The Next Big Thing
This is an article from the Fall 2014 issue of LSA Magazine. To read more stories like this, click here.
Read the Signs
Type “the future” into Google image search and you’ll see two kinds of pictures. The first is a futuristic cityscape filled with angular, gleaming buildings, the kind you might see in Minority Report or The Jetsons, suggesting a world filled with robot butlers and holographic board meetings. The second is a green road sign that says “THE FUTURE—JUST AHEAD!” The latter paints the future as a down-homey kind of place, one filled with people just like you and me.
Now type in "the future" using a different language, and the way ahead looks totally different. In Spanish, “el futuro” gets sleek-looking cars and people holding globes in the palms of their hands. In German, “zukunft” gets sunrises and skywriting. Cameron Gibelyou (M.S. ’09, Ph.D. ’12) — the teaching, programming, and innovation coordinator for LSA — notes that differences in language, culture, and discipline all affect what we think is going to happen next. He teaches a class on predicting the future that examines the topic from the perspectives of both the natural sciences and the humanities, diving deep into past predictions and laying out the history of the future.
Of course, many forecasts turn out to be spectacularly wrong. Whether it’s a utopian vision of cheap energy and faster-than-light travel or a dystopian nightmare of global food shortages and nuclear annihilation, predictions tend to paint the future as a place where everything is either awesome or awful.
“One of the things that I noted when I was developing the course, and that students noted in class, is this tendency to describe either highly positive or highly negative scenarios,” Gibelyou says. “Very rarely do you see predictions about the future that place us somewhere in the middle of the road, but that’s usually where we end up.”
Surprisingly, cataloging a parade of incorrect prophecies doesn’t leave students disillusioned, Gibelyou says. It often makes them feel like they are more in control of their lives.
Student Michaela Taylor, who took the class, wrote in a blog post: “I no longer see [the future] as a ‘truth’ that has been predetermined, but rather something we have the ability to change . . . Uncertainty is the true nature of the future, and with uncertainty there is agency, which to me makes the future more exciting.
Run the Numbers
In some communities, even if you're not in prison, prison is all around you.
"In Saginaw, your options are limited," says David McMillon (’12, M.S. ’14). “You’re kind of imprisoned mentally, because that’s all you see. That’s life.” McMillon grew up watching the prison system in Saginaw, Michigan, swallow some of his close relatives and friends. When McMillon was 12 years old, his cousin was shot and killed. Experiencing the effects of violent crime and incarceration made him realize that he had a personal stake in improving the situation for himself and others. He grew determined to use research to make a positive impact on the problems that frustrated him.
As an undergraduate in LSA, McMillon was a Douglass Houghton Scholar who majored in math and minored in complex systems; he recently earned a dual master’s degree in math and industrial and operations engineering at U-M. With help from LSA’s Center for the Study of Complex Systems, McMillon has taken a holistic view of the social issues surrounding incarceration. Instead of simply lamenting a broken system, McMillon asks, “What do we mean by ‘system’? Can we map it out? How does it actually work? And if we understand that, how do we optimally deal with it?”
Collaborating with Professor Carl Simon (mathematics, public policy, and complex systems) and Professor Jeff Morenoff (sociology), McMillon built a mathematical model of criminal activity and incarceration based on existing models of the spread of disease. He used the model to figure out “the knobs that can be turned in this complex system,” as he puts it, and “how we need to tune those parameters to decrease crime in the long run.”
He found that throwing more people in prison paradoxically can lead to more crime. To ensure lower crime rates, the more effective strategy is to create policies and interventions that reduce the likelihood of people committing crime in the first place, like devoting resources to early education and keeping kids in school—which means that just like with diseases, prevention is the best cure.
The more ambitious goal, which McMillon says he plans to tackle next, is to figure out how to minimize crime and incarceration with real-world budgets in mind, so he can help change life for people in places like Saginaw.
“I feel that the research I’m doing is much bigger than myself,” McMillon says. “I have a real sense of urgency. For that reason, I try to make some progress on it every day.”
Start the Conversation
In 2008, Shaka Senghor met Ashley Lucas at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility. Senghor was serving the seventeenth year of a murder sentence. Lucas, an associate professor in LSA’s Residential College and the director of the Prison Creative Arts Program (PCAP), was conducting research on a theater workshop in which Senghor was participating.
Two things brought the pair together: the theater work, which both had found powerful and transformative, and the landscape of prison itself, where Senghor had spent almost two decades and where Lucas had been visiting her incarcerated father for almost as long.
“Shaka and I connected,” Lucas explains, “to tell the stories that mattered to us.”
While there are 2.4 million people currently imprisoned in the United States, millions more have been affected by violent crime. Senghor believes that conversations between incarcerated people and crime victims about forgiveness, atonement, and reconciliation can bridge these groups, helping people with a troubled past use the arts to reimagine a future they thought they had already forfeited. As a result, he created the Atonement Project, an initiative he designed to help victims and violent offenders heal through the power of the arts. PCAP was a natural partner.
Founded in 1990 by English Professor Buzz Alexander, PCAP has grown into the largest program of its kind in the country, linking college students and prisoners through art and workshops. Atonement Project workshops teach LSA students to help prisoners create art to start a very challenging dialogue.
“Art makes conversations that are normally difficult easier to digest,” Senghor says. “It makes these painful subjects easier to think about on their own without contentiousness.”
“The situations that bring us here are not black and white,” agrees Lucas. “It’s not good people here, bad people there. Prisons hide the human and beautiful parts of the people inside them.
“When we tell these stories in highly beautiful language and images, we see ourselves as part of the struggle without implicating everyone,” Lucas continues. “Seeing art or a performance by formerly incarcerated people exposes the connection. It gives you a way to have that conversation in an expansive and meaningful way.”
Shape the Present
One piece of advice? Don’t get sick on game night.
On football weekends in Ann Arbor, emergency-room visits skyrocket. The numbers jump further during night games and even higher during night games against a major rival like Notre Dame. With every ambulance in southeastern Michigan allocated to bringing game-day partiers to the hospital, other towns are forced to go without some emergency services. Philip Deloria, the Caroll Smith-Rosenberg Collegiate Professor of History and American Culture, presented this information to students alongside Professor Jeffrey Desmond from the Department of Emergency Medicine and Mary Jo Desprez, the director of U-M’s Wolverine Wellness program.
“The question is, what if your grandfather living in Jackson had a heart attack during a football game?” Deloria asks. “What if he died because there was no ambulance for him?” Deloria notes, “That was a little bit of a wake-up call for students.”
Deloria asked participants in his Critical Issues in Health Care class — co-taught with Raymond T. Perring Family Professor of Business Administration William S. Lovejoy — to not only think about the consequences of their collective actions, but also to brainstorm solutions to the problem of student drinking. This was how each class went: A problem was posed, students split into groups to figure out a solution, and then students spent the first hour of the following class presenting their ideas. The response that instructors received from students was staggering.
“What Bill [Lovejoy] and I found in that class was that when we asked for two-page group write-ups, what we got were five- and six-page write-ups that had more research than we had asked for,” Deloria says. “We found a very engaged class.”
This fall, the college will use the same model to teach four 1-credit classes on health care, higher education, energy, and Detroit. By stressing the interactive element of the course, Deloria says, the class has tapped into students’ desires to do more with their education.
“Students have always had social engagements,” Deloria says. “Think of the ‘Port Huron Statement,’ for example, and the long history of Michigan students working for social change.
“What I think might be new today is the sense that concern for social problems in the world no longer has to be at the level of this big organization or that grassroots movement; it can be a series of things that look like start-ups, nonprofits, or nongovernmental organizations. Rather than saying, ‘I’m going to fight for this because I believe in it,’ students are thinking that this might be an interesting idea around which to imagine and organize lives and careers.”
The curricula for all of the classes were created in collaboration between faculty and students as part of optiMize, an undergraduate organization dedicated to encouraging students to address real-world problems through social innovation. Following the seven-week course, students are encouraged to participate in optiMize’s Social Innovation Challenge, which gives students instruction on how to create and sustain a startup company or nonprofit organization that addresses specific social issues like financial literacy and urban farming. The challenge awards cash prizes of up to $5,000 for the most promising groups.
“What optiMize held for us at the College of LSA was the promise of thinking about creativity and innovation around social problems in relation to our curriculum,” Deloria says. “And that’s the bread and butter of a liberal arts college. We don’t address a problem by thinking about building something, as might be the case with our colleagues in Engineering. We’re not as focused on ‘business’ as students from the Ross School. Our students see the world in an informed and critical way, get leverage on the present, and then figure out where we as a society go from here.”
Shift the Culture
Anyone sitting at one of Ann Arbor’s numerous bars could tell you: Prohibition failed.
“The fact was that most Americans [in the 1920s] drank, and most Americans were going to continue to drink,” explains Gregg Crane, a professor of English who also directs LSA’s Program in the Environment. Because drinking was culturally sanctioned but illegal, breaking the law became hip. Popular novels by authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett, and Sinclair Lewis affirmed America’s romance with liquor, and gin sippers continued making stealthy visits to blind pigs.
“What Congress did was create a law that people were going to rampantly disobey, which is really, really bad for a legal system,” says Crane.
“Law cannot lead culture,” he continues. “But if you shift the culture, you can shift the law.”
Confirming a clear link between cultural artifacts and legislative change can be tough, but in some cases, art has led directly to new legislation. When Thomas Moran’s paintings of the Grand Canyon were shown to Congress in the early 1870s, the epic beauty of his representations helped inspire Congress to create the first national park at Yellowstone.
In the early 1900s, Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a novel about the seamy underbelly of the Chicago meatpacking industry. “You’re kind of mesmerized by the horror of it,” says Crane, “and the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed to some extent as a result of The Jungle’s influence.” The lurid details of the book contributed powerfully to a public interest in knowing what packaged food really contained, even if it was rat tails.
In 1971, The Autobiography of Malcolm X convinced Associate Justice John Harlan of the Supreme Court that Muhammad Ali’s religious objection to the Vietnam War had a sincere basis in his Muslim faith. The book “pushed a button with a lawmaker,” Crane says, sparing Ali a prison sentence for refusing the draft.
For Crane, who practiced law before joining the U-M faculty, global climate change may need a cultural masterpiece to be convincing in the same way that The Jungle made the case for federal food inspections.
“There’s a much greater scientific consensus on climate change than there was on the harmful effects of tobacco use in the 1960s,” ventures Crane as an example. “Yet we turned on tobacco readily, compared to the way we’re reacting to the science on climate change.”
One of the problems is that the discourse about climate change has become “entrenched with identity politics,” says Professor Sol Hart, which creates a serious challenge. Hart analyzes media coverage of climate change as a professor in LSA’s Department of Communication Studies; he also teaches in the Program in the Environment.
“Telling people to change how they think about climate change is asking them to question their core beliefs,” Hart says.
But he sees opportunities in highlighting actions and policies that “resonate along a broad ideological spectrum.” Even subtle cues can make a big difference. Hart has found that people respond differently to a threat described as “1 in 10” rather than “10 percent,” even if the numbers reflect the exact same risk, stressing that the way we talk about the solutions to tough problems can be just as important as the solutions themselves.
Hart also notes the importance of connecting the threat of climate change with potential solutions, and says that many options to address climate change offer tangible benefits beyond climate change itself. For example, cutting coal emissions can reduce respiratory diseases and prevent premature deaths. Increasing energy efficiency in homes can make a welcome dent in utility bills.
So, if powerful communication can catalyze change, as Hart and Crane attest, then lawmakers—along with activists, artists, citizens, and politicians—all ignore cultural currents at the risk of major legislative blunders.
Just ask the prohibitionists.
Illustrations by Erin Nelson