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Ties that bond: Evolving Family theme project team spends busy year bringing people together

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A collegial family has grown at Cornell during the course of research and programs devoted to The Evolving Family, the 2004-07 theme project sponsored by the Institute for the Social Sciences (ISS).

"There are a huge number of people I'm enjoying interaction with," says project leader Elizabeth Peters, a Cornell professor of policy analysis and management. "This was a project designed to bring together people who have common interests but might not work together otherwise."

The project team spent its second year, 2005-06, in residence at the ISS in Myron Taylor Hall. Theme projects are based on interdisciplinary collaboration; participants come from diverse fields including anthropology, government, sociology, economics, policy analysis, psychology and human development.

"We're developing the kind of collaborations that hopefully will continue after the three years is over," Peters says.

So far, the project has produced a conference on marriage and workshops on interracial and interethnic marriage, intergenerational relations and biology and the family; several undergraduate and graduate-level courses, a film series, seminars and public lectures with faculty and visiting speakers.

"With the weekly seminar series, the question was, 'would anybody come?'" says David Harris, the Robert S. Harrison Executive Director of the ISS, professor of sociology and Cornell's vice provost for the social sciences. "You don't have a constituency like the economics or biology brown bag series. But about 25 people came to each seminar, and the key for me was it wasn't the same 25. There were some new faces at each one, and that's exactly what we wanted."

Peters found herself greeting that success at each event. "We had a lot of participation from different places all over campus," she says. "Every time, I had to do my introductory spiel on the project because there were always some new people in the crowd."

The eight-program film and discussion series also attracted diverse and engaged audiences, including many students, to Robert Purcell Auditorium, Alice Cook House and Carl Becker House. Participation at the events helped the ISS achieve "this goal of mine to enhance social sciences literacy," Harris says. "Different tools work with different constituencies. The big conference didn't draw undergraduates, but it did draw academics."

Related courses offered during 2005-06 were Economics of Family Policy, which Peters taught; Parenting and Child Development; Fatherhood, Marriage and Family Policy; Family in Asia Through Film; The Family in Asia; and Perspectives in Economics and Sociology.

The many guest speakers included author and researcher Stephanie Coontz on the history of marriage and Bruce Western of Princeton on incarceration, marriage and family life. A fatherhood conference, scheduled for Sept. 21-22, "will be a complement to the marriage conference," Peters says. Topics will include how fathers contribute to child development, the various ways fatherhood affects men, and the impact of incarceration on families.

A proposal also will be presented to the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development and its Demographic and Behavioral Sciences branch, to establish a population center for ongoing research at Cornell.

"I think you really saw this [Evolving Family] group gel into a community of scholars," Harris says. "At least for the next five years, if not longer, this three-year experience will have an effect on their research and on their teaching."

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