Meet the New Faculty: Mackenzie Cooley, History
This year Hamilton welcomed six new tenure-track faculty members. Communications office student writer Majestic Terhune ’21 spent more than two hours interviewing these newest members of the faculty to find out why they chose Hamilton and what they think so far. Here’s her interview with Mackenzie Cooley, assistant professor of history (some answers edited for brevity).
Why did you start teaching?
I’ve always known that I wanted to be a historian ‘plus.’ To be a historian you have a keen awareness of the past, you are interested in doing research and uncovering new knowledge. The ‘plus’ is about how I didn’t want to end up being some boring academic who ends up doing something in some musty library. I wanted to constantly reach out to other people. I think I started teaching as a result of this interest in the ‘plus,’ in expanding others’ vision of how the seemingly distant past matters so profoundly to our present, and teaching is the perfect opportunity to that.
Why did you choose Hamilton?
The economic job market is very competitive. There were about three jobs listed in my field last year ... Everyone was competing for those positions, and Hamilton was the best listed. In short, it is an honor to be here!
One of the things that makes Hamilton so exceptional is its focus on scholarship despite being a teaching college. The department here has shown nothing but enthusiasm for the search for new ideas and new approaches to what seem to be the boundaries of our knowledge, and finding that kind of commitment to excellence in a supportive institution has made Hamilton the perfect place for me to start my career. I grew up Syracuse, and I went to Cornell as undergrad. I’m delighted to be back in the icy homeland.
How has your time here been so far?
Hamilton’s like honey; sweet, sticky, ultimately delicious. I’m used to big research institutions that delight in their anonymity and don’t care whether or not any individual succeeds or fails. I remember seeing the amount of devotion that faculty gave to their students, and the amazing results of that in their students. During my visit, I was asked questions in four different languages from students, and this is for a history job, not for a language job! That kind of self-confidence brilliance in the student population is something that’s so attractive about being here.
Working with undergraduate researchers has been a highlight.
I’ve hired a group of young scholars to work on a variety of research projects … and we meet for an hour to three hours a week and talk about their work. One’s translating a book out of Spanish, one is developing an annotated bibliography of animals in archaeology from the early modern period, two others are working on this colossal database of reports from the New World, and another is working in the natural histories of special collections. Working through research with them and coming up with new knowledge in tandem is the coolest thing.
Do you have any stories from Hamilton that stick out to you?
During my course on Conquest of the Americas, my class of 14 students ventured to Providence, Rhode Island, to the John Carter Brown Library. And why did we spend so much time on a bus? Why couldn’t we have just worked here? And the answer is that Brown’s libraries are the best in the world for the study of Colonial Latin America. Students saw a letter from Columbus and Mesoamerican codices by Aztecs in the sixteenth century. They saw these early announcements of New World geography written by Samuel Champlain.
Has there been anything that’s surprised you?
I’m really impressed by the interdisciplinarity that is so present on such a small campus. I’ve been lucky to do this new collaboration called an AHA! group with other young faculty members – Rhea (Datta), Darren (Strash), and Aaron (Strong). It's called Making Scientific Knowledge, and it’s a forum for a computer scientist, a biologist, a historian and other scholars across the humanities and sciences to come together and talk about what constitutes scientific facts and scientific knowledge building.
The fruitfulness of those insights and those collaborations are not something I could’ve estimated before. I love hearing Rhea discuss what she thinks about in the lab, how she constructs an experiment and how her understanding of genetics influences the way she looks at the world.
What’s one of your favorite places on campus?
I love special collections! I love the old books — I think Christian Goodwillie is perhaps the coolest human at Hamilton. He has a prolific knowledge. I love talking to him about the utopian societies that he’s studied, and we have a top-notch library in context of rare books and materials. It’s a cool place for original research.
In a similar vein, I love going to visit Janet Simons at the Digital Humanities Initiative. I think that space just makes me feel like I’m back in Silicon Valley from the new VR experiments designed for students to the epic maps. I love the really playful approach to data and knowledge-making, and I just think that the space is beautiful in that old, gothic-style building.