Happy 200th Birthday, Henry David Thoreau!

July 12, 2017
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Happy 200th Birthday, Henry David Thoreau!

                  Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817. Laura Dassow Walls explains the trajectory of his life, which shaped his thinking about the world in every way: He was born on a colonial-era farm into a subsistence economy based on agriculture, on land that had sustained a stable Anglo-American community for two centuries and, before that, Native American communities for eleven thousand years. People had been shaping Thoreau’s landscape since the melting of the glaciers. By the time he died, in 1862, the Industrial Revolution had reshaped his world: the railroad transformed Concord from a local economy of small farms and artisanal industries to a suburban node on a global network of industrial farms and factories. His beloved woods had been cleared away, and the rural rivers he sailed in his youth powered cotton mills. In 1843, the railroad cut right across a corner of Walden Pond, but in 1845 Thoreau built his house there anyway, to confront the railroad as part of his reality. By the time he left Walden, at least twenty passenger and freight trains screeched past his house daily. His response was to call on his . . .

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Synthetic: An ethnography of life

June 30, 2017
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Synthetic: An ethnography of life

Reposting this fabulous review and commentary by Christina Agapakis at New Scientist on Sophia Roosh’s Synthetic: How Life Got Made—after the jump. *** What is synthetic biology? This question has vexed synthetic biologists and journalists alike since the discipline was named at MIT more than 15 years ago. Is synthetic biology a technique? A goal? A state of mind? In her ethnography of the field, Synthetic, Sophia Roosth offers a useful answer. “Synthetic biologists, by a pragmatic definition, are people who identify as synthetic biologists… at a methodological level what unites this diverse cast of characters is sociology,” she says. The social life of synthetic biologists is just as important to understanding the field as its technical content; it’s the beliefs, ambitions and relationships of these people that make the field what it is. Roosth dives into the history, anthropology and peculiar society of synthetic biologists – of which I consider myself a member, having been trained in a synthetic biology lab across the river from the labs Roosth describes. Synthetic is a traditional anthropological monograph: there are chapters on religion, kinship, property, labour, the household and origin myths. Roosth grounds each chapter in her long-term engagement with the community, and her historical . . .

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Face/On: The ethics of the transplant

June 28, 2017
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Face/On: The ethics of the transplant

At New Books Network, you’ll find a podcast interview with Sharrona Pearl, author of one of our best-covered (as in images) books of late, Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other, a perfect storm of cultural studies and synthetic and biogenetic technologies. A brief description from their post follows below, but here’s the real link: to listen in to the fascinating hour-long talk with Pearl! *** Troubling the indexical relationship between the face and character and reminding us that “he self has always been a set of choices,” Pearl explores face transplantation as it relates to cosmetic surgery and whole-organ transplants, the cinema of the 1960s, television shows, and more. She carefully and sensitively takes us into the debates among surgeons, bioethicists, and journalists that circled the first partial face transplant of Isabelle Dinoire in 2005, and offers a way toward a philosophical approach that brings together Levinas with the kind of (Deleuzian) subjectivity that allows for individuality through constant change and understands the self to be constantly in a process of becoming. The final chapter of the book also situates the analysis within larger contexts of online subjectivities and work with facial and bodily manipulation by artists and performers. . . .

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Paying the Price: Should College Be Free?

June 26, 2017
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Paying the Price: Should College Be Free?

Just a soundbite from a recent New York Times Magazine piece on free college, fueled by Sara Goldrick-Rab’s efficacious research in Paying the Price, follows below. *** Sara Goldrick-Rab, a self-described “scholar-activist” who teaches higher education policy at Temple University, has a more expansive idea: Make the first two years free for everyone who attends a community college (all of which are public) or four-year state school. Directing more resources to the first two years of college would help people from lower-income families overcome the biggest barrier to their success, which is the living costs associated with housing, food, transportation and books while they attend school. “When students are able to focus on college, and not work, they graduate,” Goldrick-Rab told me recently. The federal government currently gives tens of billions of dollars in grants and subsidies each year to private colleges and for-profit trade schools in the United States, despite the fact that public colleges educate three-quarters of the students pursuing a postsecondary degree. “I say let the privates and for-profits fend for themselves,” Goldrick-Rab says, and put that money instead toward what she sometimes calls Grades 13 and 14. Finishing high school might once have provided enough education to find employment that pays well. . . .

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The Real Million Dollar Baby

June 23, 2017
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The Real Million Dollar Baby

“Claressa Shields is the Real Million Dollar Baby,” Sarah Deming’s piece from our new anthology The Bittersweet Science: Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner, and at Ringside, first ran at Deadspin. Here’s an excerpt from that essay below. More at Deadspin, of course. *** Claressa Shields was born in Flint, Mich., the middleweight champion of hard-luck towns. Her dad was an underground fighter called Cannonball who went to prison when she was two. Her mother was an imperfect protector. When Cannonball got out, Claressa was nine years old and already a survivor. Father and daughter drove around Flint in his big burgundy van, trying to make up for lost time. Cannonball told Claressa it was a shame nobody else in the family boxed. All the Shieldses could fight; most of the men had gone to jail, and some of the women, too. He said prison was a cycle somebody had to break. He said it was sad how Muhammad Ali had all those sons and none of them followed him into the ring. “Laila did,” said Claressa. “She’s a bad girl,” said Cannonball. Claressa thought he was telling her to box. Her favorite cartoon was The Powerpuff Girls, about three little superheroines who . . .

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(Higher Educations is) A Perfect Mess

June 21, 2017
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(Higher Educations is) A Perfect Mess

David F. Larabee’s A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education reminds us that the combination that colors higher education—neoliberal fiscalization, massive student debt, conflicts between administration and faculty, and debates over the future of our public schools—isn’t anything new. In fact, as Larabee argues, it’s been around as long as … free enterprise, or rather, as long as the free market, which never guaranteed a place for higher education in society. After the jump, read an excerpt from an interview with Larabee at Inside Higher Ed, which touches on his book’s argument: in this witch’s brew of the populist, the practical, and the elite, no single individual or institution can determine the future of the system. It takes a village, for better or worse. *** Q: You seem to be suggesting not to worry too much about today’s problems, because higher education has always been a “perfect mess.” But are there issues that are notably worse today than in the past? A: First, let me say a little about the advantages of the system’s messiness. In the next section, I’ll respond about the problem facing the system today. The relative autonomy and decentralization of American higher education allows individual colleges and universities . . .

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Philip Gossett (1941–2017)

June 19, 2017
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Philip Gossett (1941–2017)

                  The world of music and opera lost one of its great champions last week with the death of Philip Gossett. It would be hard to overstate Gossett’s contribution to our understanding and experience of opera, particularly of the works of Verdi and Rossini. As the New York Times noted in their obituary, Gossett “was a pioneer in the creation of scholarly critical editions of opera scores,” and he used the knowledge he gleaned from archives and manuscripts not merely in the scholarly world, but also in the realm of performance, working with opera companies, conductors, and singers to bring the most accurate and authentic versions of both familiar and long-forgotten works to audiences around the world. In the Times, Ricardo Muti called Gossett “a blessing for the conductors that wanted, really, to bring back a certain dignity to the scores, to bring back the original ideas of the composers.” In recognition of his service to Italian opera, the Italian government awarded him the Cavaliere di Gran Croce, their highest civilian honor. At the University of Chicago, Gossett served as the Robert W. Reneker Distinguished Service Professor of Music and also as Dean of  Humanities. The . . .

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Natasha K. Warikoo on college admissions (and its flaws)

June 19, 2017
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Natasha K. Warikoo on college admissions (and its flaws)

Below follows a recent op-ed by Natasha K. Warikoo at Inside Higher Ed on our flawed college admissions process—and how it gets personal—drawn from her work and research for The Diversity Bargain. *** I recently participated in two admissions processes. At Harvard University, I chaired a committee that admitted students to one of our doctoral programs. At home, I prepared an application for my son to attend private school next year. Having just written a book about college admissions, I understood all too well that these processes are inherently flawed. I knew before the processes even started, for example, that students admitted in both instances would be more likely than the average young American to have parents with college degrees. I also knew that there would be a disproportionate number of white admits. And, I knew that participation in the process would confirm for most decision-makers and those admitted that these are fair processes that select the “best” candidates. For my son, I had a wealth of knowledge to craft his application. The writing skills I developed as a student at Brown University, my social network of elite college graduates, and my husband’s training at the University of Oxford, surely helped us craft . . .

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Barbara J. King on the legal status of animals

June 16, 2017
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Barbara J. King on the legal status of animals

From an interview with Barbara J. King at Nonhuman Rights Blog: So far in our litigation, no court has challenged the idea that chimpanzees are self-aware, autonomous beings; a New York appellate court judge even called the NhRP’s affidavits from scientists “very impressive.” And yet, all the same, our chimpanzee clients remain legal “things” with no rights even though science and law suggest they should be recognized as legal “persons” with fundamental rights. How might you account for this gap between the science of animal cognition and emotion and animals’ legal status? Why do you think the law is still lagging behind the science as far as animals are concerned? The idea of animals as property or as things is so deeply entrenched in Western systems of law;  it’s hard to shake that loose from what years of animal-behavior, anthropology, and psychology studies tell us about chimpanzees as able to reason, remember, plan, suffer, and take into account factors that affect their own well-being. In thinking about the “why,” I remember Steve talking so movingly about this: we know about the not-so-distant past in which human beings other than white men were considered as property or less-than-human in our legal systems. As . . .

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Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection

June 14, 2017
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Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection

Elle Hunt at the Guardian takes on Evelleen Richards’s expansive account of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, perhaps the biologist’s most misunderstood and least explored supposition: Richards argues that, more than natural selection, Darwin’s theory of sexual selection was uniquely his own and, perhaps as a result, often misunderstood. His theorizing drew upon a wide range of influences, many of them deeply personal, including his grandfather Erasmus’s radical writings on evolution and his own relationship with his wife. In, On Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection, published last month by the University of Chicago Press, Richards explores this confluence of connections Darwin had to make and, just as crucially, the challenges he had to overcome in order to reach his conclusion. Given the conventional understandings of beauty, gender and sexuality of the Victorian era, it is difficult to overstate how radical Darwin’s theory was at the time. It was the culmination of a lifetime of intellectual legwork – and yet he was constantly called upon to validate it until his death in April 1882. “The accepted point of view was that all the beauty that we experience on Earth was created by God for his own and human delight,” says Richards. . . .

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