Whitman College’s second annual Global Studies symposium, built around the theme of “Contagion,” brought together an interdisciplinary panel of experts for an exploration of disease emergence that also included Whitman professors and students.  “It could not have been better,” said Priscilla Wald recently, a symposium speaker and Duke University professor.

“I was deeply impressed by every aspect … I thought both the student and faculty respondents offered exceptionally intelligent, well prepared and provocative responses,” said Wald, a professor of English and women’s studies and the author of “Contagious: Cultures, Carriers and the Outbreak Narrative.”

Wald’s recent work focuses on the intersection of medicine and myth in contemporary stories about the global health problem of emerging diseases, and emphasizes the importance of addressing the problem not only in scientific and medical terms, but also in “in social, economic, political and environmental” terms.

“I thought the symposium was a smashing success,” said event organizer Shampa Biswas, associate professor of politics and outgoing director of the college’s Global Studies Initiative. “I learned a lot about a topic far from my area of expertise, and learned about it from many different angles and perspectives, which is precisely one of the joys of teaching and working at a liberal arts college.”

In addition to Wald, there were two other guest panelists: Andrew Lakoff, associate professor of anthropology, communication and sociology, University of Southern California, whose talk was titled “Epidemic Intelligence: The Genealogy of Global Health Security;” and Stephen Morse, professor of clinical epidemiology and founding director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, whose talk was titled “Bio Terror: The Globalization of Infectious Diseases.”

Moderator of the event, Bruce Magnusson, associate professor of politics and a member of the Global Studies Initiative Steering Committee, shared why this topic was due some intensive intellectual exploration.

"The notion of ‘contagion’ has been applied to everything from influenza viruses to financial crises to terrorism,” he said. “What explains the power of this metaphor to describe, among other things, threats to personal, national, and international security?

“How does our reliance on this model of thinking about threats produce particular kinds of strategies for eradicating, containing, and immunizing individuals and populations from them?

The symposium brought together scholars from very different disciplines —
epidemiology, anthropology and communications, and literature — to discuss those issues.

Whitman faculty respondents, who provided general thematic comments about the panel as a whole, were Alberto Galindo, assistant professor of foreign languages and literatures (Spanish), and Jason Pribilisky, associate professor of anthropology. Student respondents were DeeDee McCormick ’10, a pre-med and Latin American Studies major; Nicole West ’10, a biology major; and Seth Bergeson ’10, a history major.
“The symposium was thought-provoking and created a fantastic interdisciplinary dialogue with good friction,” Bergeson said.

He said the lectures “stacked nicely together, giving depth and complexity to the topic of Contagion. It was fascinating to see how ‘Contagion’ bleeds over beyond physical diseases … and its implications for relations between the developed and underdeveloped world.”

The symposium was the most recent event put on as part of the college’s Global Studies Initiative that was funded by a three-year $345,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant. The Whitman faculty developed a plan for the initiative and then launched it in 2009. Its aim is to support faculty development and development of courses that address, in this era of rapid globalization, the historical and contemporary interconnections, knowledge of which will help students — future humanitarians, teachers, diplomats and business people — interact effectively and meaningfully with people from all corners of the world.

Click here to see the symposium agenda and full list of speakers.