Dec. 18, 2015

College Scholars' research: circus arts to inequality

Han on trapeze
Chris Kitchen/University Photography
Kasey Han, a student in the College Scholar Program, trains at Circus Ithaca as part of her interdisciplinary major in developmental circus arts.
Hex at computer
Jason Koski/University Photography
Severine Hex, a sophomore in the College Scholar Program, in the lab where she studies non-human communication.
Hodges in front of McGraw
Chris Kitchen/University Photography
Conor Hodges, a student in the College Scholar Program, studying inequality studies.

As a pre-med student, Kasey Han ’18 knows the mental and physical benefits of a good workout. Han’s favorite workouts are a bit out of the ordinary, though, as they usually take place three stories up in the air.

Han has been a fan of the circus since she tried the flying trapeze as a middle-schooler during a family vacation. She’s kept up her craft and teaches children at Circus Culture in downtown Ithaca.

Wanting a way to combine this passion with her studies, Han was recently admitted into the College Scholar Program in the College of Arts and Sciences, which allows students to combine interest areas to create an interdisciplinary major.

Han’s research proposal will involve classes in biology, psychology and performing and media arts, among other departments. “Circus arts help people to center their energy and attention on something … [and offers] therapeutic benefits: fitness, coordination, trust, self-confidence, community and creativity,” Han said.

Han plans to work with Circus Culture to create a student service club to bring circus arts to local people with disabilities and study its efficacy. She hopes circus arts becomes a widely accepted therapy to treat various physical and emotional issues.

Anne Birien, advising dean in the College of Arts and Sciences and College Scholar program adviser, said the new group of 14 College Scholars is cohesive and involved in a number of projects on campus and in the community. “The individual projects the students proposed are very ambitious and already bear the mark of a sophisticated understanding of different academic disciplines,” she said, “as well as a good intuition about what each of those can be expected to contribute to their thinking.”

For Severine Hex ’18, the road to a College Scholar proposal began during her childhood in Idaho, where she spent most days outside, observing and communicating with animals.

“I would wake up and eat and then I would be gone all day,” she said. “There weren’t fences; it was all woods. I would explore, make up stories and spend the days catching blue-bellied lizards. I learned how to perfectly imitate the sound of an elk calling to her baby when they were separated so I could summon elk.”

These experiences helped cement her belief that humans aren’t inherently different or “better than” animals, she said, and led to a desire to help others connect on a deeper level to animals for conservation and protection.

Hex’s research will focus on animal communication, an area she said has been limited by a focus on animals having human-like communication. “

People expect that if animals have language it would be like human language, but I don’t see how that makes sense,” Hex said. “A lot of language research in non-human animals is looking for recursiveness, word recognition, the ability to use syntax – some of the many things assumed necessary for language. These studies test for human language, not the languages that these species may use naturalistically.”

Hex’s plan of study includes courses in the departments of neurobiology and behavior, psychology, computer science, sociology and philosophy, among others. She’ll be working with adviser Michael Goldstein, associate professor of psychology, in his Behavioral Analysis of Beginning Years lab, focusing on bird calls.

Conor Hodges ’18, who is focusing on inequality studies, said his experience at Cornell helped him to reflect on his upbringing as the child of a single mom who worked selling jewelry to wealthy clients.

“I started to critically engage with topics, wondering why we still fund certain programs with property taxes, what’s going on with the exploitative relationship between suburbs and urban spaces, about cultural capital and the role that plays in educational success for children, whether their parents feel comfortable going in and advocating for their child,” he said.

He found these topics fascinating for the role they played in his life, but didn’t find one particular major that would allow him to combine his interests. His courses would include the departments of government, history, philosophy, Africana studies and the Center for Inequality Studies, among others.

He’s studied governmental and nongovernmental approaches that focus on inequality and poverty, as well as challenges to the welfare state such as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s “The Bell Curve.”

“I think the public perception of the deservedness of people at the bottom end of the socioeconomic spectrum is the most pressing issue in terms of addressing inequality,” Hodges said. “Especially in this country, there’s this perception that economic might makes right or that your success must inevitably and exclusively flow from your own hard work. It’s how you’re favored by this new sort of religion of the market that we have now.”

Hodges said he’d like to continue his education after Cornell so he can help address issues that he feels passionate about.

Karen Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.