Faress Bhuiyan

Lessons for a Lifetime

By Kayla McGrady ’05
Nothing sets Carleton apart more than its teachers. Carleton professors invest wholeheartedly in their students—simultaneously challenging and supporting them through their development as critical thinkers and confident citizens.

Students often establish relationships with their teachers that last long past graduation. What regret, then, that we weren’t able to study with more professors during our four years on campus or to know the talented teachers who came after us.

To that end, we asked each of the six faculty members who received tenure this year and four who retired to teach us something.


Lesson: If I can say it, it's not wrong

Cherlon UsseryCherlon Ussery Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98

Cherlon Ussery, associate professor of linguistics

There are rights and wrongs when it comes to language: Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t split an infinitive. Say “between you and me,” not “between you and I.” But linguists aren’t interested in issuing grammar edicts; we’re interested in explaining how people actually speak and uncovering the rules that speakers of any language are constantly accessing, usually unconsciously.

Linguists study both standard and nonstandard varieties of a language. The next time you’re in the southern United States, you may hear someone say, “I might could go to the store,” which is a perfectly grammatical sentence in some varieties of English. You will not, however, hear anyone say, “I can could go to the store.” Speakers of Southern English know that might can precede could, but can cannot, just like speakers of other varieties know that “I could have gone to the store” is grammatical while “I have could gone to the store” is ungrammatical. All languages are governed by patterns.

By examining segments of various languages, my students discover that what some people would call mistakes are actually predictable variations.

Much of my research focuses on documenting the places in which multiple forms of a word are allowed in Icelandic and trying to explain the patterns that arise within a theoretical framework.  Most Icelandic words are conjugated to include information such as case, gender, person, and number. Consequently, each word has numerous forms. Just as in English, people often use what some would say is the wrong form of a word. But Icelandic speakers use these forms in predictable environments, and they know when a particular form is completely ungrammatical, just as English speakers know which orderings of auxiliaries are not allowed. My job is to figure out why variation surfaces in these particular environments and to explore how the patterns in Icelandic compare with those in other languages.


Lesson: A new approach to energy

Matt WhitedMatt Whited Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98

Matt Whited, associate professor of chemistry

Nowadays it isn’t difficult to convince people that energy is important. We hear about the environmental effects of fossil fuels and our increasing demand for them, research into sustainable and renewable energy, and international conflicts driven by the need for abundant, cheap energy sources. But many people find the extent of our reliance surprising. For instance, the Haber-Bosch process for turning abundant nitrogen gas into fertilizer makes it possible for more than 7 billion people on Earth to eat, but it also accounts for up to 5 percent of global energy use.  Energy is a complex and multifaceted issue because it takes many forms and has many applications. Our global energy needs are projected to be 43 terawatts by 2100, up from 13 terawatts at the turn of the millennium.

Only the sun can satisfy our unquenchable need for energy. Every couple of hours, it showers Earth’s surface with enough energy for an entire year. But the sun’s energy comes with strings attached: it is intermittent and diffuse.

Nature has been dealing with this issue for millennia by using chemistry. In the photosynthetic process, plants store solar energy in the chemical bonds of sugars, all the while removing carbon dioxide from the air. Biological systems routinely use metals to accomplish some of their most difficult chemical reactions, including photosynthesis, and we hope to take a page from their book.

My laboratory is full of synthetic chemists—Carleton students—who love metals. We are working to understand how we can tackle a variety of chemical and energy problems, interfacing metal catalysts with different energetic sources (chemical reagents, electrodes, and light) to perform reactions on nature’s most intractable chemical bonds, like the carbon-oxygen bonds in carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide. We have made significant progress in finding new “cooperative” approaches where strategic pairing of a metal with another element from the periodic table allows them to perform difficult chemistry, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. With funding from the National Science Foundation and Petroleum Research Fund, we are developing new ways to store, utilize, and transform energy for applications as diverse as carbon dioxide utilization and pharmaceutical synthesis.


Lesson: Check your narrative

Thabiti WillisThabiti Willis Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98

Thabiti Willis, associate professor of history

We are all engaged in historical reconstruction. We use and invoke historical narratives to rationalize all kinds of things, but we may do it without critically questioning those narratives.

In my “War in Modern Africa” class, we talk about the way Americans associate genocide with Africa, often without really looking at the role the West has played. For example, how have Cold War politics shaped the political fortunes of African countries? When I ask that question, students often are silent. They worry about saying the wrong thing or having classmates misinterpret their comments. Some students expect me to blame the West for everything, but the point is to recognize how political and economic interests in the West and in Africa fuel distorted views of modern and historical Africa in the media and in higher education.

The biggest challenge is getting people to care enough to be uncomfortable, and then to recognize that productive discomfort can be transformative. Recognizing the ways in which we capitulate to power and adopt historical narratives around certain interests is uncomfortable. On any given issue, it might be men vs. women, gay vs. straight, privileged vs. marginalized classes, Northerners vs. Southerners. But in some way, we are all involved in amplifying some voices and silencing or marginalizing others.

We participate in the production of history when we affirm particular narratives—even if we do so without engaging them critically. Americans imagine Africa as backward and rural because people have circulated those images, instead of images of skyscrapers, IT infrastructure, or billionaire CEOs of mobile tech companies, which also exist in Africa. We then pass along these images of jungles, safaris, and traditional villages without trying to understand people’s actual lived experiences.

We have a responsibility to question the narratives we reproduce. What interests are being served through the circulation of the narrative? How are arguments being used and to what end?


Lesson: How R&B moved into the mainstream

Andy FloryAndy Flory Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98

Andy Flory, associate professor of music

Rhythm and blues—or R&B—has come to signify a style, or a manner of approaching composition, production, and performance. It often involves African American artists, listeners, and executives, but not exclusively so, and connections between R&B and race are relatively oblique in today’s pop music.

This was not the case in the late 1940s, when music journalist (and later well-known executive) Jerry Wexler coined the term “rhythm and blues” in the trade publication Billboard. Music markets were highly segregated at the time, and nearly all black artists—regardless of the styles they performed—were contained within the larger R&B market. Vocal harmony groups, jazz-oriented singers, instrumental dance musicians, and blues performers were only a few of the many musicians in varied styles who operated under the umbrella of R&B. Retail outlets, radio, performance venues, jukebox locations, record labels, and many other mechanisms were marked by the industry as “R&B,” and nearly all black performers worked within this network. It operated in a mostly parallel fashion to the “mainstream” and “country and western” markets in the United States at the time.

The most popular R&B music was released by independently owned record companies—Motown, Atlantic, and Chess—for the better part of three decades: from the end of World War II until the late 1970s. The interplay between the R&B market and the mainstream became quite pronounced during the late 1950s with the advent of girl groups and rock and roll. R&B was originally conceived by the industry as music made by black artists for black listeners; however, the manner in which it crossed between market formations is a fascinating story that parallels the sweeping social changes in America and around the world that occurred during the 1960s.


Lesson: Collaboration is key

Sarah MeertsSarah Meerts Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98

Sarah Meerts, associate professor of psychology

Science is a collaborative process, so one of my favorite parts of teaching at Carleton is carrying out experiments with students. In my lab we seek to increase understanding of the neural, hormonal, and experiential factors that affect motivated behavior, especially naturally rewarding behavior like eating, mating, or parenting.

We use female rats in our research because much of the existing data in biomedical research is derived from male subjects, leaving large gaps about how females interact with members of the same species following administration of drugs or exposure to particular experiences.

I typically have working in my lab 8 to 10 student researchers who range from new to highly trained. I particularly want to provide research opportunities for students from underrepresented groups, including women and first-generation students.

Students begin by reviewing existing literature in our field to appreciate how our findings fit more broadly into the record of accumulated knowledge. As students develop a deeper understanding of how the brain shapes behavior and vice versa, they become true collaborators who work with me to design experiments that will generate new knowledge. Students often share our findings with others in the scientific community at conferences and in publications. This mentorship model enables students both to develop research skills and to appreciate the support network that makes science possible.


Lesson: Money won't make you happy

Faress BhuiyanFaress Bhuiyan Photo: Sara Rubinstein ’98

Faress Bhuiyan, associate professor of economics

Economists have put a lot of thought into understanding why certain people report being satisfied with their lives. We have stalked twins, followed lottery winners, run laboratory experiments, reached out to neurologists (neuroeconomics is an actual thing), asked volunteers to report how they were feeling every hour for days, written countless theoretical models, crunched numbers from all around the world, and analyzed people’s Facebook posts.

And many of us have concluded that income is not an important predictor of life satisfaction. Much of modern happiness economics started with the seminal work of Richard Easterlin, which departed from a long and rich history of economists and social scientists studying  incentives in terms of pleasure and pain. Easterlin pointed out that following the end of World War II—and despite the fact that the income per capita of a number of European countries doubled over two decades—the average level of self-reported life satisfaction among Europeans hardly changed.

Known as the Easterlin Paradox, this observation sparked a plethora of empirical analyses. Some researchers find income to be an important factor in determining happiness, others find it to be unimportant, and still others find evidence of a “satiation point” after which further income does not add to life satisfaction.

Recent studies suggest that it also matters how people spend their money. Money spent on traveling, experiential goods, and charitable giving improve life satisfaction, while money spent on consumption goods such as houses, cars, and jewelry do not seem to matter much. They become background noise very fast.

The list of things identified by happiness economists that potentially affect our life satisfaction is long. The most important predictor, however, may very well be our genes or innate characteristics. Some studies suggest that genes can explain the variations in life satisfaction between individuals considerably more than all the socioeconomic, demographic, and self-reported variables studied so far.


Extra Credit

Once a teacher, always a teacher. These longtime faculty members retired this year, but they agreed to teach us one more lesson. (This is an expanded version of the sidebar appearing in the print version of the Voice.)


Lesson: Unpack claims in turbulent rhetorical times
Carol Rutz, director of the College Writing Program and senior lecturer in English

My courses teach students about making and interpreting arguments. Understanding claims of fact, value, and policy helps students sort out the evidence for and the reliability of a writer’s or speaker’s assertions. Claims of fact require verifiable evidence, claims of value require specific definitions and a recognition of moral valence, and claims of policy show why a particular policy should or must be implemented. These three claims nest together: facts and values support policy.

For example, a claim of fact might be: “Most of the students in this class come from outside Minnesota.” A show of hands will either support or refute that claim.

A claim of value could be: “Carleton’s architecture is an aesthetic disaster.” This claim is more complicated, because it assumes unspecified definitions. What makes architecture more or less aesthetically pleasing? What kinds of architecture are on our campus? Whose assessment matters? Students challenge that claim in ways that draw upon campus history, the taste and credentials of those who designed the buildings, the structural integrity of buildings in various conditions, and their own emotional responses to the built environment.

A policy claim such as “Carleton must establish varsity Ultimate Frisbee teams for men and women” reflects local values and traditions, yet must accommodate external realities, such as NCAA Division III rules and the need for an appropriate group of opponents. (Great idea, though!)

Another claim of fact: Students appreciate analysis via claims as a tool for critical thinking, reading, and writing. A value claim: In these times, such skills offer hope through an enlightened citizenry. Policy: Vote!


Lesson: Curate your art
Laurel Bradley, director and curator, Perlman Teaching Museum, and senior lecturer in art and art history

“Curation” isn’t just for museums. We curate our homes when we choose and display art. Here are five tips to improve your own efforts:

  1. Support artists. Spend more on what’s in the frame than on the frame itself.
  2. Abolish acidic mats. The rigid window that reveals a drawing, print, photograph, or cherished child’s crayon scrawl might be slowly destroying the art! You can tell if your mat is acidic—and therefore slowly discoloring and weakening the paper—by looking at the bevel. Run to the frame shop if you see any color besides white or cream and ask for a 100 percent rag replacement mat.
  3. Avoid colored mats. Have you seen those T-shirts that say “Good art does not go with the sofa!”? At the risk of sounding like an art world elitist, I offer this advice: Do not match the mat color to your sofa, or to any of the colors in the art itself. White or off-white mats make for elegant surrounds.
  4. Hang it right. In the museum biz, we use a mid-line measurement calculated at between 56 and 60 inches from the floor when hanging flat works on the wall.
  5. Know your terminology. In art parlance, that poster (offset mass-produced print reproducing a painting by Claude Monet, for example) is not a print. Fine art prints are issued in limited editions, and are further defined as lithograph, intaglio (etching, engraving, drypoint, etc.), woodcut or wood engraving, serigraph, or silkscreen.


Lesson: Don’t forget your slide rule
Bill Titus, professor of physics

Imagine you’re in physics class and the instructor gives you a device where one ruled slide passes by another. He says you’re going to learn to multiply and divide with this slide rule. A strange assignment. Why use an outdated mechanical tool that was replaced 40 years ago by electronic calculators?

From a historical standpoint, the slide rule was the computational device for scientists for some 350 years. The instrument was invented by William Oughtred in 1622, after logarithms were introduced in 1614 by John Napier. Slide rules were not inexpensive. The one I purchased as a college student in 1958 cost $35, which, with inflation, would be $300 today.

Using a slide rule is far more than a novel opportunity to try out a historical scientific tool—it gives an appreciation of logarithms and how they revolutionized numerical calculations involving large numbers. For example, since the logarithm of a product of two numbers is the sum of the logarithms of the individual numbers, you can multiply large numbers by finding their logarithms from an established table, adding the individual logarithms, and then using the table in reverse to determine the product. Slide rules do this process for you.

Need a refresher? The rulings on the standard slides (the so-called C and D scales) are labeled with decimal numbers from 1 to 10, but with spacings calibrated in logarithms of those numbers. If you want to multiply 2.2 x 3.3, you put the 1 on the top slide over 2 on the bottom slide, move your slider to 3.3 on the top slide, and, like magic, the product 7.26 appears on the bottom slide.

But what about multiplying numbers like 2,200 and 0.000033? Here you keep track of powers of 10, and express the product as (2.2 x 103) x (3.3 x 10-5), or equivalently, (2.2 x 3.3) x 10-2. Now, as before, you use the slide rule to multiply 2.2 by 3.3 and quote the final result as 7.26 x 10-2.

The skill of collecting powers of 10 has been greatly diminished with the advent of calculators; you can just enter the original numbers into a calculator and read off the answer. Collecting powers of 10 allows you to estimate answers to numerical calculations before you do them, which lets you check that you’ve entered the correct numbers or helps with back-of-the-envelope calculations.


Lesson: Make sense of pictures
John Schott, James Woodward Strong Professor of the Liberal Arts

Of the 7.5 billion people on our little blue marble, about 5 billion have mobile phones, 80 percent of which have built-in cameras. If each camera took just one picture a week, that adds up to more than 200 billion pictures a year. The digital revolution has left us awash in photographic images. But really, what does any single image mean?

One of my simplest yet most eye-opening assignments has been to ask students to find two or three photographs that have no associated text—that is, no caption, no surrounding story, no written or categorical context that accompanies the image. Give it a try yourself—and expect to do some hunting. When you think you have found one, dig a little deeper. You will probably find framing language hidden nearby that funnels you toward a particular meaning. Photographs almost never stand alone.

If you are sometimes baffled by what a photograph means, it is almost certainly not because it is absent of meaning, but rather because it overflows with possible meanings. Critic Roland Barthes called them polysemic. Typically photographs only become comprehensible when we limit their potential meanings by pointing toward some and bracketing out others. Most often, this pointing is accomplished with accompanying text. Barthes argued that nearly all images we encounter are anchored to a narrow range of possible meanings by their surrounding text and context.

While it is generally true that surrounding language points you toward specific meanings—proffering the image as evidence—it is still possible for us to develop our own interpretations. We can be resistant readers by bringing our own point of view to a photo while also being conscious of ways in which it is being framed. Yet, more often than not, we follow the path that context provides.

Photographs seem true or natural because they seem to come from life, but their meanings are often determined by how they are presented. As you surf through our image-saturated world, keep an eye out for those ties to language.

Bob Dobrow, professor of mathematics and statistics, and Diane Pearsall, senior lecturer in Spanish, also retired this year but were unable to participate in our story.

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