Voyages of Enlightenment
Faculty Achievements Underscore the Power of the Liberal Arts at Hollins
By Jeff Hodges M.A.L.S. ’11
One way to understand and appreciate the value of the Hollins experience is to delve into the accomplishments of faculty across academic disciplines. Professors who are authors, filmmakers, social researchers, and natural scientists are presenting just the latest examples of how they are creating compelling new work and conducting innovative projects designed to broaden minds and promote the betterment of society — exactly what a liberal arts education was intended to do.
T.J. Anderson III
Writing Poetry as a Musical Score
The latest literary stop on what Professor of English and Creative Writing T.J. Anderson III calls his life’s “artistic journey, a journey that is rooted in African American culture and American culture” is Devonte Travels the Sorry Route (Omnidawn Publishing).
The collection of poems is presented in four parts, and Anderson’s process for making those divisions aligns with his perception of the poem as a musical score. “I’ll print out all of my poems and lay every piece of paper on the floor. Then, I’ll walk around and read them. I’ll see what fits, what’s developing in terms of a narrative and musicality. I’m orchestrating things in terms of how I hear them sounding and putting them into a particular order.”
Writing the poems that would ultimately become Anderson’s fourth volume of poetry stemmed from seeing a painting by Brian Counihan called “The Sorry Route.” Anderson was intrigued by the work’s two dominant figures — one man in a tri-cornered hat and another who appears to be in shackles — and the way the painting evoked colonialism.
“These poems embodied this voice of a character who called himself ‘Dickerson,’” Anderson recalled. “I began to see that I was working on a series.”
Anderson subsequently made the pivotal decision to change the main character’s name to “Devonte.” “‘Dickerson’ has a harshness to it, so at first I was going to call the character ‘Dante’ as an allusion to The Inferno. I chose ‘Devonte’ instead because it not only alluded to ‘Dante’ but it also was a distinctly African American name and certainly sounded more poetic than ‘Dickerson.’ At the same time, I realized there was a young man by that name who was a victim of police violence.”
In the series, Anderson said, Devonte “traverses time. His sense of identity is cut by historical events so much that there becomes no discernable separation of past and present. I’m responding to the painting and shifts of identity within the African American cultural and historical narrative. Devonte inhabits multiple dimensions. In several poems, he encounters history on both a macro and micro level that doesn’t solely apply to dates and images. Devonte resists and straddles all those attempts of containment by society.”
At his core, Devonte is an artist for whom jazz is a profound force, “a spiritual connection that goes beyond consumptive entertainment and appreciation,” Anderson explained. “The idea of music — tonal sounds, tonal vibrations — what it does to the body, and how it can affect one’s ability to be in multiple places and multiple times, that’s of interest to me.”
Anderson is comfortable with readers approaching his work differently from his own interpretation of it and even missing the allusions he makes. “I don’t necessarily feel the need to ‘get’ something at first reading. It’s important to go back and sit with something, and maybe 20 years from now you might say, ‘Oh, that’s what that line meant. I get it now.’ And that’s fine. The process for me, the process of literature, is an organic process.”
Filmmaking from an Artist’s Point of View
Associate Professor of Film Amy Gerber-Stroh has accrued nearly 40 years as a professional filmmaker and nearly three decades teaching film in higher education. For her, immersion in both vocations is the key to success and fulfillment.
“Teaching learners of all ages and abilities has been rewarding. It has made me a better filmmaker, much more so than if I were balancing filmmaking and (the demands of) Hollywood,” she said.
Gerber-Stroh laid her foundations at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). “It’s a school that shaped me in terms of experimental directing and trying different things from an artist’s point of view rather than a consumer point of view.”
In 2000, Gerber-Stroh launched her own production company and began producing her own short films, documentary features, and animation projects. After joining the Hollins faculty in 2007, her challenge was to balance filmmaking with her new passion for teaching.
“I sort of rotate between longer and shorter pieces,” she explained. “Shorts can take a couple of years. Feature-length projects for independent filmmakers take anywhere from four to eight years. The reason is, if you’re not backed by a major production company, the money trickles in. You’re getting grant money, maybe you’re getting people who are investing in your films, or you’re getting GoFundMe campaigns going. Thanks to Hollins, I received seed money for my current project.”
Gerber-Stroh has addressed a variety of subjects in her films. Public Memory (2004) explores the meanings and motivations of American memorials. The Truth About Trees: A Natural and Human History (2015) is a three-part documentary for PBS made in collaboration with the James Agee Film Project. Do Cell Towers Dream of Morse Code? (2019), which imagines the possibilities if cell towers actually developed consciousness, won the Silver Award for Experimental Works at the 2020 University Film and Video Conference, and also earned acclaim at the Miami International Sci-Fi Film Festival and Chicago’s International Art House Film Festival.
But the greatest source of inspiration and material has come from both sides of Gerber-Stroh’s own family. In My Grandfather Was a Nazi Scientist: Opa, von Braun and Operation Paperclip (2011), she uncovers the secret past of Dr. Eduard Gerber, who was among hundreds of Nazi scientists brought to the United States after World War II through a classified and controversial government program. She’s currently writing, directing, and producing a hybrid documentary called Hope of Escape, which tells the story of how her forebears escaped slavery.
As production has ramped up, meaningful opportunities have arisen for Hollins undergraduates. Film major Anja Holland ’21 served as one of Gerber-Stroh’s research fellows on the project. “Anja has helped me with historical research, finding scholars, developing a production schedule, and looking for locations.”
Gerber-Stroh devoted her spring term sabbatical to working on Hope of Escape. “It was a great time for me to dig into my roots and tell the story. How many filmmakers get the chance to make ‘profiles in courage’ of family members they’re proudest of in the whole world?”
Examining Racial Socialization and Black Motherhood
As part of her dissertation, “#BlackMamasMatter: The Significance of Motherhood and Mothering for Low-Income Black Single Mothers,” Assistant Professor of Sociology Jennifer Turner documented the hopes and concerns these moms had for their children.
“It’s important that we talk about what it means to be Black in the United States and how that impacts Black mothers and Black motherhood,” Turner said.
Recent statistics demonstrate why Black mothers fear for their children. The journal Pediatrics reported in 2020 that Black children, especially those between the ages of 12 and 17, were six times more likely to be shot to death by police than white children.
In her research, Turner sought to learn more about how low-income Black single mothers talk to their children about race. “Racial socialization is a significant component of Black parenthood. Primarily, Black mothers are doing this work, and these conversations begin with their children at a young age. It’s talking with them about how to interact with police and also teaching them how to interact with educators and other authority figures in the hope that their children will not be subject to racist stereotypes and/or violence.”
According to Turner, previous studies of low-income Black single mothers have looked primarily at problems these women experience, how they view and navigate motherhood generally, and/or the resources upon which they draw. “So I focused on mothering from the perspective of low-income Black single mothers and what it means to them to be a mother. I also studied their parenting practices. I illustrated the work they do every day to negotiate their challenges to teach their children about issues they deem important.”
During 2017, Turner interviewed 21 mothers from Virginia who participate in, or had previously taken part in, Social Services benefit programs. These mothers often face increased scrutiny and are stigmatized for seeking out food stamps and other social welfare services.
“The mothers in my research often invoke ‘respectability politics’ when racially socializing their children, which is an attempt to counter negative stereotypes of Black people as poor, lazy, and uneducated by emphasizing middle class values of hard work, education, dressing tidily, using proper English, and respecting authority figures. This seems to be more about helping their children surpass their current class status and avoid becoming targets of racism, specifically racist state violence, and also to help them ultimately have a better life than what they currently have.”
Turner believes that this study “enhances our understanding of racial socialization by illuminating how race, class, and gender are interconnected in influencing low-income Black single mothers.” She is currently working with a Hollins student on a paper that spotlights the racial socialization of Black girls.
“Black girls and women face disproportionate threats of becoming victims of domestic or intimate partner violence, and threats of sexual assault at the hands of police officers. I’m interested in the role that racial gendered socialization can play in helping Black girls avoid or deal with these threats, and how Black mothers are talking to them.”
Finding Ways to Stop Tick-Borne Diseases
Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Elizabeth Gleim ’06 is a disease ecologist who is known by a lot of people who are familiar with her work as simply the “Tick Lady.”
“There are three main areas on which my research questions focus,” she explained. “The first is identifying ways to better control and prevent tick-borne diseases, especially in the human population but also in domestic animals. I also do a lot of work in vector and disease dynamics. The other piece is trying to better understand how humans are affecting tick-borne disease risk with their actions and behaviors, and then understanding environmental drivers of disease risk.”
Over the past 18 months, Gleim has focused on studying the impact of a process known as “prescribed fire” on the risk of tick-borne disease, which was published in the July 10, 2019, edition of Scientific Reports. For years, prescribed fire has been used to successfully manage forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other types of landscapes.
Gleim’s findings led her to consider whether prescribed fire could specifically reduce the risk of Lyme disease, which recently has become common everywhere in the Northeast and has begun to spread to other parts of the country.
“By 2017, the western region of Virginia was at the leading edge of what would probably be considered a Lyme endemic area with a distinct hotspot developing in Southwest Virginia,” Gleim said. She, Professor of Biology Morgan Wilson, and then-senior Ciera Morris ’19 set out to understand black-legged tick dynamics in the region, particularly in Southwest Virginia. Using some of the groundwork laid by Morris and Shravani Chitineni ’21, and in collaboration with Gleim, University of Richmond Professor Joey Brinkerhoff, and Hollins Professor of Biology Rebecca Beach, Leemu Jackson ’20 performed her senior honors thesis last year doing a genetic analysis to compare Roanoke-area black-legged tick populations to those elsewhere to verify whether migration was occurring.
“We discovered a really high genetic diversity here in the Roanoke area, more so than what we’re seeing in the eastern part of the state,” Gleim said. “This does not definitively prove that ticks are migrating into Virginia, but it certainly provides some evidence to support that hypothesis.”
Another factor that Gleim believes may be contributing to the prevalence of Lyme in the Roanoke Valley involves human dynamics. “In a lot of urban or suburbanized areas, people don’t spend a lot of time outside. But that’s simply not the case here. We have an outdoor-centered lifestyle, so there’s a large number of people who are spending a lot of time outdoors in an ideal tick habitat.”
The “Tick Lady” emphasizes there is still much work to be done. “Shravani picked up where Ciera and Leemu left off and worked on a Lyme simulation model with an ecological mathematician at Old Dominion University and myself. Down the line, we may begin to examine other tick species and pathogens in addition to further exploring questing, the behavior with which ticks get on animal or a human.”
Jeff Hodges is director of public relations.