We asked members of the 2020–2021 fellowship class to introduce themselves by way of a recent preoccupation. Their answers suggest minds rarely at rest, even in summer.
Summer of Protest
Women friends and colleagues across the globe who watched the video of the horrific incident say they can still hear the anguished cry of the man whose last breath was snuffed out on the streets of the American city of Minneapolis. For some of these women, myself included, it was the moment George Floyd cried out “Mama…!” that evoked a deep, visceral pain that made the suffering of a man stripped of his dignity and dehumanized in his dying moments audible long after the video of the scene of the crime had stopped running. But Floyd’s final lament to his mother was not the first time we have been stirred by violence against Black people in South Africa. The utter disregard of the value of Black life, now epitomized in the global imagination by the killing of George Floyd, has inscribed indelibly our role to bear witness and to come together as individuals and as educational and cultural institutions to grapple with race at this time of great crises in order to bring about fundamental change in our countries.
Summer of Alexei Gastev
I spent a large part of the summer reading Alexei Gastev, a social theorist of the 1910s and 1920s in Russia, and writing an article on him for an edited collection of his works. I am fascinated with early Soviet theorists, as they offered radical ways of social transformation, something that we do not seem to have (in abundance, at least) these days. Not necessarily pragmatic or feasible as a course of political action, the work of these theorists (and many of them practitioners after the Bolshevik Revolution) provides us with new forms of social imagination. For example, Gastev looked at factories and industrial labor as an example of a community with a “horizontal” social organization as opposed to the vertical social hierarchies of pre-revolutionary Russia. Following the Bolshevik Revolution, he established the Central Institute of Labor in Moscow with a vision to use industrial labor to build a new proletarian culture and eventually to transplant new social forms from the factory settings to the entire Soviet society. During the 1920s, he was able to develop his ideas and apply his methods, training tens of thousands of workers. Unfortunately, by the turn of the 1930s, his ideas sounded too radical for the Stalinist establishment; he was arrested and executed during the Great Terror. Some of his ideas were later absorbed into the Soviet school of structural functionalism, but the most original ones—those dealing with social transformation—so far remain a historical artifact of radical social imagination of the early 20th century.
Summer of Cecil Taylor
Summer of Hope
During this pandemic, with the US government acting ineptly and our inequities so clearly on display, it was uplifting to read Rutger Bregman’s Humankind: A Hopeful History (Little, Brown, 2020), which provides evidence that crises usually bring out the best in people and that most people, deep down, are pretty decent. It was enlightening to read the truth about events and studies that were not only newsworthy in my youth but are still talked about today. Everyone in my generation knows about Kitty Genovese, attacked and murdered outside her apartment in New York in 1964, where 38 eyewitnesses supposedly watched and did nothing because they didn’t want to get involved. Actually, there were few witnesses, and two called the police. The famous Stanford Prison Experiment, in which guards and prisoners turned on each other, was completely manipulated; when replicated without interference in the BBC Prison Study, the guards and prisoners got along well. My generation read the fictional Lord of the Flies in school; we never were told there was a real version in the mid-1960s near Tonga, and that the kids got along splendidly. This summer, it was great for me, as an American, to read an optimistic nonfiction book that made me feel better about my fellow sapiens.
Summer of Cyrene
High-level commissioner on health employment and economic growth, United Nations
I never thought that I would become so familiar with the walls of my apartment. Like many others, I’ve spent the better part of 2020 socially distancing. What might be a little unfamiliar is that I started a few months early: I gave birth to my first child, a daughter, Cyrene, in December 2019, so for the months prior I went from traveling 90 percent of the year to working remotely. For the first three months of her life, we were hypercautious, so by the time the snow was melting and spring flowers were popping up, I had become so stir crazy I was ready to go anywhere. I signed us up for sing and read hours at the library, had her enrolled in daycare, and packed my bags for my first international work trip in five months.
That same week, COVID-19 dominated news cycles, and rather than spend spring exploring outdoors or meeting family, we had to try to create new and exciting ways to explore it indoors—thousands of miles away from our loved ones. It’s an unusual experience, becoming a new mum in the midst of a pandemic, but it has also made me realize how much I take the little things for granted, like daily (socially distanced) walks with my daughter, or midday naps when it’s just too hot to think, or bath time, where she learns about how bubbles do, in fact, disappear when she puts them into her mouth. I have become so much more familiar with Google (an honorary aunt at this point) and my own impatience, and my love for Barney has been (much to the dismay of my family) reignited. I know my daughter won’t remember the summer of 2020, but to me, it will always be the Summer of Cyrene. The summer when I gave myself permission (well, maybe the universe forced my hand a little) to turn my Type A personality off and spend time rolling on the floor, burning bread, and embracing all of the complexities of new motherhood . . . alone, but still all in it kind of together.
Summer of Citizenship
There’s been a lot to wrestle with this summer. But a highlight was becoming a citizen of the United States. I received the invitation to attend my rescheduled oath ceremony the same day I read about new regulations jeopardizing the visa status of international students in this country. And I’ll cast my first vote on November 3, a day when our actions will determine which of very different possible futures will play out for undocumented immigrants. Taking the oath this year has some advantages: the events of 2020 remove any kind of uncertainty from this new set of rights and responsibilities; they underline my own privilege as a white male in America; and they lay bare a need for action, introspection, and connection. Citizenship aside, I suspect that this cohort of Radcliffe fellows will be wrestling with exactly how our work and our collaborations can inform all three.
Summer of the Douro Valley
Summer of Ali Farka Touré
Ali Farka’s music is rhythmic yet smooth. It merges Malian traditions, American blues, and incredible guitar playing. Although I don't understand any of the words, his song “Ai Du” feels like a continuous expression of waves flowing in and out of each other. It’s captivating but balanced. It works for me because it does not feel rigid or structured. When I was a child growing up in tight-knit multicultural neighborhoods, music was always a way to sample the lives and moods of our neighbors. No one had a big enough yard that you were too far away to hear what they were playing, listening to, or singing. Every sound that I hadn’t heard before was still familiar because it was just next door. Ali Farka’s music re-creates that feeling of openness and depth.
Summer of Bats
I had not thought much about bats since I was a student at the University of Texas at Austin. The world’s largest urban bat colony lives under the Congress Avenue Bridge, and it was a classic Austin activity to wait by the lake under the bridge for sunset and watch the bats fly out. More than a million bats whirling around the sky is an impressive sight! COVID-19 brought my attention back to bats, but in a very different way, and this summer, I have been reading about them. Why do bats seem to be the reservoir host for so many viruses, including COVID-19? How do they get these viruses in the first place? How do they transmit them, and how do the viruses ultimately reach humans? Why don’t bats become sick themselves with the viruses that they so easily transmit? What about our relationship to bats (and animals in general) has caused these opportunities for transmission? Just what is it about bats—and how can we learn more?
Summer of Rabbits
Cartoonist and educator James Sturm provided a glimpse of his summer project: sketches for a graphic novel adaptation of Richard Adams's "Watership Down."In the spring of 2019, my agent called me asking for help in finding a cartoonist to adapt a prose novel into a graphic novel. Doing adaptations isn’t normally my thing, but when I found out the book was Watership Down, one of my favorites, I became very interested. For those not familiar with Richard Adams’s book, it is the story of a group of rabbits that flee their old warren in order to find a new home. The book is an exciting adventure story grounded in astutely observed nature writing.
I’ve been working on this project now for over 15 months, and this summer, I have doubled down on my efforts to finish up before my Radcliffe fellowship begins. I read and reread the book, thumbnail out pages, and write a script that then gets passed along to my collaborator, Joe Sutphin, who renders the final artwork. The world has changed so much since I first started working on this project. As the pandemic rages, I’ve taken great comfort spending time with this band of resilient rabbits. They persevere against environmental disaster and political strongmen, and eventually, make it through some dark days.
Summer of Numbers
Lauren K. Williams
Sally Starling Seaver Professor, Radcliffe Institute, and Dwight Parker Robinson Professor of Mathematics, Harvard University
One book I’ve been engaging with this summer is The Universe Speaks in Numbers: How Modern Maths Reveal Nature’s Deepest Secrets (Basic Books, 2019), by Graham Farmelo. It is a beautiful survey of the long history of interactions between mathematics and physics: both how mathematics has provided the framework for theories to describe the universe, and how physics has provided inspiration and at times pushed the frontiers of research developments in mathematics. The book discusses a broad range of examples, from Isaac Newton’s work on the Principia in the late 1600s to the discovery of string theory in the 20th century and the breakthroughs in scattering amplitudes over the last 30 years. I am a pure mathematician by training, but these past five years, I’ve had some very stimulating interactions with the physicists studying scattering amplitudes: some of my work has proved useful to them, and conversely, I’ve been amazed and inspired by their predictions. So this book has been delightful to me personally, but I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoyed high school math and physics.
On a different note, as a parent of two young children, I’ve been struggling during the pandemic like so many other working parents to figure out how to keep all my (figurative) balls in the air: how to continue my teaching and research while my children are stuck at home, how to support my students, and how to keep my family safe and mentally stable on top of cooking, cleaning, etc. One thing that helped keep me sane was rereading an old childhood favorite, Cheaper by the Dozen. This book is the (true) account of how the dual career couple Frank and Lillian Gilbreth applied their professional expertise in efficiency to raising their 12 children back in the early 1900s, while simultaneously managing a company, writing scholarly papers, and lecturing around the world. While I have not implemented any of the Gilbreths’ efficiency techniques on my own children, the book put my own situation in perspective and made me laugh until I cried.
Submissions were edited for clarity and length.