Five retiring Carleton professors

Time to Say So Long

By Claire Sykes
Eventually, everyone at Carleton leaves the hallowed halls. For these five retiring professors, the decision comes after decades on campus—sharing knowledge and ideas, researching and writing, and enjoying some of the most satisfying relationships of their lives. Here, they talk about teaching and learning, what matters most, what they’ll miss, and what they hope for the future.

Living the Language

Mariko Kaga, Class of 1952 Professor of Asian Languages, Emerita, 1986–2020Mariko Kaga, Class of 1952 Professor of Asian Languages, Emerita, 1986–2020 Photo: Scott Streble

Mariko Kaga, Class of 1952 Professor of Asian Languages, Emerita, 1986–2020

Pass by Mariko Kaga’s classroom and you’d hear only Japanese. In her advanced, conversation-based courses, students read Japanese newspapers and literature, and they discussed the country’s foods, environmental issues, and other current topics.

“I wanted students to be fluent, but also to grow as whole human beings,” Kaga explains. “Language is not just symbols; it’s a living thing. In order to understand a language, you have to understand the culture and how people from different cultures can look at the same things and have different ideas about them. I saw wonderful progress in my students. They expanded their perspectives of and respect for people of other cultures. That’s important for a liberal arts education.”

Kaga, who was awarded the Class of 1952 Professor of Asian Languages endowed chair in 2002, makes sure she keeps growing, too. As often as possible since she moved to the United States in 1976, she has returned to her home country, where she still has family and friends. She stays for a month at a time to catch up with changes in Japanese language and culture, listening and talking to young people so she can learn new expressions.

“Understand others with respect, stay humble, and be grateful no matter what happens.”

In 2001 Kaga and Kathryn Sparling, retired professor of Japanese, organized and led a group of 11 other Carleton faculty members from a variety of disciplines on a two-week trip to Japan, where most of them had never been. They went to Nara and Nagasaki to study Japanese culture and history, visiting famous temples, historical museums, and archeological sites. In Nagasaki, each traveler spent a night with a different Japanese family.

“The trip strengthened everyone’s sense of community,” says Kaga, who takes into retirement her “extended family” of many Carleton colleagues and friends. “Their generosity and support are indescribable, and the students are my treasures. This community spirit is what I really value, and what I will bring with me to the end of my life.”

Not so Black and White

Harry McKinley Williams Jr., Laird Bell Professor of History, Emeritus, 1989–2020Harry McKinley Williams Jr., Laird Bell Professor of History, Emeritus, 1989–2020 Photo: Scott Streble

Harry McKinley Williams Jr., Laird Bell Professor of History, Emeritus, 1989–2020

Harry Williams will still tend his Japanese garden at his Northfield home, take shooting lessons, and try new recipes. And he’s still writing that biography about social commentator George Schuyler. But is all this enough?

“What do I do, since health challenges force me to retire?” he says. “I’ve devoted the past 30 years only to teaching. I’ve had no personal life connected to a significant other, no children, and I’m 72. And I live in a town that’s not socially or culturally nurturing of a single Black man. I’m not anti-white, but I go days without seeing a Black person.

While the future is “fraught with unknowns,” Williams says, one thing is certain: “I’m really going to miss teaching. I’ve taught what I wanted, and I’ve had some very bright students who were politically aware. My years with the college have been rich with complexity and nuance.”

Williams, who is the Laird Bell Professor of History, Emeritus, has taken students to Ghana, and he’s been to China three times, once as a Fulbright scholar to teach. He also has visited ten other countries in Asia, Europe, and Africa. “Wherever there are Black people has been my main interest,” he explains.

“I will always oppose historical amnesia about racial injustice.”

Howard University, which educated a large and significant group of Black historians between 1913 and 1917, is one such place of interest. Williams had no official connection to Howard, but when Serena Zabin, chair of Carleton’s history department, told him that the DC-based institution’s history department lost its entire graduate-student library in 2018 due to a steam line rupture, Williams graciously agreed to donate some 2,500 books from his personal library. Information, after all, is a civically minded academic’s best weapon. “Curiosity about all people opens the door for cross-cultural understanding,” Williams says.

Ultimately, though, Williams’s former students will not be surprised to hear their professor say that he’s not optimistic about society coming to grips with widespread ignorance and intolerance anytime soon. “I’ve dedicated my life to trying to pull back veils of willed ignorance regarding African Americans. But I think white supremacy is a permanent, dominant feature, and that Blacks will probably never achieve justice,” he says. “Whites, in general, are afraid to have a rigorous conversation about race and their historic and present complicity in maintaining white supremacy while feigning racial liberalism. And most Blacks are afraid to be honest and open with them. The consequences are tragic.”

Going with the Flow

Mary Savina ’72, Charles L. Denison Professor of Geology, Emerita, 1978–2020Mary Savina ’72, Charles L. Denison Professor of Geology, Emerita, 1978–2020 Photo: Scott Streble

Mary Savina ’72, Charles L. Denison Professor of Geology, Emerita, 1978–2020

The intersection of literature, history, and science captivates Mary Savina ’72, who—during a lifetime studying the planet’s surfaces—has focused on the world’s waterways, where geology meets humanity. “Waterways change on the human time scale, so you can see their influence, by and on people,” she says.

Savina has studied the evolution of the Cannon River, a tributary of the Mississippi, and in 2015 traveled the length of Italy’s Tiber River with two history-department colleagues. Later that year, she cocurated an exhibit at the Perlman Teaching Museum featuring rare illustrated books and maps from 16th- and 17th-century Italy that show how rivers were represented at the time.

While she plans to continue her decades-long research on the geoarchaeology of Grevena, Greece, she’ll miss interacting with students and fellow professors who see the campus as a “living lab,” where learning and discovery happen both in and outside the classroom.

“Science is all about observation and making sense of what you observe.”

Savina’s courses always included visits to the Cowling Arboretum. One year, students observed that one of its wetlands was too close to a proposed bridge and suggested developing a slightly different footprint. In class tours of the steam plant and dining services, students got a feel for what sorts of projects are needed to wean an institution of its reliance on fossil fuels.

Savina worries about the rise in both the region’s destructive floods and its daily minimum temperature, and also about Minnesota’s forests, where earthworms, which are not native to the state, “are removing entire seasons of fallen leaves,” she says.

To study and illuminate these climate-change concerns and other environmental issues, “students and scientists need to get out of their STEM silos and talk with one another,” Savina says. “They also need to be storytellers, from the view of farmers or the Inuit experiencing climate change, instead of using only data and graphs, so people can feel the impact. As one of my students said, ‘Earth will take care of itself. What we need to worry about is us.’" 

The Chords that Tie

Ben Allen, Senior Lecturer in Music, 1994–2020Ben Allen, Senior Lecturer in Music, 1994–2020 Photo: Scott Streble

Ben Allen, Senior Lecturer in Music, 1994–2020

For Ben Allen, singing is about a lot more than making music with the voice. When it’s done with others, he says, “it’s also good social capital. A choir is about people from diverse places who assemble to do something creative, connecting positively with the community.

“I am also interested in finding the role music or singing plays in people’s lives. And I am helping students express themselves and be critical thinkers.”

Allen’s teaching philosophy was solidified and fortified in 2004 when, after he had sung with the Minnesota Swahili Choir in Minneapolis for nine years, a Tanzanian friend in the group invited him to the east African country to help promote local choirs, a tradition that had been fading fast. He traveled to the country twice, first to collect and record music and then again five years later to work with the Imuka singers, a group affiliated with the Minneapolis-based Community Solutions for Africa’s Development.

“I grew up in a smaller southern Minnesota town, and I had built-in deficits that made me prejudiced. Being a white male only added to that,” he says. “Power plus privilege plus prejudice equals racism. Once I got past the hurdle of admitting that, it was ‘What’s next?’”

Feeling at home in Tanzania “was a step in the right direction,” says Allen, and he returned to Carleton committed to finding ways to help himself and others avoid assumptions about one another based on surface differences.

“The best choral experience is when you become a part of the whole. There’s something that happens beyond the notes.”

“A big part of my teaching was to help people hear different auditory channels or experience a different kinesthetic feel to their voice, and be open to new ways of singing,” says Allen, who sings baritone. “So it became important for me to hear my international students sing in their mother tongue. It helped me understand how they perceived sound, and what their familiar, home vocal register and quality were.” (Allen’s Hmong-speaking Cambodian students, for example, tended to sing within speaking range, so he helped them discover a higher pitch.)

Allen recently started an antiracism discussion group for white people and hopes to continue to “shed light on the white supremacy that many of our institutions are founded upon,” he says. And he wants to spend more time singing with his church’s choir.

“It’s a human thing,” he says. “People need music, and singing in particular, to make their lives richer.”

Adding it All Up

Gail Nelson, Professor of Mathematics, Emerita, 1988–2020Gail Nelson, Professor of Mathematics, Emerita, 1988–2020 Photo: Scott Streble

Gail Nelson, Professor of Mathematics, Emerita, 1988–2020

Gail Nelson wants to see more diversity on the Carleton faculty, especially in the mathematics and statistics department. “And I’m not just talking about women,” she says.

The qualifier is rooted in personal history. When she came to Carleton, Nelson was the department’s only female faculty member. She also was the first woman at Carleton to become a full professor of math and be named chair of the department. “I was keenly aware of women being underrepresented in mathematics,” she says. “Still today, it’s more acceptable for a woman to be a statistician or a computer scientist than a mathematician.”

Nelson encouraged students to be actively engaged in their learning: to view mathematics as more than figuring out which equations to use to solve problems and look for patterns. “Especially with calculus, I wanted students to understand the mathematical tools and how they worked together, so they could think about which ones were relevant to arrive at an answer,” she says. “I asked questions that would get them to question themselves and uncover the clues that would lead to a conclusion.”

“You can learn how to use a hammer, screwdriver, and drill, but you need to know which tools to use when. The same goes for math.”

In 1993 Nelson developed “Real Analysis II,” a course to better prepare students for a subject they would encounter in graduate school. She wrote A User-Friendly Introduction to Lebesgue Measure and Integration from articles she published on cantor sets and parabolic equations. “This book is what I’m most proud of in my Carleton career,” she says.

Moving forward, Nelson—who also has a bachelor’s degree in music—will continue to express herself on the violin, which she has played with both the Cannon Valley Regional Orchestra and a community chamber group over the past 20 years. “I still play a lot, and I expect to dedicate more time to it,” she says. “I’m very good at rhythm and, when I play, I’m exploring musical ideas. That’s the mathematical side of me.”

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