“The Duties of Imagination”

Broad Institute president Eric Lander and poet Dan Chiasson, Ph.D. ’01, spoke at the 2019 Phi Beta Kappa Literary Exercises.

Eric Lander
Photograph by Jim Harrison
Phi Beta Kappa president Hopi Hoekstra and Harvard president Lawrence S. Bacow lead the procession into Sanders.
Photograph by Jim Harrison

College seniors and their families convened in Sanders Theatre for the 229th Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) Literary Exercises, the traditional occasion that launches the University’s Commencement extravaganza—and conveniently does so while honoring the intellect and the arts, clearing the decks for the more purely celebratory events yet to come. This year’s edition of the PBK exercises (read the program here), the first since Lawrence S. Bacow became Harvard president last July 1, featured home cooking, as both the poet and the orator are local leaders in their fields, both with prior Crimson connections:

  • Dan Chiasson, Ph.D. ’01, Wang professor of English at Wellesley, an accomplished poet and essayist, and poetry critic of The New Yorker; and
  • Eric S. Lander, professor of systems biology, the president and founding director of The Broad Institute, an MIT-Harvard collaboration that is among the world’s foremost centers for research in genomics.

The Teaching Prizes

Following the call to order by chapter president Hopi Hoekstra, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology and of molecular and biology; the invocation was offered by Lara Glass, student program fellow at the Memorial Church (substituting at the last moment for the Reverend Alanna C. Sullivan, associate minister in Memorial Church, who had a family emergency); and welcoming remarks by Hoekstra, business was in order, beginning with the celebration of academic excellence.

Each year, the PBK students nominate, and their undergraduate marshals select, particularly distinguished teachers. Given that the nominators are among the academically most distinguished products of the College themselves, the award is particularly cherished by the faculty recipients (icing on the cake: they also receive a modest honorarium). The prizes were conferred by Alison Simmons, Wolcott professor of philosophy, who this year had the pleasure of recognizing:

Abigail Modaff
Photograph by Jim Harrison
  • Kathleen Coleman, Loeb professor of the classics and chair of the department of the classics (read about some of her research here), who “draws students in with her warmth for people and excitement about ideas,” Simmons said. “She wants to know who her students are, and what they think.” 
  • Elizabeth Hinton, Loeb associate professor of the social sciences (profiled briefly here), an historian and member of the department of African and African American studies, who is a specialist in the historical intersection of race, the criminal-justice system, and mass incarceration in the United States, who “empowers students to think seriously, aspirationally, and also realistically about social change and racial equality. Professor Hinton challenges her students: ‘Now that you are armed with this knowledge,’ she asks, ‘what are you going to do with it?’”; and
  • Abigail Modaff, a graduate student who is a teaching fellow in history, from whom, a PBK student reports, he received his first-ever C+. “All my life,” the student reported, “I had seen grades as hoops through which I had to jump to achieve the next step in my academic career. On a chilly February afternoon, Abby taught me to understand grading as a teaching method, an opportunity for learning and improvement, rather than an empty reward.” 

Honorary Members

Seven extraordinary College graduates from the tempest-torn fiftieth-reunion class of 1969—ranging from a Nobel laureate to a former law-school dean were awarded honorary membership. Logan McCarty, chapter secretary and director of sciences education, presented certificates to:

•Martin ChalfieUniversity Professor of biological sciences at Columbia, where he studies the genetics of neuron development; co-winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and chair of the Committee on Human Rights of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Of the tumultuous last year of college, he wrote in his Nobel biography

Martin Chalfie
Photograph by Jim Harrison

I was not immune to the changes that were going on around me. I was strongly for civil rights, against the Vietnam War, and owned a pair of black and red striped pants. I was not, however, much of an activist (I would have been classified as a liberal). Nonetheless, during my last semester at Harvard, I and virtually all of my friends went on strike after the University had allowed the Cambridge police to come onto campus and beat the student protestors. The initial confrontation had made the national news, so when I decided to boycott my classes, I called my parents to tell them my reasons. My parents were sympathetic, but did not want me to get in trouble (the fears of what had happened during the Red Scare of the 1950s made them caution me against joining any political organizations). Our conversation lasted more than an hour. At the end, my parents reluctantly agreed with my actions. Not willing to end our conversation at that point and trying to get a rise out of my parents, I said, “Mom, Dad. Be sure to watch the news tomorrow night, because if there is another confrontation, I’m going to be right there on the front lines” (something that I would not have done). My mother replied, “Marty. If I ever find out that you were anywhere where there was violence, I’ll murder you.” Our mutual laughter finished the conversation.

•H. Nichols B. Clark, a retired museum professional (at the High Museum in Atlanta and the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia), was most recently a director of North Bennet Street School, in Boston, and is a trustee of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, in western Massachusetts, where he was chief curator and founding director.

•Steve Curwood, a journalist who shared The Boston Globe’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize for public service for its reporting on the city’s traumatic school desegregation, and subsequently entered public broadcasting, where, among other credits, he has served as creator, host, and executive producer of Living on Earth. He is an affiliate of the Harvard University Center for the Environment. 

•Patricia (Conn) Ganzprofessor at UCLA Schools of Medicine and Public Health, where she is director of the cancer prevention and control research at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, focusing on the quality of life in cancer patients and survivors. She is a member of the National Academy of Medicine.

•Nancy Lipton Rosenblum, Clark professor of ethics in politics and government theory emerita, is the author of Good Neighbors: The Democracy of Everyday Life in America (covered in depth in this Harvard Magazine feature on Rosenblum’s academic career) and co-author of A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy (just published).

•Emily SpielerHadley professor of law and dean emerita of Northeastern University School of Law; an expert in labor and employment law, she previously held senior positions in West Virginia’s state government and was a faculty member at West Virginia University School of Law.

Anne Whiston Spirn
Photograph by Jim Harrison

•Anne Whiston SpirnGreen Distinguished Professor of landscape architecture and planning at MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning. She is author of the acclaimed The Granite Garden: Urban Nature and Human Design, and director of the West Philadelphia Landscape Project, which melds restoration of nature with rebuilding community. Her website explores her writing, photograph, teaching, and other activities complementary to her scholarly work in landscape architecture and design. 

The Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum then performed “What Is Good,” with music composed by Carson Cooman ’04—premiered last October 5 for President Bacow’s installation.

The Poet

In a wonderfully revealing—and self-deprecating—recent interview in The Sewanee Review, Chiasson said of his development after attending Amherst College, 

At Harvard, I was adjacent to poets for the first time in my life. Seamus Heaney was there at the photocopier. Helen Vendler, my advisor, helped me ironize my own pieties—as a woman literary scholar at Harvard, one of the first, she’d seen up close the genial condescension of some of the literary men I admired. She would dismiss some part of what I wrote or said, always, as just the Amherst in me talking. I took that to be an investment in the deeper person and a kind of imperative to find a mentor. 

That mentor turned out to be Frank Bidart [A.M. ’67]. He read everything I wrote. When I had new poems, I’d drive them over to his apartment in Cambridge. He kept, and still keeps, weird hours, so if it was in the middle of the day he’d be asleep. The protocol was that I would leave the poems in his mailbox. In any case, I would give him the poems, and he would call me back in the middle of the night—as I said, he kept odd hours—and we would talk through them. 

Speaking of fathers, proxy-fathers, and so on: Frank’s mailbox had a little taped-on typed-out name on a yellow slip of paper: “Lowell.” This was 1997 or ’98, and the name had been there since 1970 or so when a middle-aged Robert Lowell had crashed there for several weeks, I believe, with Frank. Some kind of dynastic urge was fulfilled whenever I opened that mailbox and slipped my new poems in. I haven’t been to Frank’s apartment in years, but I would be shocked if he removed it. I once mentioned it to him, kind of in passing, in the spirit of a joke, and I could see that I’d made a grave error. The name was not to be treated lightly. I’m older now, and I can see why. 

Dan Chiasson
Photograph by Jim Harrison

Returning to Sanders as the PBK poet, he delivered a poem specially written for the occasion, “The Math Campers” (read the text here). It was inspired, in part, by a trip to Vermont, where he grew up. “I imagined there was some kind of math camp where the campers were so brilliant that they managed, through math, to stop time and turn the summer endless.” The poem was in nine parts; the first part read: 

A mayfly born at the break of dawn
Dies when the sun goes down;
A tortoise on an English lawn
Outlives his master’s son’s son’s son.

An ancient shark shakes off another century;
Eerie and pristine, a fetal dolphin,
A steamship and a sea anemone
Hang near her, lifeless in the jellied ocean.

This shark read over Shakespeare’s shoulder;
In her extreme old age, she’ll stare
Eye-to-eye, into a skyscraper’s foyer,
At gilled, amphibious corporate lawyers.

The Orator 

Lander spoke to the PBK inductees about what he called “the duties of imagination” (read the text, as prepared for delivery, here). Scholarship, he told them, “is arguably the most transformative force in the world. Scholarship is the sum of two things: knowledge and imagination….As broadly understood, knowledge is power, knowledge is the foundation of all meaningful and lasting change. It’s somewhat less understood that imagination is how we direct that power to make change.” 

“Whatever you do in your life, you have a duty not just to do, but to imagine. Whatever you work on, you have a responsibility to ask about your work two questions: what could possibly go right? And, what could possibly go wrong? Failures of execution tend to get a lot of attention, but the greater, if less obvious, risk, often lies in failures of imagination….As scholars, you have a special ability, and therefore a special duty, to imagine where things may go.” 

He then told a story from his own field—that of the Human Genome Project: how the science went from the discovery of DNA’s double helix structure in 1953 to the successful sequencing of the human genome in 2003, and all the possibilities that come with it, like finding genetic links to human diseases and the not-far-off prospect of gene editing. Just about 15 years ago, he said, the first completed sequence of the human genome cost about $3 billion. And there had been “a lot of skepticism in the biological community” about whether it was worth it. “Did we really need to know the sequence of the human genome, anyway?” he asked. The debate was best captured, he said, in an editorial from the journal Nature: “Nobody seems to doubt that it can be done perhaps in a century,” it read. “The question is whether it is worthwhile. As an information resource, the sequence of the human genome is an extremely doubtful asset….What possible use could be made of more sequences?” 

“To this day, I keep a copy of this editorial tacked up above my desk, to remind me about failures of imagination,” Lander said. Since the human genome was first sequenced, the cost of doing so has dropped precipitously, to a few hundred dollars, and more than a million human genomes have been sequenced, resulting in thousands of discoveries about the role of genes in health and disease. 

Imagining what could go right, he said, turns out to be remarkably difficult. “I’m embarrassed to say that never in my wildest dreams did I imagine we’d get so far, so fast,” he said. But if people are bad at anticipating what could go right, he continued, they’re even worse at thinking about what could go wrong. Who had imagined, for example, that social media would tear the world apart, or that smart devices would have unsettlingly detailed knowledge of us? And how will we anticipate the ethics challenges of gene editing? “All progress,” he said, “depends on imagination.” 

Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg or Marina N. Bolotnikova
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