very familiar and the students, faculty, and staff have all been incredibly welcoming,” says Hale, who graduated cum laude from Oxy as a politics major. “The thrill of running into mentors and professors from my time as an undergraduate has not worn off. Their passion and encouragement pushed me to become a political scientist, and it’s a real privilege to pass that along to the next generation of students.”Hale completed his Ph.D. in political science with a focus on American and comparative politics at UC Davis in 2020 and comes to Oxy from UC Santa Barbara, where he was the Equity Research Postdoctoral Scholar with the Blum Center on Poverty, Inequality, and Democracy. His research agenda centers on how citizens hold elected officials electorally accountable, and he has published several papers analyzing how racial attitudes and electoral systems affect voter behavior and legislative representation. Among his findings: U.S. voters with more conservative racial attitudes are less likely to support Democrats and Black candidates for Congress in elections since 2010—“even in an era where partisanship increasingly shapes political behavior,” Hale says.
“The politics students I have in my classes are much as I remember them—engaged, passionate, and incredibly smart,” Hale says. “The biggest shift I’ve noticed is that students feel differently about American politics than when I was an undergraduate.” As a student at Oxy during the 2008 election—when Barack Obama ’83 was elected president—“there was a lot of optimism that structural change was coming,” he recalls. “Students today are no less passionate about social justice, but I think there’s a greater awareness that the obstacles to change are bigger than one election. I hope that my classes can help students think about what possibilities exist for institutional reform.”
Yumi Pak (associate professor, Black studies) comes to Oxy from Cal State San Bernardino, where she was associate professor of English and director of the Program of Ethnic Studies. Prior to her departure, she co-founded the Department of Ethnic Studies at CSUSB. She has a Ph.D. in literature from UC San Diego, a master’s in literatures in English from UCSD, and a bachelor’s in literature and women’s studies from UC Santa Cruz. Pak’s research and teaching specializations include Black literary and cultural studies, critical ethnic studies, Black feminist theory, queer theory and queer of color critique, performance studies, U.S. multi-ethnic literatures, American literature, and American studies.“I was drawn to Occidental for two primary reasons,” Pak says. “The first is the emergence and establishing of a Department of Black Studies that prioritizes the intellectual, political and cultural labor at the heart of the discipline—the work that Black Studies does, rather than a static definition of what Black Studies is. The second is the Equity and Justice Agenda, which summarized my hope that I would be among colleagues who understood that a meaningful liberal arts education is only possible if we understand justice must be part and parcel of, rather than in addition to, serious intellectual query.”
As a “working-class, first-generation college and graduate student,” Pak continues, “I’ve been struck by how students who share in one or both of these identity categories are so vulnerable, generous and patient with not only me, but with other students as well.”
In her teaching and research, Pak situates texts by Black cultural producers “as serious theorizings of the worlds we wish to build, the worlds that already exist.” Is there a particular work that she likes to use as a jumping-on point with her students? “I’m sure I’m not the only one who has a long list of people, named and unnamed, to whom I am indebted for how I think about the world,” she says. “But if I have to limit myself to one, I think it is critical that we read Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.”
In Pak’s class Black Feminist Movements (BLST 315), she and her students recently examined the text (published by Jacobs in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent) “as a critical blueprint for Black feminist thought, and how our understanding of the conditions of possibility shift if we understand her as the political, literary, and economic theorist that she was.”
Nicholas P. Alt (assistant professor, psychology) comes to Oxy from Cal State Long Beach, where he was an assistant professor of psychology. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from UCLA, a master’s in experimental psychology from William & Mary, and a B.A. in psychology and East Asian studies from Wesleyan. His academic research spans the areas of social psychology, cognitive psychology, and vision science. In 2020, Alt was awarded a National Science Foundation Collaborative Research grant with Kerri Johnson, professor of communication and psychology at UCLA.Alt’s research examines individuals’ rapid visual perception of individuals and groups and the social judgments they make when they see others. “If you think about the last time you saw a group of people, say in a restaurant or a meeting, you likely formed an immediate impression about the group,” he explains. “In my research, I show that these impressions form within half a second and influence our judgments about the group. Even in that short time frame, we are sensitive to things like gender and race composition and this, in turn, affects how inviting the group appears and even our feelings of fit and belonging within the group.”
As a graduate of a small liberal arts school, Alt has fond memories of working closely with faculty and gathering data “to develop insights into unique and interesting questions about psychology,” he says. “At Oxy, I am excited to work closely with undergraduates to explore the impressions we make about groups. Specifically, our lab will use eye tracking technology to examine the role of visual attention in these processes and expand to new socially relevant visual cues such as mask wearing.
“The students at Occidental are fantastic,” he adds. “In the classroom, it is great to see each class develop its own personality and community while taking on rigorous and challenging material. Outside the classroom, the students bring an energy that makes the campus feel alive.”
Stephen S. Hudson (assistant professor, music theory) comes to Oxy from the University of Richmond, where he was a visiting assistant professor of music. A double major in music and mathematics at UC Davis, he completed his Ph. D. in music theory and cognition at Northwestern University in 2019. A music theorist and baroque cellist, he is an emerging expert on metal music, focusing on fans and musicians’ embodied experiences of rhythm, timbre, and song form. Hudson is currently writing a book titled Heaviness in Metal Music, as well as working on a project about harmony in R&B and Soul music.Hudson is committed to developing new teaching approaches that diversify music theory beyond the classical canon and provide more tools for songwriters and producers. Whereas a traditional “chromatic harmony” course would study only the European composers of the late 19th century, for instance, he’s added a unit using jazz theory to study complex and multi-layered chords in contemporary R&B music, drawing from his own research (including an article about the harmonies in music by hip-hop/R&B superstar Drake in a forthcoming issue of Current Musicology).
“A traditional course on musical forms would focus on the binary form dance types and sonata structures of the classical tradition,” Hudson says. “We’re studying that, too, but we also spend weeks on pop music traditions, studying how large-scale form emerges from myriad loops and layers in EDM; studying how death metal songwriters use drum patterns to orchestrate the visceral cycles of energy performed by their headbanging fans; and studying the latest innovations in verse-chorus structure by Lady Gaga and Billie Eilish. Many music students at Occidental are writing their own music, and I’m teaching them how to get new songwriting ideas by digging into unfamiliar music and studying the greats.
The music community at Oxy is “diverse and thriving and innovating,” he notes. “Music programs at small liberal arts colleges around the country are downsizing, but the Music Department at Oxy has doubled its number of majors in the last few years. I firmly believe that the music program at Oxy is a model for the future of music in academia, combining thriving current popular music practice with rigorous scholarly study of musical classics and comparative study of music traditions from around the world.”
Michael W. Murphy (assistant professor, Black studies) comes to Oxy from the University of Pittsburgh, where he was an assistant professor of sociology (with a secondary appointment in Africana studies). A graduate of the University of San Diego, he completed his master’s and Ph.D. studies in sociology at Brown University. At Oxy, Murphy teaches courses on race and the environment, Black ecological thought, and Blackness and anarchism, among others.“I was attracted to Oxy because of its commitment to innovative teaching and scholarship, with a sustained emphasis on excellence, equity, community, and service,” says Murphy, whose research and teaching emphasize anticolonial and environmental approaches to sociological thought. “I’m looking forward to developing courses that center community engagement, integrating Oxy students into several ongoing research projects, and working with students as they pursue their own research endeavors.”
Murphy is busy revising chapters and preparing a proposal for his first book, The Plantation Problem: An Inquiry into the Environmental Significance of Race—exploring ideas that have been brewing since he started graduate school in 2012. As a first-year doctoral student, “I arrived looking to focus on global ecological degradation from a sociological perspective,” he says. “That changed when I was assigned to serve as a teaching assistant in a course on race and ethnicity in the modern world. Suddenly I found myself thinking a lot more about how race was connected to environmental conditions and dynamics.”
For his master’s thesis research, Murphy focused on the processes by which the peoples indigenous to North America were dispossessed of their land—and he expanded on that analysis for his dissertation research, by examining the structural entanglements of race and environment in New England to demonstrate how race has long patterned human relationships to nonhuman natures and the environment given the history of colonialism.
“Ultimately, I am interested in how people understand the environmental significance of race, often without considering the histories of colonialism that enable race to shape the structure and quality of environments in which we live,” Murphy says. “My current book project carries forward these concerns with an additional emphasis on the possibilities and limitations of environmental justice in addressing these issues.”
Elizabeth Wiener (assistant professor, politics) comes to Occidental from Sewanee: The University of the South, where she was a visiting assistant professor of politics. She has a B.A. from Kenyon College, and a master’s and Ph.D. in political science from Emory University. Her research interests include U.S. legislative institutions; representation of marginalized groups; interest groups, political organizations, and lobbying; public policy design, processes, and analysis; and U.S. state politics.
Professors get to know their students and connect with them to help them learn. The diversity of people and ideas shapes a thriving space for exchange and innovation. After working on Capitol Hill as a lobbyist in her 20s, Wiener endeavored to become a professor and “land at a college that prioritizes preparing students not only for their best possible future careers but for their best possible lives overall,” she says. “Occidental represents this community—and so much more. I love the opportunities here to be involved in students’ lives and to help shape their academic and personal journeys.”
Building on her dissertation research, Wiener is writing a book, Lobby Like a Girl, that analyzes the relationships between women’s issue lobbyists and state legislators across the United States. "The central claim of my research is that the driving motivations, strategies, and effectiveness of women’s issue lobbying depends on a legislator’s shared marginalized group identity, or lack thereof,” she says. “It is clear that women in office matter for women’s issue lobbying. But women’s lobbying can importantly influence male legislators as well, offering opportunities for increased women’s representation even when the proportion of women in office remains low."
Following the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade last year, Wiener's book will also be incorporating questions surrounding what it means to be an “American” feminist in the post-Roe United States. The landmark Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling of 2022 "created fundamentally different political climates from state to state for women’s issue activism, bringing to bear more than ever how 'women’s representation' in policy can vary depending on the women in question," she says. "Operationalizing different definitions of women’s representation and 'feminism,' my book will also explore the extent to which state context matters in shaping how women attach to and are politically mobilized by women’s identity politics."
Janna Ireland (assistant professor, art and art history) comes to Occidental from Pasadena City College, where she had been an adjunct instructor of visual arts and media studies since 2018. She has a BFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and an MFA from UCLA. Ireland has had solo exhibitions in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans, and other cities, and her photos have been featured in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker and many other publications. In 2020, she published Regarding Paul R. Williams: A Photographer’s View (Angel City Press), a collection of black-and-white images that documents the work of the trailblazing Black architect (1894-1980).
“For a long time, I felt that a small liberal arts college would be the right place for me,” Ireland says. “I knew that I wanted to be at a school with a wide variety of fields of study outside of the arts—I don’t just want to teach art majors, I want to teach biology majors and math majors and English majors, too. I also knew that I wanted to be at a school small enough to give me a real sense of community. I knew that I wanted to be part of an interdisciplinary art department, as opposed to a siloed photography department. Oxy meets all of those criteria, and has the added bonus of a really strong faculty in the Department of Art and Art History that I am proud to now call my colleagues."
Ireland's work as an artist and as a teacher are closely intertwined, and her studio on campus "is a special place to focus on those things," she says. "Though I don’t talk much about my work as an artist with my students, I know they are absorbing things about the life of a working artist every time they visit me in my studio for office hours. Something really wonderful about my studio is that my library of photo books is in the same building I teach in; if I want to show a book to my students, I can just go pick it up off the shelf!
"So far, my students have been bright, curious, and engaged," Ireland adds. "I am thrilled to be able to offer them a wide variety of photography classes to choose from in the years to come. I look forward to being part of the Oxy community for a long time."
Jose Guadalupe Sanchez III (assistant professor, art and art history) comes to Oxy from USC, where he recently completed a yearlong teaching fellowship. He has a BFA from Otis College of Art and Design and an MFA from USC. An interdisciplinary artist with an emphasis in painting, his work investigates the interactions between different value systems found throughout Los Angeles, with a focus on intelligence, legitimacy, and authority. His projects manifest as pedagogical interventions as an arts educator for marginalized youth, paintings, performance, video, documentary video, and his socially engaged art practice.“The primary drive for my work is contributing to the Global South’s effort in creating autonomous spaces for the self and community,” Sanchez explains. “Our current dominant social structures generally alienate marginalized communities not only from access to resources but from a dignified sense of self. The result is a sense of not belonging, not being enough, and having something be inherently wrong with you. I want to explore where these value systems come from, how we internalize and reproduce them but also how we subvert and change them.
“What most attracted me to Occidental, specifically the Art Department, was the willingness to provide space for criticality,” he says. “The application for this position was listed as critical studies in studio art: painting and drawing. Speaking broadly, this signaled an art department that was eager to enter into a space of possibility where tackling challenging topics would be welcomed. For me, it meant having conversations that allowed us to question where our values come from, how we may perpetuate value systems we’re unaware of, and how to align ourselves to values with more intention.”
After one semester in the classroom at Oxy, “I’m thrilled with the students’ engagement and even more excited about the community students develop with each other in a learning environment,” Sanchez says. “The classroom is a ‘real’ space with real social and cultural capital at stake. How we navigate each other in this space shapes our interactions in the future. The students’ care to support and challenge each other in spaces like this are astounding!”
Main photo, clockwise from top left: Hale, Hudson, Weiner, Alt, Ireland, Murphy, Sanchez, and Pak, photographed in February 2023.