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Ideas with Impact

Three Faculty members discuss the intersection of scholarship and policy
Susana Heschel
Susana Heschel
Hany Farid
Hany Farid

Dartmouth Life asked three faculty members whose work is making a difference in the world to reflect on their careers.

Susannah Heschel is the Eli Black Professor in Jewish Studies and an associate professor of religion and of women's and gender studies. She studies Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. Jonathan Skinner holds the John Sloan Dickey Third Century Professorship in the Social Sciences and is a professor of economics. His research focuses on a range of topics from retirement savings to health care inequities. His work is also part of Dartmouth's Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, an interdisciplinary group that examines the distribution and effectiveness of health resources nationwide. Hany Farid is a professor of computer science who holds the David T. McLaughlin Distinguished Professorship. He works in image analysis, combining computer science, engineering, mathematics, optics, and psychology.

DL: Describe what it's like to have your opinions eagerly sought after.

Hany Farid: When my expertise in digital forensics is sought in claims of scientific fraud, to debunk media images, or in a court of law, the stakes are usually high. I feel a great sense of responsibility.

Jon Skinner: A friend once overheard a student complain about having to read material by some economist named Skinner. That student may not have eagerly sought my opinion, nor does everyone agree with me, but I'm happiest when I get the opportunity to sway the minds of really smart people.

DL: How would you like to influence your field of study?

Susannah Heschel: I am delighted that women have entered academic life, and grateful to affirmative action programs that stimulated the conscience of many of my colleagues. I am pleased that the younger generation of scholars in the field of Jewish studies has taken a strong interest in theoretical models of interpretation, enlivening the study of Jewish experience and integrating Jewish studies into the larger concerns of the academy. A generation ago, Jewish studies was confined to seminaries or to an isolated presence at the university. Now it is part of the university. I hope that my work helps that continue.

Farid: I hope I have moved my field forward, both in terms of the underlying technology we have developed and the change that our work can bring about in our society.

Jon Skinner with students
From left: Professor of Economics Jon Skinner with Karen Tang '08 and Jonathan Gordon '08, both students in his Public Economics course. Skinner's expertise is sought by policy makers and others. (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Skinner: Academic fields can be insular and self-referential. My favorite research agendas draw from other disciplines. Putting seemingly disparate pieces together to solve a puzzle makes for interesting research and enlivens classroom teaching. Indeed, Dartmouth students are best prepared to absorb interdisciplinary research because they're used to learning about biochemistry at 8:45 a.m. and econometrics at 10 a.m.

DL: How has being at Dartmouth helped you develop professionally?

Heschel: The intellectual stimulation I receive from my colleagues and students enhances the quality of my scholarship. I also enjoy holding conferences and inviting speakers to campus. Dartmouth's flexible academic calendar lets me immerse myself in research and writing, attend conferences, and deliver lectures to other scholars.

Farid: Dartmouth provides a remarkable environment for professional development in terms of outstanding and supportive colleagues and first-rate undergraduate and graduate students.

Skinner: The best thing about Dartmouth has been its ability to cross disciplinary boundaries, for example in allowing links between the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, the medical school, and the College. Perhaps it's because Dartmouth is small compared to the other Ivies, and the administration is unusually supportive of new and unconventional models of teaching and research.

DL: How has your academic work led to non-academic endeavors?

Heschel: I have increasingly been invited to assume a role in the public sphere, by contributing to major journals and speaking at forums. I appreciate translating the results of scholarly research into more accessible language and hearing the insights of thoughtful individuals. Last year I was delighted to be invited to write an essay for Newsweek's Christmas issue, on the nativity from a Jewish perspective.

Farid: I have testified in criminal and civil cases, consulted with scientific journal editors to reduce cases of scientific fraud, and lectured to law enforcement agencies on how to contend with the complexities of digital evidence. It's part of my job as a teacher to get out of the academic sphere and put my work to use.

Skinner: The great thing about going to Washington or talking with writers and pundits is that they have a good sense of what the interesting but unanswered questions are. David Leonhardt from The New York Times will ask a question, and I'll realize that (a) it's a great question, and (b) no one knows the answer, and (c) I may know how to answer it. Academics who play in the policy field perform an important role in providing non-political answers to difficult questions.

DL: Do you have a nugget of advice for your undergraduate students?

Heschel: Study, think, and read wisely. Promise yourselves never to stop thinking, and remember that the mark of a wise person is the ability to change one's mind.

Farid: Take risks!

Skinner: Take classes in subjects outside your major-especially foreign languages.

By SUSAN KNAPP

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Last Updated: 5/30/08