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Three Fulbright Winners Prepare for International Work

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Professors Benfey, Cobb, Nicholson, and Savoy Honored with Faculty Awards

German Theaterfest Set for May

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April 25, 2003

Professors Benfey, Cobb, Nicholson, and Savoy Honored with Faculty Awards

Photo: Fred LeBlanc

(Left to right) Christopher Benfey, Howard Nicholson, Lauret Savoy, George Cobb

On April 21, MHC faculty members joined President Joanne V. Creighton, Dean of Faculty Donal O'Shea, and other members of the MHC community in paying tribute to the virtuoso teaching and scholarship of four of their colleagues at a ceremony held in Pratt Hall. During the event, George Cobb, Robert L. Rooke Professor of Mathematics and Statistics, and Lauret Savoy, associate professor of geology, received the Mount Holyoke College Faculty Prize for Teaching. Christopher Benfey, professor of English and codirector of the Weissman Center for Leadership, and Howard Nicholson, Kennedy-Schelkunoff Professor of Physics, were given the Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Prize for Scholarship. The four professors received citations (that appear here in their entirety) and checks for $2,500.

At first, Christopher Benfey looks like he keeps pretty close to home. His Harvard dissertation on Emily Dickinson became his first book; since then he has published another book on Dickinson, a biography of Stephen Crane, and a book that interweaves the history of post-Civil War New Orleans with the biographies of George Washington Cable, Kate Chopin, and Edgar Degas. Nineteenth-century American Lit; American studies; a worthwhile field for assiduous cultivation. But this picture is as fallacious as the notion that Emily Dickinson's imagination was confined by the Connecticut River valley. A man of letters—Benfey would probably prefer to be thought of as a "person of letters"—Benfey often moves beyond letters and words to images, even portraits. He reminds us that painting and poetry are sister arts, and that the critic who (as Ezra Pound said) "writes to paint" can turn his eye and his pen to painting and painters. As expansionist as the America he began by studying, Benfey's imagination seizes outposts in France and Japan to remind his readers that the republic of ideas need have neither departmental nor national boundaries.

Chris Benfey resists orderly classification. In an era in which many literary critics define themselves by sharp-elbowed theoretical methodologies, he can seem quite old-fashioned in his attention to texts, images, and lives. His book about New Orleans, and his forthcoming book about cultural transactions between late nineteenth-century New England and Japan, reveal him as a denizen of archives, as a scholar in traditional modes. But he's well aware that critics create their subjects as much as subjects create their critics; his writings inhabit a world shaped by theory even though they eschew high theory's high jargon. As one reviewer of Benfey's work said, "He has a preference for narratives with holes in them—gaps that he is adept at filling in, and at knowing when not to." He seems as skeptical about master narratives as he is about boundaries; the "creole" qualities he admiringly describes in New Orleans could stand as a metaphor for his own critical approaches. He relishes odd juxtapositions and the self-inventions of his subjects; indeed, he was overheard saying to his departmental colleagues that his newest book is about how New England invented Japan. And he writes so well: one reviewer said Benfey's work "has what most academic scholarship and criticism lack—the stamp of a personality, conveyed in a prose of silky precision."

Far more than most academics, Chris Benfey writes for audiences beyond the academy. All except his first book come from trade publishers, not university presses. And he is a reviewer of great range and great distinction. He's reviewed dozens of books for the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, the New Republic, the TLS—the places any reviewer most wants his work to appear. And he's created a kind of alternate career for himself as an art critic. For a time, he was the regular art critic for the online journal, Slate, and he's done year-end portmanteau surveys of art books for the New York Times Book Review. His work has even appeared in Fashions of the Times.

Not surprisingly, Chris Benfey's accomplishments have won recognition from most of the major national fellowship organizations: he held a Danforth as an undergraduate, and has won research support from Guggenheim, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Benfey's gift for making complex texts and ideas accessible makes him an outstanding teacher. Seniors twice selected him as their baccalaureate speaker. Benfey teaches English 101 and other entry-level courses with skill and enthusiasm, and is equally successful with our most sophisticated advanced students. He's served the College and his colleagues well by chairing the American Studies Program and by codirecting the Weissman Center. The interdisciplinary vitality of lectures and events on campus owes much to his imagination, as well as to his colleague Karen Remmler's. In Chris Benfey's teaching and service, we see the same energy, vitality, and intellectual vigor for which today we honor his scholarship.

Whether catapulting gummy bears to demonstrate to his students the fundamentals of experimental design or chairing national committees on undergraduate education in his field, George Cobb is always focused on finding new and better ways to teach statistics. Beginning in the 1980s he was in the vanguard of those who radically altered courses in introductory statistics as computers liberated them to set their students to work with real data. In recent years, George has turned to the content and pedagogy of more advanced classes. He has successfully sought ways to engage students from widely diverse academic backgrounds in courses that simultaneously explore mathematics and statistics.

The fruits of his latest work are newly designed courses in Markov Chain Monte Carlo, linear statistical methods, and mathematical statistics. Expanded versions of George's handouts and problem sets for each of these are destined for textbooks. That on Markov Chain Monte Carlo, supported by an NSF grant, is already in draft form. These upcoming books will join his other published texts which include: Introduction to Design and Analysis of Experiments, 1998, and Statistics in Action: Practical Principles for a World of Uncertainty, written with Richard L. Scheaffer and Ann E. Watkins and just published.

George's students applaud his teaching and his innovative courses. One commented, "I not only learned a great deal about statistics this semester, but also gained invaluable insight into important components of effective teaching." Another praised his "great knack for assessing our abilities and tailoring . . . weekly assignments so as not to overwhelm us." They recognized that in giving out large numbers of homework problems, he made it possible for each to find something to work on productively.

Students find "his class environment is truly focused on learning." They regularly report working very hard, but find themselves highly motivated to do so and "pushed to their maximum potential without extreme pressure." And they enjoy it. One concluded: "I worked super hard, but it was all real brain power, and not tedious busywork."

George's constantly probing explorations of what should be the content and pedagogy of statistics courses not only have brought him student acclaim at Mount Holyoke, but also national and international prominence. He has written and spoken widely to varied audiences of statisticians, mathematicians, and educators, and has led major initiatives in statistical education. He was chair in 1990—1991 of the focus group on statistics of the Mathematical Association of America and from 1990 to 1999 of the Joint Committee on Undergraduate Statistics of the Mathematical Association of America and the American Statistical Association. He served on the committee that founded the Journal of Statistical Education in 1993 and then was its associate editor for five years. Most recently he served on the Committee on Applied and Theoretical Statistics of the National Academy of Science. Among George's special honors was an invitation to give an after-dinner address at the Quadrennial International Conference on Teaching Statistics held last summer in Cape Town, South Africa. In 1993, he became a fellow of the American Statistical Association.

George has lead many pedagogical conversations among his colleagues in mathematics and statistics and also has done important work with the faculty at Mount Holyoke. Under an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation grant, he was a co-organizer of three semester—long faculty seminars in 1983 and 1984. From these emerged the Quantitative Reasoning course, which, almost twenty years later, continues as an important and evolving interdisciplinary course.

George Cobb is a teacher of teachers and highly honored for that. Today, however, the last words should come from his students at Mount Holyoke. Two final comments: "George is a wonderful teacher. Not only is he super smart, he really makes an effort to teach well." "Mr. Cobb . . . knows his subject and is always prepared and doing extra work for us, but any teacher can do that. Mr. Cobb is awesome because he really cares about his students and can sense when they are not getting a subject, and he is more open to different learning styles than any teacher I know. He encourages his students to do well and to achieve great things beyond the course."

Howard Nicholson
is a truly remarkable physicist, one who has managed to do big science while teaching at a small college. His science is big in many dimensions. From l967 to l999 he coauthored forty-six publications. Last school year he published an astonishing seventeen additional papers, he chaired the physics department in the spring semester, and simultaneously received high praise from his students for his teaching! He is a Universal Physicist. He knows electronics, he knows software, and he knows how to manage small and large collaborations.

Howard received his B.A. from Hamilton College in 1966, which perhaps explains his appreciation of small liberal arts colleges, and also a bachelor of science the same year from MIT. His doctoral studies on experimental high-energy physics, completed in 1971, were carried out at California Institute of Technology. Cal Tech was also important for Howard, as he met his wife Yvonne there.

Since Cal Tech, Howard has conducted research at some of the nation's most famous laboratories: Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Stanford Linear Accelerator, and Brookhaven National Laboratory. At the Lawrence Laboratory, Howard and a small group established the best experimental lower limit on the decay rate of Molybdenum 100. This result was not improved on for years.

At the Stanford Linear Accelerator, affectionately known as SLAC, Howard is a member of the calorimeter group. He works on the Babar experiment, one of the three highest priority experiments supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the quintessential example of big science. It involves a lot of people: 500 physicists worldwide, for a start. It costs a lot: $280 million for a major accelerator upgrade and a new detector and $10 million per year in operating costs. The experiment asks whether an important theoretical symmetry occurs in the B meson system and is accurately described by the standard model. The experiment pushes at our understanding of the basic constituents of our universe. Howard's work involves testing cesium iodide crystals and constructing materials and software for the BaBar electronic calorimeter. Howard's role is big within BaBar. In 2002, he served as run coordinator–a huge management job if there ever was one. He was responsible for the quality and quantity of the experimental data obtained in the experiment and he was on call twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for six months.

At Brookhaven he is involved with about two dozen other physicists who are studying large angle single collisions of elementary particles with nuclear matter. Howard and a colleague had the responsibility of rebuilding the failed superconducting magnet and its support structure. After about two years of work and a redesigned support system the magnet was still not performing reliably. Then they discovered a heat leak by taking X rays of the magnet! This heat leak quenched the magnet. The magnet was fixed by additional cooling and soon was up and running, yielding copious data—largely thanks to Howard's detection and work. At Brookhaven, Howard also proposed and constructed a hodoscope, that is an instrument that traces charge particles, for an experiment that gave vital information about the beam entering the detector.

Howard's science is big also in terms of funding—he has been continuously funded by the Department of Energy since 1977. As noted by a physics colleague at UMass, his research grant in this field is the only federal grant awarded to a physicist at a four-year college. The funding is noteworthy for it reflects the esteem of others for the work Howard has done and continues to do. We, students and faculty alike, are fortunate to have this physicist of national and international renown at Mount Holyoke.

Taking a course with Lauret Savoy presents students with an intriguing, enticing paradox: on the one hand, an invitation to enter an unusually friendly and open classroom environment—as one student says, "you can't really call it a classroom—it's too comfortable"—and, on the other, an invitation to embark on an arduous educational journey. Students regularly characterize the workload—with its voluminous readings, numerous papers, lab experiments, debates, skits, and special projects—as "over-whelming," "challenging," "demanding," "very heavy," an "ambitious agenda." Students writing about her 200-level courses routinely protest that they should be changed to 300 levels. And yet, by the end of the semester, most emerge tremendously excited and thankful—amazed by the depth and breadth of their accomplishments. "Lauret is phenomenal. I have never taken a class in which there was so much work and I was so excited about it all," writes one student; "This is by far the most challenging class I have taken here . . . it is also the best," writes another. What's her secret? How can such a demanding workload be so engaging?

One hears again and again of Lauret's unique spirit as a teacher—open, personable, spontaneous, vulnerable, full of enthusiasm for the material and possessed of an insatiable, humane intellectual curiosity. The end effect, as so many attest, is an irresistible invitation to embark on a collective, intellectual journey, in which traditional professor/student divisions disappear and a spirit of communal endeavor prevails.

Lauret's eagerness to tackle tough questions without scripted answers, to be genuinely interested in a diversity of perspectives, to pursue diligently unexpected new tangents to a topic—this eagerness sets the standard for all. As one student writes, "She has high standards for her work as a professor and for her students' work and she has made this class both a challenge and a joy." Another senior science student writes, "Her attitude, enthusiasm, and imagination are the best of any teacher I've had at the College." Another sums up a more general feeling, "Part of the reason I work so hard in this class is that I know if I didn't, it would actually hurt Lauret—she has such care and high expectations for each of us."

Although Lauret regularly lectures, class time is often devoted to spirited discussion sessions, framed in a variety of ways—from small group break-outs, to debates, to "eco-dramas." In these, she constantly brings disparate and controversial points of view to bear on a topic—using a variety of media to provoke new ways of seeing, imagining, and thinking. Students praise Lauret's careful coordination of these many ingredients—the deft way she orchestrates so many different approaches to allow the complexity of an issue to be savored and known. "Lauret is excellent at picking material that is controversial . . . she often plays devil's advocate to get us to think more and express ourselves" one student writes.

This interest in different perspectives makes sense. Lauret's own background is richly interdisciplinary—her early studies in geology, history, and studio art laid the foundations for her current interests in both geological analyses of environmental change, and interdisciplinary studies of human environmental history and ideas of landscape. At the heart of this work, and of her teaching, is a concern for the human complexity and cultural underpinnings of our many ways of knowing the earth and environment. Science students are especially appreciative of the refreshing breadth of perspective her courses offer—for the opportunity to rethink familiar conceptions in imaginative, new ways.

In their course evaluations, many students grapple with how to articulate the sense they have of a qualitatively different kind of learning experience with Lauret. One writes, "you don't just take class with Lauret, you live it!" Certainly, her great care for the contributions of each student is remarked on, again and again. "I've never been so excited to learn before. It's very rare that I have felt as valued as a person and as student as I have in this class." Or another, "I've never had a professor so willing to work, to actually work with me, so I could have the most possible resources to complete my project." But it also has to do with Lauret's own example, her challenge to herself and, implicitly, to each student, to take their learning to heart. What does this knowledge mean to you? How does this information, how do these experiences, alter your view of the world, of the environment, of the way you live your life? The many students who take up this challenge discover that real knowledge and learning has the capacity to change you. As one senior sums up, "This class impacted me deeply at a personal level and has greatly enriched my experience at Mount Holyoke . . . the issues dealt with are essential and ones I will continue to grapple with for the rest of my life."

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