Through the Glass Darkly

“Hello, darkness, my old friend,” to quote a panelist at the SSRC’s recent event, “Speaking in Light and Dark.” His reference to the opening line of Simon and Garfunkel’s, The Sound of Silence, aptly set the stage for a discussion about light and dark hosted in the late afternoon of January 18 on a stage lit only by natural light coming through the windows of Cortelyou Commons. As the sun set at 4:48 pm aOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAnd darkness progressively pervaded the room, four DePaul faculty members from different disciplines reflected on how lightness and darkness have informed their work or thinking, either literally or metaphorically.

DePaul’s College of Communication had just begun when Associate Professor Daniel Makagon proposed an addition to the schedule called The City at Night, a class held during the unorthodox hours of 10:00 pm to 1:00 am. To see how people utilized the night, his class visited a social worker, a karaoke expert, a needle exchange site, a CTA routing and operations center, and the Guardian Angels, the self-appointed, volunteer safety brigade that once patrolled Chicago subway lines. As an enthusiastic supporter of experiential learning, Daniel fondly recalled one class visit when education become a public event itself. The class was meeting with the Guardian Angels on a subway platform in the Loop when curious onlookers began raising their hands and spontaneously joined in the learning experience themselves. “There was this of kind of opening up at night,” he said. He’s still contemplating its meaning.

Daniel has also applied a night/day lens to his research into the punk music culture to examine underground performance spaces. Subverting our usual notions of how we use spaces by day and night, these all-age punk shows often occur in basements in DIY (do-it-yourself) spaces, during the day. There the basement space becomes a “liberatory, temporary, autonomous zone for folks to enact a different kind of economy, a different social experience in terms of how they meet together in the world, and also a different kind of political experience as well, guided by an alternativepolitics, an alternative economy, to the mainstream music industry as we find it,” he said.

A compilation of night sounds gathered by Daniel’s DePaul students formed an ongoing soundtrack that played throughout the panelists’ presentations. DePaul’s Media Production and Training (MPT) video-taped the event. The results illustrate the significance of light to a technology that depends solely on light to capture and store images.

Field observation has been fundamental to Public Policy Studies Professor Bill Sampson’s academic pursuits. Bill shared with the audience the personal question that has nagged at him throughout his educational and academic life. How was it that he, growing up poor and black in a poor, black neighborhood in Milwaukee did well in school while others sharing the same outward circumstances did not? The explanation his high school teachers gave him — that he was “an exception” — didn’t sit well with him. He has reached some conclusions based on his analysis of observational data students in his classes have gathered over the years, chronicling the lives of poor black and Latino families for comparisons of how the children of those families performed in school.

Not neighborhood, not school, not teachers most affect the results, he found. That leaves him pessimistic about how much of a difference current education policies that shower resources on schools and teachers will ever make. “What mattered most were specific things about the home environment. Kids who did well in school lived in quiet, orderly, structured homes, which is difficult to maintain when you’re poor,” he said. Those students had chores at home, took part in extracurricular activities, were internally controlled, and displayed high self-esteem. All had parents or guardians who showed that they valued education, often by participating in their children’s homework even if they couldn’t do the work themselves.

Acknowledging that “we can’t control families” and that not all families even want the best for their children, he asked: “How do we take what we’ve learnedand give it to the families that want it?” Assuming that teachers and schools are doing what they should (not a given, he noted), “for the parents who are willing, we can make a difference.”

Steve Harp, associate professor of Art, Media, and Design, approached lightness and darkness more formally, but also subjectively. Against a backdrop projection of his own striking, black and white nighttime photos (including the image accompanying this post), Steve presented what he termed a short “pseudo theoretical paper” in which he explicated the word dream from the literary and psychological perspectives of a variety of writers. Noting the seeming similarity between the words trӓume (dreams in German) and trauma (derived from the Greek word for “wound”), he said it’s hard to believe they’re not related etymologically “while linked in so many ways conceptually and experientially.”

Considering any distinction between dream and nightmare as artificial, he discussed the trauma of the nightmare as the experience of waking into consciousness. He linked the traumatic aspect of awakening to the act of departure, or awakening. Inviting the audience to think of dreams spatially, as a path into darkness, he suggested that dreams might be regarded not as wish fulfillment, but as the tension between arrival (or our visions of arrival) and departure. His last words were a lyric from the late Leonard Cohen: “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

The panel concluded with Assistant Professor of Philosophy Peter Steeves’ mind-bendingly succinct but sobering, 15-step timeline of the birth and death of light. His only prompt, a DIY “power point” flashlight beam trained on sheets of white paper carrying dates, effectively underlined his observation that light’s lifespan is a relative blip within the sprawling chronology of the universe. In increasingly bad news, he pegged the lifespan of humans on earth at a mere million years and forecast our sun to end 6.5 billion years from now, when it will swallow up the earth. A hundred trillion years from now, all stars — the manufacturers of light — will have been extinguished. Earth too, whose rank as a “Goldilocks of stars” (not big, not small), will succumb with one of the less remarkable star-death displays, he said.

Peter’s interest in the topic is rooted in “the overlap of philosophy and physics,” his twin loves, “and light plays a major role in that,” he said. “Light is not important in any fundamental way,” he concluded. “So I sometimes think, why do we make it so important? Why do we think it’s all about life and why do we think it’s all about light? That’s something I’ve been thinking about recently.”

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Good Work Does Go Noticed

Congratulations to Sarah Read, assistant professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse, for the award she recently received for a paper she delivered at a professional technical communication conference at the University of Texas in Austin. The James M. Lufkin Award for Best International Professional Communication Conference Paper is given annually by the IEEE Professional Communication Society in recognition of work that supports their mission to promote effective communication within scientific, engineering and technical environments.

In the paper, Sarah and her co-author and fellow award-winner Michael E. Papka propose a more comreadaward_0001prehensive model of the document cycling process to capture significant activities not normally found in conventional project management plans. The paper emerged from an ethnographic study she conducted as a guest faculty researcher at Argonne National Laboratory where she analyzed the technical documentation and reporting processes that went into creating the facility’s 2014 annual report.

Operated by The University of Chicago Argonne LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy, the research lab and its high-powered supercomputer are used by scientists from academia and industry. Each year it produces a lengthy, polished report for the funder, “an extended statement about how the facility has met or exceeded the performance metrics set by the funder based on the previous review process,” as explained in the paper.

Sarah’s interviews with staff and her observations of the lab’s operations revealed hidden activities involved in gathering and generating data that indirectly fed into the annual report. This data-gathering had become incorporated into regular operational activities and fell outside the designated time frames for generating reportable information. These submerged activities not only informed the report but constituted a creative endeavor in their own right. (See a previous SSRC blog about Sarah’s project in which she vividly described the efforts demanded of staff in learning how to “write down the machine.”)

They did not arise sui generis. Papka, a senior scientist at Argonne, is the director of the Leadership Computing Center and an associate professor of computer science at Northern Illinois University. In 2012 he revised the annual report document creation process “from an annual last-minute all-out effort to a well-managed, well-paced drafting and revision process,” according to the paper. Reporting became on-going, rotating and cut across multiple divisions of the facility. Crucially, it entailed the development of processes “to more efficiently and accurately generate” reportable performance data.

The success of those efforts leads the paper’s authors to raise some provocative questions, including whether the staff time and effort required to write an annual report—a full-color, printed and designed document totaling 126 pages in 2014—is warranted when reportable information becomes readily accessible and available. “It is interesting to reflect upon how the imperative to develop a more accurate and efficient annual operational assessment reporting process ended up building processes at the facility…that could make the annually produced report unnecessary,” they point out. And they ask teachers and students of professional and technical writing to recognize and understand that the means of producing reportable information for the periodic reports so common to large organizations “have as much if not more value for the organization than the finished reporting document.”

The SSRC likes to think that our own support of Sarah’s research contributed to this project, from her use of ATLAS.ti, the qualitative data analysis application available in our computer lab, to analyze her data, to her ongoing participation in the SSRC’s Accountability Group in which tenure-track LAS faculty meet twice a month to set and discuss self-imposed professional and research goals. She worked on the paper during spring break at the off-campus faculty research retreat in Wisconsin that the SSRC organized to offer faculty designated writing time away from usual distractions. Sarah plans to develop the epistemic dimensions of the model in another paper.

Field Learning

Newly graduated Master of Public Health (MPH) students Adenike Sosina and Joselyn Williams recently talked about the extra-curricular skills they acquired as research assistants at the Center for Community Health Equity (CCHE). Their analysis of one project will be displayed at the 9th annual Health Disparities & Social Justice Conference that CCHE and MPH will host at the DePaul Center on August 12.

In a conference poster, they will summarize the focus group discussions that CCHE helped Rush conduct in conjunction with Rush Medical Center’s comprehensive Community Health Needs Assessment. The focus groups were made up of residents and stakeholders from the 8 Chicago West Side community areas (West Town, Austin, East Garfield Park, West Garfield Park, Near West Side, North Lawndale, South Lawndale, and Lower West Side) and 3 near west suburbs (Forest Park, Oak Park, and River Forest) that Rush serves. They were formed to discover what Adenike described as “the impact of the communities’ perceptions, their needs, things they believed to be beneficial.” That should help Rush understand what makes a good community and what relationships community members value, Joselyn added.

The two researchers began working at CCHE and with CCHE Co-Director and Associate Professor of Sociology Fernando De Maio in 2015—Adenike as CCHE Program Assistant and Joselyn as CCHE Graduate Assistant. Founded jointly in 2015 and based at DePaul, CCHE is a partnership between DPU and Rush designed to link social scientists, students, community groups, and health care professionals in a search for data-based solutions to community health problems.

Last fall and winter Adenike and Joselyn collaborated with CCHE on the assessment report Rush prepares every three years to evaluate the overall state of health in its service areas and to develop internal implementation strategies and community collaAdenikeborations. Using NVivo software, they later analyzed 11 “massive” focus group transcripts—also prepared by a number of DePaul and Rush students—to identify recurring themes such as resources, education, socialization, social division, health care, safety, responsibility, and ownership, Adenike said.

“The software itself served as a resource,” said Joselyn, a self-describJoselyned ‘data nerd’. “[It’s] kind of intuitive. There’s not a lot of bulky things you have to have previous help with.” The researchers also utilized SSRC technical and consulting resources, for transcribing the focus group discussions and for training in GIS and mapping fundamentals. The poster will illustrate the findings of their analysis.

“There was an array of other concerns, besides health, in which they wanted their voices to be heard,” said Adenike. She was impressed by the range of what focus group participants wanted to convey. Across communities, focus groups cited the lack of resources, including insufficient recreational outlets for youth, job opportunities, access to retail and good food, and inadequacies in the city’s educational system.

“…It’s like we’re almost a forgotten community…,” a member of the North Lawndale focus group complained. “And if we could just get a lot of these young guys some work and young women and young men to work, it will be a big change in the community,” a West Garfield Park participant offered.

In conversations about what they liked about their communities, participants voiced “probably a lot more positive thoughts around social cohesion,” Joselyn observed. “Most identified with their community,” she said. “I didn’t feel like anyone said ‘this is per se a bad community.’ They recognized the good and the bad. They wanted the community to be better.” Discussions about how Rush might partner with the community produced suggestions for collaborating with schools, operating mobile clinics to provide services such as back-to-school vaccinations, or pairing medical school students with community teens around health issues and mentoring, Adenike noted.

Both MPH graduates agreed that their work at CCHE leaves them feeling better prepared as they start their own careers. Joselyn, who made some GIS maps for the assessment to show where Rush ranked in child opportunity and hardship indices, appreciated the opportunity to work alongside hospital administrators and to observe how a big organization undertakes a report of this scope. She was struck by the length of the assessment process.

This fall Joselyn will begin teaching English to elementary students in the Gyeongbuk province in South Korea. From there she hopes to explore opportunities for a career abroad in global health. Adenike wants to work in community health practice after her position at CCHE ends in late summer. She’s especially interested in childhood obesity interventions.

At CCHE, graduate and undergraduate student researchers will continue to gain project-based experience working on analyses of the new Healthy Chicago Survey, the creation of an “Index of Concentration at the Extremes” for Chicago census tracts, and comparative analyses of health inequities in Chicago and other cities. DePaul faculty and students will continue collaborating with the Chicago Department of Public Health and other groups across the city as they build on CCHE’s contribution to “Healthy Chicago 2.0”, the city’s four-year initiative to assess and improve health and well-being and reduce inequities among Chicago communities.

Visit CCHE’s website to see the Rush Community Health Needs Assessment report and to learn more about the upcoming Health Disparities & Social Justice Conference at DePaul. Faculty or students doing research on faculty projects who want to access NVivo are invited to contact the SSRC where the program is available in our Lincoln Park computer lab or through remote connection.

Economic Inequality According to Adam Smith

Eliminate poverty and economic inequality disappears.  Not so, says DePaul Political Science Professor David Lay Williams, who treated a recent Mess Hall audience at the SSRC to a preview chapter from ‘The Greatest of All Plagues’: Economic Inequality in Western Political Thought, a book he’s writing for Princeton University Press.

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Returning to an examination of seminal free-marketeer Adam Smith, Williams traces the recurring theme of economic inequality throughout Smith’s writings, particularly in his less celebrated book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  And while he finds Smith’s solutions for alleviating desperate poverty stronger than those addressing economic inequality, he points out that Smith was quick to recognize potential pitfalls of inequality at the nascent roots of capitalism.

Smith, whose own 18th Century Scotland was marked by great economic inequality, ascribed its development to a combination of people’s tendencies to base their actions on self-interest, the desire for rank and distinction, and an appetite for both superiority and domination over others.  In commercial societies where people are considered responsible for their station in life where success is measured by wealth and poverty equals failure, two separate moral codes can evolve, observed Smith.  People’s inclination to worship the rich allows the rich to indulge in a very lax moral code, one that tolerates their foibles while subjecting the poor to life-long punishment for theirs.  Likewise, greater wealth will also enjoy greater political authority, continues Smith’s critique.

To Williams, relieving poverty wouldn’t address the pathologies Smith identified or control badly performing political institutions.  What Smith described as the “natural selfishness and rapacity” of the rich has both individual and societal implications.  Pitted against the morally corrupting effects on individual character that Smith warned of, the interests of the poor barely register on the radar of the rich, Williams said.  The more disproportionate the wealth, the more violently and unjustly the rich will treat the poor, a Smithian observation not generally remarked on, Williams noted.

In other chapters of his book, Williams will examine the issue of economic inequality through the lens of Plato, St. Augustine, Hobbes, Rousseau, Mill, and Marx.

Master Hoaxing at DePaul

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Long before punk’d became a verb with a hip spelling, self-styled professional prankster and provocateur Alan Abel was pulling the legs of the unsuspecting. There was his fictitious Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, a years-long campaign to put animals in pants; golf-course dance lessons to corporate executives in the fine points of ballet positions promised to ratchet up their golf scores; or his school for beggars, a front for spotlighting the conditions of the homeless.

The incorrigible satirist, writer, comedian, lecturer, actor, musician and public interest champion has been tweaking the media and pointing the way to his provocative punch lines for almost 60 years. This week he’s bringing his hoaxing moxie to DePaul for a series of special events sponsored by the SSRC and the College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences Dean’s Office.

Meet the man at Abel Raises Cain, a documentary by his daughter that recounts the history of his elaborate and thought-provoking exploits and their too-often unquestioned acceptance. The film will screen at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 2, in McGowan South, Room 108, 1110 W. Belden Ave., and will be followed by a Q&A with Abel in person.

On Thursday, March 3, Abel will lead a workshop in which participants will devise some mischief of their own, which will be tested on the city’s streets the next day. The workshop begins at 6:30 p.m. at the DePaul Art Museum, 2nd floor events room, 935 W. Fullerton Ave.

All events are free and open to the public.  The only requirement is no requirements.

Michael McIntyre at Jan. Mess Hall

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Michael McIntyre, chair and associate professor in the Department of International Studies, previewed a conference paper he is preparing at an SSRC Mess Hall presentation on Jan. 25. After briefly summarizing key touchstones and names in the development of the field of international relations (IR), Michael challenged the common perception of E. H. Carr as IR’s “first realist.” In fact, what’s called the “first great debate” flowing from Carr’s indictment of utopian explanations of international politics in his 1939 classic, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939, never really occurred, Michael contends. In Michael’s revised reading, Carr’s post-World War I appeasement toward Germany; his dedication of The Twenty Years’ Crisis to Marxist-inspired Karl Mannheim, founder of the sociology of knowledge; and Carr’s later abandonment of the IR arena to work on his masterwork, a 14-volume, sympathetic history of Soviet Russia to 1929, all argue against the depiction of Carr as proto IR realist. To the contrary, argues Michael, Carr was doing just what realist theorists warn against.