The Amherst 250 Plan is rebuilding and rebalancing the faculty by investing in key programs to advance campus teaching and research. In each issue we’ll introduce you to some of the newest members of the UMass Amherst faculty community.
- Amanda Walker Johnson, Anthropology
In Search of Fairer Tests
A pivotal moment in Amanda Walker Johnson’s academic career was reading Savage Inequalities, by crusading educational reformer Jonathan Kozol. “After I read that book, I developed a heartfelt sense that education was something that was important for me to research,” says Johnson, who joined the Department of Anthropology this year.
She developed an interest in so-called high-stakes testing in Texas, where she did her dissertation on the racial implications of standardized examinations, such as the MCAS in Massachusetts. She saw a phenomenon known as “pushing out,” where schools essentially tried to get rid of lower-achieving students so they wouldn’t affect the school’s institutional rankings.
Kozol’s book showed what it felt like for poor children to be given meager resources for their education and to be talked about and treated as if they were disposable. Instead of rectifying these inequalities, according to Johnson, standardized tests tend to reinforce and justify them.
Johnson is looking forward to assuming the role of a public intellectual in Massachusetts, rather than ensconcing herself as an ivory-tower theorist. “There is a growing segment in cultural anthropology that embraces applied, activist work,” she says. “I want to get involved in policy by writing and possibly testifying.”
Johnson says that she wants to learn more about the particulars of the issue in Massachusetts, given the protests against standardized testing here, which have generated national interest. She plans to “develop the knowledge with which to make a difference and to impact how people think about testing.”
- Louise Antony, Philosophy
Human Nature . . . or Nurture?
Louise Antony, who joined the Philosophy Department this year, aims in her research to reconcile our scientific understanding of the human mind with our everyday understanding of the human person. One topic that particularly animates her is human nature. Is there such a thing? And can “natural” differences explain or justify inequality? For thousands of years philosophers held that inequality between the sexes is part of the natural order. Aristotle’s position, for instance, was that men can use reason to govern themselves and women just can’t. More recently, Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers suggested that inherent differences in mathematical ability might explain why there are so few women in technical fields. But Antony says that basic biology teaches us that nature has nothing to do with it. “People like Summers seem to think that nature is in competition with nurture,” she said. “It’s not so much false to say that women are inherently less capable than men as it is meaningless. The only serious question is what kind of environment would allow various women, with their particular genotypes, to flourish in technical fields? That’s not a question biology is going to answer for us.”
Antony, whose other interests include feminist theory and the philosophy of language, grew up in western Massachusetts. She and her husband, Joseph Levine, also a new addition to the UMass Amherst Philosophy Department, arrived here last fall after living for six years in Columbus, Ohio. “We were very excited when two jobs were advertised here,” said Antony. “It was a nice convergence of opportunities: to join a very good department and to return to a part of the country I feel connected to.
- Flavio Azevedo, Education
”Training Tomorrow’s Teachers
As a student in primary and secondary school, Flavio Azevedo often
found the curriculum and the material less than engaging. Now, as a
new professor in the Department of Teacher Education and Curriculum
Studies, the native Brazilian is looking forward to pursuing his research
on designing learning environments that connect to students’ interests.
“Schools have a very scripted way of functioning,” says Azevedo. He
wants to find out how to create situations that “systematically enable
students to bring in their broader interests.”
Azevedo’s career didn’t take a straight line to this area of inquiry.
He got an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, started a
software company, and earned a master’s degree in computer science
before turning his sights on education. As part of his dissertation research Azevedo read the literature on “theories of interest.” He
found them lacking and decided to come up with some of his own. During
his research, Azevedo studied the hobbies of model rocketry and amateur
astronomy on the premise that these are prototypically interest-based.
Now he is working to apply his findings to real-world classroom environments,
a process that includes training future teachers.
Before arriving in Amherst last August, Azevedo did a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Informal Learning at UC Santa Cruz. He is excited about the next phase. “People here are open to my ideas and to my trying these things out,” said Azevedo. “You don’t find that everywhere.”
- Jesse Mager, Veterinary and Animal Sciences
Cell Scientists, Times Two
How are different cells programmed to know what they are supposed to become, even though they all contain the same DNA? That’s a question Jesse Mager is studying as a new hire in the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences. It’s a fundamental question that requires looking at the earliest stages of embryonic development.
What about those cells destined to become the liver and pancreas? What is going on with them at the stem-cell stages during development? That’s a question Kimberly Tremblay will be researching one flight up from Mager in the Paige Laboratory in the same department.
It just so happens that Mager and Tremblay are more than colleagues hunting down answers to similar scientific questions. They are also husband and wife.
Don’t ask how they met. “It’s a dorky scientist story,” said Mager. It was at a conference, and eventually they were able to get to the same city, Philadelphia. They have a toddler daughter, Sydney, and another one on the way. Now they are coming to Massachusetts. “These two job descriptions were written as if they had the two of us in mind,” said Tremblay, “and here we are.”
Their work has many potential applications for human as well as animal health. “My research is ultimately aimed at finding out why things go wrong during embryogenesis,” said Mager. “First, however, we must understand why things go right.”
Tremblay and Mager will also team-teach an introductory genetics course. It’s safe to say they will get to see a lot of each other as their careers progress.