At Home: Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology Joel Eigen
Transformative moments happen in the evening by the fireplace and in the morning during bagel breakfasts. They take place after academic events, films and guest speakers. For more than a decade, Joel Eigen, F&M’s Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology, has seen them—and been part of them—enough to know the power of Franklin & Marshall’s College Houses.
“When you have faculty members, students and speakers together in a setting like this, the result is magical,” he says.
Eigen recently completed his 10th and final year as don of Ware College House, and his 40th on F&M’s faculty. His becoming a Dana professor in 1997 was both a recognition of his excellence as a teacher and scholar and an inducement to his long-term commitment to the College.
The Dana Professorship Program was created at F&M in the late 1960s through a matching grant from Charles A. Dana and the directors of the Dana Foundation. The investment in Eigen and his fellow Dana professors has yielded exponential returns, including leadership in efforts—such as the College House system—that no one imagined 50 years ago.
For Eigen, who built his career with students in the classroom, innovative spaces such as the College Houses have been a great addition. He’s worked hard to create opportunities that stimulate the intellectual development of students, including talks by thought-provoking speakers. “What’s most important is what happens after the talk is over, when students can spend time discussing the issues with the speaker, professors and each other,” he says.
Eigen recalls bumping into a Ware resident at a House bagel breakfast one morning and asking him about a class the student was taking. Before long, they were engaged in a stirring conversation about medieval law.
Of the College's vibrant residential atmosphere, he says, "This has established a stronger, enduring connection between my life and the student’s life.”
Moments of Transition
In 1784, Benjamin Franklin, in Paris serving as minister to France, welcomed his successor, Thomas Jefferson. So great was Franklin’s fame that few noticed. Yet, Jefferson, already the owner of many accomplishments, managed a few more in his lifetime. Such is sometimes the lot of new generations of faculty.
This fall, longtime luminaries Bob Friedrich and Grier Stephenson joined their colleagues Bob Gray, Joe Karlesky (pictured at lower left in 1981) and Stanley Michalak in retirement. Their service secured by endowed professorships, their impact on F&M’s government department has at once been broad and incremental—works that have influenced a generation of scholars and teaching; mentorships that have transformed lives.
While we will miss their wisdom and character, they themselves succeeded the “big three”: Dick Schier, John Vanderzell and Sid Wise. And they assured the department’s continued excellence through the work of their successors such as human rights expert Susan Dicklitch-Nelson, classical historian Dean Hammer, and Nina A. Kollars (pictured), who studies the innovative practices of U.S. soldiers in war, and their organizational responses.
Future Imperfect: A Pivotal Moment
For Artificial Intelligence
“My interest began with Nintendo and other video games,” he says. “It was a common way for kids to become interested in computers. The allure of making my own games got me into it.”
Now an associate professor of computer science at Franklin & Marshall College, Talvitie recently received a five-year, $500,000 CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation to support research in artificial intelligence. With the help of summer research students (many of whom are supported by Hackman Scholarships), he is building and testing a reinforcement-learning model in which artificial agents learn to behave well in unknown environments.
The research has been a trip back to the future for Talvitie, who, along with his students, uses a suite of video games from the Atari 2600 to evaluate how well the programs learn new tasks. The goal is for the programs to learn how games work by playing them, and to use that knowledge to get more points over time. The research could have far reaching implications for computer programs of the future.
Talvitie’s project deepens the tradition of F&M faculty research that has achieved national recognition for its salience and quality—the CAREER grant program is intensely competitive—and allowed talented undergraduates to participate in the creation of world-class knowledge. His work is also a reminder that gains in artificial intelligence depend on human innovation, a factor that few environments kindle as well as the liberal arts.