Collage of newly-tenured faculty

On the Right Track

By Jon Spayde | Photos by Sara Rubinstein ’98
The six scholars granted tenure recently are studying machine learning, Bronze Age Greece, Chinese microblogging, and much more.

As of this fall, six Carleton professors have gained something they’ve been working toward since entering academe: tenure. The American Association of University Professors defines tenure as “an indefinite appointment that can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances such as financial exigency and program discontinuation.” In short, a tenured professor is protected from firing for any but the most serious reasons

“Tenure is intended to ensure academic freedom and freedom of inquiry in teaching and research,” says Beverly Nagel ’75, Carleton’s dean of the college.

Faculty president George Shuffelton notes that it’s a distinctively North American institution. “The older European universities were founded by faculty guilds,” he says, “but our institutions were mostly set up by powerful individuals and boards of trustees. Tenure arose to keep faculties from ‘serving at the pleasure’ of those founders.”

Carleton’s tenure process is rigorous, balanced among assessments of scholarship, teaching, and service, says Nagel. Candidates are observed in the classroom for an entire year. Student assessments of the professors include narrative essays, not just multiple-choice or short-answer questions, which are more typical at other like-sized institutions. And, of course, the professors’ scholarship is carefully examined by Carleton colleagues and outside experts.

Anna Rafferty, Associate Professor of Computer Science

Anna Rafferty, Associate Professor of Computer ScienceAnna Rafferty, Associate Professor of Computer Science Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98

“My research is at the intersection between machine learning and cognitive science,” says Anna Rafferty, associate professor of computer science. “I work on questions like how we can make computer programs that teach people things more effectively. And how can we build models of how people learn based on that knowledge?”

Rafferty, a Minnesotan who earned her doctorate at the University of California–Berkeley, has launched multiple projects, including one that built a program that examines various steps students take to solve algebra problems. The goal was to infer what people understand and misunderstand about algebra, in order to design machine-learning algorithms that adapt to their learning needs.

“Computer science hooks you,” she says. “The computer gives you feedback about what’s going on. There’s something very satisfying about a situation where you come up with an algorithm, you run it, and look, here are these cool results—and I have 80 more questions about what I did and what I should do.”

Although Rafferty hasn’t focused her research specifically on computer science education, she feels that her background in the science of learning has informed her work in the classroom. “And I get so much out of working with my students as associates on my projects,” she says.

As for the decision to work at the interface between computation and education, it came “when I asked myself what kinds of projects I could do that would leverage my knowledge of computer science and cognitive science—and would result in somebody being immediately helped by what I’m doing.”

Alex Knodell, Associate Professor of Classics

Alex Knodell, Associate Professor of ClassicsAlex Knodell, Associate Professor of Classics Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98

Professors work indoors. A lot. In some fields, though, they have other options. “One of the things I really like about archaeology,” says associate professor of classics Alex Knodell, “is that I get to spend time outside—hiking around in mountains, sailing around islands, and looking at beautiful landscapes. It’s pretty amazing to be able to do stuff like that for my job.”

Knodell’s research, indoors and out, is focused on the period from 1500 to 700 BCE in Greece, when the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age and alphabetic writing began, along with many other technological and social changes foundational to our civilization. He’s worked in mainland Greece and today studies small islands in the Cyclades chain in the Aegean Sea.

Landscape is a key word for Knodell, a Minnesota native whose doctorate is from Brown University. He practices landscape archaeology, an approach that goes beyond the traditional emphasis on single sites—city, temple, palace—to take in entire regions. “That focus helps me look at the ways ancient people actually lived their lives—the various ways they interacted with their environment,” he says.

To probe antiquity, Knodell uses 21st-century tools, including geographic information systems (GIS) technology, which combines multiple sets of data about a landscape to create a complex picture of, for example, which landscape features are associated with more or fewer artifacts.

And teaching, Knodell says, “forces me to think about and explain these things I consider important in new ways all the time—to constantly rearticulate why this stuff matters.”

Prathi Seneviratne, Associate Professor of Economics

Prathi Seneviratne, Associate Professor of EconomicsPrathi Seneviratne, Associate Professor of Economics Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98

Globalization—the increasing integration of the world economy, with its winners, losers, and controversies—is the research focus for this associate professor of economics, born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and holding a doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. “I look at developing countries and how they have adapted to globalization,” says Prathi Seneviratne. “How their labor markets have been affected, and the gender aspect as well. Can we blame globalization for widening gender gaps, or credit globalization with narrowing them—or is there more subtlety?”

Answering her own rhetorical question, Seneviratne says there is always more subtlety, because policies and conditions differ from country to country. Work in the Mexican maquiladora factories, for example, gave women economic opportunities that were impossible while they were tied to agriculture. “But in Sri Lanka,” she says, “men have monopolized the formal-sector jobs, and women have been forced into the informal economy.”

Economics appealed to the math-loving Seneviratne from the first time she took an introductory course. “I like combining mathematics with the storytelling aspect of economics,” she says. “The math gives the story a concrete anchor. But if you can’t get the point across in a narrative, you’re not a good economist. I tell my students: Don’t just show a graph—tell the story.”

Seneviratne feels that attaining tenure has freed her to try new things in the classroom and in her research. “I’m simply not as worried about things not working out,” she says. “I no longer have this timeline to meet. If a project doesn’t succeed, I haven’t lost a year. It’s a good feeling.”

Shaohua Guo, Associate Professor of Chinese

Shaohua Guo, Associate Professor of ChineseShaohua Guo, Associate Professor of Chinese Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98

When most Americans think of the Chinese digital world, they tend to focus on the drama of censorship and resistance—what Beijing doesn’t want online, and how dissident Chinese netizens struggle with the state. “I’m interested in what kind of content is promoted and publicized,” says Shaohua Guo. “What has attracted a lot of public discussion in China.”

An associate professor of Chinese, Guo teaches and writes on contemporary Chinese cinema, television drama, and literature, too. But her first book, based on her dissertation and nearing completion, explores the Chinese digital landscape, which she calls more complex than many foreign observers realize: “I’m trying to use my work to show the subtleties in the picture.”

Guo cites the case of Han Han, a widely popular blogger and novelist who has attacked conservative neo-Maoism—which gave him dissident cred—while expressing his conviction that the Chinese are not ready for democracy. “He operates on the line between what’s permissible and what isn’t,” says Guo. “Many of his posts have been taken down by the authorities, but many of them have stayed up.”

Born in Henan Province in central China, Guo earned a BA and MA at Beijing Normal University and her doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin. She credits her students with genuine openness to Chinese reality, and relishes working on contemporary issues. “With things that are still developing, there’s excitement,” she says. “That’s the biggest challenge, too; the target is always moving. But it’s a challenge I love.”

Jessica Keating, Associate Professor of Art History

Jessica Keating, Associate Professor of Art HistoryJessica Keating, Associate Professor of Art History Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98

“The day I started writing the first words of my next book,” says Jessica Keating, associate professor of art history, “I got the call that I had tenure. That week I wrote so much!”

The book that tenure helped Keating push forward is her second, based on a theme that sounds recondite but, she exclaims, is perennially meaningful for those who are faced with the deceptions of political imagery. “It’s on art, nature, and governance in the Holy Roman Empire, focusing on the court of Rudolf II,” she says.

Rudolf, an eccentric art-and-alchemy-loving 16th-century monarch, ruled an “empire,” mainly made up of petty German states, that was in steep decline. Yet he commissioned artists to create works associating his rule with a luxuriant, bountiful nature with no hint of natural decay. “It makes you realize how long states have relied on a very limited repertoire of images, leaving certain things out,” Keating says. (Happy Soviet workers and pristine American landscapes, from sea to shining sea, come to mind.)

The Ohio native is fascinated by the strangeness of the late Renaissance and the baroque, and how that strangeness relates to serious themes. Her first book, based on her Northwestern University dissertation, was on automata—clockwork devices that animated symbolic scenarios, usually connected with political or religious issues. A clockwork monkey speaking to a herd of deer, for example, was probably a Catholic jibe at the Protestant belief that laypeople should preach. And she’s sketching out a monograph on Arcimboldo, the offbeat court artist who once portrayed Rudolf II as a lush assemblage of fruit and vegetables.

Julia Strand, Associate Professor of Psychology

Julia Strand, Associate Professor of PsychologyJulia Strand, Associate Professor of Psychology Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98

“Imagine that you’re sitting, pre-COVID, in a noisy restaurant, across from someone,” says Julia Strand. “Sound waves are tumbling out of their mouth and hitting your ears, along with the sound waves of the people at the next table, and in the kitchen they’re dropping things. Somehow in all of that noise you need to figure out which of the sound waves are coming from your dinner date, and then turn them into meaningful ideas.”

Put it that way, and it seems miraculous that humans can communicate verbally at all. And that ordinary miracle—how people perceive spoken language—is what this associate professor of psychology studies. “What is so remarkable,” she says, “is that it feels like it’s happening effortlessly, instantly, but the sensory and cognitive processes are incredibly complicated.”

Strand notes that we use context and visual clues like lip movement and gestures to help. But it’s still a conundrum. “I mean, how on earth are we pulling this off? I want to understand what’s going on in those wonderful little mind-meatloaves in our heads that enables us to do this difficult task.”

To explore these questions, Minnesota-born Strand, whose PhD is from Washington University in St. Louis, founded Carleton’s Perception Lab, where she works with students. “They’re true collaborators who do every part of the research process. They’re coauthors on the papers and they come to conferences,” she says. “Teaching them how to do science, giving them an appreciation for what science looks like, is the best part for me."

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