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Letters From the Dean

Check back here every Sunday for Dean Rifkin’s timely message to the School of Humanities and Social Sciences!


This Week –  February 22, 2015

Dear Students: 

As a species, we are storytellers.  Bees inform one another about where the nectar is, but they don’t tell stories about the adventures they have in flying to that field of clover.  Dogs dance and wrestle, but they don’t tell stories about the dumb things their people do. (And boy, are there stories to tell in that category!) Storytelling is both distinctly and universally human – and it reaches back to those drawings on the walls of caves.  

In more recent times, we tell those stories in the written word, in images, and in film, which can combine spoken word (and written word), music and other sound, and moving images.  The Russian filmmaker, Lev Kuleshov, did a famous experiment in which he took some footage of a woman sitting expressionlessly still and showed that film sequence surrounded by other sequences, such as a girl in a coffin or a bowl of soup. Viewers, asked afterwards, created a story in which the actress’s expression was read to be hunger (soup) or sadness (girl in the coffin).  In other words, even when no narrative exists, we (human beings) will create one because it’s the way we make meaning in the world.

We create narrative from the world around us every day and we create and re-create our own stories about ourselves every day.  Some of the stories are utterly true, some are based on fact, and some are myths we tell ourselves – about ourselves, about our families, about our communities, our country, and the world.  What is the true meaning of what happened on the day when Columbus set foot in what Europeans called “The New World”?  And what is the story we tell about that event?  I am pretty sure these two stories are very different.

Every HSS course helps you learn new ways to understand and tell the stories of the world, through a lens of gender or race or political science, psychology, sociology, or image or symbol.  It’s interesting that some of the truest stories we know are fiction or fictionalized (works of literature or film that have a profound impact on our hearts and minds).  What are the stories you deem important – about yourself, your loved ones, your community, this campus, our country, or the world?  How are these stories constructed?  How might others view those stories?  How might you change how you tell your own “story”?  Furthermore, in your story, are you a character who “acts” or one “who is acted upon”?

Tonight is the annual Oscars Ceremony, when awards are presented for the best achievements in the American film industry, an industry focused on telling stories some of which come to define us as a culture. 

For me, certainly, there is one film from 2014, among many others, that is particularly striking.

The film is Whiplash, nominated for best picture, best performance by an actor in a supporting role, best writing for an adapted screenplay, best achievement in film editing, and best achievement in sound mixing. It’s a remarkable film, for sure:  it tells the story of a young drummer at a very competitive conservatory and his relationship with a very special instructor.  This is a film from our family, as it were, because Damien Chazelle, the film’s director and screenplay writer, is the son of Dr. Celia Chazelle, Professor of History at TCNJ.  Moreover, the director consulted with our own Dr. Rosa about some academic matters as background for the film:  she’s listed in the acknowledgements in the film and now has her own listing at!  (You can read more about this story here:  So, perhaps we’ll see flashes of blue and gold on that red carpet!  If you haven’t seen this film, I urge you to do so.  It’s most certainly a story that will resonate in your heart.

Lastly, I want to call your attention to the lecture by Dr. Ogletree on Wed. This is an amazing opportunity: don’t miss it!  You will learn new ways to think about how race is a factor in the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we hear all around us.


Your friendly neighborhood dean, 




Congratulations to Laurence Hochman who, during a study abroad program in Alcala, won a grant to attend a seminar at the European Union for 5 days in Brussels on activism, lobbying, and political and social issues in the EU.  He met Ministers for the European Parliament, lobbyists, and experts on a range of issues and enjoyed deep discussions with them and other attendees as well as fascinating presentations.

Congratulations to Jessica Gorham and Pauleena Pal, both psychology majors on teams named as semi-finalists in the annual Mayo Business Plan Competition sponsored by the School of Business.  Jessica is on Team “ProjectSpotter” and Pauleena is on Team “Tikka Roll”.  Good luck to both teams as the competition continues!

Congratulations to English alumna Samantha Zimbler, now working for Oxford Press, on the publication of her blog in commemoration of World Day of Social Justice, about her experience teaching in a prison while a student at TCNJ.  You can read her comments here:

Congratulations to Niriksha Kannan, who’s having a great time at TCNJ’s program in Washington, DC at The Washington Center.  You can read about her work in the Global Giving program here: (Scroll down to the next to last entry).  (You can learn more about TCNJ’s program in Washington, DC through our Center for Global Engagement in 111 Green Hall or at



Thinking about doing research or an internship abroad? All HSS majors are eligible to apply for the Roebling award to support research or creative work, service or an internship done abroad. It can be part of study abroad or a stand-alone experience, and can help pay for airfare and other project-related expenses! See for more information. Deadline to apply: April 1.



Tues., Feb. 24     Politics Forum:  Dr. Thomas Healy speaking about his award-winning book on Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and the story behind Abrams vs. United States, at 12:30 in Education 115.  Healy and this book have won numerous awards: the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award, the NJ Council for the Humanities Book Award.  His book was selected as a NY Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and as one of the best nonfiction books of 2013 by The Christian Science Monitor and several other organizations. For more Politics Forum events, see

Wed., Feb. 25      Man vs. Nature: Improving Coastal Resilience in the Aftermath of Sandy, from 11 to 11:50 in Mayo Concert Hall

Wed., Feb. 25      Johnson & Johnson Day:  Come talk with representatives of J&J about job opportunities and internships from 10 am to 2 pm in the Student Center

Wed., Feb. 25      Dr. Charles J. Ogletree, the Founding and Executive Director of Harvard Law School’s new Charles Hamiton Houston Institute for Race and Justice and author of The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louise Gates, Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America, will give a lecture on the topic “Does Race Matter?” at 1 pm in Education 212.  

Wed., Feb. 25      Study Abroad 101 Info Session at 2 pm in Social Science 130

Wed., Feb. 25      Study Abroad 401 Info Session (Coming Home) at 2:30 pm in Social Science 130

Wed., Feb. 25      Sociology Film Series on African Women from 4-6 pm in Social Science 226, hosted by Dr. Ismail (Sociology) with pizza afterwards.  

Thurs., Feb. 26    Summer Study Abroad Info Session for Madrid Program at 5 pm in Bliss Annex 234.

Thurs., Feb. 26    International Film Festival:  The Women on the 6th Floor (in French, with English subtitles), at 7:30 pm in the Library Auditorium 

Fri., Feb. 27         Lecture by Dr. Lewis Gordon, Professor of Philosophy and African American Studies at the University of Connecticut, “Afro-Jewish Ethics,” at 12:30 in Education 115.  This event is co-sponsored by TCNJ Hillel, The Black Student Union, African-American Studies, Philosophy, Religion & Classical Studies, and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. 

Fri., Feb. 27         TCNJ’s Spring Career and Internship Fair from 9 am to 1 pm in the Rec Center, featuring employers from the business sector (e.g., Allstate, Bank of America, Epic, NJ 101.5FM-Townsquare Media, PLS Logistics Services, and UPS), non-profit sector (e.g., Alternatives, Inc., CISaboad, City Year, eTS, Teach for America, and Womanspace) and the government sector (e.g., Delaware State Police, IRS Criminal Investigation Division, NJ Judiciary, NJ State Parole Board, US Air Force, US Drug Enforcement Administration, US Federal Air Marshals).  Even if you’re not looking for a job now, you should come and talk with these representatives to help you clarify your own plans for the day when you will be looking for a job!  And you can get a photo for your LinkedIn account at the Fair!

Sat., Feb. 28      All College Theater’s annual production of an evening of shorts in the Don Evans Blackbox Theater at 2 pm and 8 pm, students with TCNJ id – free (get your ticket at the BSC Box Office or at the door); others $5 at the BSC Box Office or at the door.  Listing of which shorts are being presented can be found in the all-college calendar.

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