The Power of a Book
We asked nine Hamilton professors to share a nonfiction book, published within the last few decades, that not only inspired or influenced their thinking, but also altered the way they regard their teaching, research, lifestyle, or view of the world.
What is history? Is it the study of the past? All of it? Or only after humans had mastered the art of writing? As a historian of the premodern world — the era before the French Revolution and the rise of industrialization — I study how people who lived in earlier eras had, by and large, the same potential for sophisticated thought, political machinations, love, and warfare as we do today. As historians seek to write more inclusive histories that do not only center the insights of cultures that wrote in a way that is intelligible to us, we have sought new windows into the past beyond texts alone.
David Reich, a Harvard-based geneticist whose research focuses on population genetics in ancient humans, has directed us to one such portal. While scientists with leading labs often focus only on writing for their field, Reich’s work relies on archaeological, historical, and linguistic research, while also reaching out to scholars beyond experts in ancient DNA. His book Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past (2018) offers both an introduction to the history of population genetics as a field and a history of the deep past. He follows human populations who migrated across the globe, making the peoples of Africa, Europe, India, Native America, and East Asia, all the while mixing with different groups, including Neanderthals. The result is a history of science that tells a history — filled with love, cunning, and destruction — of humans who wrote down little or nothing.
A new generation of historical scholarship now seeks to combine the study of biological evidence with texts. Medievalists are leading the charge. Monica Green has combined written records with genetic science to the spread of plague and leprosy; Patrick Geary has interwoven ancient DNA analysis to understand barbarian migrations of the fourth and sixth centuries in Europe; scholars at Harvard have promoted these cross-disciplinary methods through the Initiative for the Science of the Human Past. Doing this work requires deep knowledge of both history and the challenges of working with scientific evidence.
Assistant Professor of Biology
In the summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, amidst the turmoil and uncertainty of COVID, I searched for a book that would help me navigate my way through. At the time I needed to read something that would transform my approach to teaching and inform how I would show up in my classrooms when, and if, we were allowed to teach in person again.
Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994) by bell hooks was that book. hooks begins with a critical analysis of the education system, outlines the need for an inclusive and transformative learning environment, and proposes a model of teaching that challenges traditional hierarchies of power. The book reimagines the classroom as a space to encourage students to engage actively in their own learning and invites us to imagine education as a tool for liberation (as perhaps it was always intended to be). hooks rethinks the use of space and movement in the classroom as a way to break barriers between students and professors. It is this kind of transgressive teaching that is essential toward undoing and unlearning the structural inequities that persistently and systematically exclude entire groups of students. hooks gently, firmly, tells us that authority for authority’s sake can create chasms between the learner and the material, particularly if the learner is already part of an excluded group.
I read the book as I usually read books that I know are going to transform my life — read a chapter, put it down, reflect, take a walk, re-read, and then move to the next chapter. (It was the summer of 2020 — there was a lot of time to be spent with my thoughts and worries! How was I going to incorporate this kind of transgressive teaching into STEM classrooms and into the laboratory? Is it possible to truly visualize science education as a tool for social transformation?)
I continue to draw inspiration from the book, but perhaps the major takeaway for me was that all education should foster a sense of personal and collective responsibility to effect change. bell hooks was a writer, activist, and educator, and her joy for teaching and her hope for the future were exactly what I needed that summer.
Timur Kuran’s book Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification (1995) introduced me to the idea of “preference falsification,” when people misrepresent their own thoughts and desires due to perceived social pressure.
Preference falsification happens in mundane ways in our everyday lives. I might feel pressure not to admit that I’d rather stay in than go out with friends because I don’t want to disappoint them or worry that they’ll judge me. In other contexts, the consequences can be more serious. In authoritarian regimes, people may privately dislike the dictator, but continue to publicly express support for him, show up to rallies, etc., out of fear of punishment. Indeed, dictatorships often depend on this type of preference falsification to remain in power.
Kuran’s book helped me understand the astounding speed at which change can happen. Think of the collapse of the Soviet Union, or how quickly Arab Spring protests brought down seemingly entrenched dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt, or, more recently, the speed with which the #MeToo movement seemed to shift norms about sexual harassment. Once some people stop falsifying their preferences in public, it becomes easier for others to follow suit. And seeing others protesting, or sharing their experiences publicly, can also change the minds of those who had been content with the way things were — creating a cascade of public support for change.
Kuran’s book also helped me come to terms with the limits of even experts to predict political and social change. Because we can’t observe when private grievances are piling up until they reach a critical threshold, it can be quite difficult to anticipate major political transformations in advance. Kuran calls this the “predictability of unpredictability.”
At the same time, the book made me more optimistic about the possibilities of such change in my own lifetime. It can be frustrating to see long periods of time pass without significant progress on issues that may be important to you. But, as Kuran shows, this does not mean that change is impossible — or that when it starts, that it will go slowly.
of Anomalous AI
Assistant Professor of Digital Arts
The Atlas of Anomalous AI (2020), edited by K Allado-McDowell, founder of Google’s Art and AI initiative, and Ben Vickers, a writer, curator, and technologist, had a recent impact on my teaching and thinking. The book is a collection of essays on AI, situated around humanistic, poetic, artistic, and ethical issues. As described by publisher Ignota Books, the collection provides a framework where “texts on modeling, prediction, and automation are brought together with stories of science fiction, dreams, and human knowledge, set among visionary and surreal imagery.”
Essays range from transcripts of conversations from AI conferences in 2017, far before ChatGPT was on the public radar, to writing by theorists, sci-fi authors, artists, and indigenous technologists. With the recent release of ChatGPT4 and its incorporation into Microsoft’s search engine BING, many of the prescient issues proposed in this collection provide a framework for conversations that are just now reaching more public mainstream consciousness — What does it mean when we anthropomorphize AI? How do we address bias in AI? What does it mean for authorship if we turn to AI as a collaborator?
At Hamilton I teach courses at the intersections of technology, media art production, and performance, including one focused specifically on potential uses of AI in devised performance. Many of the above questions come up frequently, and assigning essays in this collection — sometimes simultaneously to different groups — has helped my students engage in their own creative technological output with a critical lens. For example, in an essay by software engineer Blaise Agüera y Arcas titled “Art in the Age of Machine Intelligence,” AI is compared to the camera and early photographic processes, which at the time encountered a lot of resistance. The author asks “what new kinds of art become possible when we begin to play with technology analogous not only to the eye but also to the brain?”
In the essay “Making Kin with the Machines,” a group of indigenous co-authors, including Oglála Lakhóta artist, composer, and academic Suzanne Kite, applies indigenous epistemologies to thinking about virtual space, network culture, and AI. What does it mean if we treat AI as a kind of Kin, adhering to some indigenous philosophies that aim to decentralize humanity as the only acting agent that matters?
Finally, in a 2017 conference transcript of a conversation between computer engineer and philosopher Yuk Hui and cultural theorist on machine intelligence Ramon Amaro, issues around bias in AI are discussed, drawing from Black cultural theorists Fred Moten, Frantz Fanon, and Édouard Glissant, offering helpful frameworks for my students to think more critically about issues of power, visibility, and marginalization, while working with AI and algorithms.
As a former assistant rowing coach, one of my jobs was to load the trailer with all the items necessary for a race. It was our first race of the season and upon arrival, I had forgotten to pack one very essential item, the boat slings. The only way to rig the boats is to lay them in the slings to prepare them for racing. I sheepishly went to the next trailer over and asked to borrow some slings to prepare our boats.
Rookie mistake? Not after 20+ years in the sport. Just an oversight on our first away race. Later that season, my mentor and head coach gave me a book, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (2011) by Atul Gawande. In summary it’s about the application of a checklist in certain industries to minimize mistakes, with particular examples in the medical field and piloting planes. Certainly, these mistakes have much greater consequences than forgetting to pack slings; however, the simplicity of the mechanism can be applied to many different industries.
Soon after reading the book, I had a laminated packing list with pictures to assist the hundreds of items to load the trailer. Soon, my curiosity with systemizing influenced other areas of my profession including recruiting, training plans, travel, safety, and inventory. Now, my new checklists have helped me be better prepared for the hundreds of details that go with my profession. I have become very familiar with Google Sheets to assist in the organization of information. And now the checklist can be shared with staff and rowers.
This process of systemizing information has also informed me about the different ways in which we handle copious pieces of material. I recognize that I am a visual learner and prefer to see information categorized on a spreadsheet or drawn on a white board. It is the sharing of information and systems that can help an organization function more effectively and efficiently. So the next time you forget to pack the camping stove, consider making a list. Yes, that did happen. I am now the owner of two camping stoves.
In documenting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit of the same name, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (2011) by Andrew Bolton brings into focus the intersection of fashion, performance art, theatre, and storytelling as defined by the uncompromisingly unique fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen. I was astounded by the 2011 retrospective at the Met itself, but it has been this book — a catalog of the exhibition and a study in photography — that has been a crucial source of inspiration since its publication.
As presented in both the exhibit and the book, McQueen sought to evoke strong, visceral reactions to his work, and he approached his collections as complete, self-contained stories told not just through clothes, but also though his runway shows. He did this by curating complete environments, inclusive of scenic elements, lighting, scoring, and the models themselves. Frequently provocative but never gratuitous, the themes and subjects he drew upon were intensely personal and meticulously studied; high drama was a byproduct of a truly romantic thought process that pushed significant boundaries in a field typically driven by economics rather than emotion.
Repeatedly, this book has helped me question what actually constitutes a theatrical event by blurring the lines of fashion and costume, commerce and art, and display and performance. More importantly, the narrative running through McQueen’s collections was devised by a designer rather than a designated playwright or composer, and motivated by a person who would typically take his cues from collaboration with a director. This demonstration of agency helped me to reconsider my own ability to generate complete stories apart from the infrastructure of an existing piece or production.
Underlying the topical spectacle of McQueen’s collections was his impeccable attention to detail and a mastery of working with the human form. He pioneered revolutionary tailoring techniques originating from foundational apprenticeships on Savile Row, and the resulting ability to accentuate the body in surprising, unorthodox ways has encouraged me to reevaluate my own costuming for the stage.
Savage Beauty is a book to get lost in and a masterclass in a designer’s process that celebrates the collision of unlikely ideas, materials, and forms through fashion, art, and theatre.
Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (2004) came into my life when I was questioning a lot of my own choices and helped me see that it wasn’t necessarily the choices I’d made that were the problem, but the way I was thinking of them. We “maximizers” (as opposed to “satisficers” — Schwartz has a handy quiz you can use to self-diagnose) tend to assume there’s a best choice and, ironically, often make ourselves miserable pursuing it. Schwartz’s book helped me realize that being a maximizer wasn’t helping me make better choices, it was just making me less happy with the choices I did make.
The book is now close to 20 years old, pre-dating Yelp and Google reviews; Amazon Prime with its endless and seemingly identical options; Netflix’s streaming with the endless scroll of television and movies. But it seems more relevant than ever. I often find myself recommending it to students or anyone who is struggling to understand why having so much choice can feel like a burden.
When I was pursuing a Ph.D. in literature and film studies over 20 years ago, I initially hoped to become a scholar of European and Taiwanese arthouse cinema. But this career path later changed significantly. One important reason was that I read a book titled The Sublime Figure of History: Aesthetics and Politics in Twentieth-Century China (1997), written by Professor Ban Wang (now teaching at Stanford).
The book changed much of my understanding of the interplay between the aesthetic and the political in modern China. I was particularly inspired by its analysis of Chinese films made during the Mao era (1949-78). At the time, the prevailing assumption about Mao-era films was that they are puritanical propaganda often representative of a suppression of sexuality. The book, however, proposes to understand these films “not in terms of politics versus sexuality, but in terms of sexuality in the guise of politics:”
“Despite its puritanical surface, Communist culture is sexually charged in its own way. High-handed as it is, Communist culture does not — it cannot, in fact — erase sexuality out of existence. Rather, it meets sexuality halfway, caters to it, and assimilates it into its structure” (p. 134).
Such analysis opened my eyes to fascinating historical, political, and aesthetic nuances. I wrote a term paper on the book and then became dedicated to the research of Mao-era films. Years later, the term paper developed into my dissertation and eventually my first book monograph, titled Revolutionary Cycles in Chinese Cinema, 1951–1979.
My book does not simply praise Professor Ban Wang’s work, but responds to it from my own perspective and with my own findings. As I write in the acknowledgments: “Readers will find differences between [Professor Ban Wang’s] perspective and mine, but those differences should not obscure my gratitude toward him” (p. xii). In fact, those differences are precisely what makes The Sublime Figure of History a true inspirational book for me: it not only taught me new knowledge, but also stimulated me to find my own voice in the same research field.
When egregious injustices come to the attention of the public, our tendency is to blame single actors. Perhaps it’s the police who violated a suspect’s constitutional rights, or the prosecutor who withheld exculpatory evidence, or the defense attorney who fell asleep during trial, or the judge who gave too light a sentence.
Before reading Ordinary Injustice: How America Holds Court (2010) by Amy Bach, my own view of the legal system’s shortcomings was similarly focused on the piecemeal failings of individual participants. Ordinary Injustice broadened my scope to instead see the legal system as a collective, where basic failures occur because multiple actors become accustomed to them. Rather than isolating misconduct to particular individuals, we should critically examine what it is about the system itself that permits routine injustices to occur.
In her book, Bach argues that what’s largely absent is scrutiny — from both legal professionals and everyday citizens. This was part of the inspiration behind instituting a court observation assignment in my Psychological Bias in the Justice System course. I want my students to see mundane proceedings, not only to educate themselves but also to serve as witnesses to a process that is largely unexamined by well-informed laypeople.
Reading Ordinary Injustice helped me see that systemic change in criminal courts is only likely when ordinary citizens engage with such regular, everyday occurrences.
Keelah Williams, J.D.
Assistant Professor of Psychology
law, stereotyping and prejudice, and evolutionary psychology