"Works in Progress" Series Spotlights Ongoing Research, Spurs Lively Discussion

Story posted October 25, 2001

This article is courtesy of Micol Seigel, visiting instructor in history and Africana studies.

The "Works in Progress" Lecture Series, organized by Derrick Duplessy '02 under the auspices of the Program in Africana Studies, brings faculty and students together to discuss ongoing research. Now in its second year, the series is held each Thursday at 4 p.m. in the Russwurm African-American Center. This year's series began with two student presenters and then turned to faculty, who will fill out the remainder of the calendar.

At the first event in the series held October 11, undergraduate Mellon Fellows Derrick Duplessy and Andrew Knapp presented their research. Both Duplessy's lecture on "Contemporary Black Leadership" and Knapp's discussion of "Detecting Gravity Waves" revealed a profound scholarly engagement and a remarkable level of intellectual curiosity and accomplishment. The talks' contrasting themes made for a lively afternoon. Duplessy questioned the political trajectory of leaders whose flirtation with state and corporate establishments may diminish their radical commitments. His resonant challenges bode well for the rising generation of activist leaders. Knapp's deft encapsulation of complicated physics concepts gave the non-scientists in his audience access to his dazzlingly sophisticated work. The radiation detector with which applied physicists test the models developed by theoretical physicists such as himself, he explained, is cushioned by a system that is similar to the tires on a car, "only much cooler."

The second lecture in the series featured Patrick Rael, of the history department and Africana Studies program. In his talk, entitled "The History of the 'N' Word," Rael discussed sixteenth- and seventeenth-century usages of variations on the words "negro" and "nigger" to argue that, early on, the terms implied class positions rather than racial markings, that they demeaned the speaker rather than the subject, and that the terms were developed not in the slave South but in the urban, segregated North. Rael's iconoclastic analysis, supported by rigorous historical research, provides intriguing suggestions about what may be the most toxic term in the U.S. English lexicon. Some might hope that the distance imposed by academic historical treatment might help disarm the barb contained in the "n-word." In the meantime, the fever pitch of feeling it continues to generate made the conversation following Rael's talk spirited and lively.

Most recently the series continued with a contribution by Scholar-in-Residence Carol Wright of the education department. Wright's important work on the black middle class highlights the continued importance of race in education. Much current sociological analysis of black achievement conflates race and class, Wright argues. The experience of students from the black middle class, unencumbered by poverty yet still encountering roadblocks in affluent neighborhoods and well-endowed schools, demonstrates the importance of continuing to identify and attack racism in educational policy. Wright's ongoing research will surely reorganize the priorities that structure her discipline. As with the previous talks, the conversation following Wright's presentation was engaged and provocative.

This consistent lively debate on the part of the audience of students and faculty distinguishes the Works in Progress Series. No matter the abstraction of the topic or the time period discussed, listeners connect the themes to issues relevant and interesting to the present. With that generous involvement on the part of the audience, the series is well on its way to completing the goals Duplessy defined for himself: to promote a greater sense of community at Bowdoin by starting an engaging discourse about current professors' research and work; to foster greater interest among students in conducting independent research and in scholarship in general; and to have casual conversations, drink coffee and eat sweets, and have fun.

In upcoming weeks the Series will feature professors James Hornsten of economics (October 25); Melinda Plastas of history and women's studies (November 1); Micol Seigel of Africana studies and history (November 8); and Nancy Jennings from education (November 15). All talks are 4 p.m. on Thursday afternoons in the upstairs lounge of the Russwurm Center. Refreshments are served, and all are welcome.

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