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New tenure track faculty are coming to Bryn Mawr with scholarly interests that promise to continue traditions of scholarly excellence for which the College is known. An ongoing wave of hiring, part of a national generation shift in college faculties, also creates opportunities to add new fields and approaches to the curriculum.

Assistant Professor of Biology Neal Williams and Lauren Kurtz ’06 survey forest diversity in Saunders Woods Preserve.


New tenure track faculty are coming to Bryn Mawr with scholarly interests, such as Near Eastern archaeology or medieval Renaissance Italian literature, that promise to continue traditions of scholarly excellence for which the College is known.

An ongoing wave of hiring, part of a national generation shift in the professoriate, also creates opportunities to add new fields and approaches to the curriculum, such as a film studies minor, additional offerings in environmental studies, and an interdisciplinary concentration in geoarchaeology. New members of the faculty also widen the range of international interests, from archaeology in Arabia, to trans-Pacific migration and identity formation, to urban social movements in Peru.

In the past seven years, the College has hired 39 assistant professors to initial appointments. Ten senior faculty have retired since 1998, and in the next five years another 10 will reach the age at

which Bryn Mawr faculty typically retire. “Young faculty, just emerging from their graduate studies, add fresh perspectives and approaches to the College’s intellectual life,” said President of the College Nancy J. Vickers. “They arrive eager to learn from their senior colleagues, but also intrigued by new questions. This cycle of renewal is essential at all institutions of higher education.”

The training of these scholars has made them familiar with the use of technology in research and teaching, multi-disciplinary perspectives, and collaborative approaches to learning.

As a result of shifts in economic conditions and in government funding patterns, basic and applied research at major research universities are no longer incompatible, but often intertwined. Ethical issues, diversity, and post-modernist theories have led to the growth of more contextually oriented and multi-disciplinary fields such as women’s, urban, and ethnic studies.

In recruiting its next generation of faculty, the College strives to strike a number of balances between sustaining excellence in its existing programs and launching new initiatives, between disciplinary and interdisciplinary studies, and between theoretical and practical learning.

Synergy: research and teaching

One of Bryn Mawr’s objectives for the 21st century—as it was in the 19th and 20th—is to encourage women to pursue careers in science, technology and mathematics. Assistant Professor of Computer Science Dianna Xu, hired last fall to fill an existing position within the department, is eager to serve as a role model and mentor.

Assistant Professor of Computer Science Dianna Xu lectures during her Game Design and Programming course.

Xu’s primary area of research interest is computer graphics. She coaches the Groundhogs, the College’s interscholastic programming team, and this semester is teaching Introduction to Computer Science as well as Game Design and Programming, a new upper level course she devised (see page 20). Her current research project may have significant applications in industry.

Imagine a relief model of your face composed of tiny triangles stretched into different sizes. Xu is developing an algorithm, or set of instructions, that would allow a computer to create such a “triangular spline surface.” This method of geometric design is particularly suited for three-dimensional shapes that have holes and corners in arbitrary places, and for the very smooth surfaces used in airplane, automotive, and shipping manufacturing.

“When a large sheet of metal is being shaped for the wing of an airplane, the human eye can’t gauge the precision of its curvature to the degree needed for fuel efficiency,” said Xu. “Master technicians with 30-40 years of experience can tell by running their hands over the surface, but the process takes a long time and involves a lot of trial and error. The idea is to have computers do it all instead by using a digital model to guide electronic arms.”

“A surface may need to be sectioned into thousands of these little triangular patches, and there are constraints at each of the seams that join them,” Xu said. “A change in seam ‘a’ could affect seam ‘b’ and then ‘c’ and so on. When expressed in math, these are huge systems of equations that are pretty hard to solve. I hope to come up with an algorithm that can produce surfaces with a guaranteed continuity, no matter how you manipulate the surface.”

Xu is completing the mathematical work of the initial stage of her research and looks forward to setting up a computer lab for its implementation this summer.

Tenure track appointments at Bryn Mawr are for an initial four years, and following a successful review, a second three-year appointment. With a teaching load of five courses a year—substantial although less than that at many other schools—on top of research expectations, assistant professors like Xu have little “free time.” She has put her passion for scuba diving on hold for now, but still enjoys playing badminton occasionally, cooking, and reading mystery novels and science fiction.

“We truly believe that the best teachers are active researchers and the best researchers are inspired teachers,” said Provost of the College Ralph Kuncl. “These two aspects of a professor’s calling are synergistic. When I am recruiting young faculty, I rely most on talking about our junior faculty research leaves, in which the College invests an enormous amount of time and money. We offer a very unusual package for scholars. If they are reappointed in their third year, their fourth year will be a completely paid research leave which, including the summer time on either end of that year, lets them focus completely on research. This helps ensure the likelihood of tenure, and once tenured, faculty receive a post-tenure year of leave as part of our new sabbatical policy.”


Assistant Professor of Classical and Near Eastern Archaeology Mehmet-Ali Atac and Assistant Professor of Italian Roberta Ricci are also in their second semesters at Bryn Mawr and fill positions left by retiring faculty.

Atac, whose speciality is Mesopo-tamian and Egyptian archaeology, is expanding his doctoral research on palace reliefs of the Neo-Assyrian empire, which existed from 883 to 612 B.C.E. in what is now northern Iraq. A militaristic people, the Assyrians were constantly at war with their neighbors. “Some of the palace scenes show the king in his various symbolic roles as military leader, hunter or high priest,” said Atac. “Others are more ‘historicized’ and ‘narrative’ in character, depicting scenes of battle, deportation and tributary processions. I argue that this imagery is part of a long intellectual tradition or continum that primarily refers to a cosmic proto-history, which existed before the culture was recorded historically, and that it has greater metaphysical dimensions than has hitherto been assumed.”

He hopes to extend his approach to Assyrian art to other phases and facets of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt as well. Atac, who also has an interest in the languages and literatures of the ancient Mediterranean and the Near East, received his bachelor’s degree in architecture, but gradually shifted to archaeology. He is preparing a book for publication and hopes to continue research in Egypt and Europe, where many ancient Near Eastern artifacts reside in museums.

Ricci’s academic interests bridge medieval and Renaissance literature, critical theory and women’s studies, focusing on the question of gender—how it is defined and how it relates to the question of “coming to voice.” One of her most recent articles, “Sex? Love? No, Let Us Talk about Marriage: Boccaccio’s Onesta Brigata Back to Reality,” was published in a collection of essays entitled Misogynism in Literature. The article examines Boccaccio’s famous last tale in the Decameron. “I ask why this otherwise revolutionary collection of tales ends with such a vehement misogynistic story, which presents a ‘successful’ marital relationship between an extremely misogynistic husband and an extremely passive wife, who submits to endless torture by the husband throughout the novella,” she said. In a article just written, Ricci continues to explore misogynism in another novella in the Decameron, “The Naked Woman in the Arms of Hypnos: Maritalis Affectio as a Happy Ending? (Decameron V, 1).” Here she questions the final happy ending of the tale and the importance of the female body as a prerequisite to spiritual health.

Ricci is also working on a manuscript in which she analyzes different forms of commentaries by medieval and Renaissance Italian male and female authors upon and within their own works—from footnotes to letters, prefaces to critical essays, interviews to autobiographies—and examines the authors’ attempts to shape and control the meaning and significance of their texts.

Sociology and anthropology, confronting global demographic change

On leave this year for junior faculty research, Assistant Professor of Sociology Ayumi Takenaka is working on a book project comparing how West Indians and South Asians immigrating from the United Kingdom to the United States adapt and fare in comparison to Japanese-Peruvians remigrating from Japan to the United States.

Takenaka is also a visiting scholar this year at The Institute of Comparative Culture at Sophia University in Japan and at The Institute of Social and Economic Research and Policy at Columbia University. Since coming to Bryn Mawr in 2002, she has taught courses at Bryn Mawr on migration, race, and ethnicity; contemporary Japanese society; Asian-Pacific American studies; social inequality; urban sociology; and qualitative research methods. All of her courses are cross-listed in anthropology and sociology. As a leader in the College’s Center for Ethnicities, Communities and Social Policy, she regularly coordinates programs, courses and research among departments. In addition to her work with the Center, she has given a lecture for the Spanish departmentcultural lecture series and has served on the faculty McBride Advisory Committee.

“I value field experience (Praxis, Bryn Mawr’s experiental learning program) as an important component of social scientific learning,” said Takenaka. “I also believe in the importance of international and comparative perspectives.”

“Ayumi’s teaching and research not only bring together the sociology and anthropology departments through cross-listing of courses and teaching in both departments, but they force us to confront the massive demographic changes that are occurring in our increasingly globalized world,” said department chairmen Associate Professor of Sociology David Karen and Professor of Anthropology Philip Kilbride in a joint comment. “This is something that, speaking for sociology and anthropology, has been slow in coming.”

Teaching Bryn Mawr students

Atac said he didn’t at first realize “just what a good fit this position would be for me. These are the kind of scholarly inquiries in which I’d like to be engaged, and the students are a very interested group of people. They can find things; they don’t complain; there’s no resistance or pressure on me to make things easier. I find it remarkable. I’m teaching a senior conference this spring on aspects of ancient Near Eastern and Egyptian religion, and the students are running the entire thing. I’m impressed by how well they’re synthesizing the material.”

Ricci concurs. “Teaching Bryn Mawr students has been an exciting and very fulfilling experience for me since I first walked into my language and cinema classrooms lastA0fall,” she said. Ricci has taught Intermediate Italian I and II, Italian Cinema and Italian Women Writing (both in English), and an advanced literature course in Italian on the Renaissance.

“The students here are challenging, curious, motivated—and last but not least—very friendly,” she said. “Needless to say, I extremely value such a combination. I expected a very selective body of students. Nevertheless I did not know that after two semesters I could already feel so rewarded by class discussions and intellectual exchange with both students and colleagues. This remains a crucial incentive for me, both as a teacher and as a scholar. Bryn Mawr is indeed a very special place. I am truly glad to be part of such a community.”

Xu began teaching as an assistant in her sophomore year at Smith, where she double majored in mathematics and computer science, and as a lecturer for six years at the University of Pennsylvania, where she finished her Ph.D. in 2002. “I really enjoyed my experience at Smith, and that was the reason I wanted to go to graduate school and become a professor,” she said. “I think I’ve found the right place! The students are lovely, and I am having a great time.”

Interdisciplinary scholars

The College has made a distinct effort to seek out interdisciplinary scholars. “These work with one foot in each of two disciplines and occasionally in a crack that runs between multiple disciplines,” Kuncl said. “Assistant Professor of Biology Neal Williams, for example, is an ecologist, and by definition interdisciplinary.”

Williams is interested in different aspects of the effect of human-caused landscape change on biodiversity and the implications of biodiversity loss for the functioning of natural ecosystems.

“At an ever increasing rate, studies from around the globe are documenting the important role of diversity in bolstering different processes, many of which are critical to human well being,” Williams said. “Some examples of such processes include filtration of water, regeneration of soil nutrients and pollination of crops. Biodiversity stabilizes ecological function, sort of like a diverse stock portfolio stabilizes investment return in the face of changes in the market.”

Analysis of camels’ bones: applying the tools of geoarchaeology

Assistant Professor of Archaeology Peter Magee, also on junior faculty leave this year, specializes in the archaeology of Iran, Arabia and Pakistan, and is accustomed to working with geophysicists, petrologists, chemists, and zoologists. His work at his current excavations in the United Arab Emirates involves the use of devices, such as ground penetrating radar and proton magnetometers, to map beneath the surface the remains of human settlements. He specializes in the differentiation of potteries through petrological analysis of thin sections of shards and through elemental analysis using an Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer. In his current research he is working with paleozoologists at TFCbingen University on the analysis of camel bones, which he has discovered in the scores of thousands at his site—probable evidence of the introduction of domesticated camels for transporting goods along trading routes in the Gulf. These research interests require sophisticated mapping techniques, for which Magee utilizes geographic information system software that not only makes maps but can be used to analyze the collected data—from the maps of underground features to the distributions of bones and artifacts. His research in the field has direct impact on his teaching.

Next year, Magee and Assistant Professor of Geology Don Barber will launch a new course in geoarchaeology, which will be the cornerstone of an interdisciplinary concentration in geoarchaeology. Part of this will be a course in Geographic Information Systems, which has been jointly taught for three years by the departments of archaeology, biology and geology.

Two students are working with Williams in the lab this spring on these and related questions; he will have three students for the summer. “I am very glad to see the College’s commitment to student research,” he said. “It is the best way for them to learn. The experience transcends learning how ‘science really works’; it is about applying classroom knowledge to diverse situations, solving problems, facing challenges and working as a team.

“My goals in the ecology course remain consistent. I am trying to teach concepts and link concepts across scales. I also try to challenge students to think about these concepts and apply them to new situations. The goal of novel application is partly the reason why that course now has an integrated lab component; previously, it was lecture. Using the complete cycle of inquiry, students have to consider concepts, make predictions and then design and carry out studies to test their predictions.”

This semester Williams is teaching a new course, Experimental Design and Statistics. “We integrate lecture and practicum in each session, so students learn about designs and analyses and then have the chance to implement them.”

Music is also an important part of Williams’ life. He is a bassoonist with the Bryn Mawr Chamber Music Society. “For me, playing is a chance to focus on something non-academic. It requires serious concentration on one thing, which can really help clear the mind. It is an incredible rush.”

Resources for thriving

“We are going to be seeing more and more of these young scholars coming out of graduate schools who span multiple methodologies and disciplines,” said Kuncl. “Their interdisciplinary strengths are exciting, but it’s hard enough to survive the appointment and promotion process within a very narrow discipline, let alone have extensive collaborative relationships with two or three departments. A brand new interdisciplinary assistant professor may be expected to direct a program or design a minor or major.

“The College’s job is to provide the resources new faculty need to thrive. We do this through extensive funding for professional support and through a four-tiered mentoring system. They are advised by the chair and senior members of the department about the disciplinary particulars and local politics of surviving in that field. As part of a tri-college faculty development program, they attend peer-led orientation events, including a retreat, in the first year. The Committee on Appointments also assigns them to a mentor outside their department(s), where they can talk about College culture and ask difficult questions about career development in a confidential setting. Finally, there’s another layer of mentoring that occurs in my office.”

In addition to enhancing support for research and sabbaticals, increasing faculty salaries is one of the College’s top priorities. Despite significant increases of the past 15 years, faculty salaries at Bryn Mawr rank 12th in a cohort of 14 comparable colleges. For more information about supporting faculty, please contact Director of Resources Martha Dean at (610) 526-5121 or by email.

Mehmet-Ali Ataš, right, with students in his class on the archaeology and history of ancient Egypt


Return to Summer 2005 Highlights





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