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Rubik’s Cube: Easier Than English?

Posted on June 25, 2015 2:51 pm by Lauren Kirkpatrick

student with Rubik's Cube

Jeff Qian demonstrates his lightning-speed Rubik's Cube moves for his teacher, Bethany Bradshaw.

Zeli “Jeff” Qian is a cubist — as in Rubik’s Cube. Qian, a native of Zhejiang Province in southeast China, can align all the colors in the cube-shaped puzzle in 18.27 seconds, a time that’s listed in the World Cube Association’s record books.

When he first attempted to solve Rubik’s Cube, it took Qian five minutes — still an impressively short time by most standards. He says he played obsessively every day, month in and month out, until he was fast enough to enter competitions. Still, Qian doesn’t boast about his ability. “My speed is not that fast compared with a lot of the best players,” he says. The world record is currently 5.5 seconds.

Qian brought that same laser focus and determination to NC State, where he’s studying mechanical engineering. He’s also honing his English speaking, writing and research skills through Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures courses for non-native speakers of English.

His writing and research instructor, alum and lecturer Bethany Bradshaw (M.A., English ’13), has high expectations of Qian and his classmates from around the world. “These international students are some of the most hard-working and motivated students I have encountered,” she says. “To get to NC State, they have worked very hard in English and other classes in their home countries, and they are eager to take full advantage of the educational opportunities here.” The students are expected to write papers according to the conventions of the American academy and standard academic English, which is their second — or sometimes third or fourth — language.

“I am consistently impressed by these students,” she says. “Most are living on their own in a foreign country for the first time, balancing classwork and cultural adjustment, trying to navigate Raleigh and Skyping home across time zones . . . and they’re also willing to tackle academic writing with determination and to tackle it in their second language."

Bradshaw has watched Qian and her other students form a small-scale international community where they learn not only about academic English but also how to interact and communicate with other students from all over the world. “Their work ethic makes them a joy to work with, and I learn from them every day. The diversity of our classroom brings a multifaceted view to many issues.”

For his part, Qian finds solving the cube much easier than Bradshaw’s class. “This class keeps me busy,” he says. “It’s a challenge for me.”

Qian says the Rubik’s Cube is a powerful social tool. “I can always make new friends with it,” he says. “A lot of people are shocked by my skill and want to learn with me. It’s really like a magical magnet that pulls friends towards me.”

This article first appeared in the college's Accolades 2015 magazine.


Spirits Rejoice: Jazz, Religion and American Culture

Posted on June 15, 2015 7:49 am by Lauren Kirkpatrick

Doors to Gospel, Blues, and Jazz.

Photo Credit: Anthony Arrigo. Shared under a Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.

The poet Ted Joans once wrote, “Jazz is my religion.” He might have said that jazz is religion, and he wouldn’t have been far off the mark – the two subjects are intertwined at the root.

Jazz is indigenous to the United States, shaped by a confluence of cultures and musical traditions – including faith-based traditions. Professor of religious studies -- and jazz musician -- Jason Bivins explores that relationship in a new book, addressing how religion has both shaped the music and the way people think about it.

In his academic life, Bivins specializes in the nexus of religion and U.S. politics. As a jazz musician, he has recorded improvisational albums with bands such as the Unstable Ensemble, the Micro-East Collective and the Impermanence Trio.

Jason Bivins

Jason Bivins

In his book, Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion (Oxford University Press 2015), Bivins explores a variety of issues, from how jazz musicians have drawn on specific religious traditions to inform their music to musicians who view performance as a ritual.

NC State's research blog, The Abstract, published the following interview with Bivins to learn more about Spirits Rejoice!, jazz, religion and American culture:

The Abstract: Before I ask about the book, can you tell me a little bit about your background as a jazz guitarist? How did you get started? What sort of music do you play?

Jason Bivins: Absolutely. When I got to Oberlin College in 1987, I very quickly had my ears expanded in a lot of listening sessions. I dove into the deep end of the pool with Coltrane and a bunch of electric Miles, Mahavishnu, Jeff Beck and related things. It all had an intensity I recognized from my background in punk and post-punk, but it was so much more musically demanding. In time, I tried to translate those ideas into my own playing, first in prog-influenced “rock” bands. By the time I went to graduate school, I was almost entirely involved in improvisational music, some structure, a lot free. I’ve certainly played in straight-ahead settings, and I’ve led bands that perform tunes I’ve written, but I remain attracted to the immediacy of completely open improvisation, with all its possibilities and downfalls.

TA: Do you still play shows or record?

Bivins: Yes, though not quite as actively as I did a decade ago. There are fewer and fewer opportunities to tour, at least at my level, though I still play the occasional show or three out of town. But I’m fairly active locally, playing once a month on average, I suppose. I’ve still managed to sneak out a couple of records in the last few years, and there are a couple others in the can.

TA: You’ve been a musician since you were a teenager, and you’ve been a religion scholar for more than 20 years. What made you decide to write this book? And why didn’t you write about the subject sooner?

Bivins: I wrote some papers in graduate school, and since the 1990s I’ve periodically given talks under the book’s title, because my involvement with the music kept turning up more and more connections between what people call jazz and what people call religion. But I was committed to making my name in the study of political religions. I was surprised, as the years went by, that nobody wrote a big comparative study. There were some good portraits of individuals here and there, but nothing that really treated religion and jazz outside of the obvious musicological connections between African-American Christianity and early jazz. So after Religion of Fear came out in 2008, I decided that I would draw on my multiple experiences and try to write about this broader range of religions in/and/of jazz.

Bivins Book CoverTA: You started work on the book in 2008. What were the key themes you planned to focus on when you started the book project?

Bivins: Initially, I was compelled by how jazz musicians understood religion as central to their identity and how religion helped keep the music from cooptation or routinization. That’s academic low-hanging fruit in some ways, but at least it got the ball rolling and it is actually important to the self-understanding of a great many people I interviewed or whose stories I knew.

TA: Did those key themes change once you dug into the work? If so, how and why?

Bivins: Big time. Now that initial focus is there as a frame, and is discussed explicitly in the conclusion, but the more I researched, the more I found confirmation that jazz has been a part of larger American developments in – and improvisations on – key religious concerns and practices like historical narrations, communitarian experiments, ritual, meditation and cosmology. That so many different themes were accreting convinced me that it was simply not possible to understand the history of jazz without accounting for this abundant religiosity.

TA: You came up with a listening guide to accompany Spirits Rejoice! – a sort of chapter-by-chapter playlist. What do you think that adds to the experience for readers?

Bivins: The old line that writing about music is like dancing about architecture is particularly true with jazz, since we often have no lyrical content to go by. I tried to do the best I could in terms of musicology, evocative description, and laying out musicians’ intentions and understandings. But there’s absolutely no substitute for the real thing. I think some of the intensity of emotion and interaction, those circumstances the musicians avow are religious, can definitely be experienced by listeners whether or not they ascribe those same meanings to them.

TA: Were these songs that you were listening to as you wrote, or did you assemble the playlist after the fact?

Bivins: In many cases, yes. As I wrote about particular artists, I often tried to have their music playing so that something of their style could inflect the writing. I’ll have to leave it to readers to say whether this was successful or not, but it certainly made the writing process a unique (and very enjoyable) one.

TA: Professional musicians are often entertaining personalities, but they can also have tragic lives. Did you turn up any particularly funny or poignant stories while you were working on the book?

Bivins: In some sense they were all poignant, since jazz in general has fallen on such hard times compared to the status it once (rightfully) enjoyed. Talking with these folks about how difficult it is to make it – playing door gigs, giving tons of lessons, that kind of thing – gave me a renewed appreciation for artistic commitment. But it also bummed me out to be reminded of how little we value artists in the United States, less so than ever.

TA: Were there any stories that were outstanding but didn’t make it into the book?

Bivins: Following from the above, there were lots of great anecdotes and funny episodes that had to be trimmed from the book (the first draft was vastly too long). There was a killer tale about how Dizzy Gillespie took great pleasure in deflating the machismo of his band when Melba Liston first came in to play trombone and write charts. And another one about Miles Davis eating someone else’s steak as they watched. And a few case studies had to be pruned, too. I’m hoping to put some of this unpublished stuff up on the blog in time.

TA: I know you’re also writing a series of blog posts for Oxford University Press that are related to the book – including one on John Coltrane and his landmark A Love Supreme album. Are these essentially excerpts from the book? Or are you expanding on people and themes in the book?

Bivins: So far they’re basically condensed excerpts. But over the next few months, I may do some op-ed types of entries.

TA: Has your work on this book changed the way you view yourself as a jazz musician? Has it changed the way you view yourself as a religion scholar?

Bivins: It hasn’t really changed how I view my musicianship, other than perhaps to make me more enthusiastic about playing than ever. But it’s certainly opened up a lot of scholarly possibilities, both in terms of intellectual challenges and writing style. Spirits Rejoice! is definitely still an academic monograph, but I tried hard not to let that get in the way of writing a book that resonates with all aspects of my life, from long before I ever thought of becoming an academic. Who knows: I may have another music book in me at some point.

By Matt Shipman

This Q&A first ran in NC State's research blog, The Abstract.


On Fisheries, Society and Sustainability

Posted on June 10, 2015 10:49 am by Lauren Kirkpatrick

Bluefin tuna fishing in Italy

Bluefin tuna fishing in Sardinia, Italy. Photos courtesy of Stefano Longo.

Stefano Longo is an environmental sociologist and assistant professor of sociology at NC State. His work examines the links between society, marine ecosystems, and global food systems with a particular focus on fisheries. He’s also co-author of The Tragedy of the Commodity: Oceans, Fisheries, and Aquaculture (June 2015, Rutgers University Press).

NC State's research blog, The Abstract, posted this interview about Longo’s work and what it can tell us about addressing issues related to the sustainable use of natural resources.

The Abstract: You specialize in environmental sociology – what exactly does that mean?

Stefano Longo: Environmental sociologists are interested in studying the relationships between social systems and ecological systems. This can be examined in many ways including, for example, developing research that studies beliefs and attitudes about the environment, or political concerns and social movements associated with the environment.

In addition, environmental sociology has incorporated biophysical factors into analyses, assessing how humans affect the environment or how environmental conditions affect humans, where actual environment measures (for example, carbon dioxide emissions) or ecological dynamics are analyzed along with measures of human social factors. Both of these approaches have been applied to try and better understand the ways that social systems are interacting with ecological systems historically and in the present.

TA: What drew you to environmental sociology in the first place?

Stefano Longo

Stefano Longo

Longo: Initially, I was very interested in understanding the ways that food production systems are affecting environmental conditions, and what a sustainable food production system might socially require. What I mean is, our current food system produces lots of food, but the environmental consequences are severe. How might we develop a food production system that is productive and ecologically sound? More than this, how do we develop a food system where everyone has enough healthy food to eat?

All of this required that I start thinking about production, consumption, and distribution of food, together with environmental sustainability, social justice, and human health concerns. In considering these issues, it became apparent to me that sociology was the best way to develop such a comprehensive analysis, and environmental sociology was the key for incorporating the ecological components.

TA: A lot of your work focuses on the nexus of society and fisheries. What made you decide to focus on fish and commercial fishing?

Longo: During my studies in environmental sociology and food systems I decided to focus my research on a particular fishing system that I had an interest in studying for many years. I began a research project that examined the bluefin tuna fishery in the Mediterranean Sea. I thought this was a fascinating case study, considering my interests. Also, my family origins are in Sicily, and this was a fishery that was a very significant part of community life in the region that I had been visiting since I was young child. A particular fishing system had been developed in the Mediterranean. In Italian it is called la tonnara. It is a passive trap fishing technology. This was operational for several centuries, but had entered a period of decline beginning in the late twentieth century. Once I initiated this study, I became increasingly interested in issues related to fishing and ocean systems. Also, I began to realize how significant these issues are, socially and ecologically, and I have continued to expand my studies.

TA: You are a co-author of The Tragedy of the Commodity: Oceans, Fisheries, and Aquaculture, which argues that turning ocean resources (like fish) into commodities has led to the depletion of fisheries and the development of environmentally suspect means of aquaculture. People have been fishing for a livelihood for thousands of years – when did fish become a “commodity,” and what does that mean?

Longo: It is difficult to provide an exact time when fish became commodities. We might say that, to some degree, at least since the Greek era, but likely even before then. But this is a different question from what we are concerned with in our book. We are asking: when did fish (specifically salmon and bluefin tuna, since those are cases we focus on) generally become a commodity? That is, when did the commodification of these fish become the leading way that we acquired them, when did these processes become globalized, and what have been the implications?

This means that these fish became an item that was mainly exchanged through sale on a market, and the primary purpose of this was financial gain or profit. The key word here is primary, because this is not saying that there are not many reasons why fish might be sold on a global market, like for example, providing access to a source of protein for people in a centralized manner. This is another reason. But it is a commodity when its principle objective is to sell it for financial gain. Without this central motivation, it is not a commodity. This was not a widespread, everyday matter until rather recently in human history. The commodification of fish becomes commonplace only a few centuries ago, and we can say pervasive and often the sole mechanism for acquiring fish for most people (particularly in the global North) during the twentieth century, but it really depends on place and species. Even then, people still capture fish for their own consumption, or not in a commodified manner, but this is not the common mode of access in most parts of the world. It gets more a bit complicated, but that is the short answer.

In the book, we focus on the social processes that are associated with the global commodification of bluefin tuna and salmon. We develop historical analyses of the transformation in production, consumption, and distribution systems and consider the social and ecological implications of these changes.

TA: Why is it bad to treat fish as a commodity?

Longo: It is not bad to treat fish as a commodity, per se. It does, however, tend to have certain social and ecological outcomes, and this is particularly true when they become widespread commodities traded on a global scale.

Now defunct tuna fishery in Scopello, Sicily.

Site of a former traditional tuna fishery which operated until the 1970s. Scopello, Sicily.

Global commodification is commonly associated with large-scale fishing technologies (or sometimes intensive aquaculture), and mass production and consumption. Some people might consider these positive developments. For example, executives at major seafood trading companies would see tremendous opportunities. However, the social and ecological costs of the benefits that accrue to some individuals or groups might be very steep. It could even mean that the short-term gains would bring about the eventual collapse of a fishery. For the communities and groups that are employed by the fishery, the results can be mixed. Early in the process, some would gain and some would lose. In the big picture, they could all lose, particularly if the fishery collapses. Further, there can be serious and complex ecological costs related to ecosystem disruptions when large-scale commercial fishing efforts, associated with global commodification, undermine fish populations – the total implications of which are still very difficult to comprehend.

Nevertheless, we can say with some confidence that when humans disrupt marine ecosystems to the point of ecological disorganization, it will very likely have a negative impact on human well-being. This might include loss of work, but also the destruction of a source of food. Further, marine ecosystems have intrinsic value, and destruction that can result from commercial gain is a serious problem that we need to face.

TA: Does your analysis in the book offer possible solutions for how we can continue to eat seafood without causing irreparable harm to fish populations and ecosystems?

Longo: Yes, we offer some ideas for what our research tells us could improve the current social and ecological concerns associated with fish production and consumption. As environmental sociologists, we locate the problems largely in the system of production, which is different than many common views on this. That is, consumer choices and decisions are important, but contrary to popular opinion, we do not see that these individual level choices are significant mechanisms for addressing concerns such as overfishing and ecosystem degradation. We argue that larger transformations in our socio-ecological relationships are essential, especially in the socioeconomic system that serves as a background social condition and influences almost all aspects of society. This might include more localized production and consumption, but it also means that we have to radically rethink the ways in which we produce and distribute food. Furthermore, we will have to ask ourselves if we should regard food as a commodity or a human right? This is an important starting point for thinking about solutions.

TA: Do you think this analysis of ocean resources offers readers (or scholars) insights into other industries that draw on natural resources?

Longo: Indeed, the approach that we set forth in the book is applicable to other processes of natural resource extraction and environmental concerns such as climate change, or biodiversity loss, or deforestation. We call it the tragedy of the commodity and it is a play on the famous theory developed in the 1960s by Garrett Hardin, which he termed the tragedy of the commons.

Hardin’s description of resource over-exploitation became a leading theory in environmental and natural resource studies for explaining why depletion of natural resources occurs when the long-term social costs of environmental destruction can be very high. Hardin’s theory focuses on the problems associated with common property or “commons.” Generally, he argued that humans tend to over-exploit resources when they can; when they have access to it, and when they personally benefit from it. We suggest that Hardin’s theory is too simplistic and, importantly, not sociologically informed. We are not the first scholars to propose this. However, we provide an original alternative explanatory tool with the tragedy of the commodity framework, which can be applied to the environmental issues I mentioned, and to many others.

TA: What are future directions for your work on understanding the sociology of fisheries?

Longo: The work that I am developing now is associated with what I call marine sociology. This might seem like a strange term (even more so than environmental sociology). It is, in essence, an approach that emerges out of environmental sociology that is attempting to render marine issues more significant in sociological studies. It is an explicit effort to highlight the marine realm as a sociological subject. Of course, fishing systems are an important part of this, and this has attracted some attention from sociologists. However, many concerns associated with the oceans and related systems have been largely neglected.

Human societies have been central forces in the transformations that are occurring in marine systems, which have been well documented by natural scientists. Yet, sociologists have not fully integrated analyses of oceanic systems in the manner that is suggested by environmental sociology. That is, sociologically speaking, how are we affecting them and how are they affecting society? There is a tremendous amount of work to be done here, and, I think, increasingly important in light of the massive ecological changes that are transpiring in the World Ocean.

By Matt Shipman

This Q&A first ran in NC State's research blog, The Abstract.


As Go the Tropics ...

Posted on June 2, 2015 7:00 am by John Craig

Sandra Harding

Sociology alumna Sandra Harding, president of Australia's James Cook University, chairs the "State of the Tropics" project. Photo: Cameron Laird.

Alumna Sandra Harding (Ph.D., Sociology ’94) asks a deceptively simple question: “Is life in the Tropics getting better?” But don’t be fooled by the simplicity of that question: her quest for the answer, and her leadership as an economic sociologist, stand to change the world.

Harding, vice chancellor and president of Australia’s James Cook University, chairs the State of the Tropics, a first-of-its-kind partnership with 12 research institutions around the globe.

It may well be that as go the Tropics, so goes the world. With 40% of the world’s population, and 80% of its biodiversity, the Tropics is a major geopolitical and environmental region that provides critical clues to the future of our planet, its peoples, and its biodiversity.

The State of the Tropics project “provides the first in-depth, objective assessment of the Tropics as an environmental and geopolitical entity in its own right,” according to its website. “Drawing on the knowledge, experience and diverse backgrounds of leading institutions across the Tropics, the report assesses the state of the region and examines the implications of the immense changes the region is experiencing.”

"The tropical population is expected to exceed that of the rest of the world in the late 2030s, confirming just how crucial the Tropics are to the world’s future," Harding told Science magazine. "We must rethink the world’s priorities on aid, development, research and education.”

Harding returned to NC State recently to meet with faculty and graduate students in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. "We are proud that Sandra has gone on from our doctoral program to do so well as a scholar and administrator," says Bill Smith, head of the department. "Her work with the State of the Tropics organization exemplifies how academic knowledge can be corralled to take on some of the really difficult problems societies face."

Harding was recognized in 2003 as NC State’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences Distinguished Alumna.


Where Diplomats Are Concerned

Posted on May 26, 2015 9:14 am by Lauren Kirkpatrick

Gentry Smith

Gentry Smith (Political Science ’83) is deputy assistant secretary of state for countermeasures for the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

Gentry Smith’s exemplary Foreign Service career recently earned him a presidential nomination — not to mention a great view of the world’s stage.

Gentry Smith (Political Science ’83) speaks Arabic and has lived in Japan, Egypt and Burma — a long way from his hometown in Halifax County in eastern North Carolina, where both his parents were schoolteachers. As a child, Smith often tagged along when his dad took students on field trips to NC State. “I loved touring around the campus,” he recalls. “I decided early on that NC State was the place for me.”

He began his college career in engineering, but he changed his major to political science after taking classes in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. He also participated in the Air Force ROTC program. That experience — along with conversations about political theory and foreign policy with professors such as Abe Holtzman, Eva Rubin and Robin Dorff — sparked Smith’s interest in national security.

That interest in foreign policy and national security eventually led Smith to a 27-year career in the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service, culminating most recently in a position as deputy assistant secretary of state for countermeasures for the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. In September 2014 President Obama nominated him to be director of the Office of Foreign Missions at the State Department, a position carrying ambassadorial rank and requiring U.S. Senate approval. [NOTE: Smith was confirmed by the Senate on June 15, 2015, as director of the Office of Foreign Missions.]

In his countermeasures role Smith facilitated the process of diplomacy abroad and at home, helping to ensure that American diplomats working overseas were protected and their needs were met. His office also worked to guarantee that State Department facilities and personnel in the United States were secure.

“Our strong focus is on protecting our personnel and also protecting our national security information,” says Smith. “We want to ensure that all our embassies meet our security standards.” In addition to protecting Americans against terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, Smith protected U.S. embassies and consulates overseas against the implantation of devices that could compromise intelligence.

Smith’s Foreign Service career began with a chance encounter at Crabtree Valley Mall. He had been an officer with the Raleigh Police Department for four years after graduating from NC State, and he was doing some off-duty work at the mall when he ran into a former police colleague who was home visiting while training to work in diplomatic security.

“We chatted and realized we had a mutual friend who was working in the Foreign Service,” Smith says. “I had toyed with the idea of entering the Foreign Service during senior year, and I thought if the opportunity ever presented itself, I would definitely want to pursue it.”

Smith reconnected with his old classmate. “He described the job, and it was the perfect blend of law enforcement and serving in the Foreign Service,” he recalls. “It sounded like it was created just for me.”
Soon Smith was forging a new career. He and his wife, NC State alumna Georgette Jackson Smith (BA ’80 Political Science; BA ’83 Business Management), raised three of their children in a variety of places all over the world.

“My kids grew up overseas. They have fond memories of their international experiences,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to experience other cultures and to share U.S. culture with other people.”

He’s witnessed events most of us only read about. “I’ve been exposed to certain things I never could have dreamed,” he says. “When the Soviet Union became the Russian Federation, I had a front-row seat. When Boris Yeltsin came to power, we were there within days. During the Middle East peace process, I was there when the agreement was signed between Jordan and Israel.”

Smith also remembers his first visit to KGB headquarters in Russia. “It was days after the failed Gorbachev coup. I was there with a colleague from the embassy, and we looked at each other and wondered if there had ever been any Americans in the facility before. We chuckled and thought, ‘Maybe we’re the first.’”

Gentry and Georgette Smith remain strong Wolfpack fans. He says he’s particularly pleased by the ways in which NC State has embraced global learning, both through its International Studies Program major and through its World Language Course Exchange, which allows students to take foreign languages offered by other universities in the UNC system.

“Americans have always had that pioneer spirit; we’ve always looked beyond our borders. We should never lose that,” says Smith. “I think the more we engage with the rest of the world, the better off we’ll be because we’ll understand each other better. That’s what it’s going to take.”

— Christa Gala

This article first appeared in the college's Accolades 2015 magazine.