Author: Sofia

A final convener’s post: thank you, Bryan

For almost ten years, Bryan Waterman has been an integral—dare we say—core part of the NYUAD community. He has shaped an entire generation of students and community members with his spirit, empathy, and leadership. Although he will continue to impact this campus from afar, we wanted to take a moment and celebrate his time in Abu Dhabi. There’s nothing better than a convener’s post to express just how grateful we are that our paths have crossed with Bryan Waterman.

In the classroom, Professor Waterman goes above and beyond to challenge us beyond what we thought was capable and does so without compromising his empathy and humanity. Contagion is both a safe space and an opportunity to take risks; by breaking down our writing, he has helped us build it back stronger. Professor Waterman teaches us new ways of looking at ourselves and the communities we inhabit. In his classroom, literature transforms from an escapist fantasy into a vital resource for our survival as a species. As our studies of pandemics took on new meanings, Professor Waterman helped us make sense of the chaos outside and never lost empathy for his students. His genuine interest in us, not as objects to be taught, but as human beings to learn from is the defining element of his pedagogy. Professor Waterman is never out to push an agenda but continually demonstrates flexibility, creativity, and a willingness to explore new perspectives. In his classroom, teaching is a dynamic exchange between professor and student. He is eternally patient and supportive as we develop the courage to find our voices and express our opinions. At the same time, Professor Waterman manages the careful balancing act of creating a learning environment that is inclusive and kind without sacrificing the academic rigor for which he is famed. Of course, it wouldn’t be Contagion without infection! Professor Waterman’s enthusiasm for literature has even spread to our new habits of reading passages out loud and annotating books by hand.

Professor Waterman’s dedication and spirit have never been limited to the classroom. From the Core Curriculum to Howler Radio and early morning HUA sessions (virtual or not), he has been a fixture of this community for almost a decade. His commitment to bettering NYU Abu Dhabi sets an example for all of us. Professor Waterman’s work could have ended the moment class was over but instead, he continually chooses to be a member of the community and has created a home here. When he talks about supporting students and investing in people, he follows through with his actions and dedication. His passion is infectious and he has truly inspired legions of students with his commitment to community-building. The time, energy, and effort Professor Waterman has invested in this place outside of the classroom is proof that he truly exemplifies the spirit of this place. Thanks to him, this institution and all the people who have passed and will pass through it are more generative and generous.

Despite his energetic teaching and campus-wide leadership, Professor Waterman’s greatest impact has been at the most elemental level: interacting with students. Professor Waterman is a combination of Sam and Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. His heartwarming optimism and faith in us when all seems lost makes us feel like the main character in our lives and in return, we strive to meet his expectations, even if it means waking up at 8:55am. At the same time, his wisdom and guidance are tremendously helpful, particularly in these plague times. Professor Waterman is a constant source of comfort as we weather the beginnings of adulthood. Through scholarship essays, capstone crises, and late homework assignments alike, he is continually understanding that we are human beings above all else. When we have struggled, Professor Waterman has gone above and beyond for us, taking an active role in supporting us as best he can. In an institution with a toxic work culture, his validation that we are more than students is truly grounding. At the same time, his passion for learning and sharing is a reminder of why we are all students in the first place. Our interactions with Professor Waterman are shaped by a unique dynamic that few others can match. In seeing us as humans with value to contribute, he erases much of the power dynamics and distance that mark traditional relationships with professors. This attitude based on mutual respect and empathy is truly reaffirming as we find our voices. Professor Waterman’s empowerment of his students will be remembered long after we all go our separate ways.

Professor Waterman’s joyful and creative spirit will be sorely missed in Abu Dhabi. This is a bittersweet moment; new beginnings are refreshing and we are excited to see how he will leave his mark on the next generation of students. At the same time, we cannot help but mourn his absence on Saadiyat. His constant dedication, care, and empathy are felt by all and we are so grateful that he has chosen to share the past ten years with this community. Thank you, Bryan!

— your students, past and present

Coffins & burials

Just wanted to share these very relevant articles that I read a while ago.

The Coffin Business Is Booming in Central America Due to Gang Violence

This first one is almost a modern-day mirror of the events of Ding Village as it follows how one family in El Salvador switched from the bakery business to producing coffins in the wake of high rates of gang violence. The article eerily echoes many of the same elements that we saw in the novel including family disagreements, levels of coffin intricacy, and ethical concerns about profiting off of death. Unlike Ding Hui, these families building coffins still seem to be struggling to earn a living profit because of the mass proliferation of the coffin industry in their city.

To Be a Field of Poppies

This second article deals more broadly with burials and death and examines changes in US traditions around coffins. The article follows a company called Recompose that aims to essentially compost human bodies rather than embalming and burying them or cremating them.

What constitutes desecration of a corpse is culture-bound; one man’s desecration is another’s honorable final disposition… The only characteristic that funerary mores seem to share is intentionality. Disposing of the dead in an arbitrary manner—leaving a body where it fell on the battlefield, or tossing it with others into a mass grave, limbs akimbo—is a universal sign of disrespect. Intention is how we signal care, whether or not we believe that the soul persists, or whether we believe in a soul at all.

Although the workers at this company take a very different approach to burials than the residents of Ding Village, there is still a common thread of purpose and care for the dead. These dilemmas over how to bury our dead signify an ongoing preoccupation with honoring them, despite the fact that the dead do not know whether they have been cremated or decomposed (in the eyes of some).

Rats & pandemics go hand in hand

Cites across the world have been dealing with growing rat infestations. In the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns, rats lost much of their dependable food sources from restaurants and instead turned to the increasing supplies of residential garbage. As New York City opens up, it has witnessed a massive surge in rat sightings; “Through Wednesday, there had been more than 21,000 rat sightings reported to 311 this year, compared with 15,000 in the same period in 2019 (and about 12,000 in 2014).”

In Albert Camus’ The Plague, rats are terrifying omens that precede the onset of the plague in the town’s human inhabitants. Despite their long history as harbingers of disease, today they are just an aftereffect to COVID-19. Unlike the rats in Oran dying terrible deaths, these contemporary rodents seem to be thriving as restaurants open back up.

The townspeople of Oran are terrified by the appearance of the rats, the first sign that something is out of place. Their strange behavior is noticed throughout the town yet seems to inspire more concern than the first reports of disease in humans (although the local government does its best to suppress this news).

“The local press, so lavish of news about the rats, now had nothing to say. For rats died in the street; men in their homes.”

It is the rats that seem to unsettle the townspeople more than the plague. Perhaps this is because humans have become very accustomed to their position as the dominant species and other animals seem to factor so little into their considerations of danger that when these animals change behavior en masse, it serves as a reminder that we are not immune to changes in our ecosystem. COVID-19 was likely transmitted from a bat. Although we are driving many species of bats to extinction, it took very little for one bat to change the course of human history.

Inheritance & Morality in Ghosts

Edvard Munch’s set design for the play

The play Ghosts by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, written in 1881 and first staged in 1882, sparked a lot of scrutiny from critics and the public. As it openly talked about venereal diseases, incest, religion and more. Thus, it brought in a new perspective on tragedy as a genre, since instead of discussing consequences of breaking moral code, it talks about the consequences of not breaking it (Wikipedia, 2021). And these consequences become ghosts for characters of the play. As Mrs. Alving says herself:

Ghosts… I’m inclined to think that we are all ghosts….. It’s not just what we inherit from our mothers and father that haunts us. It’s all kinds of old defunct theories … and things like that. It’s not that they actually live on in us; they are simply lodged there, and we cannot get rid of them.”

Although Mrs. Alving doesn’t want her son to inherit anything from his father and Oswald has no good memories of his father, they are unable to stop the genetic inheritance that Oswald receives.  Despite having no connections to his father, he inherits illness in the form of Neurosyphilis from him which questions the concept of nature vs nurture. Did growing up as an artist in Paris affect him enough to shape a different person or, like Oedipus, is he bound by fate after all? Manders does point out “When Oswald was standing there…. He looked the very spit and image of his father.” But Oswald also inherits much of his personality from his mother. 

Both the mother and the son are drawn to new and contagious ideas about the world. Early in the play, Pastor Manders confronts Mrs. Alving over books she is reading; although we don’t know their contents, we can imagine by his reaction that they challenge established ways of thinking. 

MRS. ALVING: What is it in fact you’ve got against these books?

MANDERS: Got against them? You don’t think I waste my time examining publications of that kind, surely

Note here Manders’ confidence to be entitled to judge things he had not read to begin with. This is a recurring theme within some texts for this semester – Bob, without much merit, quickly determined that nostalgia caused Alice to be fevered in Severance. He is similarly shocked later on when Oswald describes his friends in “illicit relationships.” Despite the pastor’s horror, Oswald challenges his reaction and insists that his friends are moral people, and Mrs. Alving later agrees. Ibsen emphasizes the book’s discussion of taboos by including this parallel thread contrasting the pastor’s 19th century morality with Mrs. Alving and Oswald’s new ways of imagining the world. 

It is interesting how when a group is exposed to a new form of contagion, a new value (moral solidarity in this case) is created to distinguish allies and enemies: if you agree you’re a friend, if you digress you’re the outsider. An interesting question then arises: where did this set of morals originate from? Is Manders, posing as a servant to God’s will, the de facto creator for the group moral? Or is he merely a guardian conforming to a collective will of the group?

Ludien, Taman, Mohammed, Sofia

Astrology in 1665 and 2021

From a Guardian article on psychics sharing their 2021 predictions (

Pandemics come and go but clearly we have seen a number of parallels between what Defoe documents in London and how our societies have responded to the current pandemic. “Prophecies, astrological conjugations, dreams, and old wives’ tales” are clearly not just relics of London’s bubonic plague but very much something that people are once again turning to in the midst of COVID 19.

“Nearly 70 percent of French youth between the ages of 18-24 believe in parasciences (including astrology, numerology, palm reading, clairvoyance and cartomancy)”, a trend that has grown in recent months according to France 24.

Tiktok has also helped popularize many of these practices during the pandemic, through communities known as WitchTok.

Recently, these trends and their ties to mental health were epitomized by famous musician Lorde’s ironic song “Mood Ring”