In the coming years, colleges and universities will face a significant faculty turnover as one of the nation’s most populous demographic—the Baby Boomer generation—prepares for retirement. Dubbed “the graying of the faculty,” this monumental shift in the academy brings both promise and questions. Not apart from the national trend, Bard College at Simon’s Rock saw two longtime faculty members retire last year: mathematics faculty member Allen Altman and art, social science, and women’s studies faculty member, Barbara Resnick. This year, the College welcomed three new faculty members: Kathryn Boswell, Fatma Gül Ünal, and Brian Wynne. They represent the next generation of scholars, reshaping the face of intellectualism and making new marks in the classroom, and in their field. Tune-in to the conversation.
Simon’s Rock faculty member and associate economic researcher at Bard’s Levy Institute for Economics, Gül Ünal isn’t the kind of economist you’d bump into on Wall Street. Her biography cites her work educating church groups, women’s organizations, and unions. How did this happen?
I grew up in Turkey, which meant I witnessed lots of poverty, social injustice and inequality. I couldn’t just move on and accept those conditions. I wanted to understand why poverty exists. Initially, I thought that studying the law would help me understand society. I thought law would give me the tools to understand how it is that a society emerges in great poverty. When I told my father this he said, “I think what you are looking for is economics, not law;” so I chose economics. I ended up studying and specializing in development economics, with a focus on gender, poverty, and inequality within agriculture.
Many economists choose to build a career outside of academia. What brought you to the campus?
Well, I have worked with traditional clients. I was a financial dealer in Turkey right after college for four years, and then a consultant in the United States for a year. But after those experiences, I can wholeheartedly say that academia rocks!
That’s quite an endorsement. What about this work do you love so much?
I really enjoy being around young people—they have so much life, which is energizing. I love that there is a freedom to learn that is not limited by a profit motive or a boss. As an academic there is space to be who I am, particularly at Simon's Rock. And I am definitely an eternal student. I am still looking for answers to so many different questions. The academy is the only place that will pay me to learn more! Where else would that happen? But, perhaps more than anything else, I find this work extremely meaningful. It is a path with a heart.
As part of this next generation of faculty, what imprint do you think your generation will have on the higher education landscape?
It seems like newer faculty might bring more diversity to the campus. I’ve noticed that there are many more international faculty members on campus now. Maybe this is a result of globalized economies, cultures, and communication technologies. Either way, I’m really excited about it. This contribution would be an important one, mostly because the world is a global community now. Today, it is absolutely essential to possess some understanding of different perspectives from different parts of the world-- regardless of one’s intended occupation. Despite national origins, it seems that the younger faculty members are more experienced in communicating with people from different cultures.
Faculty member Brian Wynne studies modern mathematics. What does that mean? Well, he says, it’s a long explanation… but basically, "it means studying abstract structures that are generalizations of more familiar ones like the standard number systems." OK, but modern mathematics. What is new about math?
If you ask the random person on the street they may think that mathematics is done, that it was finished by the Greeks two thousand years ago. Take geometry for example. Everyone studies geometry as it was envisioned by the Greeks and other cultures in high school. They think that’s it. That’s what geometry is. But there was this huge intellectual revolution in the 19th century. It was discovered that the axioms of geometry are malleable, and you can change some of the axioms of geometry and get these weird new sorts of geometries, which in fact are still being studied vigorously today. This discovery had a major impact not only on mathematics, but on philosophy and physics as well.
You’ve mentioned that if you had more time, you’d study biology and other sciences. Why did you decide to pursue and teach math instead?
Well, when I was in middle school and high school I wasn’t particularly good at mathematics. I did alright, but I didn’t really get it. Then, in college, I had this outstanding instructor. Everything he taught us made sense. I ended up falling in love with the subject. I also found that I enjoyed helping others to understand math, especially those who are struggling. It's highly rewarding when people realize that something they thought of as scary and impossible is completely graspable.
How is it that you make something that is so difficult sound so easy? Do you really believe that anyone can develop a talent for math?
Math has a bad reputation for being the sole domain of geniuses. It’s certainly hard but it doesn’t deserve the reputation. I think part of the problem is that the people who have taught it in the past have not always made it accessible.
You’ve studied, taught at, and now took a faculty position at a liberal arts college—what attracts you to this environment?
I think that life is a richer experience when we try to understand connections. A liberal arts education opens you to lots of different ideas and perspectives, which sometimes provide new insights into your main subject of study. If you do anything in a vacuum it looses something because everything is connected.
Anthropology faculty member Katie Boswell grew up outside of the Washington, D.C. area. However, this two-time Fulbright Fellow has expanded her boarders since then, where French West Africa has become a second home. Why West Africa?
As an undergraduate, I really wanted to travel, and not just to the typical places. I speak French, and so there’s a tendency to gravitate to Quebec or places like it. Part of what brought me to anthropology, rather than history, was the opportunity to study places that were located off the beaten path, and my knowledge of French enabled me discover new territories in North and West Africa.
Let’s talk about your work. It is centered in the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. What do you go there to study?
I am very interested in how, why, and what happens when people are mobile and migrate. The Ivory Coast has four million migrants from the adjacent Burkina Faso who settled in the country over the course of a century. Obviously, this dynamic makes the region a rich place to study the nature of migration. As the Ivory Coast encountered civil unrest in 2000 and later again in 2000, both indigenous and migrant populations suffered, and oftentimes the migrant population within the Ivory Coast were turned into scapegoats for all of the ills of Ivoirian society. Many migrants have since returned to their homeland Burkina Faso, however, their reintegration is complex and this complexity is the subject of my most recent research.
Do you hope that your work will somehow alleviate these issues that surround the politics of boarders?
Well, I hope that my research brings to light the nature of the Ivoirian civil war, the migrant population's treatment in this conflict, and the porous nature of international boarders, and, most importantly, the returned migrants' resourcefulness in searching for belonging whether as migrants abroad or as people who have now returned home.
As you prepare to teach anthropology to students who will concentrate in a vast range of studies (the College offers more than 40 concentrations) what do you hope that they will take away from the experience?
I hope that students will gain new perspectives and reflect more on their actions and their place in the world. It would be a success if students left mindful that there are alternatives to our way of life. That’s what anthropology does—it exposes us to a range of approaches and helps to foster tolerance by building understanding.