Colby’s presidential inauguration weekend began Friday, Sept. 12, with a faculty showcase: six professors speaking for 15 minutes each about their scholarship, their teaching, and their students—a forum elegant in its simplicity.
And like liberal arts education itself, the widely varied components added up to considerably more than a sum of the parts. “It was just extraordinary,” said President David A. Greene. “Who doesn’t want to be a Colby student right now?” he asked the audience following the presentations.
Greene, whose impending inauguration Saturday was the occasion for the showcase, picked out several themes before asking questions and moderating a discussion among the six professors: Catherine Besteman (anthropology), Whitney King (chemistry), Lydia Moland (philosophy), Philip Nyhus (environmental studies), Andrea Tilden (biology), and John Turner (history).
“It’s easy to think about a liberal arts college as this isolated place,” Greene said. But, “when you listen to the way the faculty describe their work, and the global and the local impact of their work, you realize there is nothing isolated or isolating about this place. It’s a place that’s deeply connected in the world, and that’s done through the work of the faculty and the students.”
Another point several speakers touched on that Greene noted—the role of humility in scholarship. “The need to really question your assumptions, question your beliefs, to be open to a different set of beliefs. It’s such an important part of being at Colby,” he said.
He also was impressed by the shared notion of “pushing boundaries of knowledge to answer important questions.” Liberal arts colleges are, in fact, great places for undergraduate teaching, he said, suggesting Colby goes beyond that. “It’s a place where you have absolutely world-class scholars who think about scholarship in relationship to their teaching.”
Bartlett Professor of Anthropology Catherine Besteman went first, discussing the role of adventure in anthropology. “Anthropology is about border crossings and clashings of all kinds,” she said. Ultimately she made a case for “ethnographic love,” which she described as “an embrace of the idea that we’re all in this together.”
Miselis Professor of Chemistry Whitney King described conducting analytic chemistry research from the South Atlantic to the Belgrade Lakes, the roles that students take in that research, and what they learn. One student learned from an ocean voyage that she really preferred policy issues to research. So she went to law school, where her research experience is invaluable as she studies environmental law. “We’re all much more effective when we’re passionate about what we’re doing,” King said.
Associate Professor of Philosophy Lydia Moland discussed how she applies philosophical theories to concrete local issues, using her students’ exploration of global injustice through the local example of the Wabanaki Native American tribes of Maine. “We don’t want to be sending our students into the world without their having thought very carefully about the history and the theory and all of the complexities that go into these things that we want them to experience,” she said. “But we want them to experience them from a place of knowledge. We want that knowledge to have engendered some humility as well as adventurousness.”
Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Philip Nyhus described the work his students have done toward the goal of reintroducing the South China tiger subspecies into the wild. Worldwide, 93 percent of Asian tigers’ habitat has disappeared and the wild tiger population has decreased 97 percent. Current estimates, based partly on research done at Colby, suggest there are three to four times as many tigers in captivity as there are in the wild, he said.
Merrill Associate Professor of Biology Andrea Tilden described her work with students—both in the Tilden Lab at Colby and at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Bar Harbor—studying the role of melatonin in sleep and its role in learning and memory. “The research is intense, but it’s also a social endeavor,” she said as she projected a slide showing the names of 13 of her students who recently coauthored peer-reviewed scientific articles with her.
Associate Professor of History John Turner closed the showcase with his analysis of the Islamist militant group ISIS, AKA ISIL, in historical context. A scholar of the Islamic caliph and the actual caliphate of the seventh century, Turner said he had to rewrite portions of his talk after President Barack Obama addressed the nation just two nights before on American policy toward ISIS. He prefaced his talk by saying, “The work we do and the research we engage pushes the boundaries of knowledge and understanding in profound ways that allow us to see more clearly and understand more deeply and think more creatively in holistic ways about meaning and solutions to problems.”
President Greene spent an hour and 20 minutes moderating audience questions and a discussion of the themes and ideas that surfaced in the six talks.
“It was terrific. On so many levels,” said Robert Hoopes Jr. ’89, a trustee who attended the showcase. “What a gift. What passion.” He said the faculty presentations made him think of one of his father’s quotes: “I want to come back reincarnated as one of my kids, so I can participate in something like this.”