The Ratty started as an idea between two graduate students at Brown University in the fall of 2019. When it launched in February of 2020, we had no idea what was in store for the world starting just one month later. It is only in hindsight that we know starting a blog in 2020 almost certainly meant it was doomed, but we struggle to call it a failure.
The idea for The Ratty stemmed from our shared love of writing for non-academic audiences. Not only is it genuinely fun, but it is an incredibly valuable skill to develop as a graduate student. But, it can be really hard to enter that space and make that case for yourself without guidance. We wanted to be that guidance.
We assembled an awesome team of students, some with editorial experience, some without. We worked together to build a training process for PhD students in both writing and editing for non-academic audiences. We thought a lot about what our name would be, what our name would mean, how we would move a piece through the editorial process, how we could leverage existing networks for visibility, and how we could best serve graduate students. We also dreamed big.
We’re big fans of platforms like Contingent, Lady Science, and Eidolon. We dreamed (and so badly hoped) we could elevate voices like they do, produce fascinating pieces like they do, and support writers like they do. So, we got to work.
We lined up writers and we started publishing pieces in February 2020. We even had a little launch party. We don’t need to tell you what happened just a month after our launch. With a staff of entirely grad students who were in the midst of finding out just how badly they could be abandoned by their institutions, The Ratty took a huge hit. But really, we felt like we had been abandoned by our institution long before.
Originally, The Ratty was meant to serve only Brown grad students. We figured we would start small and expand from there. Before we got started in earnest, we met with a variety of campus support centers, some of whom had reached out to us. We didn’t leave any of those meetings feeling particularly good.
The pandemic raged on and all of us focused individually on keeping our heads above water. We published here and there, but we couldn’t justify asking more work from students who were already struggling. We back off on our publicity and on our calls for pitches.
By July of 2021 we started to feel like maybe we could put more effort back into The Ratty. We opened up pitches to all graduate students, regardless of institution. And we got pitches! Some really awesome ones. We published pieces. Some really awesome ones. We put together a workshop for grad students on pitching their research to non-academic venues. We were joined by editors and writers for non-academic venues, and they were phenomenal. The pitches resulted in more really really cool work.
Some of these pieces got the attention of staff and faculty at Brown once again. Some professors even indicated that they would create class assignments for their grad students that involved writing for us and going through our editing process. None followed through. And so, The Ratty just kind of sat there.
We are definitely sad. The Ratty is a good idea, a good project, and worth so much more time and support. But, it’s hard not to be angry. Angry at the pandemic, angry at those who said they would help but didn’t, and a bit angry at ourselves. Could we have done more? We don’t think so. But we can hope the short life The Ratty had was still a good life. We always talk about the sunset stage of digital scholarship projects at work, but it’s different when it’s your own and you were still dreaming of what it could be when you had to say goodbye.
So, The Ratty is no longer accepting pitches. We will continue to keep the website up as long as we can afford it. Thank you to all of you who shared our calls for pitches and read all of the amazing work our students did. Thank you to our staff most of all. We love and appreciate you.
Many superheroes allow readers to investigate questions of morality, but some introduce deeper philosophical questions. Dr. Manhattan is one of the characters in the classic superhero deconstruction graphic novel Watchmen written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Thanks to the nature of his superpowers, he’s able to see the past and the future much as he sees the present, and because of this, he sees free will as an illusion. This, obviously, makes him an interesting example of philosophical questions of time, causality and freedom raised by his portrayal in the comic.
Dr. Manhattan sees all moments of time simultaneously – more or less. There’s a scene in which the readers are shown his perspective at a certain moment through a series of flashbacks that also tell his backstory. At the same time, he seems to experience himself in the future as well. Admittedly, when it becomes necessary for him not to see what happens later in the plot, a stream of tachyons traveling backwards from something dramatic happening the future obscures his sight of it – which sounds more as if he can see the future, but still exists more in the present, even mentally. As a consequence, he sees everything people do as inevitable – even what he does himself. He also says he’s unable to change what he sees happening in the future. When someone asks him whether that makes him a mere puppet, he replies that “We are all puppets,” and he is “just a puppet who can see the strings.”
This combination of foresight and inevitability raises some odd questions, though. Dr. Manhattan doesn’t always act like he knew everything in advance. He can act as though he’s surprised. If asked about the seeming inconsistency, he’ll explain that he acted the way he did because that was what he was determined to do, and he had no choice about it. Nevertheless, he is sometimes able to predict what other people will do, too, and this holds true despite their protestations.
There seem to be two competing ideas here. On the one hand, if people are told they are going to do something, and they don’t want to do what they are predicted to do, it seems this could lead to them doing otherwise. On the other hand, if, as Dr. Manhattan claims, the universe proceeds along a path strictly determined by the laws of nature and its initial conditions, then shouldn’t it be the case that nobody has any other option about what they will do, and it’s impossible for them to do otherwise? And wouldn’t the same thing follow if someone could see what happens in the future as if it had already happened?
There’s a temptation here to think that “free will” means being able to break free from this causality and contradicts the deterministic picture. This might take the form of thinking that it must be impossible to predict the future like that because free will requires indeterminism that implies the absence of such prediction and determinism. Conversely, if the universe is deterministic, one might think that it’s the idea of free will that must be discarded, and it’s silly to think human choices would be some mysterious exception to this. Both of these options imply that with people not being able to choose otherwise than Dr. Manhattan predicts comes from free will necessarily being something indeterministic and contra-causal, causing things to happen without any prior reason. However, this problem isn’t really about a conflict between free will and causality so much as between causality and prediction.
Causality defines the relationship between events. Everyday perception intuitively sees this relationship as temporal — earlier things causing later things to happen. However, when someone can see the future, there’s a good reason why things in the future should be able to cause things in the present. This happens when Dr. Manhattan predicts what someone else will do; his words in the present are motivated (and thus caused) by what he foresees in the future, the direct result of the event actually happening in the future.
When Dr. Manhattan successfully predicts what someone else will do, the scenario seems consistent. There’s only that nagging feeling that the person should be able to do otherwise in some such situation, something that the comic implies is mere naïveté. If everything and every moment is already fixed, then all events should indeed fit together the way they are shown to do with Dr. Manhattan’s predictions.
Another illustration of what an unchangeable timeline with backwards causation might look like is found in an unrelated comic strip by Alan Moore (from his Maxwell the Magic Cat):
Here, readers can see that even though later moments in time (later panels) affect earlier ones, everything forms a coherent whole. Indeed, the whole series of events is somewhat circular, as if it were giving birth to itself, since the first events are affected by the last ones. This also has the strange consequence that the cat in the later panels gradually becomes a different character than the cat in the earlier panels, even though the conventions of comics imply they are the same character at different moments.
For a similar but less convoluted example from Watchmen, consider this part of a scene between Dr. Manhattan and Laurie Juspeczyk (alias Silk Spectre):
There’s a clear example of causality going backwards here. In the moment shown in panel 3, Laurie ascends the stairs; this causes Dr. Manhattan in panel 1 to predict that she will do so. His prediction causes her to ask what happens if she doesn’t, but his not answering while ascending the stairs in panel 2 causes her to ascend them in 3.
Would it take contra-causal free will to resist this happening? In fact, the answer is no. It wouldn’t even take any kind of choice or agency for this same sort of situation to possibly cause the prediction to be falsified, causing a paradox. All it takes for that is deterministic causation – going backwards.
Consider this version of the events instead. In panel 3, Laurie ascends the stairs. This causes Dr. Manhattan in panel 1 to predict that she will do that. This causes Laurie to resist the idea and, in panel 3, not ascend the stairs.
There’s nothing contradictory about this chain of causation if it’s viewed in the above order. Mere causality should be able to lead to this situation. The contradiction comes when considering the way panel 3 appears in this story; it appears twice, and it has different content each time.
This is a typical paradox of self-reference: when the content of a thing A (in this case a moment in time) is able to affect itself, this may create a contradiction. In the Watchmen example, it’s also essentially the same as the Grandfather Paradox. What happens if someone travels back in time and kills their own grandfather before he has children, since that also implies the time traveller won’t be born and won’t kill him? As far as time travel goes, it’s impossible to say what would really happen insofar as nobody knows of an actually physically possible way to travel in time.
As for questions of freedom and its relationship with determinism and causality, these examples can provide some insights. If Laurie must do what Dr. Manhattan predicts, the problem for her freedom isn’t really that it’s not contra-causal; it’s more that she’s not able to react to what happens around her, such as to resist making the prediction true. It happens naturally enough in the comic, but only because the comic is contrived not to have any contradictions caused by backwards causality.
The aspect of precognition aside, Dr. Manhattan’s lack of freedom really comes from not being able to causally react to information he has when making his choices. If the average person heard Kennedy was going to be assassinated, they could try to do something about it. When Dr. Manhattan sees that it is going to happen, he can’t, because it will happen, and he also sees that he won’t stop it. His actions suggest that maybe it’s not contra-causality or indeterminism that are really needed for free will, but the ability to react to the circumstances that may be perfectly causal. Perhaps the threat to free will isn’t determinism, where only one thing can follow from an earlier state, but fatalism, where only one outcome is possible no matter what happens before it.
The Ratty opened its pitches and published its first article in February 2020, which I’m sure we’ll reflect on for many years to come as some of the worst possible timing. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and at the time, we were beyond excited to put this thing out into the world. Publishing has been more sporadic than we would have liked. Getting pitches has often been an uphill battle. But we get it. Things have just been really hard. In addition to looking out for ourselves and our staff, we’re doing our best not to add to the already heavy burdens graduate students are carrying. So, we’re publishing what we can when we can, and continuing to support graduate student public scholarship to the best of our ability.
This isn’t so much a “year in review” as a look back on everything we have done. In the midst of a global pandemic, we have managed to publish 10 pieces and pay our editors and our authors for their work. We’re choosing to think of this as a win. So, we’re pleased to share with you all a list of the brilliant scholarship that we’ve had the privilege to help share with the world.
Traveling through modern-day Turkey for his research forces Classics PhD candidate Sam Butler to think more deeply about his role in the field of Classics and what it means to study Classics beyond just Greece and Rome.
While many of us may have been introduced to the term “fake news” around the time of the 2016 US presidential election, the concept of “fake news” has been used to undermine women and their agency for at least 1,000 years.
When most people think of the Hebrew Bible, they think of the area that is now occupied by modern-day Israel. But this view often overlooks the role of Egyptian and non-elite actors in the history and politics of the time.
The image of the Parisian model dressed to the nines in couture surrounded by a lavish dinner setting while looking like they are undernourished is not new to your Instagram feed. Graduate student Elise Bouley explores the contradiction in these images and their deep-rooted past in French fashion.
In April of 2020 the pandemic was still new, but all of the financial, mental, and physical issues we are still struggling with today began to rear their ugly heads for graduate students in particular. Underfunded and under-supported, we turned to writing as a way to let out some of our feelings, feelings of anger, frustration, sadness, and guilt. Hopefully, this piece shows some of you that whatever you are feeling, you are not alone.
Colonizing a hostile planet like Mars can seem like an impossible task, until you remember that humans have done it before. Using her indigenous knowledge, graduate student and Shinnecock Nation citizen Sierra V. Kaufman studies how we might grow food on other planets.
A diagnosis of brain cancer has the potential to rank among the scariest experiences of your life. Glioblastoma in particular is especially aggressive, which means it is one of the most important targets of current cancer research. Graduate student Yusuke Suita works with a team at Brown University Rhode Island Hospital on an innovative treatment for glioblastoma.
The threat of nuclear war has been a political reality for many of the world’s superpowers for decades now, and experts are still debating the best ways to eliminate the threat. Sharing his preliminary dissertation research, Daniel Post critiques the “escalate to de-escalate” strategy, showing why ramping up may do more harm than good.
In 2017 #MeToo became a worldwide movement, calling on survivors of sexual assault to share their stories and stand together in solidarity. Since then, the movement has found its way into contemporary fiction, working its way into the mainstream cultural conversation.
The threat of climate change is immediate, and greenhouse gases sit at the center of the urgency. Is it possible to turn some of this greenhouse gas-producing waste into a viable fuel source. Abdulrazaq Omo walks us through the process of turning fruit waste into an alternative power source.
Living with waste causes hurdles that become unbearable as time goes on. The resulting greenhouse gases such as methane, a significant drive to climate change, and some other artificial chemicals would leave a permanent mark in the atmosphere, contributing to the much feared air pollution. On land, an increase in cockroaches and rodents would increase land pollution, gradually causing health issues for nearby communities. The harmful effects of these natural and plastic wastes are a bane to society, and although the majority of students and individuals worldwide see and dislike these effects, not many can visualize how well these harmful effects could be curbed through a bit of chemistry and engineering.
Ideas for how to solve our waste problem come in various shapes — with various levels of effectiveness. The idea that some of this waste will eventually rot continues to thrive in some communities, with some individuals suggesting that all waste will eventually decompose, no longer presenting a problem. Of course, some waste does rot but the process isn’t in any way pretty or beneficial to the problem. All of this could be avoided and even reversed if we could just reduce the amount of waste but also convert it into something usable, something valuable, something better than risking environmental devastation.
As a student, I was fortunate to work with a team of engineers on obtaining valuable products from the waste of fruit (pineapple in particular) through a bit of fermentation, heating and distillation. Our goal was BIOMASS—fuel that is clean and sustainable enough to reduce pollution while providing alternative means of power compared to conventional fuels like fossil fuel.
Biomass is a renewable fuel derived from organic materials and acts as an alternative for producing fuels, heat and electricity. Converting these waste to biomass is essential in producing cleaner fuels and reducing the pollution these waste build.
We carried out a series of steps and chemical reactions before converting this waste to ethanol.The process of collection involved visits to any polluted environment with a significant amount of fruit waste in order to launch our experiment. We considered the amount of fruit waste to be a gauge of how high our ethanol yield would be.
Research, collection, and grinding
At first, gathering this waste could be unhealthy without taking into consideration proper measures. When working on this project, we used a nose mask to avoid inhaling the foul smell this waste produces, and gloves when gathering fruit waste.
To ensure maximum ethanol production, I worked with a group that researched the amount of alcohol in different fruits at different stages of decay. Ripe fruit waste usually contains more alcohol than their unripe counterparts, hence we used about 2.4kg of ripe pineapple waste retrieved from the waste site. We rinsed off excess dirt and germs with water in preparation for the home grinding appliance we later used to grind the peels.
Grinding this amount of waste mixed with 1.5 liters of water yielded small, moist chunks of pineapple waste which were separated by filtration in order to distinguish the solid chunks from the liquid. The resulting mixture was pure liquid which we termed “the filtrate.”
The filtrate was heated for about 3-4 hours in order to produce sugar. This sugar content was measured using a hydrometer. The sugar syrup is then diluted and fermented using Sacchromyces cerevisiae (yeast). Diluting the sugar is a practice performed to prevent the sugar from killing the yeast. 10ml of this yeast was added and mixed with 100ml of 37°C water, then stirred regularly for 10 minutes, before finally being allowed to sit for 3-4 days in a sealed container at room temperature. At intervals, the mixture was manually agitated to ensure proper mixing and fermentation of the yeast with the sugar.
During fermentation, our liquid produced heat through a gradual stirring process, which yielded alcohol. Research shows a 7-8% by volume ethanol production at 50-70 hours into fermentation, with some studies showing that an 80-100 hour fermentation would yield 8-9 % ethanol. This fermented product has alcohol present and while some use this for the well known Tepache recipe, our goal was ethanol production. With this in mind, our fermented product was heated and separated through fractional distillation, a technique used to separate mixtures of various boiling points.
Fractional distillation was only possible due to the difference in boiling points between the alcohol and water present in the fermented product. Definitely, the ethanol present would evaporate before the water due to its lower boiling point (about 78.37°C). The vapor passes through a copper pipe which is rapidly cooled and yields liquid as the end product (through condensation). This liquid is ethanol, although it could contain a bit of water if proper distillation wasn’t carried out.
From this experiment, we successfully reduced both air and land pollution in exchange for ethanol using fractional distillation, a biofuel that is ecologically effective and releases less carbon emissions when used in automobiles.
But there’s a catch: When reaching our desires for economic, social, and environmental sustainability, there needs to be a valuable and reasonable amount of input to yield the same reasonable amount of output. Unfortunately, this was not the case when producing ethanol from pineapple waste. Our experiment showed that from a 2.5 litres of fermented pineapple juice, we could only obtain about 0.05 litres of ethanol, which is much less than the required amount to even partially replace conventional fuels.
Continuing to work on producing ethanol with such low yields might mean the possibility of food shortage. The United States Environmental Protection Agency highlights that economic models reveal biofuel use can result in higher crop prices.
The large scale ethanol production process is by no means efficient yet and a huge amount of money invested in developing efficient means might also spike the ethanol distribution costs — opposing one of the most adored reasons for producing bioethanol: it’s cheap cost. Our already occupied land and environment would have to be cultivated with a huge amount of crops from which waste could be obtained in order to produce a reasonable amount of ethanol that rivals or completely replaces fossil fuels.
Our alarming need for transportation fuel alone rises daily, as explained by Tim Searchinger and Ralph Heimlich of the World Resources Institute in their working paper. Large fossil fuel consuming regions have established ambitious biofuel targets that amount to 10% transportation fuel by 2020. If such targets were to go global by 2050, using 30% of a year’s harvest today would only produce about 10% of the transportation fuel needed, making a sustainable food future more difficult.
We’d be sacrificing a valuable portion of the Earth’s soil to produce a somewhat minuscule amount of valuable biomass required to power our automobiles today. This cost makes the situation rather unwise for such an industrial project by large scale industries. Those same industries could emit large amounts of gases, causing minor water pollution. Although it’s still a debate, our pineapple waste experiment showed that we have not yet achieved the perfect alternative to fossil fuels we all wish for.
Our Sustainability cycle
There is irony in the fact that such a simply-made alternative to fuel introduces a new set of such serious problems.
The waste that resides in polluted environments is not enough to produce a desired amount of ethanol for powering vehicles, and yet to increase these wastes for higher yields is unsustainable as well. Using the Earth’s soil to cultivate crops not for food but instead solely for ethanol and BIOMASS production causes its own environmental damage, along with the social issues of acquiring the land and not feeding populations in need. But the experiment which was carried out shows that ethanol production and waste reduction are possible — if not on an institutional level, then at least on an individual one. We can’t produce enough ethanol sustainably for entire regions, but hobbyists could make biofuel for their own personal use and reduce pollution in their society at the very least, making it a rural-based humanitarian service for people deeply affected by environmental pollution.
In 2017, a viral hashtag became a worldwide movement. Though the phrase “me, too” was first used in reference to sexual violence in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, the hashtag #MeToo gained widespread attention when, on 15 October 2017, actress Alyssa Milano used it on Twitter and encouraged fellow survivors to follow suit.
Milano’s tweet was a call to arms to expose the ubiquity of sexual violence, and that call was answered more than 12 million times across various social media platforms in the first 24 hours alone. Scholars Jessica Ringrose, Kaitlynn Mendes, and Jessalynn Kellar note that #MeToo is the most high-profile example of a growing movement towards “digital feminist activism, [following] a growing trend of the public’s willingness to engage with resistance and challenges to sexism.”
Four years later, #MeToo is synonymous with the global fight against sexual violence. It was no surprise, therefore, that the movement would be explored in feminist fiction. But how is #MeToo fiction influencing the cultural conversation, and vice versa?
The Cat Person Effect
Feminist scholar Catharine R. Stimpson asks, “Does a single book change a life? Not by itself, for nothing exists in isolation. A lightning bolt needs a sky charged with electricity and a vulnerable ground.” Stories can both document social change and serve as a means of bringing about that change. Good fiction can reinforce or disrupt narratives, provide a warning, or offer new and enticing possibilities for a better society.
Gayle Green, author of Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition (1991), described the feminist fiction of the late 1960s and early 1970s as “so close to the pulse of the times that it is possible to use it as documentary of and commentary on the social and political scene.” Much the same could be said about more recent feminist writing and about #MeToo fiction in particular.
Academic and critic Rita Felski also explores the idea of fiction as a form of social construction and historical record. She writes in Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change that fiction “does not reveal an already given identity, but is itself involved in the construction of this self as a cultural reality.” Arguably the most influential piece of fiction associated with the #MeToo movement is Kristen Roupenian’s Cat Person, published in the New Yorker in October 2017. The story chronicles a bad date, bad sex, and the ugly, misogynistic aftermath between college student Margot and thirty-something Robert, and has been described as the first short story to go viral.
At its heart, Cat Person is about the grey areas of consent. The story was read, shared, and discussed worldwide, with many young women expressing how relatable they found Margot and her experience. Cat Person is uncomfortable to read, forcing the reader to experience an awkward, unwanted sexual encounter up close and to acknowledge that people (particularly women) sometimes say yes because it seems less risky than saying no.
Unlike many portrayals of sexual violence in fiction, Cat Person contains no crime or clear act of violation. Instead, it embraces the ambiguities of sex, power, and the limits of virtual communication. Since the sex portrayed in the story is at least nominally consensual, in that Margot outwardly gives consent despite her discomfort and even revulsion, it raised challenging questions and sparked fierce debates about personal responsibility, consent, and whether Robert is the villain of the piece or not.
Cat Person’s viral success can be attributed to the fact that it captures, at precisely the right moment, a conversation that was at the forefront of cultural consciousness. It seems likely that, in another fifty years, stories like Cat Person will be viewed as historical social commentary in the same way as feminist fiction of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
To return for a moment to Stimpson’s memorable metaphorical question, when real-world events charge the sky and prime the ground, stories can be those lightning bolts of clarity.
Reading in the #MeToo Era
Regardless of authorial intent, any post-2017 piece of fiction that deals with sexual violence will be understood in light of the #MeToo movement. Kate Elizabeth Russell’s 2020 novel My Dark Vanessa—which tells the story of an abusive relationship between fifteen year old Vanessa Wye and her English teacher, Jacob Strane—took eighteen years to write, according to the author. In an interview with Fiona Sturges for The Guardian, Russell admitted that she was nervous about the timing of the novel’s publication and did not want to be viewed as opportunistic.
Though My Dark Vanessa does make reference to a collective social-media-based reckoning similar to #MeToo, it is clear (given the lengthy writing, revision, and development time) that Russell did not originally conceptualise the novel as a #MeToo story. But does authorial intent matter, and to what extent? I argue that it matters far less than the context into which the work is released.
A novel about sexual abuse published in 2020 can never be separated from the #MeToo movement, and any audience will receive the work in that context. Regardless of the precise timing of its writing and acceptance for publication, a novel like My Dark Vanessa will be viewed as a #MeToo story and consumed in light of that reality.Similarly, Sofka Zinovieff’s Putney was released in 2018 and, according to the author, written and accepted for publication before the #MeToo movement gained traction. Even so, Zinovieff acknowledged in a 2019 interview with Eleni Papargyriou that Putney will inevitably be perceived as “part of the zeitgeist” in relation to the movement.
Where Will #MeToo Fiction Go Next?
Something of a second wave of #MeToo fiction is currently in progress. In the wake of several significant real-world events, from the sentencing of Harvey Weinstein to the murder of Sarah Everard in London, the #MeToo movement has seen a resurgence in activism and engagement across the world. It seems likely that a new generation of #MeToo fiction will follow.
Reviewing the canon of fiction about sexual violence reveals a notable trend away from futuristic, dystopian themes in the last two to three years. Instead of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale or the nightmarish isolated island of Jennie Melamed’s Gather the Daughters (2017), many of the post-#MeToo additions to the canon bring sexual violence into everyday locations: schools, homes, campuses, bedrooms. Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise explores harmful power dynamics between teenagers and adults at a performing arts school. Kate Walbert’s His Favorites tackles the abuse of a student by a teacher. Rosie Price’s What Red Was explores sexual assault alongside other contemporary concerns such as addiction, class, and family dysfunction. Even ostensibly dystopian fictions often tackle immediate and pressing real-world concerns. For example, Leni Zumas’ The Red Clocks imagines an America without legal abortion, a reality that seems to come closer each year.
#MeToo forced societies around the world to acknowledge the enormity of the sexual violence problem. It challenged the idea that violations are rare and committed only by monsters, and showed us that the “monsters” are ordinary people who walk among us. Fictions related to the #MeToo movement will likely continue to follow this same path. I believe we will continue to see more stories anchored in the real world and real (or at least realistic) experiences, as well as those that embrace ambiguity and nuance, asking difficult questions about the nature of consent and power. It is also my hope that we will hear from more diverse voices. As of now, the #MeToo movement and associated literature is disproportionately dominated by white, cisgender, heterosexual and able-bodied women with educational and financial privilege. Though this is beginning to change, there is a long way to go before the canon is truly representative of the vast array of stories and experiences that exist. What will be the next Cat Person—the next story that captures the heart of an issue at precisely the right moment? I don’t know, but I look forward to finding out.
The most recent version of the United States Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), written in 2018 during the Trump administration, claims that Russian strategy “mistakenly assesses that the threat of nuclear escalation or actual first use of nuclear weapons would serve to ‘de-escalate’ a conflict on terms favorable to Russia.” This strategy is encapsulated in the phrase “escalate to de-escalate” (E2DE), which may be defined as a strategy in which a state attempts to escalate a conflict with the express purpose of deterring further military action by the adversary and/or terminating the conflict on terms favorable to itself.
At first glance, the E2DE strategy might appear to be paradoxical and counter-intuitive. How might a country go about escalating a conflict and de-escalating it at the same time? Nevertheless, many decision makers in the United States, including national security officials, assume E2DE to be part of the current Russian nuclear weapons strategy. The logic of this strategy is as follows: If one side of a conflict employs a sudden or sharp escalation, i.e. the crossing of an important threshold or a dramatic movement beyond previous limitations, the other side may capitulate. Capitulation would occur, the logic continues, because the receiving state understands (after the dramatic escalatory move) that its adversary is more committed, resolved, and willing to escalate to higher levels of violence than the receiving state.
The latest U.S. Nuclear Posture Review argues that the Russian assessment is mistaken, and yet the same E2DE strategy was a bedrock of U.S. and NATO policy throughout the Cold War. J. Michael Legge, a former analyst for the RAND corporation, explains the development and implementation of NATO Cold War nuclear strategy thoroughly in his 1983 piece. He writes: “The strategy formally recognized that if deterrence failed… NATO might have to resort to using TNW [Theater Nuclear Weapons] in a further attempt to end the conflict by convincing the Soviet Leadership that they had miscalculated.” If the U.S. and NATO assumed that E2DE might work then, why is faith in this strategy now a dangerously mistaken belief? Indeed, it is possible to argue that the strategy did work, as a deterrent strategy at least, since the U.S. and NATO never had to defend themselves from a Russian invasion of eastern Europe.
Other questions remain regarding the potential effectiveness of an escalate to de-escalate strategy in terms of deterrence as well as, more importantly in my view, in terms of what happens when the strategy is employed not as a deterrent threat but an escalatory attack. First, how prevalent is belief in the strategy’s efficacy among decision makers in the U.S.? Secondly, why (or under what conditions) do experts believe such a strategy might work? Finally, does evidence exist to support belief in the efficacy of E2DE strategy? My dissertation research seeks to answer these questions through a multi-method approach utilizing expert interviews, a survey experiment and a historical review of wargames and military exercises specifically related to the concept of limited nuclear war.
I argue that a majority of the U.S. strategic community believes that “limiting” nuclear war is difficult and unlikely but nevertheless believes the U.S. should develop specific strategies and capabilities for limited nuclear war, rather than simply relying on other deterrence strategies, such as assured retaliation or asymmetric escalation. I also suggest that a significant portion of the U.S. strategic community believes that nuclear adversaries embrace a strategy of “escalate to de-escalate” with nuclear weapons. Furthermore, I hypothesize that a significant portion of experts believe that the U.S. needs to have a similar strategy in response, both to deter adversaries as well as to respond in kind. Adopting this strategy is potentially catastrophic. If both parties to a nuclear conflict believe that escalation is a path to coercive success and war termination, a cyclical reciprocation of destructive proportions is a likely result.
In order to interrogate this intuition, my first research question asks: What do U.S. leaders, experts and members of the United States strategic community, including decision makers in the nuclear command and control enterprise, think about the feasibility of conducting limited nuclear war? In other words, what are their beliefs about the ability to control and limit escalation in a nuclear war? I also ask how these experts think about the strategy of E2DE among nuclear powers. I plan to conduct a series of semi-structured interviews among members of the U.S. strategic community, which includes a variety of high-ranking military officers, civilian Department of Defense officials, think tank analysts, and other members of U.S. nuclear command and control organizations. Thankfully, due to my ongoing military service as an officer in the U.S. Navy, I have unique access to many of these individuals and my previous military experiences and contacts will be of great help in this research.
With a deeper understanding of the beliefs of this strategic community, the next step will be to compare those beliefs to empirical evidence. Are these leaders and potential decision makers correct in their assessment of the viability of such a strategy?
I will investigate two different but complementary sets of data. First, I will conduct a survey experiment utilizing a hypothetical future scenario between the U.S. and a smaller nuclear power. In this experiment, respondents will represent the U.S. and will be asked about their preferred response when placed in a situation where the adversary attempts to achieve war termination through escalation, i.e. an attempt at E2DE. This will help me answer the question of whether or not the employment of nuclear weapons (detonation of a nuclear weapon to achieve some physical and psychological effect on the adversary) in a conflict makes escalation more or less likely than an equivalent conventional (non-nuclear) attack.
The next component of my study will address the question: What historical evidence exists from past wargames and military training exercises to support or refute a belief that a strategy of E2DE might work among nuclear powers? To investigate this question, I will conduct a historical review of wargames and military exercises conducted by the U.S. and NATO, and other countries where available, in the nuclear era (post-1945) to assess the relationship between conflict escalation and war termination, or the strategy of E2DE among nuclear states. A wargame, as defined by wargaming expert Peter Perla is “a warfare model or simulation that does not involve the operation of actual forces, and in which the flow of events is shaped by decisions made by a human player or players.”
My goal in this portion of my research is to examine available records of wargames and exercises, like Operations Sagebrush, Carte Blanche, and Able Archer, akin to what Reid Pauly, professor of nuclear security and political science at Brown University, did with U.S. wargames in “Would U.S. Leaders push the button?” In his piece, Pauly systematically reviewed past wargames with elite level participants as a research method to assess when and why leaders might choose to initiate the use of nuclear weapons. In my project, the universe of cases would include games and exercises in which deliberate escalations were perpetrated by at least one side, whether use of nuclear weapons or other forms of escalatory attacks. I will be looking at instances where one side attempts to escalate to de-escalate, whether or not through nuclear attacks, and what adversary response and escalation dynamics occurred in the wake of this decision.
As an example, in 1967 two very high-level politico-military wargame exercises known as BETA I and II – 67 were conducted by researchers and senior Department of Defense officials at the Pentagon. During these games, both sides, representing the U.S. and the Soviet teams, experimented with attempts at E2DE with both conventional and nuclear weapons. The attempts were only successful once out of the four tries made by both sides. The one successful attempt was accomplished with conventional weapons, with the nuclear attempts resulting in cyclical reciprocation ending in massive nuclear exchange. Numerous other wargaming records are available for similar analysis and may be able to tell us important things about the dangers or merits of escalating to de-escalate.
One advantage to this method is that in games where the debates and arguments around decision making have been recorded it is possible to gather information about how decision makers were thinking and what their reasoning was. As Pauly recently explained for the Watson Institute, crisis simulations are useful as research tools in order to “see problems in different ways, anticipate unintended consequences, generate unanticipated outcomes, pose new questions to ask, and reveal unknown assumptions.” My research agenda asks important questions, the answers to which are likely to inform decision makers’ strategies for deterrence as well as their likelihood of engaging in conflicts that risk nuclear escalation. As the United States, Russia, Pakistan and other states increasingly explore the idea of lower-yield, shorter range, high accuracy weapons for “tactical” or “limited” use, and update their existing nuclear arsenals (in some cases bringing back weapons systems previously retired), understanding escalation dynamics in a nuclear war is of the utmost urgency. My project aims to help the U.S. strategic community and potential policy and decision makers to be cognizant of their own beliefs, to be aware of available evidence to support or challenge those beliefs and to acknowledge the implications if beliefs and evidence are misaligned. At a minimum, these misalignments may result in inefficient use of limited resources. Of more concern might be deterrence strategies and policies that are ineffective and may reduce stability between nuclear powers. Most importantly, if leaders are wrong about the ability to employ nuclear weapons as a de-escalatory measure the potential consequences could be a devastating nuclear war, something which is clearly in no one’s best interest.
What if you get diagnosed with cancer? What if your beloved family member, partner, or friend gets diagnosed with cancer? The news may fill you with fear and despair. Particularly, what if you get diagnosed with glioblastoma (GBM)? GBM is the most aggressive type of brain cancer with an average overall survival of 15~21 months after the first diagnosis. Moreover, GBM patients’ 5-year survival rate is less than 7%, one of the lowest among all cancers. Although treatment for other types of cancer is becoming more and more successful, current treatment options for GBM are largely ineffective and inevitably result in relapse and death. However, at the Laboratory of Cancer Epigenetics and Plasticity at Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital, we are working on innovative new treatments for GBM. One of these projects is called GliaTrap.
What’s Drug discovery process?
How does a new treatment get discovered? The drug discovery process is divided into three steps:
1. Drug Discovery and Development.
2. Preclinical Research
3. Clinical Research.
During Step 1, researchers elucidate the mechanisms of disease progression, which leads to the discovery and development of a treatment that inhibits the disease process. Once a potential therapeutic candidate is selected, this candidate will go to Step 2 where researchers test the safety, side effects, how the drug affects the body, how the body responds to the drug, and so forth. Preclinical research requires a different laboratory setting than an Academic Research Lab and it should be monitored by a third party (e.g. the FDA in the US). Once this therapeutic candidate is determined to be safe enough, then this treatment will go to Step 3, Clinical Research, where its efficacy in human patients will be tested. This entire process takes about 10-15 years for a single treatment candidate to become available to patients.
Current therapies for GBM include surgical removal, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or a combination of those. Each treatment modality has its own advantages and disadvantages. Surgery removes most of the bulk tumor but it cannot remove individual cells, which remain in the brain. Chemotherapy is normally administered to treat these remaining GBM cells, however it is challenging to specifically target the distributed GBM cells without killing the surrounding healthy normal cells. Radiation therapy has similar disadvantages as chemotherapy since targeting only cancer cells without damaging the surrounding healthy normal cells is impossible. As explained above, all the current approaches face huge clinical challenges, which makes GBM currently impossible to treat.
To address this challenge, we are developing a new technique for GBM therapy: GliaTrap. GliaTrap basically functions just like a Japanese cockroach trap “Gokiburi hoihoi”, a container that houses foods to attract cockroaches and drugs to kill the attracted cockroaches. For the concept of GliaTrap, you should think of cancer cells in the brain like the cockroaches in my example. (Figure 2). GliaTrap uses a biocompatible material called hydrogel, like the container of the Gokiburi hoihoi, to house food and drugs that lure and kill cancer cells. Food for cancer cells is called a chemoattractant, and GliaTrap uses this molecule to lure the residual GBM cells post-surgery to the vicinity of the empty space, just like a cockroach trap uses food to attract cockroaches. Once these cancer cells are attracted to GliaTrap, GliaTrap uses an anti-tumor agent to kill those cells at the vicinity of the empty space without causing significant damage to healthy cells, just like cockroach traps use drugs to kill the cockroaches. We hope that GliaTrap will be able to eliminate the remaining cancer cells from the surgery to prevent tumor recurrence.
GliaTrap can utilize not only anti-tumor agents, but also lure/use the body’s natural immune cells. Anti-tumor agents in GliaTrap can be replaced with immune cell activators, molecules that boost the ability of immune cells to attack cancer cells. GliaTrap can serve as a new treatment delivery method in concert with surgical removal and chemotherapy. GliaTrap combines targeted capture and drug release to increase therapeutic efficacy and safety by selectively killing the cancer cells that surgical removal and chemotherapy might miss. As a result, GliaTrap could increase the survival rate of GBM patients.
Looking forward, GliaTrap can potentially be applied to other types of invasive cancers that don’t have effective current treatments such as pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer has a similar treatment protocol – surgical removal followed by chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or a combination of those. GliaTrap could be implanted into the empty space created by removal of pancreatic cancer cells, and perform in a similar way as described for GBM by choosing an optimal chemoattractant for pancreatic cancer cells. To ensure the coverage of capturing cancer cells, genetic profiles of cancer cells can be investigated and optimal chemoattractants can be utilized. Chemoattractants and therapies can be selected based on the genetic profiles of cancer patients, and GliaTrap can be tailor-made for each patient. With continued effort, GliaTrap could become a platform for combination therapies for various types of cancers contribute to personalized treatments options.
The GliaTrap project has great potential but as every paradigm shifting discovery, it comes with many challenges. It needs a lot more studies to prove its effectiveness and safety before it can be applied to patients. Ultimately, with our work at the Laboratory of Cancer Epigenetics and Plasticity, we hope to help patients and their loved ones to no longer view the diagnosis of cancer as a death sentence, but rather as a challenge that can be overcome with the right treatment.
1. Louis, D. N. et al. The 2016 World Health Organization Classification of Tumors of the Central Nervous System: a summary. Acta Neuropathologica 131, 803–820 (2016).
2. Toms, S. A., Kim, C. Y., Nicholas, G. & Ram, Z. Increased compliance with tumor treating fields therapy is prognostic for improved survival in the treatment of glioblastoma: a subgroup analysis of the EF-14 phase III trial. J Neurooncol 141, 467–473 (2019).
When you think of colonizing a planet, your mind may turn to a science fiction-like existence: new and cutting-edge technologies you could never have dreamed of; humans living in enclosed habitats; and harsh, unforgiving environments that must be tamed in order to survive. What you may not think of is that humans have done it before—here, on Earth.
I am a member of the Shinnecock Nation and a planetary scientist. Originally, I saw my native identity as extraneous to my scientific career. How could my indigenous knowledge ever help me when researching a completely different world? But the more I delved into my work, the more I saw there were problems that could be solved using “Two Eyed Seeing”.
Two Eyed Seeing is a term originally coined by Mik’maw elder Albert Marshall and introduced to me by Dr. Roger Dube, a Mohawk Native from the Rochester Institute of Technology. The term refers to using western and indigenous scientific approaches simultaneously. The indigenous approach to science places an emphasis on observation and working in a way that is synergistic with what the natural world already offers, while western science follows the typical scientific method of posing a question and conducting an experiment. Importantly, because of the focus on synergy with the natural world, indigenous science generally has a lower impact on environmental surroundings when used responsibly.
The inaugural manned mission to Mars is expected in 2024 for SpaceX and in the 2030’s for NASA, and with humans reaching the Red Planet we may be headed towards colonization. The first step to approaching Mars’ colonization through a more indigenous lens is to remember that we must view the planet as a living thing and as a provider. In many North American indigenous cultures, we refer to the land that indigenous people inhabit as “Turtle Island”, a term that harkens back to a creation story1 which describes how we live on the back of a giant turtle moving through the oceans. In that sense, while you have been permitted to live on this being, you must also respect it, for it too is alive. Mars may not be as prolific a provider as Earth, but there are resources there that can be worked in tandem with rather than simply exploited. We don’t have to be a resource-hungry culture going from planet to planet using up everything that we can and moving on.
Every kilogram of resources imported from Earth costs large amounts of money, fuel, and time to reach Mars. If we brought fertilizer and soil there, both highly dense items, these would be literally worth more than their weight in gold. Thus, the respect for the resources on Mars becomes important not only from a moral standpoint, but also from economic and logistical standpoints. On Mars, water-ice is abundant beneath the surface, especially in polar regions. It can be melted for drinking, daily necessities and other purposes. It can also be transformed into rocket fuel by splitting the water molecules into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Building materials found on Mars, such as easily accessible iron from meteorites on the surface and regolith, could be used to build habitats with 3D printing. Through an indigenous approach we can learn to utilize these resources while sustaining them for long-term growth and future exploration. Traditionally, many indigenous communities in the Americas grew their own food, amended soil naturally and organically, and were able to create a self-sufficient, near-vegetarian community. Corns, beans, and squash, known to many tribes as “the three sisters”, were grown together in a beneficial, symbiotic arrangement quite different from the monocrop, non-rotational farming that is currently popular in the food growth industry. The beans added nitrogen back to the soil to be used by the corn and squash, the corn provided a pole for the beans to climb, and the squash served as a living mulch that fought off pests with its prickly texture. These three foods together rounded out the complete nutritional needs of a human, however they were not the varieties you are used to buying in a grocery store.
Due to colonization and the forced removal of native peoples, as well as the assimilation tactics used, most tribes no longer grow their own food and many heritage species have been lost. The switch to grocery store varieties has seriously impacted native communities, especially those in “food deserts” where the reservation residents do not have a true supermarket nearby. The increased sugars in today’s varieties, along with low food budgets forcing people to choose less healthy options has caused an epidemic of Type 2 diabetes, with rates as high as 60% among the adults of some tribes. Traditional or “heritage” indigenous foods are higher in nutritional value and many were cultivated to be resistant to various specific environmental conditions. These resistances were developed over thousands of years of seed selection for desirable traits and this work can be utilized and continued in an off-planet habitat where a unique and unfamiliar environment will allow certain seeds to thrive and become the newly selected seeds.
According to a talk given at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society Conference in 2020 by Dr. Gioia Massa of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the current focus for food growth in a Mars habitat is on crops that can be eaten fresh or, with the future addition of a heating apparatus, staple crops that can be consumed with minimal preparation and cooking. While using the three sisters as the main crops may not be viable for the early missions, as the post-preparation needs of a crop are fundamentally important to optimizing astronaut time, the variety of each of the crops considered, as well as the production methods, can be scrutinized as well.
One method that would save significant transportation cost and would put us a step closer to future terraforming would be to use a direct sow method of plant production; in other words, to use the soil available on Mars to grow the plants. The general martian soil is not hospitable to plants; it is sandy, low in nutrients, and in some areas has high levels of salts and perchlorates which are poisonous to the emerging plant life. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t areas which may be hospitable.
With the support of my PhD advisors Jack Mustard and Jim Head, I decided to test the viability of growing heritage crops in martian soils, and to determine if the soils with a large clay component would allow for viable plants to grow. The plant variety I chose was Bear Island flint corn, which was traditionally grown on islands with isolated ecosystems by the Chippewa/Ojibwa tribe and was ground into meal and flour. This variety was recently popularized within indigenous communities in the Midwest by the tribal food sovereignty activist Winona LaDuke because it is resistant to drought, high winds, and contains nearly 12% protein, more than twice the amount as other varieties.
I planted the corn in three soil types: MiracleGro Seed Starter Formula (a control for comparison), Exolith lab’s MGS-1 (a martian soil simulant representative of the general martian soil composition), and MGS-1C (an amended version of MGS-1 that contains 40% smectite clays and is representative of the soil at the Mars Perseverance planned landing site). The corn was kept in a grow chamber at ideal conditions for corn growth (65% humidity, 16 hours of light, and 22ºC), cared for daily by the wonderful folks at the Brown Plant Environmental Center, and never fed fertilizer or other additives. Other studies that have successfully grown plants in martian soils have mainly added nitrogen based fertilizer, which would be extremely expensive to bring due to its weight.
The seeds planted in the MiracleGro had an 81.25% germination rate (13/16); they germinated in only 4 days after planting. The seeds in the MGS-1 soil had a 0% germination rate (0/16); nothing was able to grow at all. Interestingly, the seeds in the MGS-1C had a 31.25% germination rate (5/16) and ranged in time to germination between 17-21 days. The published germination time for this variety of corn was 9-14 days under normal conditions, and admittedly these conditions were far better than normal. The published germination time is significantly more than that shown with the MiracleGro soil, but less than that seen from the MGS-1C seeds.
In martian-type soil with a clay component, the corn was able to germinate. This means that we can use the soils present on the planet rather than bringing in other resources if a landing site with sufficient clay content is chosen. The benefit of using certain heritage plants is their viability in difficult environmental conditions. Corn may not be a crop grown by the first missions, but looking past the common plant varieties seen today and considering traditional heritage crops will still allow knowledge of indigenous food practices to be utilized. By using a direct sow method, the plants that are grown in these soils will begin to produce seeds more adapted to the planet, continuing the centuries-old practice of selecting plants for hardiness. .
Other native principles, such as using all parts of a resource, similar to the zero waste movement today, point towards a sustainable cycle where we could use the inedible parts of plants to compost and rejuvenate the soils, or perhaps even use pre-composted human waste to add fertilizer and increase rates of germination and growth. Native people speak about building for the seventh generation. Mars will eventually be colonized, so we should take steps now to ensure that it will be done in a way that we can be proud of seven generations later. I believe that by considering the people who were most affected by the colonization that occurred on this planet, we can learn the lessons we need to effectively and honorably colonize another.
We’re all on unsure footing here. We weren’t sure what this week and the return to classes — albeit in an entirely different format — would look like, and we weren’t sure what The Ratty would look like in the wake of the changes to the Brown community. Rather than pushing forward, pretending everything was functioning as normal, we wanted to address what this situation feels like to grad students. And because we are primarily a blog, we wrote about it. The rest of this article features our editors discussing how they’re dealing with digital learning, sheltering-in-place, and the world in the wake of the pandemic. I wasn’t sure how I was going to introduce such a peculiar, composite article, so to prepare you I thought I would provide a list of various titles this piece has been known by:
Ratty Editors Vent About Being A Grad Student During COVID-19
Ratty Editors in Isolation
Grad Students in Isolation
I Have the Drive to Create but Am Paralyzed by Anxiety, What Should I Do?
What If We All Just Vented Our Feelings into a Google Doc?
Professionally, I thought social distancing would be a cinch. I’m a computational chemist – no wet lab, no on-site instrumentation, no live specimens, and thus, no physical location required! Yet the strain to perform my work has… well… soared in intensity, weighing heavier each day, as the mental and emotional burdens grow.
I’m an avid climber and aikido practitioner – two physical, social activities that I thrived on. My drive to research was fueled by these outlets, and I called on them regularly to reset for each new day. Then, I was told to stop. To refrain from my restorative lifelines, in order to prevent the worst. Even though I understood, I felt wounded and afraid as my lifelines suddenly vanished.
I’m afraid to feel loneliness and despair. I’m anxious, uncertain of each step forward. I’m angry — regrettably, at myself — when I struggle to accept these emotional pains as “reasonable” explanations for delays. I yearn to return to our earlier status, to break free of this physical confinement and emotional turbulence. I continue to hope that this situation will evaporate. Yet, I accept that this may be the norm for quite some time.
So, I’ve begun improving how I carry this new burden. I’ve found time to self-reflect. I might be climbing my door frames. My friends and I, near and far, have embraced remote connectivity. For as long as this may last, I aim to be kind to myself, to create new outlets, and to brace for the rest of the ride.
Honestly, the week off before spring break came as a relief to me. I’m studying for my comprehensive exams, and I was being handed extra time to focus on my reading lists instead of class preparations. So I holed up in my apartment, surrounded by antiquated computer hardware and piles of what material I was able to grab from the library before it closed.
And I’ve been able to accomplish so little.
Comps are an inherently stressful time, no matter how often your advisors repeat the fact that they shouldn’t be. And I was already scared — afraid that I wouldn’t be a good enough student, that I would be deemed unworthy to continue my education here. But now, in addition to the fear that I won’t pass, that I don’t belong, there’s the fear of the Academia I will enter into even if I succeed. Job positions have been put on hold, hiring frozen, and some schools have even closed permanently. The world on the other side of these exams is unimaginable; right now, it’s hard to conceive that I can make it there, and that I’ll recognize the landscape if I do.
And then there’s the guilt. I’ve watched my friends lose jobs and close their businesses in an effort to flatten the curve with no assurance that they’ll ever reopen. Others post about taking their family members to the hospital, sick with the virus, and being unable to visit them, to be with them as they convalesce (or don’t). I’ve been so fixated on my uncertain future that I’ve lost sight of what others have sacrificed, and while I know I have the right to my anxiety, I still feel guilty about being upset over *so* much less. So I’ve tried to donate what I can, especially to circusstudios that I have counted as a second home, but now it’s near the end of the month and the declined payments and overdraft notices are coming in.
And then I’m angry — at the people online who tell me it’s okay for this semester to be bad, that our energy should be spent not on ensuring “A”s in classes but on supporting our fellow humans. But it’s not okay for me to phone in my comps. And how dare all these talented artists and community establishments make their work available online, when I can’t spend my time accessing it because I have to study? And the nerve of my friends to want to check in on me and reach out over Zoom and Discord, when I’m staring blankly into space trying to muster the energy to do the work that I have to do?
I will take breaks in the middle of reading chapters to sob, and then, drained, try to find where I left off on the page. But it’s never what I remember reading.
Uncertainty makes me uncomfortable and always has. I am an obsessive planner; keeping my life scheduled and in order does a lot to keep any anxieties at bay. This time of crisis is the clear opposite of planned and scheduled, which has left me feeling anxious in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. In perhaps a strange twist, I was able to get a lot of work done in the week off we were given before Spring Break. I dove back into projects with gusto, projects that had long been left on the back-burner of my to-do list. After all, I am in the humanities – if I am able to get my hands on reading material, I can do my job. Then communications from professors started to come in.
I am very lucky to have some truly compassionate professors this semester. It is no coincidence that their classes were the ones in which I always felt time moved too quickly, where I wanted nothing more than to talk through these ideas for another hour. Emails from them have been kind, clear, and gentle. Reading them eased more anxiety than I could have guessed. However, these professors are contingent faculty, on the job market when most institutions have hiring freezes. I wish their compassion and understanding in this time when their tenured counterparts are not always doing the same could be rewarded with some kind of support. Of course, it won’t be.
I tell myself that I am angry about how unfair all of this is. Unfair to those students who look to their schools as a safe haven from their difficult backgrounds. Unfair to those contingent faculty doing the most they can for their students while struggling with their own precarity. Unfair to those grad students who have been desperately seeking feedback from advisers and knowing there is no way they will get it now. But I think I’m mostly angry about the loss of the things that kept me sane throughout grad school that I no longer have access to, the things that my professors probably didn’t realize I needed to keep going with my work.
I miss my weekly climbing gym dates where E.L. and I would challenge our bodies and let off steam about the latest week as a grad student. I miss my early morning long runs where I got my head on straight before sitting down in my office. I miss my LGBTQ running group and the wisdom of people who had dealt with the same problems and always had ample advice. I miss my bookshelf. I miss riding my bike to campus. I miss a lot. For now, I try to schedule Zoom meetings with friends to get some or any of these back in any form possible. As classes start back up virtually this week, I guess I am waiting to see how successful these replacements will come to be.
I find myself in the fortunate position where I am able to continue my research unabated in Providence, while my family in Canada and India are also largely unaffected by the ongoing crises. Admittedly, there are minor inconveniences and a few challenges: using a slow VPN connection to transfer files back and forth from storage servers at Brown, finding new ways to exercise from a cramped apartment, and assisting bewildered technophobic professors with the transition to online classes.
However, I cannot complain too much considering the nightmare many of my international student colleagues are grappling with: the sheer frustration from their research coming to a grinding halt, made worse by the feeling of helplessness as the number of cases continues to dramatically increase back home for their family and friends. I can only empathize and offer words of encouragement. Know that we are all in this together, that our community is strong, and “this, too, shall pass”.
We don’t have any answers. Everyone wears isolation and pandemic differently. We suggest that starting from a place of kindness and compassion is probably good, but we’re not sure what the next steps are. Brown Counseling and Psychological Services remain open — a good resource if you aren’t sure where to start. And in the meantime:
Content Warning: The content of this piece engages with the topic of eating disorders.
As I was scrolling through my Instagram feed one morning, I stumbled across an “inspiration” page. Among snapshots of long-limbed models posing in Parisian couture ateliers and close-up shots of clavicles protruding from power pink, feather-stitched garments, appeared images of decadent food—chocolate-covered croissants, overflowing cheese boards, and creamy pasta dishes. The page staged a clear aesthetic cross-fertilization between economic wealth, physical slenderness, and rich, “pretty-looking” food. The trickery and the dishonesty of this association lies in thinking of this fattening food as being consumed by the emaciated beauty who appears in the picture beside it. Although the women looked positively starving, the ostentatious display of food hinted at their supposed—probably contrived—bon vivant nature. Perhaps unwittingly, this entire page tapped into stereotypical representations of femininity in French culture, where changing fashion trends, cultural roles, and dietary regimes require that, while she must remain slender, the French woman never holds back.
The gazelle-like creature of the “ideal” model goes back to mid-nineteenth-century France, during which time both dresses and bodies were getting slimmer and longer. Women were becoming more active, leaving their stovetops for more enthralling pursuits. The corset’s tyranny was fading and women’s bodies were starting to be liberated from centuries of restraint and decades of containment. Paul Poiret’s designs were much more draped than they were structured, thus liberating women’s upper bodies and elongating their silhouettes. Coco Chanel made hemlines go up and waistlines go down, and clothing—rather than supporting and shaping the body—was slowly but surely reclaiming its own space.
Meanwhile, although access to good quality food improved during the nineteenth century, the typical French diet remained meagre. In his book France Fin-de-Siecle, Eugen Weber describes the eating habits of the French as “a continuous fast” (Weber, 65). Fashion magazines and beauty manuals of the time encouraged women to not overeat: overeating was described as gastrolary — harmful to gut health — and perceived as greedy, almost immoral. In her Cabinet de Toilette, the Baroness Staffe recommends the following daily diet: a glass of milk for breakfast, an egg and a vegetable for lunch, and a light dinner that must exclude meat, liquors or wines, condiments, and spices. She even encourages eating to be done secretly, safe from the prying eyes of husbands or domestic servants. But around the dinner table, it was recommended that women continue to adopt the air and attitude of someone who both enjoys and engages in the arts of the table.
In nineteenth-century France, economic wealth and access to food have always gone hand-in-hand. The type of performative eating on display at the dinner table was limited to the women of the bourgeoisie, those who could afford a great deal more than what they were encouraged to consume. In the nineteenth century, a slender figure could be obtained through voluntary self-inflicted hardships rather than through a painful remodelling of the body by items of clothing. As dangerous and unsafe as it was, a corset could have made a plump body look slimmer. As the corset fell out of vogue, it became harder for women to look thinner than they actually were, since food restriction required time, commitment, and consistency.
Nowadays, fitness and Instagram models have attempted—sometimes with success—to restore the reputation of the corset’s cheap sister: the waist trainer. However, thinness achieved through food control remains a popular method. While the deformation of the body by fashion(able) objects sounds bad enough, a self-inflicted method of starvation seems even worse to me. Food restriction may cause irreversible damage to the organs and the flesh, including thyroid malfunction, severe dehydration, heart failure, and other complications. But in order to reach the highest peak of glamour, I argue that one must never make this sacrifice visible. A woman appearing to indulge in decadent eating is perceived as glamorous as long as she physically looks like she never does.
We can observe the unfolding of this specific stratagem in modern fashion videos. The world renown fashion and lifestyle magazine Vogue recently started publishing short videos of models getting (runway) ready, giving viewers a glimpse into what their daily lives look like. In a video showcasing the Victoria’s Secret model Taylor Hill, simply entitled “Bergdorf! Bodegas! Hot Cheetos!”, we see Hill lying on the floor of a luxurious fitting room at Bergdorf Goodman, one of New York City’s most famous and costly stores. She is wearing a sumptuous baby blue gown covered in silver sequins and taffeta flowers, with a bowl of chips nestled between her breasts. “I can eat a whole bag [of Cheetos] in, like, one go,” she says after having already taken a bite out of a lobster sandwich. Suki Waterhouse, in Vogue’s “Diary of a Model” video, is seen ordering a grilled cheese and fries at a restaurant before going to a Jeremy Scott fashion shoot. In “How Model Birgit Kos Gets Runway Ready”, the twenty-four-year-old Dutch model enthusiastically asks for a plate of crepes.
In none of these videos, however, do we ever see the models take more than one small bite of the junk food in front of them. Indeed, Vogue seems to force-feed the spectator with the distorted idea that stick-figure models eat vast quantities of food every day. The magazine also intends to trick us into thinking that these models’ staged behaviors are absolutely authentic. Could this be an attempt to make the women seem more relatable? Could it also serve the false depiction of the model-like figure as a surreal or unreal creature? A goddess whose body would not be subjected—like us—to the laws of nature? In any case, we are given an idea contrary to the familiar notion that a woman must suffer for beauty.
As a fashion scholar and a freelance model myself, I find it to be the most extraordinary insult to the legitimacy of the fashion industry to make fashion enthusiasts believe these icons are no different than the girl next door, to make it look like the woman who embodies timeless, mysterious, modern beauty standards also has fingers covered in Cheeto dust. This is not to say I wish for Vogue to showcase proudly starving models, nor do I assume that models who claim to eat nothing other than kale and lettuce are lying. I think that fashion should avoid going out of its way to convince us that traditional beauty standards can be achieved through unhealthiness and excess. I believe this process actually takes away from the enunciative role of fashion as an elaborate creative system, both capable of producing beauty and rendering us sensible to it. Instead, it convinces us all that fashion beauty standards are attainable, even and especially when one engages in excess, and reminds us that a true mark of effortless elegance—in good old French tradition—is to seemingly engage in excess without ever truly doing so.