Rebecca’s Book Recommendations: Fall Edition

Fall is finally here, and with it comes harvest time—and, coincidentally, my recommendations for you this go-around all have an agricultural tilt to them. Welcome back to Rebecca’s Book Recs.

Queen Sugar by Natalie Baszile

You may have heard of the hit TV adaptation of Natalie Baszile’s 2014 novel Queen Sugar—or maybe you haven’t; it’s something of an indie venture on the Oprah Winfrey Network, directed by Ava Duvernay. Both Baszile’s novel and Duvernay’s TV show follow the Bordelon family, siblings who inherit their father’s sugar plantation in southern Louisiana. The adaptation modernizes and twists the original story in many places—Charley, the widowed protagonist of the novel, becomes a modern Real Housewife of a big-name basketball star, who becomes entangled in a sexual assault scandal. The show has one more Bordelon sibling than in Baszile’s book, with the addition of True Blood’s Rutina Wesley playing Charley’s sister. Baby brother and parolee Ralph Angel appears in both as the Bordelon sibling with a heavy past. Despite the changes, both novel and show have the goal of capturing contemporary African-American culture and family life, and both use the backdrop of the sugarcane to call back to the long and storied history of that culture. Queen Sugar takes you month-by-month through the precious cane-growing schedule and shows the Bordelons’ attempts to raise a crop on their father’s land as they also try to mend their relationships with one another.

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham

James Hannaham’s 2015 novel begins mid-scene, entering on a mad-dash drive out of Louisiana, with frantic protagonist Eddie at the wheel. Eddie has no hands. They’ve been severed, and the stumps are still bleeding. As the rest of the introductory chapter flashes through the next fifteen years of Eddie’s life, you experience a secondary revelation—it will take you the rest of the novel to learn just what Eddie is escaping from.

Hannaham’s novel deals largely with a true-to-life tragedy and phenomenon: modern farms and plantations that illegally recruit and hold hostage addicts to work as farm laborers, promising food, board, and a steady supply of drugs in exchange for unpaid labor. Eddie’s mother Darlene is one such addict. Hannaham’s captivating tale of mother and son is narrated by three figures: Eddie, dealing with his love for his mother and his resentment for the ways she’s let him down, Darlene, recounting the ways life’s turns and cruelties have brought her to her current state, and, surreally, the drug that has torn the two apart. Reminiscent of the way Marcus Zusak’s runaway hit The Book Thief was narrated by Death itself, one third of Hannaham’s experimental novel is narrated by a manipulative and sweet talking entity that calls itself “Scotty” and lives to take up all of Darlene’s love, life, and attention. The book has already received national praise as well as the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff

A book I’ve recommended before, Rosoff’s young adult (YA) dystopia How I Live Now lives on as one of my favorites, to the point that calling it a YA dystopia in the same vein as The Maze Runner or Divergent sounds almost disparaging. The novel is told through the perspective of Rosoff’s wry and very sure-of-herself Daisy, a brash New York teenager who is sent to live with her distant aunt and cousins on their farmstead in the English countryside. Daisy doesn’t make for a reliable narrator—to ask her, she was sent away to make room for her demonic stepmother and her new half-brother the Antichrist. However, with a little inference, it can be seen that she was really sent to try and deal with the self-destructive behaviors that even her strange cousins can pick up on immediately. But although the old English farm is idyllic and healing at first, the slim novel takes a sudden turn when World War III begins out of nowhere.

The book is filled with vague half-tellings and gauzy descriptions, all told through Daisy’s plain and sarcastic speech; the War itself, which becomes an increasingly oppressive force in their day-to-day lives, is never fully outlined. We are given only hints that Daisy’s cousins seem like something otherworldly—like mute Isaac who has a strangely powerful connection to animals, or Edmond who seems to know what you’re going to say before you say it. In such an abstract novel, one thing that remains concrete is the influence of the old farm: it serves as an Eden-like haven for Daisy and her cousins, flourishing as it shelters them from the outside world, though it can only work for so long to keep out the turmoil surrounding them.


Photo Feature: First Annual HungerGreens

Font courtesy of Jordan Seth
Font courtesy of Jordan Seth

On Saturday October 15, Residence Life hosted the first ever annual HungerGreens. Each housing location chose a tribute to fight to the death pool noodle. The games were also an opportunity for Peer Health Educators, SMART, and Title IX Coordinator Michael Dunn to talk to the campus community about health and safety.

St. Mary’s Students Take On the Great Outdoors Over Fall Reading Days

For St. Mary’s students, Fall Reading Days are a much-welcomed break in the monotony of exams and essays. From Saturday to Tuesday, students study, relax, or travel to make the most of their precious time away from classrooms and offices.

In keeping with this mentality, two of St. Mary’s outdoor-oriented clubs, the Outdoor Adventure Club and the Climbing Club, made the most of their break by doing what they enjoy with their fellow Seahawks. The Outdoor Adventure Club traveled to Harper’s Ferry, where eight members of the club traversed along a small patch of the Appalachian Trail. From Sunday to Tuesday, four hiking veterans and four rookies backpacked about fifteen miles of the AT to Boonsboro, Maryland.

President Ben Derlan had this to say about the trip: “The weather was perfect; the crisp start of fall. We enjoyed the warmth of campfires at night and the beautiful play of light through the trees as the sun rose in the morning.” On the return trip to St. Mary’s, the group stopped at a local coffee shop located in an old, repurposed church called Beans in the Belfry, of which Derlan says “nothing like free refills on good coffee, decent music, and the peaceful, filtered light of stained glass windows.” Derlan says that he would recommend the coffee shop to anyone in the Brunswick, MD area.

The Outdoor Adventure Club was not the only group of students enjoying the great outdoors over Fall Reading Days. The St. Mary’s Climbing Club left Friday afternoon to travel to New River Gorge in West Virginia. “The New,” as avid climbers know it, is one of the most popular climbing areas along the east coast. The weather on the first day of the trip did not hold up very well for climbing, so while some members risked the rain for a good climb, others went for a hike. The following Sunday and Monday, however, proved to be ideal for the club, and members spent the majority of the days climbing, cheering on their fellow climbers, or relaxing nearby. On Monday night, just before leaving early Tuesday morning, a small group went for a “fairly easy” 100-foot night climb using only headlamps and the moon for light. Club member Micah Rubin said this of the trip: “Obviously, the climbing was awesome and one of the big draws to the trip, but the thing that really made the trip so wonderful was how fun and friendly the group was.”

While Fall Reading Days had to come to a sad but inevitable end, these clubs continue on in their adventures. The Outdoor Adventure Club enjoys camping trips and bonfires on a fairly frequent basis. The Climbing Club hosts competitions and free climbs on a regular basis on campus. Both clubs are looking for new members at any time.

Opening of the Multicultural Resource Room: A Review of St. Mary’s Safe Spaces

Friday, Oct. 21 saw the opening (or rather, the reopening) of the Multiculturalism, Advocacy, and Partnership for Progress Resource Room, located in the back of the Leadership Lab in Campus Center. St. Mary’s had seen a similar room in years past before it was shut down in 2013. After an increase in racial tensions on campus and a subsequent reimagining of the MAPP program by Dean Leonard Brown and Professor Sybol Anderson, plans started to reopen the resource room. The room was a topic of conversation at last year’s “Moment to Pause” forum led by President Tuajuanda Jordan. The resource room was “designed to be a safe space for students of color, advocates, and allies to relax, do work, and have conversations about current events- both on campus and worldwide,” according to MAPP Coordinator and Student Trustee Vera Damanka.

Damanka said that one of the most heartbreaking things she hears “from many students of color is that they do not feel safe on this campus,” and felt it was “imperative that we find — or create — a space that could be a safe haven for those students.” The SGA, Office of Student Services and MAPP coordinated the effort to create that space, moving into what was the former Point News office. The opening on Friday was a festive occasion with pizza, snacks and balloons out for visiting students, who could come by from 3 pm to 7 pm to meet the MAPP mentors and explore the new Multicultural Room. Damanka said that “This room is, and will be, a good start to fostering a welcoming environment for all people.”

In addition to the newly reopened Multicultural Resource Room, the LGBT-Student-Services-led Rainbow Room began its second year of operation this fall. The Rainbow Room is located just across the hall from the Leadership Lab and Multicultural Room; it shares similar goals directed at the LGBT+ community on campus. Clint Neill, Asst. Director of Student Activities who oversees LGBT Student Services and the Rainbow Room, said that his goal for the lounge has always been for it to be a gathering place for members of the St. Mary’s LGBT+ community. “There are students on this campus that can’t be themselves,” Neill said, adding that the room should be “a resource for students, a place for folks to hang out, have fun, be themselves, network with other people.” He hopes that the Rainbow Room is identity-affirming for students who, either on or off campus, feel isolated and underrepresented.

Both Damanka and Neill were asked to address the perspective that the creation of safe spaces on college campuses is actually a form of “coddling” students. This year the University of Chicago Dean of Students sent out a letter to first years including the statement, “We do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

Neill said that this statement could only come from a place of privilege; that if you can criticize something like a safe space, then and you have “never had to deal with these issues where you don’t feel safe, or your identity is reflected so much everywhere else in the world [that you don’t see the need].” He said furthermore, “We’re not coddling people; we’re affirming people.”

Damanka also disagreed with the notion of coddling. “Coddling implies that such a resource is not giving students room to grow and develop as community members and leaders,” she said. “None of us plan to make the room a clubhouse for minorities. Instead, we want it to be a think tank of sorts; a place where we can foster and develop ideas, create programs and begin to effect change.”

Hopefully both the Multicultural Resource Room and the Rainbow Room can continue to exist as spaces where students feel safe and encouraged to celebrate and learn more about their own cultures and identities, as well as to collaborate in order to enact the changes they see as necessary for the benefit of the St. Mary’s Community. To see more information on both resource rooms, as well as upcoming events and hours of operation, visit the Facebook pages “SMCM Lgbtq Student Services” and “SMCM MAPP- Multiculturalism, Advocacy, and Partnership for Progress.”

Neuroscience Seminar: Fear and Memory

Even the briefest of experiences can change the biological makeup of an organism’s brain for the rest of its existence. Well, how exactly does this changing process work?

Fred Helmstetter, Distinguished Professor at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, visited St. Mary’s on October 17 to answer this question from the perspective of fear conditioning. First, he went over classical conditioning—an automatic type of learning that we associate with Pavlov’s dog experiments. This conditioning is essentially the process through which a subject learns to respond a certain way to a previously neutral stimulus. Fear conditioning, then, describes how subjects learn to fear things.

Rats are often the choice animal for psychology and neuroscience experiments, because their brains fundamentally work the same, but fear conditioning is also something we can test on humans. Dr. Helmstetter described a simple model: people are shown images on a computer screen. Certain images are accompanied by electric shocks. The subjects quickly learn to associate those images with the shocks.

This is a straightforward experiment, but by imaging the subject’s brain under an MRI while he or she completes it, scientists can learn about how the brain processes the stimuli.

As may be expected, memory plays a critical role in this natural learning process. Experience—from little shocks associated with a shape to the narrative of a complex event—is encoded in the brain. There is a period when this encoded experience, this memory, can be disrupted, but through what scientists call consolidation, it becomes “solid” over time, able to be retrieved as long term memory later in life. The speaker stressed, however, that memory retrieval is actually an active process: decoding and pulling out a well-formed memory makes it susceptible to disruption again.

This implies that using memory can change it. From the perspective of fear conditioning, this makes perfect sense. In Dr. Helmstetter’s words, “Say you meet Ivan when you’re 25, and never again for ten years. You have to update your representation of him.” Ivan may have been a scary man ten years ago, but perhaps now he is different, and the brain accepts this possibility. From imaging, scientists have found that using memory triggers similar processes to those that occurred in its original formation.

The professor then went into more scientific depth regarding his recent work on fear conditioning. He has been using optogenetics, an incredibly precise method of controlling cells, to zoom in on cells in the amygdala through the course of fear experiments. Through this relatively new technological process, he managed to affect the level of control rats had of their own memory as they worked through standard fear learning experiments.

Dr. Helmstetter ended the seminar mentioning that he is always interested in bright and motivated students to work in his graduate program, and suggested that any of those interested in the audience contact him.

The third and final neuroscience seminar is scheduled for Monday, October 24. Dr. Margaret McCarthy from UMD’s School of Medicine will speak on sex differences in the brain.

New Professor Spotlight: Dr. Robert Kelley from the Computer Science Department

Computer Science is one of the fastest-growing majors on campus. This fall, the department which had been made up solely of three full-time professors, expanded with the hiring of Dr. Robert Kelley, Assistant Professor of Computer Science.

This semester, Dr. Kelley teaches Introduction to Computer Science, Distributed and Parallel Programing, as well as Data Visualization. In the future, he hopes to put together a course in Machine Learning with the hopes that it “will be fun for students as well as myself,” he said.

Dr. Kelly originally obtained a BA in English with the goal of attending law school, but upon graduation, decided that he was uninterested in being an attorney. He then went into a MS program for Library and Information Science and was exposed to many different computing topics there. After completing that program, he became a part of the PhD program in Computer Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Louisville. He graduated from there in 2010 and his dissertation research was on security for wireless sensor networks.

After graduation, he stayed at the University of Louisville as a post-doc and worked the Real-time Decision Support System for Pandemic Response. “The project was to develop a computational system to assist pandemic response personnel with making decisions on where and how to distribute food, vaccines and other resources across the state of Kentucky in the case of [a] massive pandemic,” Dr. Kelley said.

After working there, he transitioned to working at the same university as an assistant professor in the School of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases. The research focused on respiratory infectious diseases, such as influenza and pneumonia, and Dr. Kelly was responsible for various processes of data analysis He shared that his formal education background is “definitely unique” within the field of computer science.

Currently, Dr. Kelly is interested in using computer science for the “building [of] data visualization systems and measuring their effectiveness using cognitive task analysis.” Data can oftentimes be understood more readily if placed in a visual format so that patterns or trends may be more readily detected by someone analyzing it. This computer software would create such a visual representation of otherwise text-based data. Dr. Kelley also is intrigued by “designing and implementing wireless sensor networks with which to collect real-time data [from which] I can implement real-time visualization and machine learning algorithms.”

After spending the last five years only in research environments and having limited contact with undergraduate students, Dr. Kelly is excited to be back in the classroom teaching and about the possibilities of cross-disciplinary collaboration a liberal arts college like St. Mary’s provides,” he said.

News-in-Brief: Anne Arundel Dedication

On October 15 St. Mary’s held a dedication ceremony for Anne Arundel Hall, the recently completed academic building and a $34 million investment for the college. The new academic building has been partially open since the school year began, and will serve as a home to the museum studies, anthropology, and international language and culture department, as well as the Center for the Study of Democracy. Through partnership with the state, Historic St. Mary’s City, and the College, the 39,000 square foot building was constructed not only to house all these SMCM departments, but also to give space to a new Historic St. Mary’s City museum located in the South wing.

President Tuajuanda, Regina Faden, the executive director of Historic St. Mary’s City, and Sven Holmes, chair of the Board of Trustees, as well as state officials, spoke at the event. According to Faden, the new museum will house more than 5 million artifacts from St. Mary’s CIty. President Tuajuanda emphasized the collaborative nature of the project, saying, “Anne Arundel Hall represents a unique partnership between the College, the state of Maryland, and Historic St. Mary’s City that will greatly benefit our students and the College community, as well as the entire region.”

The building, comprised of three wings with a courtyard joining them, has attained an LEED Gold Certification, and the museum inside is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. According to the SMCM Newsroom, “A projected 86% of all construction and demolition waste was recycled or salvaged.” The building also features solar panels and a “greywater system,” which uses rainwater for toilets and irrigation.

SGA Elections; Resolution Reached on Yik Yak Ban

This past week, SGA senators voted for a new senate leader and also for the resolution to remove the app “Yik Yak” from St. Mary’s College of Maryland’s internet servers.

The senate leader elections were held this Tuesday Oct. 18 in Schaefer Hall at the usual Tuesday night student government association. The SGA acts as a liaison between the students and the college administration, charters and funds all campus clubs and organization, and plans campus events. The candidates this past Tuesday were Megan Johnson and Justin Hoobler. Megan Johnson is a senior, townhouse senator, and worked with public safety for two years. Her candidacy speech included her goals to represent every student, especially students of color. Justin Hoobler, a sophomore and Caroline senator, listed his qualifications and experience for senate leader. Justin Hoobler won the senate leader seat with a very close count.

Other elections were for positions for commuter senator, Lewis Quadrangle senator, and class of 2017 officer. Zach Walker was voted LQ senator, Zoe Hammet and Jonathan Hunt for commuter senators, and Adriane Azucena as the secretary and Yonah Zeitz as historian for class of 2017. These new senators will join the current SGA Senate for the remainder of the school semester.

The senators also voted for the most anticipated resolution which was to ban the popular app “Yik Yak” from SMCM servers. The resolution was passed by SGA on Tuesday with prolonged applause and relief from voters. Only one senator voted “Nay”, another one abstained, and the rest voted in favor of the ban.

On the community letters regarding the resolution, SGA student trustee, Vera Damanka, explained her frustration with how the issue was being handled by saying, “As a student leader and campus advocate, I’m still struggling to understand why we need to gather the opinions of those who are unaffected when there are human beings who are deeply hurting. It’s not a question of free speech; it’s about freedom from harm. It’s not about legality anymore; it’s about liability and the responsibility we have to our students. The app may very well be dead; but if getting rid of it served as nothing more than posthumous retribution for those who have been hurt by it in the past, I would still consider it worthwhile.”

Another student, Kathleen Carmean wrote, “Banning Yik Yak is the right thing to do. No one should have to live in a community where he or she feels threatened. It’s unfortunate that Yik Yak has been continually used for negative messages instead of positive ones.”

On Display at Boyden Gallery: Atlantika Collective Inaugural Exhibition

The Atlantika Collective’s exhibition The Watershed Project: Chapter 1 opened last week, Tuesday, Oct. 18 at Boyden Gallery. The Atlantika Collective, formed in 2014, is a creative collective made of writers, artists and art historians, and includes two St. Mary’s faculty members: Professor Joe Lucchesi and Boyden Gallery Director Cristin Cash. Together with Gabriela Bulisova, Bill Crandall, and Mark Isaac, the group of five aims to create engaging, community-oriented exhibitions. “We’re all interested in storytelling and how visual art engages with human experience,” said Cash. For their first exhibition, the collective chose to focus on an experience is pertinent to everyone in the Mid-Atlantic region: life on the Chesapeake Bay watershed. “There are these kind of master narratives that are out there about the bay,” stated Cash. The collective wanted to find a truth beyond those narratives, and “tried to tap into those hidden stories [that] you don’t hear and oftentimes clash with that master narrative,” Cash elaborated.

The first chapter of The Watershed Project largely focuses on St. Mary’s County. Much of the artwork features local residents, such as in Bulisova and Isaac’s Aqua Memoriae, a sixteen-minute film that combines photographs and oral histories from local residents. Other works include a diptych photo series of moments in Fairhaven, Md. and an interactive installation that allows participants to drop water from Chesapeake tributaries into a dreamlike projection.

The collective’s approach to the making of their exhibition reflects a growing trend in curatorial methodology, where the work is collaborative and aims to meet the surrounding community’s interests. Unlike traditional exhibitions, Lucchesi notes, in which artists and art interpreters remain separate, “everybody had some kind of hand in someone else’s project.” And when it came to creating the work for The Watershed Project, it was interviews and conversations that were primary. “[Talking] with St. Mary’s residents … informed a lot of our thinking about like what would people like to see, what would … be meaningful to them,” said Lucchesi.

Additionally, the collective is transparent about their processes. From brainstorming sessions to the physical installation of The Watershed Project, the collective’s work can all be found on their website,

The Watershed Project: Part 1 will remain on display in the Boyden Gallery until Nov. 22, 2016, at which point the collective will shift gears fully into part two of the project, which focus around the Anne Arundel County areas of the watershed.