Benfey, Cobb, Nicholson, and Savoy Honored with Faculty Awards
to right) Christopher Benfey, Howard Nicholson, Lauret Savoy,
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.
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
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.
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."