Skiles Howard

What does it mean to be human in the twenty-first century?   What are the results, beneficial and harmful, of our cherished “human ingenuity”?   How have we recreated our institutions, our cultures, our myths, and ourselves?  What are the real-world consequences and ethical problems engendered by our creativity?   The authors in this volume engage these elemental questions from different perspectives and within the contexts of widely-diverse disciplines, but all approach them with a freshness and passion that is perhaps only possible for those whose present understanding is just beginning to open onto the future.

Now in its fifth year, Dialogues@RU:  A Journal of Undergraduate Research has become a well-established publication enjoyed by students and teachers alike, as over one hundred submissions will testify.  An annual peer-reviewed journal of student essays sponsored by the Rutgers Writing Program, it provides a forum for students at the beginning of their academic careers, and emphasizes student participation in all phases of production.  The essays in this journal emerged from the Writing Program’s research writing courses, “Research in the Disciplines” (355:201) and “College Writing and Research” (355:301, whose goal is to teach students how to use scholarly research skills to identify, define, and execute an extended independent research project within topics that deal with important contemporary social, ethical, and global issues, developing their own informed positions and participating in the wider scholarly conversation.  

For this volume, we followed the customary blind selection process, reading the essays in discussion groups of student editors that ensured each essay submitted of an intensive appraisal by at least four readers.   The student editors recommended essays for publication, suggested editorial changes, selected an essay with which to work, and assisted the author in the revision process.  On the completion of the final revisions, many of the editors wrote a commentary to which the author responded, an example of the kind of dialogue that the Writing Program encourages.  To emphasize the importance of research writing at Rutgers, Dialogues presents several awards annually to recognize essays that the editors believe make a particularly thoughtful and original contribution.   This year, prizes of $250 for “Distinguished Essay” were awarded to Edward Fu for “One Nation, Under God: Rethinking the Pledge”; Brittney Mazza for “Women and the Prison Industrial Complex:  The Criminalization of Gender, Race, and Class”; Walter J. Przybylowski, for “The European Western” and Christina Puvabanditsin for “Morality and Legality in Bioethics:  Infants with Anencephaly.”

All of the essays in this volume, however, demonstrate a serious and mature analysis of the implications of their research and a well-developed individual perspective on it.  Exemplifying the varied and multidisciplinary projects that demonstrate the range and scope that is the goal of a Rutgers education, these essays engage in original and distinctive ways with current ethical, legal and environmental problems, new technology, important social and political issues, and recent cultural practices, challenging or modifying traditional assumptions.

What is the “truth” of art, and how does art reproduce and transform society?  Analyzing Kathryn Harrison’s controversial autobiographical account of incest in “Recreating Forgotten Pasts:  Memory and Representation in Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss,” Karen Campbell (Douglass College) explores the constraints of the genre, and the difficulty of negotiating the expectation of “culturally appropriate” subject matter with the necessity to tell a true story, asking “But what exactly is a true story, and what is deemed appropriate?  What happens if life experiences do not fit into these preexisting constraints?”  In “Warhol:  Exploring Ostensible Kitsch,” Misty Lambert (University College) seeks to locate the boundary between high art and popular culture:  “What exactly elevates Warhol from the kitsch category?  What is the boundary between dignified high art and quick kitsch?”  In “The European Western,” Walter J. Przybylowski (Livingston College) explores how the traditional Hollywood Western typified by John Ford’s Stagecoach, which “ignor[ed] the more complicated aspects of  ’how the west was won’” was challenged by European filmmakers who “complicat[ed] the morality of characters by blurring the lines between good and evil, and complicating the narrative, visual, and aural structures of Westerns,” ultimately resulting in  the filmic presentation of a “more complicated American West.”

How can we learn from the lessons of history?   What needs to be transformed in the relation between the state and minority culture?  How do our laws and institutions serve - or fail to serve - their intended purposes?    Matthew Samuel (Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy) examines the complex causation of genocide in order understand its inception and avert its future occurrence by focusing on the Armenian Genocide of 1915 in his essay “The Slaughter of a Nation:  The Causation of Genocide.”  Canvassing a variety of theories of genocide, he argues that the “causes of the Armenian Genocide [ran] far deeper than just ethno-religious differences between the Turks and the Armenians.  Instead, a complex combination of   economic inequality, social mobility, wartime stresses, militarism, nationalism, political strength, and equalization pressures” contributed to the genocidal actions of the Turks.  In  “Women and the Prison Industrial Complex:  The Criminalization of Gender, Race, and Class in the ’War on Drugs,’” Brittney Mazza  (Livingston College) asserts that the treatment of women in the prison system reflects the “militaristic and violent structures and systems that shape everyday life,” and argues that  “the prison system is a means of violence that serves to oppress and punish an ever-increasing number of African American women [while] the ‘war on drugs’ remains a war on the black community, family and the female body.”   In “’One Nation, Under God’:  Rethinking the Pledge,” Edward Fu (Rutgers College) explores the inconsistencies underlined by the phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance that, he argues, “contradicts one of the deepest philosophies upon which this country has been built, that of separation of church and state outlined in the First Amendment of the Constitution.”

What new legal and ethical problems have emerged as a result of advances in technology?  How has technology changed our ideas of what it means to be human?

In “Morality and Legality in Bioethics:  Infants with Anencephaly,” Christina Puvabanditsin (Rutgers College) courageously explores the conflicting moral and legal claims that face the parents of infants born with a severe congenital condition that results in a life expectancy of days or weeks.  Should the infant be kept on life support, or should the parents be permitted to donate the child’s organs to save other children?   Puvabanditsin and her editor Courtney Borack wrestle with just these questions in a rigorous and thoughtful dialogue that is an exemplary illustration of the kind of intellectual exchange to which the Writing Program, and this journal, is dedicated.  Sebastian Lesniak, in “Gene Therapy:  Promise, Problems, and Abuses,” explores both the curative potential of gene therapy and the obstacles encountered in bringing its promise to fruition.  Lesniak (University College, post-Baccalaureate) asserts that “[a]lthough gene therapy is currently hampered by countless setbacks and has not delivered on many of its promises; it seems as if time and patience are key factors when it comes to such complex biotechnologies.”   As Douglas Piccinnini observes in his commentary, however, “Essentially what is going in gene therapy is a reconstruction of the human genome¾the blueprints, or genetic codes, that biologically make people who they are.   But if you change the blueprint, the structure is invariably altered as well.  In other words, removing or enhancing one facet of a person’s genetic code may prove to have significant effects on that person. “And what are the human consequences of a genetically perfected “structure,” he asks.   “[D]o not our own misfortunes and the misfortunes of others contribute to a sense of hope and love, perhaps an appreciation for the fragility and wonderment of human life? . . . . [O]ne must ultimately decide, as Porter suggests, not only what our notions of a human being are but, more importantly, “what it is to be human.”

In our consumer society, how are we defined by the products we buy, and by the producers of those products?  Holly Ennis, in “Vanity Sizing:  The Manufacture of Self Esteem,” explores the implications of “vanity sizing,” or the business of scaling down pants sizes (and scaling up bra sizes) so that women will “measure up” to impossible ideologies of feminine beauty, concluding that “[a]ssigning a numerical size to a woman, in essence, assigns her a concrete definition of who she is on the outside, and consequently, inside as well.”   In Hip-Hop and Product Placement:  The Struggle to ‘Keep it Real,’” Monae Davis (Rutgers College) argues that “[t]he entertainment industry and corporate America have, unknown to the general public, become business partners” through the surreptitious advertising of branded products by their incorporation into music, movies, and television programs.  She claims that this practice is especially prevalent and pernicious in Hip-hop.  “Hip-hop has changed,” she argues, “from its original concerns with social issues and individual expression, and the endorsement of material items may be at fault for this transformation.  Product placement is further diluting hip-hop into a culture that honors what one  has on over what one has to say.”

Advances in technology, “human ingenuity” at its most apparent, have transformed our world, presenting new problems as well as opportunities.  In “Left-Handed in the Workplace,” Oscar Villarreal (Livingston College) challenges the cultural stereotype of the left-handed individual as awkward, slow, clumsy, or even “sinister,” and the pressures to conform to a right-handed world; he asks whether “these very ancient preconceptions have any validity, or has modern science. . . demonstrated that the left-handed brain. . . is more flexible and creative, providing advantages to [technological] occupations.”   Joni Vitale (Douglass College) investigates the lure and ubiquity of the Internet in her essay “Cyberjunkies,” the social and individual consequences to the Internet “user,” and the validity of the concept of “Internet addiction.”  In “The Internet and the ‘Great Firewall of China,’” Nour-eddine Labiad  (Livingston College) explores the Internet’s potential to expedite the growth of democracy in China given that the Chinese government engages in intense censorship of “destabilizing” sites, but notes that the “free flow of information” on which democracy depends may nevertheless occur through email and the Bulletin Board System.  Finally, Ankit Shah (Cook College) examines the consequences of “human ingenuity” and technology in our attempts to bend nature to our convenience in his essay “The Vanishing Wetlands and the Wrath of Katrina.”  Shah focuses specifically on the destruction of the protective wetlands along the Louisiana coast by the “construction of dikes and levees for better shipping access and flood control,” which resulted in the devastation of New Orleans and much of the unprotected coastline by the tremendous storm surges of Hurricane Katrina that “caused so much devastation and shattered countless lives.”

We hope that our readers will enjoy these essays them as much as we have.  We are proud of them¾and indeed of all of the essays that were submitted.   The original projects, serious research, and acute analysis show Rutgers students at their best, with a thoughtfulness and maturity that reflect well on their generation and on this university.