Winter 2015 Bulletin

2014 Induction Ceremony Class Speakers

On October 11, 2014, the American Academy inducted its 234th class of Fellows and Foreign Honorary Members at a ceremony held in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The ceremony featured historical readings by John Fabian Witt (Yale Law School) and Linda Darling-Hammond (Stanford University), as well as a performance by the Boston Children’s Chorus. It also included presentations by new Fellows Ramamurti Shankar (Yale University), Diana H. Wall (Colorado State University), Sherry Turkle (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Mary Kelley (University of Michigan), and John W. Rogers, Jr. (Ariel Investments, LLC). Several of these presentations appear below.


Ramamurti Shankar

Ramamurti Shankar

Ramamurti Shankar is the John Randolph Huffman Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Yale University. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2014.

I am happy to be here today to talk to you on behalf of Class I, the Mathematical and Physical Sciences. I have chosen a topic I hope will be of interest to everybody: online education.

My interest in this topic was sparked a few years ago, when I was asked to teach for the first time an introductory physics course to a very large class of freshmen at Yale, composed mainly of “nonbelievers” like economists, social scientists, historians, and pre-meds. I was concerned: the introductory textbooks had become thicker since the time I was a freshman, and when I looked at the students in my class, none of their heads were three times as big as mine. The other problem was the diversity of the class: I didn’t know how to get these people interested in relativity and quantum mechanics. Could I really tell the future doctors that relativity would be useful if one of their patients began running away from them at the speed of light? Must future pediatricians understand that their patients will not sit still because the uncertainty principle prevents tiny objects from having a definite location and velocity?

I decided instead to simply tell them why I like physics: the power of its mathematical underpinnings and the breadth of the universe that it is able to describe. I found this proselytizing to be very pleasurable, and I taught that course several more times. During this run, Dean Peter Salovey, now President of Yale, told me about a program funded by the Hewlett Foundation with the purpose of videotaping some Yale courses and putting them online. He asked if I had any objections to having my class videotaped. I told him that I had yet to meet a camera that I didn’t like. So videographers came and filmed all the lectures, and a few years later, the entire course became available on the Open Yale Courses site. It is also available on YouTube and iTunes, and all the course materials – including problems, exam solutions, and lecture transcripts – are available on Yale’s website. These lectures have been seen by many people: young and old, students and teachers, people here and abroad.

I was very pleased with all of this until I had a conversation with David Gross, one of my current colleagues at the Institute for Physics and a well-known physicist who is quite supportive of my other endeavors. He asked me if I had ever worried about what open courses will do to us as professors. I replied that I had thought about it, and it didn’t worry me. I didn’t see the problem with giving the complete Yale experience (except for the sticker shock) to as many people in the world as want it. Gross argued that given the high cost of higher education, administrators may be tempted to use these online videos as a substitute for faculty, letting many of them go, telling the students to simply watch the video, and hiring a few temporary faculty to come and do the sections. Of course, if that really did happen, I agree that it would be a catastrophe. We should try our best to fight against that future, and at the very least, we should make sure that we carefully study whether this approach to education is even viable before we plunge into it.

In the meantime, however, I want to give a couple of reasons of my own for why I do not think these videos are a threat to faculty members in any university – big or small, public or private. These points are the result of discussions with my colleague Dieter Vollhardt and his wife Jutta Muttenhammer.

First, if you were to carry this argument further, one could even argue that a good book is a threat to all teachers. Why not simply tell students to read my Principles of Quantum Mechanics and fire me? On the other hand, one might argue that a video is more of a threat because it creates the same classroom experience instructors might provide. I disagree with that. An engaging presentation is not the only requirement for teaching somebody. If that were the case, we could leave the education of our young children in the hands of Big Bird. Why don’t we do that? Because Big Bird talks, but Big Bird doesn’t listen. So Big Bird does not know what you, a student, are struggling with. And that is precisely where teachers and parents come in: they give you a tailor-made introduction to the subject. They know where you get confused; they know when to explain something differently. They console you, they criticize you, they evaluate you, and they are there for the whole process. That is the role of the teacher at both the smaller teaching universities and the research universities. So I do not think video lectures could supplant the student-teacher relationship.

Finally, I think a new pedagogical method that I have recently embraced may actually make this discussion irrelevant: the idea of a flipped classroom. In a flipped classroom model, the students do the reading, complete the exercises, and even watch a video of the lecture the day before class meets. Actual class time is primarily spent on discussing problem sets and working with individual students. I plan to teach my own course next semester using the flipped classroom model, and I plan to use my own lecture videos. If I thought those videos were the last word in teaching, I would not show up for class. But instead, I will be there, working as hard as everybody else. When we meet next, I will tell you how all that went.

© 2015 by Ramamurti Shankar


Diana H. Wall

Diana H. Wall

Diana H. Wall is University Distinguished Professor, Director of the School of Global Environmental Sustainability, and Professor of Biology at Colorado State University. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2014.

It is an honor, and frankly, scary, to try to represent the enormous field of biology in this speech. Rather than attempt to do so, I will talk about a shift that I have seen in biology over the course of my career. As we begin to tackle big issues like climate change, we have seen biology expand to include collaborations across disciplines and comparisons on a global scale that we did not see to this extent even ten or twenty years ago.

I first went to the Antarctic dry valleys in the late 1980s. The valleys constitute one of the most extreme desert ecosystems. It is one of the coldest, windiest, driest places on earth; and there is nothing flying, crawling, or green that you can see. No insects or plants live aboveground. Working there is like being in a freezer, and it looks a lot like Mars, except with less color. In a paper published in the 1970s, scientists described these valleys as having sterile soils with no life. My colleagues and I had worked in hot deserts in the United States, and our findings led us to question that assumption. When we finally went to Antarctica, we took soil samples back to the lab and examined them under a microscope, and as you may have heard, we quickly found nematodes, or roundworms; three to four different species. That is what I find so fascinating about soil: it is an unseen universe that contains nearly as many groups and phyla belowground as we see above ground, most of which are unknown and undescribed. Antarctica is a perfect place to study individual species, because there are far fewer species in the soil there than in any other place on earth.

Let me pause here to tell you a little bit more about nematodes. They live in soils everywhere around the world. They are tiny invertebrate animals, smaller than your eyelash and invisible to the naked eye. Though they live in soil, they are aquatic: they live in the water films around soil particles. One single tablespoon of soil contains many different species and very high numbers of nematodes. In fact, that tablespoon can have anywhere from ten to five thousand nematodes, representing between ten and one hundred different species.

So how does the discovery of nematodes in Antarctic soil relate to the big issues that we face today? We know that the climate is changing. We are aware of the increasing level of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – that is not a question. We hear about iconic species, such as the polar bear and the bald eagle, that are threatened by climate change, or that are being forced to adapt in response to it. But it is not just those adorable species aboveground that are affected by climate change. It turns out that even species that are so resilient that they can survive the harsh environment of the Antarctic dry valleys are also struggling to adapt to a changing climate.

This is one of the most pressing issues in biology today. We must understand the myriad relationships between climate change and different types and sizes of species. I will share with you the story of one species that I have studied for twenty-five years in Antarctica, because we know that it is responding to climate change. The dominant nematode in the Antarctic dry valleys today is Scottnema, which lives in the driest soils (but not in the wettest soils near glacial melt streams or frozen lakes). It feeds on bacteria, and I like to call it the Rambo nematode because it’s very tough and resilient. It is the top dog, so to speak, in this ecosystem. We wanted to know if Scottnema’s populations would be affected by changes in temperature and moisture. We decided to conduct experiments to see how the changes would affect these soil ecosystems. What we found is that decreasing the moisture and the temperature even slightly led to a dramatic shift: Scottnema populations declined and a different species thrived.

Now, this is where people usually ask me, “As fascinating as nematodes are, why should I care which type is dominant in such a remote place?” Well, we conducted field experiments that showed that Scottnema is responsible for about 7 percent of soil carbon cycling. We know that a 65 percent decline in Scottnema over a ten- to twelve-year period could reduce soil carbon cycling by nearly one-third. What scares me is that we do not know if the species that will replace this nematode will continue to store carbon or will release even more.

This story is bigger than soil carbon storage in Antarctica: soil plays a vital role in every ecosystem on earth, and we know very little about the huge variety of species that live in soil. Just as plants and animals aboveground have vastly different functions in their ecosystems, each species belowground plays a different role in storing carbon, cleansing water, ensuring soil fertility, and regulating pests and disease, among many other benefits. My colleagues and I have analyzed and studied soil in places as diverse as Kenya, the plains of the Midwest, and, most recently, Central Park in New York City, and we have found a stunning variety of ecosystems. Precisely because there are so many kinds of animals and microbes in every handful of soil, it is difficult for an ecologist to answer basic questions about the role of a single species in soil, though we may need to know these answers for any study of climate change.

This brings me back to the idea that the field of biology is changing. I regularly work with glaciologists, geochemists, soil biogeochemists, political scientists, historians, physiologists, and other biologists and ecologists. This is typical of the work that climate change scientists are doing to find out how the different organisms in an ecosystem are responding to a changing climate and whether it matters. As our knowledge of science and biology grows, we see more and more opportunities to work across disciplines to tackle the most pressing global challenges of climate change, urbanization, water conservation, and food security. For me, biology is about more than watching a struggle between two nematodes in one of the most dramatic settings on earth – although I do like to do that. It is about understanding the world below our feet and the role it plays in the health of our planet and its people.

© 2015 by Diana H. Wall


Mary Kelley

Mary Kelley

Mary Kelley is the Ruth Bordin Collegiate Professor of History, American Culture, and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2014.

I am delighted to be here. It has been said, but it bears repeating: I feel extraordinarily fortunate to keep company with the astonishingly articulate, intelligent, and accomplished individuals that constitute this academy. And on a more personal note, I would like to acknowledge my husband, Philip Pochoda, who in so many ways – with his energy, his wit, his incredible intelligence – has illuminated my life. For me, this is in many respects an honor we share.

At this year’s presentation of the National Humanities Medals, President Barack Obama stepped to the podium and boldly pronounced, “We rely on the humanities. We need them to live.” Discounting an obvious rhetorical excess, I fully endorse the passion and the sentiment of the President’s statement. I similarly celebrate the Academy’s recently published report The Heart of the Matter, which situates the humanities as “the keeper of the republic: a source of national memory and civic vigor, cultural understanding and communication, individual fulfillment and the ideals that we hold in common.”

And yet for all these aspirational ideals, these days it appears that the word “humanities” can only be publicly deployed when embedded in a gloomy compound noun, such as “humanities crisis” or “crisis of the humanities” (we might use the acronym C.O.T.H. here). The mounting evidence for C.O.T.H. is perhaps most stark in higher education, where we see shrinking enrollments, elimination of departments, and removal of basic requirements. The Academy’s Humanities Report Card, published last year, alerts us to larger social challenges and reveals, perhaps, the further divergence of C. P. Snow’s two cultures. The report demonstrates that the increasingly unminded gap between average math and verbal scores on the SAT is growing. Another statistic suggests why: less than 30 percent of twelfth-grade students are proficient in writing, history, and civics. There is also the increasing tendency to equate learning with earning, a conviction most risibly expressed by Florida’s governor Rick Scott, who argued that public university students majoring in the humanities ought to pay higher tuition, because their lower salaries upon graduation demonstrate their lesser value to society.

And yet, as commentators have noted, the People’s Republic of China, which had until recently paid scant attention to the humanities, has now recognized that they play an important role in fostering creativity and imagination, critical thinking and argumentation. These are the very qualities essential to the Florida governor’s objective: the pursuit of economic prosperity. Further, the humanities have been recognized as crucial to the continued advancement of America’s democracy. The nation’s founders, as The Heart of the Matter argues, understood that the success of the Republican experiment depends on a citizenry able “to think critically, understand their own history, and give voice to their beliefs while respecting the views of others.” The humanities, both in theory and practice, encompass a broad range of subjects (including history, literature, religious studies, and philosophy), perspectives, hermeneutical strategies, and methodologies. Where they all converge is in the practice of individual reading: a personal act, but one that promotes broad national and cultural objectives, while also having incalculable informative, transformative, subjective consequences.

Reading has multiple varieties and dimensions. In the essay collection The Humanities and Public Life (2014), editor Peter Brooks argues for a “close, intense, disciplined reading.” Close, intense, and disciplined is the Holy Trinity in which many of us have been schooled. However, there are other, more common (and, I would add, more expansive) strategies for reading, including the “uncritical reading,” which literary critic Michael Warner observes in students who walk into his classes. They read in all the ways that are not appropriate, at least by Brooks’s definition. Warner tells us: “They identify with characters. They fall in love with authors. They warm with pride over the national heritage. They thrill at the exotic and take reassurance in the familiar. They laugh, they cry. They lose themselves in books, distracting themselves from everything else.” These students are also what scholar Michel de Certeau calls “poachers”: readers who intervene to create a plurality of meanings beyond those intended by either authors or publishers.

Theodore Sedgwick, one of the founders of our Academy, told his young daughter Catharine that she should “find it in [her] power to devote [her] mornings to reading.” Sedgwick reminded his daughter that hers was a privileged position: “There are few who can make such an improvement.” The woman who would become a leading novelist in the early nineteenth century heeded her father’s counsel. As Catharine put it, the “love of reading” her father instilled in her became her education.

Exactly the same can be said about Margaret Fuller, antebellum America’s most prominent woman of letters. Poet, editor, and literary critic, Fuller was schooled by her father. In addition to drilling her daily in Latin and Greek, Timothy Fuller welcomed his eldest daughter into his library, where she immersed herself in Shakespeare, Cervantes, Moliere, Fielding, Smollett, and Scott. Reading Shakespeare on a Sunday afternoon led to an emotionally charged encounter. “Shakespeare? That won’t do; that’s no book for a Sunday. Put it away,” Timothy instructed his daughter. The eight-year-old did – and did not. Initially she placed Romeo and Juliet on the shelf, albeit without taking a substitute. But she yielded to desire and retrieved the volume, managing to read half the play before her father asked the same question and received the same answer. Incensed by her disobedience, he immediately ordered her to bed. That Fuller no longer had the text at hand mattered little, if at all: “Alone,” she said, “in the dark, I thought only of the scene placed by the poet before my eye, where in the free flow of life, sudden and graceful dialogue, and forms seen in the broad luster of his imagination gave just what I wanted. My fancies swarmed like bees, as I contrived the rest of the story: what all would do – what say? Where go?”

Other readers may not appropriate the text to the same degree as Fuller, but they read with the same eye to self-defined needs and desires. Acting with a similar agency as that of Fuller, they “poach” to create meanings with which they fashion subjectivities and form themselves into autonomous individuals.

Like her more privileged counterparts, Rose Cohen looked to books to help her craft a more expansive and meaningful life. For this daughter of Jewish immigrants, literacy alone was a significant achievement. Spending her childhood in a small village in northwestern Russia in the late nineteenth century, Cohen had had available only a few volumes in Yiddish. For her, as for Sedgwick and Fuller, reading was the means to education; and, as it has been for many immigrants then and now, it was also a means to assimilation and orientation. Later, on the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century, “reading material was not so limited”: “A flying newspaper in the street, a crumpled advertisement – I would smooth it out tenderly and carry off home, happy in the expectation of what awaited me. . . Just to read became a necessity and a joy,” as Cohen recalled. “Necessity” derived from the need for refuge from the severe constraints of life on the Lower East Side. “Joy” spoke to the sense of possibility experienced in reading. From there, Cohen moved on to Charles Dickens and other British and American novelists; this led to a formal education at the socialist Rand School; and finally, Cohen wrote her autobiography Out of the Shadow, which was first published in English and subsequently translated into French, Danish, and Russian.

The practice of reading serves multiple purposes. It can open readers’ lives outward, fashioning makers of public opinion, as with Sedgwick, Fuller, and Cohen. It is the foundation for critical thought and academic scholarship. It can also turn individuals inward, inviting them into communion with a fully realized world set apart from life’s external circumstances. Reading is the occasion for a solitary commingling of shifting subjectivities of readers and texts that kindles the imagination and leads to unexpected outcomes. The spontaneous idea, the fleeting connection, the pleasure of recognition, the discovery of the unanticipated dimension of self – all are generated through intense encounters that are shaped by affect and driven by interest.

In short, then, the purposes and strategies are as varied as the individual readers, but the sustained and sustaining engagement with reading is, as literary critic David Ulin tells us, “a way to map, or imprint, certain emotional states and experiences. It is a template by which we come to a reckoning with life.”

At the end of the day, then, C.O.T.H. or no C.O.T.H., as long as reading is cherished and nurtured, whether in the traditional analog or the new digital formats, I would suggest on an optimistic note that the humanities and their progeny will remain secure.

© 2015 by Mary Kelley


John W. Rogers, Jr.

John W. Rogers, Jr.

John W. Rogers, Jr. is Founder, Chairman, Chief Executive Officer, and Chief Investment Officer of Ariel Investments Co., LLC. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy in 2014.

Thank you all for the honor of being inducted into this esteemed Academy and for the privilege of representing Class V: Public Affairs, Business, and Administration. However, I think the honor truly belongs not to us but to the people who led us here, the mentors and role models who pushed and supported us and believed in us every step of the way. So I would like to dedicate this moment to my father, who passed away this year at age ninety-five. My father believed in backing up his convictions with actions, as evidenced by his service as a Tuskegee Airman, during which he flew over 120 missions. But he also believed in teaching me about the value of money, which meant that each year on my birthday and Christmas, I didn’t get toys; instead, my father gave me certificates of stock. (You could imagine the look on my face the first time that happened.)

But I was truly lucky to have a father who was so far ahead of his time. It is hard to believe that a man who grew up as an orphan during the tough times of the Great Depression was able to make himself more financially literate than most American adults are today. But he worked hard at it, because he believed that financial literacy is not just about numbers and money; it is fundamentally about empowerment and opportunity. Now, as my colleague Mellody Hobson is fond of pointing out, if you poll Americans on what the S&P 500 is, most people would respond that it is a racetrack. The truth is, these financial acronyms, from TARP and SIFI to IRAs and 401(k)s, really do matter. They factor into our individual fortunes and national prosperity in profound ways.

Finance is simply too important to remain the domain of a privileged few, especially today. It is no longer enough for us to coast along on a basic understanding of savings accounts, FICO scores, and credit cards. As pensions are rapidly being replaced with defined-contribution plans, Americans now find themselves having to act as theirown portfolio managers. Furthermore, the economic crisis that devastated millions did not merely stem from an imbalance of power between the financial industry and the rest of America; it was also fueled by an imbalance of knowledge. Greater financial capability and literacy is not just about learning how to invest in the market or manage student loans: it also empowers us as citizens in a democracy, allowing us to better participate in critical policy debates that could shape our future for decades to come. It helps us hold our leaders in government and business accountable. Today, as the economic recovery remains hobbled by historically high wage inequality, a public school curriculum that teaches financial literacy can help address the growing wealth gap that persists in most urban and minority communities.

In my role as Chair of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability, I have worked with Education Secretary Arnie Duncan, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and many others to encourage financial education within our public schools, starting as early as first grade. Part of the Council’s work led the Department of Education to participate in a global study conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to measure the financial literary of our fifteen-year-old students compared with that of their peers around the world. This study was the first of its kind, and conducting it was harder than you might think. The data show that our students, from the richest country in the world, were just average in terms of financial literacy, falling well behind students from China, Australia, and parts of Europe.

Getting our citizens to the head of the pack is not just a job for our government: we believe that business leaders and financial executives can partner with urban schools to enhance financial education and provide role models and critical mentors.

That is exactly what we have been doing in Chicago. I’m proud to note that my company has been at the forefront of this effort through our public magnet school, the Ariel Community Academy. For the past sixteen years, our program has provided students in grade school with real money to invest in real stocks, giving them the same opportunities that my dad gave me.

We have also been able to introduce all the Academy’s students to financial analysts and take them to annual meetings, such as the McDonald’s annual meeting, every year. Lastly, we have created an innovative curriculum that makes investment terms like “P/E ratios” and “beta” common terminology for all students.

Our work has also inspired over forty financial institutions in the Chicago area. Working with the Big Shoulders Fund to invest in stock-market education programs in local schools, and through the work of the President’s Council, we are learning about an incredible array of impactful programs across the country whose successes we hope to help replicate wherever we can.

The long-term values of these initiatives, especially those in our public schools, will accrue even faster than compound interest. They can help empower our children with greater knowledge, stronger math skills, and the opportunity to take greater responsibility for their financial futures. They will help more students grow up to be business leaders and entrepreneurs, which in turn creates more economic stability and, critically, more jobs for urban communities. And they will mean a more informed citizenry, which will help ensure that our uniquely democratic vision of capitalism continues to drive America’s greatness.

Today, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be part of this remarkable community. After all, it was one of this group’s earliest members, Benjamin Franklin, who instructed us that “an investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”

© 2015 by John W. Rogers, Jr.

To view or listen to the presentations, visit https://www.amacad.org/induction.

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