Magee Address

The Magee address was established in honor of John B. Magee, Professor of Philosophy and Religion. Dr. Magee was an ordained United Methodist minister and an outstanding professor, author, and mentor who was one of the driving forces in establishing a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Puget Sound in 1986. He is the author of several books including: Religion and Modern Man: A Study of the Religious Meaning of Being Human, Reality and Prayer: A Guide to the Meaning and Practice of Prayer and Philosophical Analysis in Education. In addition to the Magee address being named for him, the university also honors his work through the Magee Professorship of Science and Values.

The address focuses on either the lecturer's professional scholarly inquiry or intellectual hobbies and includes a reflection about how PBK values (e.g., broad intellectual curiosity, scholarly ethics and rigor, personal excellence, commitment to the liberal arts) have impacted the lecturer's work.

Ronald R. Thomas, President, University of Puget Sound
Thursday, October 30, 2014
6:00-7:00 p.m.
Commencement Hall, Tahoma Room

"No Subject"
This talk will be a personal reflection on how the life of a college president might connect with a previous career as a scholar of the Victorian novel. Any student of the Victorian novel will know that the central thematic of the 19th-Century novel is often referred to as the bildungsroman, the novel of personal formation or character building within particularly dynamic social and historical circumstances. In this light, we might call the essential subject of the nineteenth-century novel the making of a human subject. The world was changing over this period from a largely rural to a primarily urban society, from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, from a time when someone’s identity was foreordained by birth and class to the rise of the “self-made man” and “the new woman.” We can think of literary figures like David Copperfield, or Jane Eyre, or Little Dorrit as undefined figures who transformed and redefined themselves, through their experiences, into something and someone else—usually with the aid of some benevolent mentors.

My thinking about higher education is in many ways analogous to this fundamental—and fundamentally nineteenth-century—story-line. At the heart of my beliefs and values—as college professor and a college president—is a sense of the potential of every person, and of our collective responsibility as educators in the liberal arts to develop (as a virtue in itself) a student’s potential into the human subject he or she can become. But this not the predominant discourse in the media, in public policy, or in the marketplace about what higher education can or should be doing in the 21st century, or how it should be valued. My challenge—our challenge—is to tell the story of (and make the case for) the real value of a college education in the making of human subjects in a world in which that story has been replaced by a data-driven account of material accumulation where the human subject as we know it disappears.

 

Previous Magee lecturers include:

Rachel DeMotts, Environmental Policy and Decision Making and Politics & Government, "The Elephants of Our Imagination" (2013)
Katherine Smith
, History, "Love, War, and Prophecy in the Twelfth Century: How Medieval Historians Tackled the First Crusade" (2012)
David Tinsley, Foreign Languages and Literature, "Finding Diversity in History: Images of the Muslim Other in the Middle Ages and their Meaning for Today" (2011)
Sarah Moore, Psychology & Leon Grunberg, Comparative Sociology, "Living through Turbulent Times: Workplace Changes and Their Impacts on Employee Well Being" (2010)
Alan Thorndike, Physics, "Remarks about Penrose Tilings" (2009)
Aislinn Melchior, Classics, "Caesar in Vietnam: Did Roman Soldiers Suffer from PTSD?" (2008)
Julie Christoph, English, "Little College on the Prairie: Exploring Relationships Between Personal Experience and Academic Inquiry" (2006)
Barry Bauska, English (2005)
Catherine Hale, Psychology (2003)
Eric Orlin, Classics (2002)
Heather Douglas, Philosophy
Karen Porter, Sociology
John Hanson, Chemistry

Abstracts from Magee Address Lectures

Rachel DeMotts 2013
"The Elephants of Our Imagination"

They are the largest terrestrial animal on the planet, graceful, familial, protective, intelligent - and evocative. From halfway around the world, we consider their majesty and are shocked as stories of escalating ivory poaching percolate to the surface and indicate a clear threat. But we encounter elephants with the luxury of distance to protect us; they do not consume our food supply or snap off our water pipes or linger in the dusty road outside our homes and obstruct our paths to school and work. How might we see them differently if they did?

In Botswana, the population of elephants has nearly tripled in the last 30 years even as poaching is on the rise once again. China's insatiable demands for ivory fuel a black market that is becoming more and more dangerous for both wildlife and people in rural areas. At the same time, tourists seek out notions of pristine wilderness and chase the perfect photo of an elephant at the river illuminated by the setting sun. The view from the village is far less idyllic, and much harder to see. This talk will be an exploration of view - from both here and away - in an effort to complicate the elephants we imagine and the spaces they occupy.

Katherine Smith 2012 
"Love, War, and Prophecy in the Twelfth Century: How Medieval Historians Tackled the First Crusade"

After the decimated, starving armies of the First Crusade conquered the holy city of Jerusalem in 1099, learned Europeans rushed to chronicle what they saw as a miraculous victory to end all victories.  Over the next twenty years, more than a dozen histories of the First Crusade were written, making it one of the best-documented events of the whole medieval period.  Modern historians have used these texts to reconstruct the military, political, and spiritual dimensions of the expedition in meticulous detail.  My talk will take a different approach, reconstructing the interpretive processes by which these chroniclers transformed the First Crusade from lived experience to memory to written history. 

In these works, we can see medieval historians struggling to understand an event that defied traditional historical methodologies and called for a new kind of interpretive language, one capable of explaining a venture that seemed to fulfill ancient prophecies and reveal the hand of God at work in the world.  Techniques borrowed from exegesis, the art of identifying multiple layers of meaning in the language of the Bible, proved especially helpful to the medieval historians of the First Crusade as they sought to understand the crusaders’ victory.  Paying attention to how biblical language and exegetical methods shaped these European histories of the crusade gives us a fresh vantage point from which to re-read some of the most intensively studied of all medieval texts, and helps us better understand the historical reception of one of the most significant events of the Middle Ages. 

Finally, although my project is rooted in the world of the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, it brings us face to face with some timeless challenges related to the practice of history:  How can we evaluate major historical events without the benefit of chronological distance?  Is it possible for historians to avoid imposing their own (modern) agendas on sources from earlier time periods?  And what role, if any, should moral judgement play in our interpretation of the past?

David Tinsley 2011
"Finding Diversity in History: Images of the Muslim Other in the Middle Ages and their Meaning for Today"

Are you troubled by the breakdown of society, erosion of morality, the rise of a fanatical religion that seeks the destruction of the West and all the values we hold dear, a religion possessing unimaginable wealth and with no compunction about killing innocent civilians? Are you even more troubled by people who fall victim to such apocalyptic angst? You are not alone.  In textual and manuscript images of Muslims, Christian writers and illuminators of 12th and 13th centuries gave voice to analogous concerns and fears.  Working from the most virulent caricatures applied to Islam in Middle High German sources, I will explore how recent research has caused us to question many assumptions concerning the racism and xenophobia of medieval sources. Not only is there astounding diversity in depiction of Muslims by authors writing in Middle High German, but John Tolan has also shown how the caricatures themselves evolved over the medieval centuries to reflect the different aims of commentators. I will conclude with some reflections on the strongly diverging views of historians concerning the legitimacy of applying modern value judgments to the study of ancient cultures, and then discuss some promising theoretical models that have emerged out of recent research inspired by post-colonialism.

Sarah Moore & Leon Grunberg 2010
"Living through Turbulent Times: Workplace Changes and Their Impacts on Employee Well Being"

In recent decades, organizations have experienced unprecedented amounts of change stemming from globalization, technology, and economic shifts; in turn, this change has influenced the ways in which workers perform their jobs and impacted the type of relationship employees have with their organizations.  In this talk, we will overview the 10+ year study we conducted at Boeing Commercial that was aimed at understanding employee reactions – both their attitudes toward the company as well as changes to their health and well-being -- as they experienced a number of large scale changes at Boeing including a major merger, multiple waves of downsizing, and increased outsourcing.  Funded by the National Institutes of Health, we surveyed a large random sample of Boeing employees in 1997, 2000, 2003, and 2006 and conducted some 100 interviews to learn how employees coped with and adapted to company changes.  We will present some of these findings, comparing different employee groups as well as reactions from those who stayed versus left the company.  We will then discuss the implications of these findings, considering, for example, what these trends might suggest for employee engagement as well as possible ways employees, managers and governments can respond to this changing work environment.

Alan Thorndike 2009
"Remarks about Penrose Tilings"

A tiling refers to the use of certain geometric shapes to cover a surface without leaving any holes or having any overlapping tiles. Everyone is familiar with using square tiles to cover a floor. Equilateral triangles also tile, but only special isosceles triangles tile. If you deform the squares into diamond shapes, tiling may be, possible. In fact tiling with diamonds leads to some curious results. These were discovered by Roger Penrose 30 years ago. Some of them will be discussed in this talk. It appears that the most interesting tiling results when rules for how the tiles can be arranged are invoked. This illustrates the general principle that the most interesting behavior appears when enough constraints are applied to rule out the simple and the dull, but not so many constraints as to rule out the surprising.

What is it about this tiling with two rhombs that attracts our attention? For me, there is first the ambiguous association. As the eye explores the pattern, the tiles naturally group together in different ways. It is not so much that I see stars or rings or two dimensions trying to become three. Rather I sense pattern but can't quite define it. With one eye open I see darts and kites. With the other I see the two rhombs. I see roughly so many stars per acre but arranged in some particular way I can't describe.

I really like the idea that squares and triangles and hexagons and octogons produce boring tilings, and nothing one can do makes them interesting to look at. But these special rhombs, with angles that are tenths of a circle, assembled according to these few rules, produce such rich patterns! - complete surprise. Who would have thought that these 4 sided figures could be arranged with 5 fold rotational symmetry? When the golden ratio of rectangular proportions emerges from dissecting these rhombs, it acquires new and deeper significance. When it turns out to be the ratio of the number of tiles of each type, one senses the presence of some deeper organizing principle - but what is it?

The principles of geometry are the foundation of all design. The aesthetic value we place on one design or another is related to the geometric symmetries it displays, or the rules that govern its assembly. But it is not the case that the greater the symmetry the more interesting the result. When symmetry runs amok we have only the checkerboard tiling. With no symmetry, we may as well shatter a window pane to get random shapes that do fit together to tile the plane. But limit the pieces to these two rhombs, and these rules for neighboring edges and the result is structure, but not too much structure, and variation, but not too much variation. I really like the idea that for the 5 fold rotational symmetry, the variation associated with the lack of any translational symmetry arises entirely from the rules of assembly. The variation is deterministic but not periodic. It is an example of how simple rules, applied locally, can lead to complex global behavior. 

Aislinn Melchior 2008
"Caesar in Vietnam: Did Roman Soldiers Suffer from PTSD?"

Post-traumatic stress disorder made its first appearance in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980, partly as a result of the ongoing treatment of veterans from the Vietnam War. At the heart of my talk is the question of whether we can read the modern world back upon the Romans. Did the Romans suffer PTSD? And if they did not experience it, why didn't they? In short, what things might lead us to suspect that PTSD is a universal danger for combatants, and what things might suggest instead that it is a more recent phenomenon that has little relevance to the Roman experience? Professor Aislinn Melchior will discuss some of the evidence pro and con on this matter and in the process will ponder a few of the many joys (and complexities) of relating past and present. 

Julie Christoph 2006
"Little College on the Prairie: Exploring Relationships Between Personal Experience and Academic Inquiry"

How and when should personal experience intersect with academic inquiry? Weaving together diverse examples including Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writings about her life, a recent study on lack of student commitment to intellectual inquiry in college, and criticisms leveled against publicly funded academics, Christoph will contrast our conflicting ideas about uses of the personal in academic writing. This address will challenge us to integrate ourselves and our lives with academic inquiry in larger communities—on campus and beyond.