12 Life Lessons from Hamilton Professors

By Bret Turner ’13

Introduction by Charlotte Hough ’14 • Illustrations by Philippe Lechien

During his first year on campus, Bret Turner ’13 may have been in the minority among his classmates when he decided that going to office hours was cool. “I was interested in doing something collegiate,” he says. So why not also visit professors that he didn’t necessarily have a class with? After an inspiring conversation with Professor of Music Michael “Doc” Woods, Turner decided to take up a personal challenge: interview every professor on campus. Though he knew an hour-long conversation would be no match for taking a class (in fact, one disgruntled professor even ended their interview early and told him to go learn something), the chemistry major wanted to see what he could learn outside of the lab.

Turner started in the psychology Department, the field in which he was concentrating at the time, for familiarity’s sake. At the beginning of his sophomore year, he made a list of all of the professors employed at Hamilton by department, emailing about three per week to set up interviews. He rarely outright admitted to his lofty goal, afraid of what professors might think. Turner kept track of his experiences in a personal journal, later copying his reflections down into a book he kept specifically for the project.

By the end of his senior year this May, Turner had interviewed nearly 200 professors on a campus that employs 188 full-time and 35 part-time faculty members, not quite reaching his goal, but coming close. He asked professors basic questions about their fields, research and career paths. His favorite question, which he always saved for last, was “Who is your hero?”

Turner admits that he can’t remember many hard facts from his interviews since the professors he spoke with treated him to little more than “academic hors d’oeuvres”; however, he has taken away important lessons. “The connections I’ve made, the conversations I’ve had — about the dangerously dwindling populations of American butterflies, about the revival of Confucianism in modern China, about whether or not people really do control their own actions — have enriched my education invaluably,” he says. “Isn’t that what a liberal arts education is really about?”

Below, Turner shares 12 of those lessons learned from Hamilton professors.

1. Science and the arts are not so different

While many people I spoke with asserted the same, Professor of English Steve Yao was the first to discuss with me the similarities between the sciences and the humanities. As I sat with him in Café Opus, he offered many examples of precise observation developing into explanatory theory, but these samples came from the library rather than the laboratory. The deductive reasoning so prized by scientists is also present in literary criticism, as scholars scour passages in search of patterns, which lead to an interpretation of a text. And like a scientific theory, a literary interpretation is only as strong as the observations that support it. I left the conversation seeing a much more connected academic world.

2. The secrets of life

Only after our conversation, just as I was about to leave, did Jeremy Medina, the Burgess Professor of Romance Languages Emeritus and lecturer in Hispanic studies, mention that in his lifetime he had learned life’s two most important lessons. He made a habit of sharing these discoveries with his students, and now he was going to pass them on to me. The first, he said, is that only a few things — family, friends, God — are seriously important. Nothing else is. The second: “Life is like a river flowing by, and most people are just sitting on the shore.” While I can’t say I’ve followed those lessons perfectly, I remember them often, and I have tried to live by them in small or large ways.

3. The infinite monkey theorem

Assistant Professor of Mathematics Andrew Dykstra’s eyes flashed with enthusiasm as he described his research to me. I had told him that mathematics is not a language I speak fluently, so rather than explaining ergodic theory through equations and formulas, he chose a real-world example. Suppose a monkey typed randomly on a word processor for an infinite amount of time, producing strings of letters with no pre-determined pattern. According to the probability based to ergodic theory, the monkey would eventually type out perfectly the entire text of any given work of literature, such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The proof for this was simple and direct, and Dykstra dispatched it with a few pen strokes. And I had always thought math was so abstract!

4. Our identity is formed by our past

To Alfred Kelly, the Edgar B. Graves Professor of History, history provides the central method of understanding ourselves and our world. The present, he said, is elusive, and the future doesn’t exist — but the past is who we are. There are limitations to our understanding of that identity, however. Any work of history has a certain perspective and bias, and historians must acknowledge that issue in their own studies. But by gathering a wide array of perspectives on the past and integrating them, the most accurate picture of our identity is revealed. Historians, then, have a crucially important role as stewards of that identity.

5. To create requires bravery

Professor of Art William Salzillo does not have an artistic hero — at least not one that immediately came to mind. He is distrustful of the concept, in fact. Concerned that the world is too full of mimicry and imitation, Salzillo encouraged me to be my own hero, to create something unique that is all my own. This is a heroic effort, requiring courage and determination. Success is not only personally rewarding but also inspires others to make their own contributions. Only in that way can we truly remake the world around us.

6. Theatre exists in the connection between the audience and the actors

Margaret Bundy Scott Professor of Theatre Carole Bellini-Sharp most enjoys the art she studies and creates for the quality of comradery that saturates it at every level. Certainly actors in a performance build a community with one another, but a broader kind of empathy develops when an actor struggles to understand and accept the soul of his character, a fellow human being. But the audience is also involved, for the “liveness” of every performance creates an immediate connection between audience and actor. Theatre happens within that connection, “in the space between the audience and the stage” — not the work of special effects or clever camerawork but the product of some link between human bodies and imaginations.

7. Chemistry touches everything

I started talking with professors as a psychology student, and I did not expect that my concentration would change due to this project. That was before my conversation with former Assistant Professor of Chemistry Camille Jones. Chemistry, to her, is fundamentally about nature and life, and it touches “everything in this world.” The processes and behavior of matter work at the bedrock of nature. The chemist’s role is not only to understand those processes but also to utilize them in practical ways, such as the creation of better medicines or technologies. Her presentation of the present condition and future direction of her field so fascinated me that I soon dove into it myself — a change I do not yet regret.

8. Hamilton professors share a passion for teaching

Many professors at Hamilton are here to teach, giving up more academically fruitful careers at larger universities in favor of small classrooms and close relationships with students. Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies Edna Rodriguez-Plate expressed that sentiment better than any other. We had been talking for some time when we arrived on the subject of how she became a professor. The benefits of studying a foreign culture, she said, include broadening one’s perspective and understanding of the world (a common feeling among foreign language professors), and she has been motivated by the hope of passing that understanding onto her students: “Not that I’m going to change the world, but if I can make one Hamilton student think better, that’s pretty cool.”

9. I have a lot of reading to do

I can’t call my meeting with Richard Werner, the John Stewart Kennedy Professor of Philosophy, an  interview; it very quickly broke through the question-and-answer format, evolving into a free-ranging discussion on topics as varied as behaviorism, quantum mechanics and the stability of happiness. In all our dialogue, his thinking was far more informed and considered that my own spontaneous thoughts, but not once did he neglect or dismiss my opinions. We spoke as equals, and he was as interested in hearing my views as he was in sharing his own. At many moments in our conversation I glanced at his diverse bookshelf, and I left with that terrible and wonderful realization of how much more reading I still have to do.

10. The classics remain important

A liberal arts education was once grounded in a study of the classical languages and literature of Greece and Rome. (The Hamilton College valedictorian’s address used to be delivered in Latin!) But more recently this focus has evaporated as tastes and requirements change. I asked Barbara Gold, the Edward North Professor of Classics, what she thought was being lost in this transition. Though she lamented the lack of modern knowledge and understanding of these once great and still profoundly influential cultures, she most regretted a loss of beauty. The whole elegance of Greek and Latin verse can only be experienced in their original languages; it is otherwise lost in translation. As knowledge of those languages diminishes, so too does some amount of beauty in the world, which is always something to be mourned.

11. Teaching by experiencing

Associate Professor of Geosciences David Bailey decided that showing me mineralogy was better than telling me about it, and so a large part of our conversation took place in his lab. He gave me a tour of his collection, identifying each of his minerals and outlining its formation and properties. I only had to tell him I was interested, and he was ready to share anything he knew. And his hands-on approach — presenting me with a mineral rather than a textbook — typifies a great quality of science education at Hamilton: teaching that emphasizes direct experience. Reading about a phenomenon is good; seeing it is better; but doing it yourself has the chance to be extraordinary.

12. Questions, not answers, drive education

One of the more memorable sensations I have experienced at Hamilton is that curious feeling of discovering new questions. This came most intensely at moments when I encountered entire fields of study dedicated to topics I had never even thought of considering. One of these discoveries was facilitated by Associate Professor of Sociology Yvonne Zylan. In her discussion of her research on the negotiation between law and gender, I had to stop her and ask for a precise definition of gender, expecting a brief answer. Instead she related a debate presently and perhaps forever unresolved. But questions rather than answers, debates rather than resolutions, fuel my interests, and each time I learned of a new question, each time my world became that much broader, I only wanted to learn more.

Bret Turner '13 and Doc WoodsBret Turner ’13 (pictured with Professor of Music Michael “Doc” Woods), from Boulder City, Nev., is currently working at a water treatment plant in Las Vegas and plans to begin volunteering at a local soup kitchen. During a recent “jazz pilgrimage” to New Orleans, he had the opportunity to strike up conversations with some homeless people who’ve inspired him to consider a career in community service.

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
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