This Summer, Professors Hit the Books

For many Boston College undergraduates, this past summer of 2016 meant toiling away at internships, working and studying abroad, taking classes to tack on credits, earning money at any cost, or, in some cases, simply sprawling out across beaches of all geographies.

While we worked and played, BC professors of all disciplines had their noses to the grindstone, conducting original research to their hearts’ content and working tirelessly in the name of academia. Now that you’ve heard all about your friends’ summers, lets hear a bit about what your professors were up to.

Christine O’Brien – Professor of Business Law and Society

In the realm of legal studies, Business Law and Society professor Christine O’Brien spent her summer working on important labor issues and writing a paper on the subject to be published in the University of Pennsylvania Business Law Journal. More specifically, her work was focused on the forced signature of arbitration agreements by new hires, relevant particularly to workers not in unions.

“So you as an individual go to get a job, and they’re going to hire you but you need to sign a line saying that you’re not going to sue in court,” O’Brien explained. “The issue is for the individualyou’re forced to go to individual arbitration and you can’t join in a class action.”

Coming to the defense of the worker, O’Brien feels this work is important due to its wide-reaching implications for powerless working individuals. These cases, she explains, generally have to do with individuals who have been denied repeatedly over time, and have filed complaints of everything from discrimination to statutory.

These issues have been highlighted in particular recently by the sexual harassment lawsuit that former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed against Fox News CEO Roger Ailes this past summer, O’Brien mentioned. This case, unfolding dramatically in the public eye, serves as a very effective backdrop to O’Brien’s work in the field of labor relations.

“People think, ‘Oh, you just don’t sign things like that,’” O’Brien said of these complex and sometimes coercive agreements. “But if you want a job, you sign it—it’s not like jobs are just on every corner.”

Zachary Matus – Assistant Professor of History

Across the pond, Zachary Matus, an assistant professor in the history department, spent a portion of his summer slithering through the endless manuscript collections of Oxford University, studying the complex topic of medieval engagement with and representation of the serpent.

The symbolic history of serpents and snakes is deeply rooted in human history, and serpent imagery resonates powerfully even to this day.  Of particular interest to Matus is the space at the intersection of science and culture where serpents have historically existed.

“Whats interesting to me, is the ways in which different cultural modes bump up together,” Matus said of the cultural and scientific overlap in his study of snakes.

Essential to Matus’ study of medieval serpents is Alchemy, the medieval forerunner of chemistry, which had heavy superstitious and religious implications as well.

“It’s another place where religion and science or proto-science bump up against one another,” Matus said of alchemy. “It has a desire to explain the world according to rational and observable phenomena, along with a strong sense that there is a real presence that orders and guides that world.”

To Matus, details like this are what truly illuminate the past. The messy picture of history, not found in “clean” texts purely devoted to one discipline, bears a much closer semblance to how things actually worked.

This messy interdisciplinary picture is exactly what Matus has in mind for his work, which is built heavily upon his own original manuscript translations—taken from the neglected corners of history.

The “weird poems” and anecdotes in the margins of major theological and scientific texts are often neglected by historians and discounted as useless superstition.  Matus, however, feels differently–that these comments in the margin can tell an important story.

Medieval Manuscript

An example of this? A superstitious snake poem found in the midst of a treatise about alchemy that plays with and destabilizes the whole work. Matus feels that anecdotes like these illuminate a less “clean” but more meaningful picture of the past.

“This tells us that back then the scientific mind didn’t work in the same way,” Matus said. “They were open to possibilities that might be far beyond their knowledge–not everything could be reproduced, but there would be meaning in that lack of reproduction. It’s an embrace of paradox and an embrace of impossibility.”

The future for this research?  According to Matus, it’s up in the air–he prefers his work to have a life of its own.

“I didn’t know what my last book was going to be until I finished it,” he said.  “It’s good to go in with questions, but always be willing to be led to somewhere that you didn’t expect to go.”

Joseph Nugent – Associate Professor of the Practice of English

If you asked Joseph Nugent, associate professor of the practice in English, about his summer, the direction of the conversation might surprise you.

Nugent wasn’t eternally buried in books and research as one might expect from such a prominent heavy-hitter in both the English and Irish Studies departments.  Instead, he dedicated an enormous amount of time to learning something entirely foreign and new to both his department and himself—virtual reality and gaming.

“Gaming machines are not the kind of things that you’ll find in the average classroom,” Nugent said.  “The problem was how I was going to teach a class something about which I knew absolutely nothing.”

The class in question is his exciting new part-undergraduate course, part-revolutionary project, “Analyzing Joyce: A Digital Adventure.”  This class is a team effort on the part of undergraduate and graduate students from not only BC, but universities across the country and world, and strives to render the legendary James Joyce novel, Ulysses, in an unprecedented way—virtual reality.

The objective of this, Nugent explains, is to construct a game that allows the story to be experienced in a sensory way like never before.

“Virtual reality has been called the ultimate empathy machine–now I’m not too sure what that means,” Nugent joked. “But somehow or other, the idea is that this thing would promote and assist us in actually feeling and feeling other people’s feelings. The idea of doing that with a book as great as Ulysses is mind blowing.”

Beyond simply researching the VR technology necessary for this project, Nugent’s summer also involved doing a ton of on-the-ground work in Ireland, making sure the class and the project had the appropriate resources at their disposal to execute the project accurately.  Making alliances in Ireland with the archivists at Irish National Television and Radio was one important win, but another huge victory for the team was won with the Irish- and EU-aided body Discover Ireland.  With Discover Ireland, Nugent was able to gain access to 3D models of every great monument in Ireland, including Martello Tower—a central monument to both the novel and the VR experience to come.

The goals of the class and the book go beyond purely literary accuracy and homage, however.  Nugent hopes that this project will be an emotional and physical exploration of a whole new world.

“The fabulous thing is that we’re not just really learning skills and reading the book,” Nugent said. “There’s really some very deep, conceptual thinking going on.  We’re trying to think through what it means to be a character in virtual reality. It’s really fabulous stuff.”

Joshua Greene – Professor of Mathematics

If you spent your summer teaching sailing in Martha’s Vineyard or Newport, you may think you know a thing or two about tying sailing knots.  Odds are, however, you still know infinitely less about knots than mathematics professor Joshua Greene, who spent his summer talking about and researching a somewhat obscure field of mathematics known as “knot theory.”

As difficult to describe as it may sound to someone outside of the mathematics world, knot theory is, in many ways, exactly what it sounds like—the study of different knots and knot patterns.

“It’s the mathematical theory of knotted curves in space,” Greene said. “And how a knotted curve relates to the space around it,” he added.

Though difficult to grasp from a mathematical perspective, the practices of those who study it are largely problem-based—researchers address a knot that exhibits a certain behavior and aim to unlock more about how it interacts with the space around it.

“A knot is a one-dimensional object in a three-dimensional space,” Greene explained, gesturing toward some simple drawings and models he had close at hand. “You can study its relationship to two-dimensional shapes, there’s an intermediary in three-dimensional space.”

Greene’s summer work in the area of knot theory was built on his past work in the discipline, including multiple conference appearances and a collaborative effort toward an academic paper—“Coloring Curves on Surfaces.”

A culmination of gradual work in the area, Greene noted that his and his colleague’s enthusiasm on the subject is a product of both its novelty and its general appeal in mathematics.

Though not a particularly widely covered subject, knot theory connects rather broadly with some well-researched strands of mathematics. To this end, though Greene’s work stands alone, it connects many areas of mathematics that researchers are interested in.

Moving forward, Greene offered that it’s often hard to predict where a particular project in this realm of mathematics might lead, but unsolved problems have a way of keeping him and his colleagues coming back for more. Often, it seems that a stopping point for this type of research can be difficult to pin down.

Still, though, it seems to Greene that a muted sense of pride in calling it quits in mathematics is a virtue—something difficult to identify with such an infinite problem, but something rewarding nonetheless.

“It’s an ongoing challenge,” Greene said. “Sometimes you feel like, you know, I’m pretty proud of these few things that I can prove, and it makes sense to tie it off now.”  

Featured Image by James Lucey/Heights Editor

In-Article Image Courtesy of Boston College

Maddie Phelps

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