Critical Engagements Annual Theme, 2020–2021

We intend this year’s theme to be at least as broad (and ambitious) as it sounds on a first encounter. It’s a question people have been asking for a long time, even as recent developments in science and technology have brought it into sharper relief. From artificial intelligence to CRISPR, from ancient hominids mating with humans to modern monkey-human hybrids, from the mechanization of white-collar work to wondering whether robots have rights, from Siri to Alexa — what counts as human, anyway? We don’t know the answers to these questions but we know that they are as critical as they are complicated. Please join us as we engage the resources of our university and community to work on a question that matters.

Key Issues and Problems

  • Artificial intelligence, artificial consciousness
  • Robots, robot ethics, robot rights, robot definitions; the future of work in a world of robots
  • Hominids, human origins, biological anthropology
  • Medical and psychological definitions of life, death, consciousness, personhood
  • Philosophical and religious accounts of life, death, consciousness, personhood
  • Language, linguistics, linguistic anthropology
  • Rights, human rights, animal rights
  • What does it mean to be humane?

The WDIM Team

We have recruited (and are recruiting!) faculty, staff, students, and community members with a broad range of interests and expertise, in and beyond our campus. Watch this space for an updated list and links.

2020-2021 Events

Art Spiegelman

Thursday, February 18, 2021
7:30 p.m.
Webex link for Art Spiegelman event

If copying & pasting, use this URL:

Art SpiegelmanJoin us for a virtual conversation with author and illustrator Art Spiegelman, who created the Pulitzer Prize winning Holocaust narrative Maus, portraying Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. The book weaves Spiegelman's account of his tortured relationship with his aging father into a retelling of one of history's most unspeakable tragedies. The book offers an unforgettable story of survival and a disarming look at the legacy of trauma. 

Art Spiegelman will share images from Maus and discuss how they relate to today’s context at home and around the world. Following the presentation, audience members are invited to participate in a Q&A session with the author. You can submit questions in advance here.

Sponsored by the Dr. Harold Abel Endowed Lecture Series in the Study of Dictatorship, Democracy and Genocide and the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Critical Engagements initiative.

About Art Spiegelman

Maus book coverHaving rejected his parents’ aspirations for him to become a dentist, Art Spiegelman studied cartooning in high school and began drawing professionally at age 16. He went on to study art and philosophy at Harpur College. As creative consultant for Topps Bubble Gum Co. from 1965-1987, Spiegelman created Wacky PackagesGarbage Pail Kids and other novelty items. He taught history and aesthetics of comics at the School for Visual Arts in New York from 1979-1986. In 2007 he was a Heyman Fellow of the Humanities at Columbia University where he taught a Masters of the Comics seminar. In 1980, Spiegelman founded RAW, the acclaimed avant-garde comics magazine, with his wife, Françoise Mouly. Maus was originally serialized in the pages of RAW. He and Mouly more recently co-edited Little Lit, a series of three comics anthologies for children, and publish a series of early readers called Toon Books—picture books in comics format. In 2011, Spiegelman won the Grand Prix at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, marking only the third time an American has received the honor. In 2018 he received the Edward MacDowell Medal, the first-ever Edward MacDowell Medal given in comic art. 

Additional Student Opportunity

Friday, February 19, 2021
10:30 a.m. - 12 p.m. via WebEx event

This is a rare opportunity to talk with the Pulitzer Prize winner Art Spiegelman, author of the graphic novel Maus. If you sign up for this, you must have read Maus. (Details will follow on how to read it.) Space is limited to the first 25 students who show up. Register for the student discussion

Past Events

Capitol Building
Unpacking the Chaos at the Capitol

Thursday, January 14, 2021
3:30 – 5:00 p.m.

Faculty from the Department of Political Science and Public Administration will discuss the historic events of the past week and take questions from the audience on topics covering constitutional law, rebellions, and the 25th amendment. Our panel of experts include former state representative David Rutledge, CMU's Robert and Marjorie Griffin Endowed Chair in American Government, department chairperson David Jesuit, and faculty member Kyla Stepp, J.D.

This panel discussion is presented as part of the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Critical Engagements initiative, which strives to bring difficult topics forward for community education and discussion, including this year's theme, "What Does It Mean to Be Human?"

Coming of Age on the Autism Spectrum: A Clinical Ethnography of Identity, Medicine and Magic among Neurodivergent Youth

Elizabeth Fein

Presented by Elizabeth Fein
Thursday, January 14, 2021

7:00 p.m.

Autism is an extraordinarily contested condition. To some, it is a devastating disease; to others, it is a valued aspect of identity. Young people growing up with an autism spectrum diagnosis face the task of reconciling these two seemingly incompatible understandings of their condition, in the context of their own developing identities. How do they do it, and what can we learn from their creativity and wisdom?

Based on several years of ethnographic fieldwork with youth on the autism spectrum, their families, and the professionals who work with them, this talk will explore the way people affected by autism spectrum conditions negotiate the meanings of these diagnoses in the spaces where they live, work, play, and love in their everyday lives. Medicalized understandings of autism as damaging disease or as hardwired neurogenetic identity are insufficient to capture the full meanings of autism as it is lived – the way it brings both vulnerability and strength, creates both alienation and community, and constitutes the self while also profoundly disrupting it. Instead, youth on the spectrum draw on an alternative shared mythology out of fantasy literature, video games and other speculative fictions to conceptualize their condition, re-envisioning themselves as mutant, hybrid, permeable creatures. In doing so, they invite us to transcend the limitations of our bounded bodies, imagining a broader and more inclusive conception of what it means to be ourselves. 

Elizabeth Fein is an assistant professor of psychology at Duquesne University and author of Living on the Spectrum: Autism and Youth in Community (NYU Press, 2020). A licensed clinical psychologist and psychological anthropologist, she is the co-editor of Autism in Translation: An Intercultural Conversation on Autism Spectrum Conditions (Palgrave, 2018). Her presentation is sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Critical Engagements initiative.

Sculpted Memories: The Reckoning of France's Slave Past

Thursday, October 29
7:00 p.m.
Webex (registration required)

Dr. Sophia Khadraoui-Fortune, assistant professor of French and Francophone Studies in the Department of Languages and Cultures at California Lutheran University, will discuss the reckoning of France's slave past.

As anti-racism protests have been on the rise throughout major western societies of former colonial Empires, the discussion of colonialism, diversity, identity and immigration has brought questions of representation, reparation and recognition back to the surface, forcing several nations to rethink their selective amnesia and face their highly whited-out official history. 

In continental France, the national unrest of 2005 and the current burning societal shock-wave have galvanized some to write a new inclusive French national history. This unredacted history would include slavery and mark the public space with new monuments and memorials. Unlike the French Caribbean territories who have been more prolific in their remembrance of slavery and its abolition, with a rapid upsurge of monuments since 1995, metropolitan France has only seen a slow emergence of sculptures and memorials since 2007. Looking at the first Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery in Nantes and the sculpture to the Abolition of Slavery in Toulouse, it is clear that the memorialization process about what to remember, but also how, where and why, reveals a French society still grappling with its past.

Register to attend Dr. Khadraoui-Fortune's talk. If you have a question about the event, please contact Dr. Leila Ennaili at This presentation is sponsored by the Department of World Languages and Literatures and the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences' Critical Engagements initiative.