Illustrations by Stuart Bradford

This past year has been described by many as a dumpster fire. Knowing our world problems won’t magically disappear, we need to ask: What’s next? Professors offer their insights. 

The Fragile Web 

If 2020 taught us anything, it’s how much we rely on the internet. Whether shopping (Amazon), working (Zoom), or just relaxing with the family (Netflix), we rely on digital connection for nearly every aspect of life. We’re so used to being online, we hardly realize how dependent we are — that is, until a technical glitch crashes part of the internet. 

“A network goes down, and suddenly hundreds of flights are grounded,” says Aaron Gember-Jacobson, who teaches the course The Unreliable Internet. “Or half of Japan experiences an outage because of one small error Google made in an update.” In fact, he says, the internet is much more vulnerable than we realize, with implications for future economic stability, international security, and personal privacy. 

An assistant professor of computer science, Gember-Jacobson has studied networks for more than a decade, examining what makes them break down and how to make them more resilient. Part of the trouble is the complexity of the infrastructure, which relies on multiple layers all communicating seamlessly. At the same time, decisions on protocols made more than 30 years ago remain embedded in the internet today. “The main way traffic gets routed on the internet was thought up by some people and written on a napkin over lunch,” he says. Then there is the physical nature of the internet — the vast network of cables running beneath the streets and the massive data centers vulnerable to environmental threats such as the wildfires or rising sea levels due to climate change. Through his class, Gember-Jacobson says, “students start to realize that the internet is a very tangible thing.”

As part of his class, he also shows students just how easily hackers can steal personal information. Gember-Jacobson builds a fake, seemingly secure wireless network, and then shows his students how much information is exposed when he connects to the fake network and browses the web. Even though security systems exist, he says, they aren’t as widely used as they should be because network administrators often find them onerous. “You have to create motivation to use them,” he says. Finally, he drives home the growing disparity in internet access, with communities of color particularly losing out on connection that creates prosperity. [For more on this, see Bridging Divides.]

“There’s a form of redlining that’s taking place with broadband infrastructure,” he says. As our lives continue to move online, he says, it’s crucial we take steps to secure the internet physically and virtually, and create future access for everyone. “There are a lot of moments in class [in which students say], ‘Oh wow, I never thought about that before,’” Gember-Jacobson says. “Students start to realize just how much they’ve taken for granted.”

— Michael Blanding 

a collage illustration of a grecian bust, a wrench, gears, planetary orbits, grammar correcting apps, and a location icon

Artificial, but Intelligent? 

From 2001: A Space Odyssey to WALL-E to Ex Machina, contemporary culture is crawling with robots. So is real life, Krista Kennedy says: spellchecker software corrects our typos, Alexa plays our favorite songs, and Google Maps tells us how to get where we need to go. 

But as Kennedy, an NEH visiting professor of writing and rhetoric, also points out, “We humans have desired objects that can do our bidding for a very long time.” One of the earliest examples is the Antikythera mechanism, a complex mechanical “computer” that was used to track the cycles of the solar system at the end of the 2nd century B.C. 

In her Rhetoric and Robots class, Kennedy wants students to explore robots through cultural rhetorics. Whether ancient, medieval, or modern, the stories we tell ourselves about automation reveal how we process our anxieties and hopes with regard to technology and our relationship to it. They also bring up interesting, sometimes challenging questions: Why do we prefer a robot to be humanoid, rather than just a square metal box? Can a robot have rhetorical agency?

Students investigate these and other questions by reading Greek myths, academic articles about artificial intelligence and human/machine collaboration, and news reports about robotic caregivers. They also watch movies “together,” viewing them as a class via Zoom while discussing them using the chat box. This in itself is interesting, according to Kennedy. “You see a different side of your students when they’re ‘talking’ in a purely textual manner,” she says.

Toward the end of the course, Kennedy, who has worn a hearing aid since age 2, invites students to consider medical wearables and prosthetics and what constitutes a “cyborg body.” Her current smart assistive device uses algorithms to, among other actions, modulate the quality of sounds in different environments. Taking into account what the students have read, watched, and discussed over the semester, she asks, “Does that make me a cyborg?”

— Sarah Baldwin

What’s War Good For?

When students come into Danielle Lupton’s Global Peace & War class, they often arrive with an extreme view of international conflict. “They come with preconceived notions about war being this exceptional event that we somehow happen into,” she says, “when actually there’s lots of stuff that happens before we end up in war.” Most importantly, Lupton explains, war is a policy choice, entered into deliberately by world leaders for specific reasons and with specific hoped-for ends. “So why do we go into war in some cases and not in others?” asks the associate professor of political science. “We need to look at the evidence.”

“We can see changes in response as a leader’s reputation changes throughout that leader’s tenure.”

Prof. Danielle Lupton

That evidence-based approach to world conflict reaches as far back as Greek city-states and the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia in order to better explain when and why countries use military force as opposed to negotiation or crisis bargaining to achieve their political ends. While the class considers a range of international relations theories, Lupton’s own work particularly stresses the importance of decisions made by individual leaders, rather than more monolithic concerns of states. In her recent book, Reputation for Resolve, for example, she examines the crucial part individual reputations play in international relations through the differing approaches of the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev toward presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. “We can see changes in response as a leader’s reputation changes throughout that leader’s tenure,” she says.

In past semesters, Lupton’s course has lent itself to rich debates, with students ranging from first-year art majors to senior political science majors, and including participants from all over the world. “It’s been really exciting to have such a globally engaged and diverse student body with many different views and perspectives,” she says. They are now applying the lessons of the past at a crucial time for the United States, as Americans face a crisis of legitimacy following Donald Trump’s “go it alone” approach to foreign policy that often left allies out in the cold. “One of the questions we need to ask is how much [President] Biden’s foreign policy will be constrained by decisions made by the Trump administration,” she says. “What are the trade-offs between being able to pursue one’s own self-interest versus acquiring legitimacy? And how does one exercise their power when there are tensions with allies?” How the country answers those questions could determine its role in global conflict for years to come.

— Michael Blanding

A Glimpse Into Colgate’s Future

The forthcoming expansion of Olin Hall, with a new east wing, will integrate the physical environment with the ideals and mission of the Robert H.N. Ho Mind, Brain, and Behavior Initiative (MBBI). Launched with a $15 million gift from its namesake, this is a central component of Colgate’s commitment to rigorous interdisciplinary research.

This space will include a two-story atrium as well as areas for study, collaboration, and conversation. The perimeter will house faculty and administrative offices, while the upper floors will feature labs, classrooms, and offices. A basement level will provide opportunities to develop labs and other spaces that respond to future needs of scientific inquiry.

A renovated Olin Hall will house Colgate’s Brain Recording and Cognitive Science Lab; an integrative molecular genetics and genomics hub, including technology for DNA and RNA sequencing and transcriptomics; and the Human Interaction Lab, hosting research into leadership as a dynamic force rooted in the traits, competencies, and motives of those who lead.

Examining What Matters 

When Jessica Davenport came to Colgate as a postdoctoral fellow this academic year, she radically transformed the course Religion in the Contemporary World. The course focused on one issue: Black Lives Matter.

“The expectation is for students to think about how religions inform some of the most pressing issues of our times,” Davenport explains. “It seemed apt to talk about this movement that has galvanized young people around racial justice.”

As she re-envisioned it, the course engaged two questions: how Black Lives Matter compares to other historical movements such as the civil rights movement; and how the movement expands our notions of what religion can be. “We don’t necessarily affiliate Black Lives Matter with religious traditions in the same way that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was adamantly part of the Christian tradition,” Davenport says. Black Lives Matter leaders such as Patrisse Cullors, however, have framed the movement in spiritual terms. “In light of how Black death has in many ways become normalized in larger society, Cullors sees the movement as what she calls ‘spiritual work.’ That is, as a ‘re-humanizing project’ that emphasizes the flourishing of Black lives,” says Davenport, a scholar of Black religion who earned her doctorate at Rice University. “It’s not institutional religious traditions; they see themselves as having a spiritual and moral responsibility to their communities and to their ancestors.”

“The expectation is for students to think about how religions inform some of the most pressing issues of our times.”

Prof. Jessica Davenport

While Black Lives Matter activists have used church resources in their organizing, many have also critiqued institutional religion’s discrimination, for example, against queer and gender nonconforming people. “It’s challenging the church to rethink ideas about how it is engaging in exclusionary religious practices.” The class also challenged some students’ ideas about religion as a negative influence in the world, breeding fanaticism and even terrorism. “Some students come into class wanting to throw the book at religion as this fundamentally oppressive enterprise,” Davenport says. “It’s pushes them to think more expansively about how religion has been used in the interest of justice.”

More than anything, she says, Black Lives Matter asks questions of eschatology — the theology of the end times. “Black Lives Matter engages with this idea of the ‘end of the world as we know it,’ meaning the end of a world that is built on white supremacist power structures,” she says. “It’s asking, ‘What does the world look like after those structures are brought to an end?’” On one level, of course, that question is answered by the Black Lives Matter platform of criminal justice reform, health care expansion, and other policy positions. But on another level, Davenport argues, it can only be answered in spiritual terms. “Many people look at Black Lives Matter as a resistance movement, and that’s true — they are trying to tear down a lot of things,” she says, “but they are also trying to imagine and build a more just world in its place.”

— Michael Blanding

collage of misiles, hexagonal chemical bonds, a cracked desert, bacteria and viruses, city buildings, and billowing smoke clouds

It’s All Connected 

Poverty and pandemics. Warfare, floods, and fires. It’s easy to see how the prevalence and intensity of such problems can lead to catastrophic thinking about the state — and the fate — of the world. When Teo Ballvé, assistant professor of peace and conflict studies and geography, explores these problems in his course titled Is the Planet Doomed?, he does so through the framework of “the four Cs of the Apocalypse”: climate, capital, conflict, and cities. Above all, Ballvé wants his students to understand that these problems are interconnected. 

“[We try] to break down the kind of mental boxes that we use to think about the world,” he says. “We often confuse academic disciplines like economics, sociology, or environmental studies for the way in which the world actually works. But there is no little box called ‘society’ that’s hermetically sealed and independent from a little box called ‘the economy’ that’s independent from a little box called ‘global health.’”

From climate change to geopolitics to the global economy, all “world systems” constantly interact with each other, creating feedback loops and knock-on effects. Students learn to connect the emergence of new diseases to capitalism, as in the case of the 1990s flu strain tied to China’s adoption of the industrial factory farm model, which originated in the southern United States. And they unpack how climate change caused an El Niño event in the Pacific, which in turn caused widespread drought, which destroyed wheat crops, which sent global food prices soaring, which fomented protests across an already unstable Middle East, contributing to the Arab Spring of 2011. 

Looking at the world through the lens of geography enables students to see how, in Ballvé’s words, “what’s happening way over there is connected to what’s happening way over here, and vice versa.” It’s also a way to bring problems down to scale, showing students that while trying to get 8 billion people to make their behavior more environmentally friendly can seem daunting, regulating an entire single sector, such as the cement industry or petrochemical manufacturing, can lead to vast reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. 

Students who enroll in Ballvé’s course in hopes of hearing an unequivocally reassuring answer to the question it poses will be disappointed. But they will gain a deeper understanding of the world’s most vexing problems — and perhaps ways to begin to fix them.

“Understanding that these challenges are not as random or chaotic as they seem, that there are systems at work,” he says, “is a first step toward action.”

— Sarah Baldwin

Professor Teo Ballvé recently organized the panel discussion “21st Century Plagues: The Political, Ecological, and Environmental Dimensions of Pandemic Disease,” with experts from around the country. 

Diversifying the Faculty and the Curriculum

Last year, Colgate became part of the Consortium for Faculty Diversity (CFD), which brought two scholars — including Jessica Davenport — to campus in the fall. 

In becoming a member of the consortium, Colgate joined more than 60 other liberal arts colleges. The CFD partners premier research universities in the nation with leading liberal arts colleges to appoint scholars of color who have recently completed their doctoral degrees. 

CFD scholars come directly to Colgate through new postdoctoral fellowships and teach the University’s curriculum. During 2019–20, Colgate identified the two fellows who would begin in fall 2020. This University initiative is a facet of Colgate’s Plan for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

One of the advantages of the CFD, says Associate Dean of the Faculty for Faculty Recruitment and Development Lesleigh Cushing, is it allows Colgate to take its curriculum in new directions — like Davenport’s Religion in the Contemporary World course. “The idea that we could bring somebody in who could talk about race and religion right now in America and the Black Lives Matter movement was really exciting for us,” Cushing says. “She took a course that we’ve had and made it into something that speaks to this past year.”

Davenport is teaching three courses this academic year, and although they’re all housed under the religion department, her courses count for credits in other areas like art and art history and Africana and Latin American studies. “We see her as a person who can connect us to other programs and departments,” says Cushing, who is also the Murray W. and Mildred K. Finard Professor in Jewish studies and professor of religion.

The CFD was founded more than 30 years ago and is hosted by Gettysburg College. Its mission is to increase the diversity of faculty members at liberal arts colleges. 

It also provides scholars from Research I universities the opportunity to experience the liberal arts setting and potentially become full-time faculty members, Cushing notes. “I really like that aspect of opening up the liberal arts for more people to think about it as a professional choice — giving people a chance to see what it’s like to be in a much more engaged, teaching-oriented but research-focused area.”

For the 2021–22 academic year, Colgate will invite three more scholars to campus.