News-in-Brief: Professor Bates’ Final Lecture at SMCM

Retiring Professor of English Robin Bates gave his last lecture on Friday, April 13, titled “Unacknowledged Legislators: How Poets Change History.” The lecture served as a celebration of Bates’ career of 37 years teaching at St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM). Professor Bates addressed the role of literature, including Percy Bysshe Shelley and Homer, in influencing the course of history and the ideological influence of literature on society. He addressed perceptions of literature as both expanding possibilities for people’s lives and being used as a mechanism for suppressing it, detailing the ways in which the marriage plot in works like Jane Austen can either be construed as constraining women to one path of life and opening up possibilities for alternative outcomes. Bates concluded with a claim that literature ultimately works to expand the range of human diversity and possibility.

Students, alumni, colleagues, family and friends of Professor Bates, as well as Slovene exchange students whom he hosted in his home participating in the Slovenian exchange program which Bates helped to establish at the College. Professor Bates has been a member of the English faculty at the College since 1981 after earning a Ph.D. in literature at Emory University.

Alumna Kerry Crawford gives Speech on Sexual Violence, National Security

On March 5, Dr. Kerry Crawford returned to her alma mater to give a lecture for the Phi Beta Kappa 20th Year Celebration Lecture.  Crawford graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) in 2007 and has since gone on to obtain her doctoral degree and become an assistant professor in political science at James Madison University.

The focus of this talk was the intersection of advocacy groups and foreign policy, following in the footsteps of her recent book “Wartime Sexual Violence: From Silence to Condemnation of a Weapon of War.” Crawford began her lecture by exclaiming that SMCM “still feels like home, a lot of years later,” and thanking the College for welcoming her back, before diving straight into her research.

Crawford explained that her field is a “study of change,” meaning the politics surrounding everything, including her focus of sexual violence and conflict, is ever changing. She began by describing the importance of framing and the rhetorical frames we use to alter how events are portrayed. She emphasized that no matter what, “persistence was and still is the key to keeping this issue alive and to expanding its scope,” noting that this formula was useful to anyone working to bring about a more just and civil world.

The framing of sexual violence as a weapon of war, as opposed to just something that happens in general, was not accidental according to Crawford. Instead, this framing was the work of dedicated advocates who urged the redefining of the issue, in order to allow it to stand out as horrific and in need of urgent attention. Though she admits frames can be limiting, because the idea of a frame is that it includes certain aspects while excluding others, she argues that how we speak about things matter. In this case, the ‘weapon of war’ frame is essential for understanding of sexual violence, as it allows the issue to be proposed to those who can shift policy, and effect change.

Crawford cites former Yugoslavia as the beginning of the discussion of systemic rape during conflict. She reads off a quote from her powerpoint from Roberta Cohen stating “Yugoslavia. That was the real opener,” explaining that before the devastating effects of conflict there, rape and systematic rape were not talked about, especially not in the context of war. This however was the galvanizing moment for the international community, especially governmental bodies whose job titles conveyed the protection of dignity, human rights and safety. Crawford also stated that “international law was largely silent before the 1990s. Sexual violence was too taboo to talk about, or not considered as high of a priority when you have, say, a genocide happening.”

Not only was the framing of sexual violence as a weapon of war useful for headlines, it also allowed advocates to link sexual violence back to the Geneva Convention. This link allowed activists to argue that as stated under the Convention, there were certain things in war that were off limits, and for their argument, it was the systemic rape of women in conflict. This framing was above all else, a strategic effort in order to make powerful leaders listen and care.

Crawford also went over some of the notable United Nations (U.N.) Security Council resolutions, regarding sexual violence as a weapon of war, such as Resolution 13.25, which noted that war has a disproportionate impact on women and girls. She also mentions Resolution 1820, which made sexual violence a tactic of war, as well as linking war more directly as a women’s issue.

These resolutions, Crawford noted, were the work of advocates who lobbied, campaigned and worked together in a coordinated effort to ensure that the issue was brought to light.

The distinction between ‘ordinary rape’ and ‘war-time rape’ was one that needed to be made, and though Crawford acknowledges the problematic nature of this wording, she explained that it had to be fit into this language so that the Security Council could be convinced that rape was not just an ordinary occurrence, but something that was making war worse.

Above all other factors, Crawford points to powerful allies, and what she terms embedded advocates, as the most essential factor driving the campaign to recognize the impact of wartime sexual violence. She pointed to the likes of William Hague, a British former Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, who stated that “sexual violence in war is the 20th century slave trade.” She also gave much credit to the U.N. Security Council members spouses, who read about sexual assault in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and spoke continuously about it at breakfast, lunch and dinner until it became so annoying their spouses took it seriously. Crawford says these women, and some men, “effectively brought a Security Council Resolution to the table.”

Embedded advocates were most useful because of their inherent status as being embedded within the state and thereby able to take up a cause they are passionate about and give it a voice in the political arena. She also noted the effectiveness of grassroots activism such as a letter-writing campaign to sway the opinion of a judge during the International Criminal Tribunal.

Crawford noted that international lobbying is a give-and-take process, so when campaigning for a cause citizens may not get all of what they want, but they will still get some. She explains that how people speak about things, how they frame them, decides what traction they get within the complicated political world. She also noted that this framing of sexual violence as a weapon of war is not perfect, and that states still have ‘outs’ regarding holding their allies accountable.

At the end, there was a brief question-and-answer section where Crawford was asked about the future of women’s issues around the globe given the perceived animosity towards women under the Trump administration. She replied by stating that “the signs are troubling” and that “there would be some backsliding.” She explained however that she remains positive, stating, “If the leadership doesn’t come from the U.S., I’m confident it will come from somewhere.”

Qasim Rashid Lecture: An Islamic Perspective on Social Justice

On Feb. 21, St. Mary’s College of Maryland hosted Qasim Rashid, a human rights attorney and the executive director of the American Muslim Institute for the Advancement of Peace and Security. He gave a lecture titled “An Islamic Perspective on Social Justice.”

The event was hosted by the departments of Religious Studies and Philosophy, as well as Women Gender and Sexuality Studies and
Asian Studies.

Associate Professor of Religious Studies Dr. Betül Başaran also invited Rashid to speak to her religious studies topics course, American Muslims: Towards Social Justice. This course is offered as a first-year seminar and an upper-level topics course. “I strongly believe that we need to integrate social justice perspectives into our curriculum and the Muslim perspective is often marginalized,” Başaran told The Point News through email.

Rashid is a member of Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, an Islamic religious movement that has been persecuted within the Muslim
world. He has written several best-selling books, “#TalkToMe: Changing the Narrative on Race, Religion, & Education,” “EXTREMIST: A Response to Geert Wilders & Terrorists Everywhere” and “The Wrong Rashid began his lecture with the concept of choice, saying there’s a lot we don’t have a choice in, however,“there’s a lot we do have a choice in: who we associate with, how we dress, what we believe, where we go to school, what philosophies we choose to follow and not follow.”

“When we talk about choice there’s another conversation that immediately follows that and that’s privilege … some people who have privilege have more choice than others,” Rashid explained as he encouraged people to not put a wall when hearing the word privilege.
Rashid referenced a Pew Research Center survey stating that “roughly 70 percent of the world lives under some kind of governmental
or societal oppression on conscience.” Our ability to speak freely about religion “gives us a privilege and also a responsibility.”

He spoke of many uncomfortable truths we have to confront about our history. When America was founded in 1776, it was stated that all men are created equally, but “simultaneously, slavery was still considered legal, women were still considered property and only white landowners could vote or play a role in the political process.” A hundred years later, slavery was officially abolished, but “it wasn’t actually abolished, it was simply relegated to the prison system.”

Rashid says that we must face more uncomfortable truths about the world we live in. “Look at the fact that black youth are shot at a rate at 21 times more than white youth are shot at. The rates of drug and alcohol abuse are lower among black youth than they are among white youth, but black youth are charged and incarcerated at a rate 6-8 times higher,” Rashid stated that these facts are privilege at work. White supremacy terrorism was ignored in all 25 presidential debates in 2016, even though “the FBI and 382 police departments acknowledge that white supremacy terrorism is the gravest terror threat to America, not Muslims and not refugees.”

Rashid outlined his thoughts on solutions using social justice with the acronym RISE (re-educate, identify, serve and elevate). To re-educate, people need to learn about different faiths and background from the people themselves. Next, identify our own implicit biases and acknowledge where our comfort zone is in order to step out. In order to serve the community, we need to serve people how they want to be treated, “don’t speak up for the voiceless, pass the mic.” Lastly, “elevate minorities with your platform and your privilege.”

Rashid ended his lecture with the sentiment that we must “recognize the internal truth that life is more dangerous inside that comfort zone than outside that comfort zone.”

Maritime Archaeologist Delivers Lecture on Ancient Alexandria

Emad Khalil Ph.D., of Alexandria University in Egypt, specializes in underwater archaeology unearthing sunken remains of the city in its ancient, founding days, the remains of which have been  preserved in silt from the flooding of the Nile and surrounding waterways. Khalil’s presentation, titled “Egypt: Crossroads of the Whole World,” documented the city’s progression from its early days, including the development of its main harbors and excavations of trade vessels as well as artifacts from the wine industry. The lecture was held on Wednesday, Jan. 31 in Auerbach Auditorium in St. Mary’s Hall, and was held by the anthropology and history departments.

Khalil began his lecture by noting the appearance of the island of Pharos in The Odyssey, in which Homer notes “Now, there’s an island out in the ocean’s heavy surge, well off the Egyptian coast—they call it Pharos … There’s a snug harbor there, good landing beach where crews pull in, draw water from the dark wells then push their vessels off for passage out.” The account of the city of Pharos dates from the 7th century B.C., around 400 years before the founding of Alexandria.

Khalil further noted the complex interactions between the flooding of the Nile delta and the locations of ancient harbor cities which were central points for trading in the ancient Mediterranean world. Alexandria’s immunity to the annual flooding of the Nile due to its elevation, according to Khalil, is responsible for its enduring prominence as a center of commerce and trade. In antiquity, the Nile delta had seven tributaries, and now only two exist.

The situation of ancient harbor cities in the lowlands of the delta subjected them to sedimentation, and they had to be cleared annually after floods. Canopus and Heracleion were notable centers of trade before the discovery of Alexandria, which was liquefied by tsunamis.

The burial of ancient artifacts in silt is advantageous for marine archaeologists like Khalil, as mud, like ice, preserves materials well, even over centuries. Among Khalil and his team’s notable discoveries are a total of 65 shipwrecks dating from the 5th century B.C. They also found a kiln 30 meters in diameter used for amphora production dating from the 7th century A.D. Amphora are a form of ancient pottery with two handles on either side, often used for wine storage and production. Another notable discovery from the Canopic branch of the Nile was the Decree of Nectanebo I, a document describing taxes levied on Greek merchants passing through the Nile, which specifies goods including grains and wine.

Khalil emphasized Alexandria as a center of commerce and a nexus of various cultures, noting the variety of languages one might have heard spoke there even in the ancient world. The basis for the title of his lecture and his conclusion is an excerpt from 1st century Roman scholar Dio Chrysostom’s “Discourses 32. To the People of Alexandria,” in which he notes, “for Alexandria is situated, as it was, at the crossroads of the whole world, of even the most remote nations thereof, as if it were a market serving a single city, a market which brings together into one place all manner of men, displaying them to one another and, as far as possible, making them a kindred people.

The Neurobiology of Aggression and Violence at First Psychology Lecture

On Friday, Sep. 28, students and staff attended the first lecture of the year for the psychology department, titled “Neurobiology of Aggression and Violence, the Importance of Heterogeneity to Development, Diagnosis,Treatment and Prevention.” The presentation was given by Dr. Stuart F. White, a visiting neurologist from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH).

White began the lecture by describing and defining aggression, giving examples from humorous YouTube videos and scenarios. He explained how aggression is caused, highlighting the parts of the brain that respond to threats, based off of research on animals. There are a few systems in the brain that work together to create a response when a person feels threatened; one being the amygdala where emotional reactions are processed, the other being the prefrontal cortex, where we weigh the risks and benefits and make decisions.

“Generally speaking, in most people, these two systems work quite well together,” White said, in reference to how it is natural to react when threatened. “It clearly has an adaptive component. We’re going to talk about what happens when those systems go wrong.”

White went onto describe two types of aggression. The first type is Reactive Aggression, which is responsive to threat, motivated by emotion, and has no premeditation. This type of aggression is based on the survival component. Instrumental Aggression is goal driven, involves some forethought and is largely influenced by the cortical regions. Studies have shown that these systems can happen simultaneously and are independent of one another.

“Without appropriate reaction to fear, we are getting insufficient reinforcement and learning in terms of socialization,” White said. “That’s what allows people to be instrumentally aggressive.”

He then focused on the development of antisocial behavior and violence, which is caused by a variety of factors. Antisocial behavior rapidly increases at about twelve years of age and peaks at about fifteen, declining again at twenty. White mentioned that eighty percent of adolescents perform some sort of antisocial behavior, asking the audience to recall any “bad behavior” they may have exhibited at the age of fifteen.

The majority of the rest of the lecture focused on types of aggression disorders, including Childhood Onset Conduct Disorder and Adolescent Onset Conduct Disorder, and Conduct Disorder with Callous Unemotional Traits. According to White, the disorder in adolescence is not psychopathology the way most think of it, and is likely to have the most treatment response.

However, his main focus was on children with Conduct Disorder with Callous Unemotional Traits. In order to be diagnosed, the children must meet the full criteria for Conduct Disorder as well as at least two of the following over a twelve month period: lack of response or guilt, callous lack of empathy, unconcerned about performance (but completely capable), and others.

These individuals are likely to be manipulative and violent, and were not necessarily affected by environmental factors or parenting, although genetics play a large role. These children were the only group to show high levels of Instrumental Aggression and exhibited emotional deficits (did not respond to aggression, fear, etc.). According to White, these children have cognitive deficits as well, where in they have great at acquisition learning, but not reversal learning, which indicates a problem in decision making. The concern is that left unattended, this disorder is correlated to psychopathy in adulthood.

White concluded the lecture with suggested treatment and prevention methods, and discussed the importance of appropriate diagnosis.

“What you call things actually matters because what you call them reflects how you think about them,” White said. “How you think about these things in term of diagnosis can really affect treatment and prevention. My goal is to get you all thinking about neurobiology when making these decisions. Neurobiology should inform diagnosis, informed diagnosis should inform treatment, treatment can and should then re-inform neurobiology”.

It has been found that behavioral management programs are not effective when treating this disorder, however intensive corrections based treatment have resulted in reduction of violence.

“It was really cool to see someone put all that together” said Professor of Psychology, Eric Hiris. “I hope the student got a lot out of it because it really was an integration of fields in psychology.”

Dr. Perline Shows Students the Light at NSM Lecture

On September 19, Dr. Ron Perline, a professor of calculus and differential geometry at Drexel University, presented his topic, “Non-Euclidean Flashlights: A Tale of Two Blackboards”, for the Natural Science and Mathematics Colloquium.

Dr. Perline, who was the PH.D advisor of St. Mary’s professor of mathematics, Emek Köse, formatted his lecture to appeal to non-mathematics majors as well as aspiring mathematicians. Department Chair & Associate Professor of Mathematics, Dr. Susan Goldstine said that since “Dr. Perline gives excellent talks for a general audience…we agreed that he was a great candidate for the NS&M Colloquium series.” Dr. Perline insisted that one of the goals of his lecture was “to give a math speech that had no equations.” By the end of the lecture, Perline was glad to have met this goal.  “This was the first time he gave a substantive mathematics talk with absolutely no equations in it, and he was quite pleased that he pulled it off.” added Dr. Goldstine.

Dr. Perline began his speech by explaining how he became interested in researching the parabola reflections of flashlights. He stated that his students had confronted him with a problem which made him ponder using calculus and geometry for the focus of parabola reflection. Dr. Perline carefully described how the path of light is reflected at “different speeds and distances” and how “you can predict the paths.” He further explained how his research correlated with building a flashlight. Using images of geometric shapes and graphs of light paths, Perline said “this is what you would do if you lived in a strange world and wanted to build a flashlight.”

Dr. Perline defined each mathematical term he used in order for the audience to follow him.  The definitions were helpful in analyzing not only how light works in flashlights but also how cameras and mirrors can be attached to robots and used in reflecting light. In detailing such an advanced process and applying his mathematics to other fields, Dr. Perline still managed to avoid using technical terms and equations. “What’s important is the geometry that we had to guide us.” said Perline.

Students in attendance were enthusiastic about the lecture and what Perline had taught them. First Year student Alyson Thompson said “it was really cool. It was interesting to me because I want to be a math major.” Others expressed similar sentiments with two rounds of applause for the speaker. Dr. Perline was equally interested in the SMC community. “He specifically  mentioned how impressed he was with St. Mary’s College of Maryland and all of the people he met here, students and faculty alike.” Said Dr. Goldstine.

Perline was pleased to find how eager students were to apply his lecture to other areas. “This shows that there’s so much to be invented.” declared Thompson. Goldstine stated, “Our goal with the NS&M Colloquia in math is always to have students see interesting math that they wouldn’t see in their classes…he also showed the audience ways in which he and his colleagues use math to build things in the real world.”

Dr. Petersson Discusses Protein Folding at NS&M

Dr. E. James Petersson, an organic and biological chemist from the University of Pennsylvania has been doing research on protein folding to discover how it moves and what shapes it takes in relation to diseases like Parkinson’s. As he explained at the first Natural Science and Math Colloquium of the semester, which took place on Wednesday, Sep. 12 at 4:40 pm in Schaefer Hall 106, “the shape of the proteins governs function” and when proteins misfold you get negative results.

Through PowerPoint slides, Dr. Petersson explained why the shape and motion of proteins is important, about getting structural information when probes attach to proteins, and that he uses fluorescence techniques in his research.

In CGI movies, motion probes are used to capture the precise movements of the actors. Dr. Petersson is using this exact technique but with extremely small probes that will track what shapes the protein folds into and the distance between proteins. Fluorescence was used to help determine the distance between proteins in the folding process. In order to continue experimenting, Dr. Petersson wanted to apply his research to larger proteins, so his lab began to create their own amino acids to make larger proteins; otherwise, they would have to buy them. By applying his research to diseases like Prion disease (mad cow) and Parkinson’s, perhaps people can understand how proteins misfold and what causes it.

Most of the students who attended the lecture were likely chemistry or biology students, but Dr. Petersson spoke candidly so those who hadn’t taken biology or chemistry classes could understand the general idea. His lecture was received in a respectful manner and given undivided attention.

Rakoff Gives Honest, Candid Twain Lecture

David Rakoff is very anxious. As a defensive pessimist, he’s always expecting and preparing for the worst. For example, as he joked in the writer’s craft talk he gave Friday, April 27 as part of the Twain Lecture Series, he always knows where the fire exits in the room are and how much oxygen per person the area can withstand. “Defensive pessimism [is] a presentiment of doom,” Rakoff explained. If you lower your expectations and believe everything is going to be a disaster, you can effectively manage your anxiety. Despite Rakoff’s lowered expectations, he spoke eloquently and at-length about the writing process, his pessimism and anxiety, and humor at the writer’s craft talk and later in the evening, when he read insightful and witty essays from his books as part of his main lecture.

The Mark Twain Lecture Series on American Humor and Culture was started in 2007 by Ben Click, professor and head of the English Department. Since its beginning, there have been over 40 Twain Lecture Series events, with speakers like comedians Mo Rocca and Larry Wilmore and authors Firoozeh Dumas and Peter Sagal.

This year, the featured speaker was David Rakoff, a critically acclaimed humor writer. He is a winner of the Thurber Prize for Humor for his book of essays Half Empty, a two-time recipient of the Lambda Book Award for Humor, and he has been shortlisted for the Whiting Award as well as the Stephen Leacock Medal. He is a regular contributer to Public Radio International’s “This American Life” and his writing has also appeared in “The New York Times Magazine” and numerous collections including The Best American Travel Writing, The Best American Non-Required Reading, and Outside 25: The Best of Outside Magazine’s 25 Years.

 His work will also appear in the forthcoming The Fifty Funniest American Writers from the Library of America. He is also an actor who has worked in theater with humorists David and Amy Sedaris on their plays “Stitches,” “The Little Freida Mysteries,” “The Book of Liz,” and “One Woman Shoe.” He adapted the screenplay and starred in the 2010 Academy Award-winning “The New Tenants.”

At the writer’s craft talk, Click introduced Rakoff as the “best writer we’ve had so far,” explaining that “you can see the craft in his work.” Beginning first by briefly discussing his thoughts on writing and humor, Rakoff explained that writing “never gets easier–it only gets harder.” Writing, Rakoff said, is a dreadful experience for him in the most literal way. He dreads sitting down and writing anything and explained that his writing always starts out badly and he just hopes for the confidence to improve what he’s written.

Rakoff believes that humor writing especially is contingent upon an ineherent feeling of outsider-hood since, according to Rakoff, “you have to feel somewhat out of the mainstream.” Other than that characteristic of humor-writing, however, Rakoff insisted that being comical is a value-neutral trait. Having a sense of humor is vital, because without it “you’re kind of a bad person,” but even though being funny can be socially helpful, it’s neither a positive or negative characteristic.

But Rakoff is funny–bitingly so–and he derives his humor mostly from his melancholy and his frustrations.  “You don’t make stuff up,” Rakoff explained. “You take things that you have witnessed… and the hope is that [you can write] something that is pretty, vivid, specific, and true.”

Rakoff had no shortage of melancholy material to use, he said, during the Reagan and the elder Bush years, but the younger Bush years were especially “bruising” for him. When asked about his desire to effect change, however, Rakoff has no illusions. “I’d be surprised if I could change a mind; things seem so intractable [that] those Augustine moments of deep conversion seem entirely random – as random as lighting strikes…There are scented candles that contribute more to society than me.”

Similarly, Rakoff described his feelings on offending people: he tries to be extremely careful as to whom he’s offending. For example, he warned against offending or attacking someone because they lack privilege. “If you’re very careful about why you’re saying something–if you tell the truth–you never have to worry about what you said…similarly, be vigilant about your target.” He cited referring to Barbara Bush as an “[expletive] cow” and feeling the insult was warranted because she’d said something that was, according to his standards, equally offensive. However, Rakoff said he mostly takes a “[politically correct] and NPR” approach to humor, and tries not to offend.

After discussing his belief in delayed gratification as an indispensable convention in humor and revealing that he simply pushes through his dread to keep writing, hoping that the revisions will be better than the usually disappointing first drafts, Rakoff attempted to explain how he believes he can be both anxious and happy at the same time. “Anxiety and happiness can coexist–you’re just sort of keyed up,” Rakoff explained.

Anxiety, he said, is often misattributed in a national sense as a lack of patriotism or as unwarranted pessimism (though Rakoff is admittedly a pessimist). But this concept is flawed, Rakoff explained. “People who are anxious really aren’t ruining it for anybody – it’s just the way they are,” as value-neutral as having a sense of humor. Though he briefly discussed this during the talk, he expanded upon this opinion later at the lecture.

The audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy Rakoff, even giving him a standing ovation as he finished. “I thought it was really helpful [and] funny,” said junior Katie Brown. “He gave a lot of really good advice but in a casually funny way.”

Tobias Franzen, a junior, agreed with Brown, saying, “He sure likes to swear. It was good – it was wonderful.”

Then, before his wildly popular talk at 7:00 p.m. later that day in the gym of the Michael P. O’Brien Athletics and Recreation Center, the first 150 students with a student I.D. received a free t-shirt starting at 6:30. The t-shirts ran out in less than 15 minutes, with a completely full gym by the time the talk started with another introduction by Click, describing Rakoff’s work as “the best comment on humor I’ve read in a long time.”

Rakoff took the stage by bringing in some of his own local humor, saying, “Sorry I’m late. I was trying to get my sneakers into the shoe tree.” He didn’t have a planned program; instead he flipped through his books at random to choose what he would read. His first essay was from his most recent work, Half Empty. It was written in 1999 in response to a new column in the New York Times called “Writers on Writing” that is a scathing tongue-in-cheek commentary on the pretension associated with writing.

Rakoff’s next essay was his reaction to the “unwarranted optimism” in the post-9/11 world from his most recent book Half Empty that explained his policy of defensive pessimism to manage his anxiety when the Bush administration decided to invade the Middle East. He ended by explaining his pessimism by saying, “I am a kill-joy in many many ways.”

His third piece was from State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America about Utah and “The Insane Optimism of Westward Expansion.” He said that the goal of the book was to send 50 writers to 50 states and have them write about the state, but they ran out of good states by the time he got to Rakoff so he was matched with Utah, whose beauty he likened to bologna.

As he stood at the “squat commemorative obelisk” at the Golden Spike where the transcontinental railroad was first formed in 1869, he tried to get into the mindset of the early settlers, but he couldn’t do it. “How does one take all of this in and still think,” Rakoff read, “Yes, I will go ever gaily forward…How did they do it?…it seems frankly remarkable that anyone anywhere ever attempted anything.”

At this point in the talk, Rakoff admitted that he brought the wrong folder, but he would try to read a different copy of the text than he had planned, although it was dangerous for the enjoyment of the audience. “Writing in page and in performance is so different; you can be more boring on the page,” he said. “I’m leading you on a string in the dark and if I get too tangential, I am lost to you and you are lost to me and then we’re both in the soup.”

Despite the unforeseen difficulty, his subsequent essay was the most successful of the evening. “Isn’t It Romantic” is a criticism of the musical Rent, making the argument that the characters are not the true artists that they claim to be. He said, “You can [perform an unprintable sexual act], but it won’t turn you into Oscar Wilde.”

The only thing that makes you an artist, he continued to explain, is making art. After apologizing for making a quip about the quality of Rent’s undergraduate work, he rhetorically asked, “Were others left leaving the theater rooting for the landlords?” He told a hilarious story about his living situation in the beginnings of his career, ending with “Lying against a tile floor listening to someone else having sex is basically my early 20s…but I still paid my damn rent!”

His final essay of the night was called “Shrimp,” about his childhood growing up as a 47-52 year-old child in Canada who was “worryingly diminutive, [and] freakishly small.” Rakoff’s childhood self thought he was just like Stuart Little, but scared of everything. “It dawned on me recently,” he read, “that I must have been very unpleasant to be around.”

The essay described his difficulty with his size through adolescence and how a cruel drama teacher once forbade him from auditioning for a play because she was looking for actors that were “more substantial,” but he eventually overcame his insecurity because “after all, I had grown.”

After Rakoff answered a few questions about his favorite works, his writing, and his defensive pessimism philosophy, Dr. Click announced the winners of the “Assault of Laughter” writing contest. First place went to junior Julie Durbin for her essay “The Defecation of the Reputation of the Great Blue Heron,” second place went to junior Thor Peterson for his piece, “The All Student Email,” and third place went to St. Mary’s ’03 alumnus Benjamin Stoehr for his essay, “You Buy?” All three essays are available online at

Kitchen Presents Underground Comics, Discusses Free Speech in Graphic Novels

On Feb. 6 at 8 p.m. at St. Mary’s Hall, Denis Kitchen spoke about underground comics of the 1960s and 70s. Kitchen is not only a cartoonist, but also a publisher of comics and the founder of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Students were informed via email that, “His Kitchen Sink Press subsequently pioneered the graphic novel genre.”

Some students arrived without any experience with comics. Senior Cassandra Benner said afterward, “I’ve actually never read any comics before. I thought it was really well put together.” Likewise, some students came with a little more knowledge about the 60s and 70s counter culture. Matthew Anthony, a junior, said, “Overall I did enjoy the lecture, but I’m already a little predisposed because I tend to be in to 60s and 70s pop culture. Comics [are] not my background, I’m more of a music guy. I enjoyed it overall.”

Both Benner and Anthony enjoyed Kitchen’s use of images in relation to the narrative he presented. Benner said, “I liked that he used the visuals. I think that was really cool in terms of explaining not only the actual comics, but also the context of the time.”

Kitchen identified himself as a hippie, saying, “It’s a term I’ve really learned to embrace.” He described the counter culture not just through the images of comics, but also through his experiences and pictures of himself and friends at the time.

In terms of the comics, almost all tested the limits of free speech. Benner said, “The sex and violence was really interesting, I feel like that grabs attention.” Kitchen said what he thought to be his most famous comic cover was one where a penis monster breaks through the pavement and attacks New York City.

Reactions against this material, and specifically the arrest of retailers of these underground comics, drove Kitchen to found the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. He explained that usually this meant supporting retailers charged with selling obscene material. The fund could also support cartoonists. Kitchen told the story of a Supreme Court ruling banning a specific cartoonist from drawing his comics even in the privacy of his own home because of how obscene his material was.

Anthony explained that he was happy to have a speaker that shared a particular experience, saying, “I like that he used a lot of the art in his presentation and I think what was also nice was having someone lecture who is an insider. He’s not necessarily an academic historian, but he knew all the guys. It gives you a different kind of perspective that you maybe don’t get from a normal historian.”

Anthony also thought this affected Kitchen’s delivery of the presentation, saying, “Overall, I liked it. In some regards I guess he wasn’t the best lecturer or speaker I’ve seen, but of course he is not a lecturer by trade.”

Benner also liked it, saying, “I think that people in general tend to lean towards the taboo. They lean towards things that people don’t want to talk about. It made me more interested in maybe reading comics.”

Kripal Explores the Connection Between Religion, Myticism, Superhero Culture

On Monday, Sept. 26, author Jeff Kripal spoke about his book, “Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal,” to an almost full Auerbach Auditorium in St. Mary’s Hall. The lecture was provided by the Departments of English and Religious Studies.

“I am giving a formal lecture on an informal topic,” began Kripal. He was speaking about how the pop culture icons of superheroes and the topics of popular graphic and science fiction novels were influenced by personal paranormal events experienced by the writers themselves. He gave many examples such as Ray Palmer, the creator of the superhero called “The Atom,” who could shrink himself to a tiny size. Palmer himself was short, due to stunted growth after being hit by a butcher truck at age seven. He also claimed he had superpowers, such as precognitive dreams. “He and others converted their paranormal powers to stories,” said Kripal.

Other artists have also used their characters to explain human nature. “Alan Schwartz used [his character], Batman, to explain the good and bad in people,” said Kripal, describing it as “Buddhist Batman.”

Many science fiction authors wrote about their own abduction experiences, such as Philip K. Dick and Whitley Strieber. Dick wrote a trilogy about his “resynthesis” experience, while Strieber was abducted after he had written about extraterrestrials.

According to Kripal, all of these stories relate back to ancient mythology. Kripal said, “It is a mistake to try and disentangle fact and fantasy to decide if the paranormal is real or not because of how connected they are.”

Lastly, Kripal spoke about how there are seven recurring themes in science fiction today that come from themes in ancient myths: divinization, orientation, alienation, radiation, mutation, realization, and authorization.

Senior and comic fan Jeffery Gibson said, “I really liked that he was trying to explain the paranormal beliefs and experiences of early comic book artists as inspiration for the driving force behind their artistic expression.” He further added, “At the same time it was a little disappointing because he was using it as a conveyance for his ideas about spirituality without examining what current comic books might say about spirituality.”

First year and fellow comic and science fiction fan Ben Sudbrink attended the lecture on the advice of his core seminar teacher Brad Park. “I did find what Kripal said interesting,” said Subrink. “Though I thought that he could have made his point more convincingly, and he strayed from that point on many occasions.”

Kripal’s overall message is that mystical literature has a large impact on today’s culture. His book on this topic, “Mutants and Mystics” is available to order from for $29.00.