Faculty in Focus
by Elizabeth Renfro | Photography Beiron Andersson
California State University, Chico is fortunate in its faculty for many reasons, including how active they are in innovative research and beyond-the-classroom projects—and in the ways they share the excitement of intellectual exploration with students. As nutrition and food sciences professor Keiko Goto says, “Being a researcher is being an active learner, and I believe good teachers are good learners.”
The wide range of research interests pursued by our faculty—in this issue, food culture to aging, filmmaking to monsters to physical education reform—raises some interesting questions: Why do faculty members choose to delve into a particular area? What keeps them so enthusiastic about it? How do they share that passion with their students?
This article debuts Chico Statements’ ongoing exploration of the what, why, and how of Chico’s faculty research projects. And for future issues, we invite readers to send in their own memories of collaborating with CSU, Chico’s amazing professors.
A Monstrous Proposition
“Monsters do a great deal of cultural work,” explains medieval art historian Asa Mittman in his introduction to The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous. Those creatures of the human imagination give us cheap thrills, intrigue us, and, says Mittman, help us define ourselves—as well as others—and not necessarily in healthy ways. “When we study the monsters of the past,” he writes, “we study our own demons as well.”
While the subject may seem, well, offbeat for an academic (he was once warned by a senior colleague that he really had to “drop all this monster stuff and start doing real scholarship”), Mittman, an associate professor of art history at CSU, Chico, is one of a growing number of scholars across the globe researching and writing about a topic that has engaged human minds (and emotions) for thousands of years.
I’ve been interested in monsters since I was a kid. I grew up watching bad sci-fi on cable and reading fantasy novels by the shelf-full. I didn’t know as a child that what I now do is a job, or I might well have known from the time I was 10 that this would be what I’d do. When people ask me what I do, I say, “I study monsters.” It took me a while to find the right tone of voice to state this without sounding like I was joking, or like I was a cryptozoologist—someone who’s out there looking for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster (I’m not).
We have a hard time defining ourselves by simply looking inward. We know ourselves through comparisons with others. If I had never seen another living thing, I wouldn’t know what I was. We have so many good models for comparison—other people, animals of all types, plants, even inanimate objects—and yet these are not enough, and so we invent monsters. Monsters are beings called into existence expressly as objects with which we can compare ourselves. They are the ideal lens through which to understand cultures and individuals. Show me what a culture loathes and rejects, and I’ll tell you how it wants to see itself and how it longs to be seen.
What in your research gives you a thrill?
I love traveling to Europe to work with medieval manuscripts in the flesh—literally, in the flesh, since these are handmade books written on vellum, which is animal skin. Medieval manuscripts are nothing like modern printed books. They were entirely handmade and highly varied, individual things. The pages wave and wrinkle. The handwritings vary among and within manuscripts. Even the grime along the edges of the margins is compelling, since it is the residue of hundreds of hands over a thousand years. Some manuscripts I’ve handled were written by saints for archbishops, or owned by kings and queens. Books were quite rare prior to the printing press, so they were all objects of extraordinary luxury, even the smallest, scrappiest manuscripts.
It is high time that the humanities gave up the model of the lonely scholar, toiling in isolation (perhaps in a garret apartment, writing long into the night with a glass of absinthe at his elbow). The majority of my scholarship—and that which I most enjoy and value—is collaborative. My primary collaborator recently has been Susan Kim, associate professor of English literature at Illinois State University. We have completed six articles and a book (Inconceivable Beasts) and are working on our second book. With our different disciplinary backgrounds, our collaboration has the added advantage of encouraging—sometimes forcing—us both to deepen and broaden our own perspectives.
Monsters in the classroom?
I try to bring my monsters and other elements of my research into as many of my classes as I can, which is not too hard, since they appear in all media, in all time periods, in all types of art and architecture. In my medieval art courses, I spend a few weeks dealing with representations of monsters and other “others”—Jews, Muslims, and women—who were all perceived by the dominant patriarchal male Christian culture, at least at times, as monstrous or not quite human. I also work monsters into my Roman art and Greek art courses, as their mythologies are replete with wonderful monsters from the three-headed hellhound Cerberus to the snake-haired gorgon Medusa.
Once you start looking for them, you’ll find them everywhere.
Do you have a secret ambition?
I would love to write novels. I certainly know plenty of good monster stories that could form a basis for some urban fantasy fiction.
Preparing for the Silver Tsunami
Since 1986, well before the first wave of the “Silver Tsunami” (the aging workforce) began hitting our shores, social work professor Jean Schuldberg has been focusing on the needs of aging baby boomers. Schuldberg’s efforts have ranged from fieldwork to statewide initiatives, teaching to university program development, including cofounding CSU, Chico’s Interdisciplinary Center on Aging and directing CSU, Chico’s Master of Social Work (MSW) program. “Open-minded, approachable, and passionate,” according to MSW student Rachel Gonzalez (BA, Social Work, ’12), Schuldberg is particularly committed to cultural awareness and sensitivity training for social workers.
Why gerontological social work?
I was honored to care for my mother and father as they aged and when they required hospice services. Beyond the personal is the fact that the U.S. population of older adults is growing rapidly as baby boomers reach their 65th birthdays. In 2000, 12.5 percent of the U.S. population was 65 years or older. In 2015, the U.S. Census predicts those Silver Tsunami numbers will rise to 25 percent of the population, and by 2020, there will be 54 million (a 19 million increase!). Gerontology is also an important focus for our campus. We have more older adults in our region (some areas up to 30 percent of the local population) compared with California as a whole.
I believe in autonomy and self-determination; in my social work practice and personal life, I strive to educate students and the public about resources and supports that may help older adults maintain maximum independence. Too often, for example, we believe the myth that depression is a natural part of aging. We need social work and health care professionals who are knowledgeable about the mental health needs of older adults. I am the current coordinator of our MSW Mental Health Stipend Program, which helps students going into this field.
What do you find especially exciting about this work—for yourself and for students?
This year, I was appointed by Governor Brown to the California Commission on Aging. This is an exciting advocacy position at the state level. We meet four times yearly to review and advise regarding state and federal legislation and regulations that impact older adults. I am honored to represent our region and serve on a commission whose focus is to evaluate issues that may impact older adults to, as the commission’s website states, “ensure a quality of life for older Californians so they may live with dignity in their chosen environment.”
With this Silver Tsunami, knowledgeable professionals in all disciplines are greatly needed—70,000 more social workers trained in gerontology will be needed by 2030. The opportunities are endless. It is sometimes difficult to choose which endeavor to pursue—a grant, program development, research study. It is an exciting time to train social workers!
Do you have a secret ambition?
To teach in the social work program at the National University of Rwanda and help develop an MSW program there. It would be an amazing experience because social work there is very grassroots and community based.
Linking Food Culture and Health
As a child in Japan, Keiko Goto was an accomplished pianist. At 14, however, she turned down a music school scholarship and found another passion: world hunger. Today this 2012–2013 Outstanding Professor’s focus is health and food culture: what we eat, how we eat it, and why. As assistant director of research and evaluation at CSU, Chico’s Center for Nutrition and Activity Promotion (CNAP), Goto revels in opportunities to engage both community members and her students in participatory action research.
Why study food culture?
Prior to coming to Chico, I lived in different countries such as Guatemala, Indonesia, Jamaica, Tanzania, and of course, Japan. I am very passionate about exploring roles of food cultures in healthy eating. Food culture is not only what people eat but also how they eat it. For example, Hmong food culture is representative of their healthful lifestyle, self-identity, and social support. Some traditional dietary habits, such as mindful eating in Japan or commensality (eating together) and appreciation of fresh products among both Hmong and Latino groups are now considered potentially beneficial for weight management in this country.
What do you find most exciting about your work?
Here in the United States, we are culturally diverse, and we have a great opportunity to learn from each other. At CNAP, I get to design and evaluate innovative nutrition intervention projects in collaboration with other faculty, staff, and students. It is great to see the connection between research and practice in our projects, as in the Harvest of the Month program, which focused on school cafeteria food selection and consumption among low-income elementary school students. Components of the program were developed collaboratively by the California Department of Public Health and a group of us at CNAP.
How are teaching and research related in your work?
My doctoral advisors at Cornell spent so much time and energy on my academic training; I would like to give back. Research mentoring and teaching also often give me new ideas and allow me to look at topics differently. In one graduate-level international nutrition class, a student asked about the link between traditional food culture preservation and sustainable food systems in developing countries. I did not have a clear answer for her, and it made me think. This is a new, important research area. Students and I also publish articles based on their graduate and undergraduate (honors) research, often with the students as primary authors.
I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with amazing graduate and undergraduate students from different cultural backgrounds. When I started working at CSU, Chico in 2006, I got to work with a Hmong student. She is brilliant and caring, and I admire her. I thought she was a once-in-a-lifetime student, but since then I keep getting more amazing students like her.
Do you have a secret ambition?
I love the energy and joy that music brings to our lives. Music is for everybody! My secret ambition is to form a band in the near future.
When Passion and Compassion Collide
What do a school in Harlem, a PE reformer, a filmmaker, and rapper Jay Z have in common—and what’s their Chico State connection? In the latest and most ambitious of their collaborative efforts, married professors Cathrine Himberg, Kinesiology, and John Roussell, Communication Design, along with 14 CSU, Chico students and alums, have spent the past several years revitalizing the physical education program at Children’s Storefront School in Harlem and documenting the process in a soon-to-be-released film, No Excuses! And Jay Z? Read on …
Why do you do the work you do?
John: The ability to collaborate on projects with other disciplines has been a core part of my research. I’ve always seen my projects as a way to take my years as a professional television anchor, journalist, and producer and apply them in academic settings, to help connect people’s passions to those they have compassion for. Documentary filmmaking is an excellent way of championing the efforts of those featured.
Cathrine: I really enjoy doing projects that I feel make a difference. Unfortunately, there are still teachers out there “rolling out the ball,” practically babysitting kids and calling it physical education. Parents and administrators need to know what physical education is supposed to provide for our kids. It’s also very inspiring to work with John and the students and alumni we bring into our projects.
John: The field of communication is constantly changing. The need to be either a participant in, or witness to, those changes, is a necessary part of being an educator. In the process of working on our project, I got an opportunity to be involved in the production of Jay Z’s music video Picasso Baby.* I got to witness firsthand the reliance on social media marketing and have been able to include similar efforts in promoting No Excuses! as well as incorporate my experiences into teaching.
What makes the Harlem school project especially exciting?
Cathrine: The Children’s Storefront School offered us a challenge. We wanted to show that if we could deliver a quality PE program in an inner-city school where the blocked-off street is the playground, and the “gym” is a very small multipurpose room with large posts in the middle of the floor, then you can do it anywhere. Our project also involved aspects of a comprehensive school wellness program, including “brain-breaks” during academic subjects at least every 20–30 minutes. Research shows that brief physical activity primes the brain’s neurotransmitters for learning, and that a quality physical education program improves students’ ability to pay attention, focus, and stay motivated—and will actually make learning stick.
John: No Excuses! is a project that has everything necessary for a fascinating story: a documented need for the continued support of quality physical education, personified and demonstrated as my wife shares with the audience her passion and compassion for change. The project was also ideal to showcase in a documentary because it’s a story that involves a parallel storytelling technique. It focuses on the day-to-day efforts of teachers, staff, and students at the Harlem school while at the same time highlighting teachers’ and administrators’ efforts and successes in providing quality physical education nationwide. The location itself allowed us an opportunity to show the hope associated with the beginning of each school day as students make conscious choices for future success, while at the same time confronting significant challenges made worse by years of societal neglect.
Cathrine: Another challenge in this type of action research is dealing with real children and teachers in real schools. Almost 100 percent of the students at Children’s Storefront are Title 1, and the school receives no public funds except for “commodities” for the breakfast and lunch program. In the project, we work with their schedules, on their turf, and within their rules. So nothing is “out of the ordinary.”
How do students benefit from your projects?
Cathrine: John and I both involve our students in every project. That’s the best part of our jobs. We have constant access to inspired, capable, passionate young men and women who want to make a difference in this world. We are both aware of how awesome that is! And it makes a difference both in the field and in the classroom. My students—future PE teachers—got to teach classes at the Children’s Storefront, while John’s students filmed them and worked on other production tasks. The real-life experiences make my course content come alive with examples of how to overcome challenges in the real world. Our students eat that stuff up!
John: We’ve both always been about providing learning experiences that come from real-world applications of knowledge, providing students with meaningful connections with those professionals who put that knowledge into practice. I believe it is my role to provide as rich a learning experience as possible. Learning environments focusing primarily on knowledge acquisition but lacking practical experiences often lead to an imbalance of learning, rich in the “whats” while woefully void of the “whys” and “hows.” Our students’ opportunities to help those less fortunate than them is, I believe, the center of a rich Chico State experience.
Do you have any secret ambitions?
Cathrine: I have no secret ambitions—I feel like I’ve won the lottery when it comes to careers!
John: To spend the rest of my days with Cathrine, living, learning, and teaching life, together. However, I’ve never been too secretive about that ambition.
*Roussell even made the video’s final cut—find more information on his role here: http://globalgrind.com/2013/08/06/34-people-you-should-know-from-jay-zs-picasso-baby-video/. Scroll down to fourth item from the bottom to find Roussell.