With the departure of three longtime members of the physics department, experimental physicist Catherine Kealhofer is the first of three new hires to begin her Williams career


Physics’ Newest Hires

By Julia Munemo

With the departure of three long-time members of the physics department and the arrival of three newcomers, physics at Williams is in the midst of a transition. Physics professor and former dean of the college Sarah Bolton was named president of the College of Wooster, a post she took up this fall. And at the end of this year, professors Jefferson Strait and William Wootters will both retire.

Coming in the door over the next year are three new faculty members. Catherine Kealhofer arrived this fall and is teaching Electricity and Magnetism this semester. Kealhofer, an experimental physicist, recently completed postdoctoral research at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Germany. Her work involves the development of tools for ultrafast electron diffraction.

“In ultrafast physics, we’re trying to get insight into processes that happen on the time-scale that atoms are vibrating in solids,” says Kealhofer, who earned her Ph.D. at Stanford University. “These vibrations might happen a trillion times a second—a rate that is almost difficult to imagine.”

To get a picture of ultrafast changes, Kealhofer develops tools for making ultrafast electron pulses. “A next step in electron microscopy is to be able to look at atomic-scale structure as it changes,” she says. To do that, she develops short-pulsed electron sources that can provide a picture of the process at a specific moment.

“When you take a photograph of something that’s moving fast, and your shutter speed isn’t fast enough, the image is blurred,” she says. “One way to get around that is using stroboscopic illumination, where your shutter stays open in a dark environment. The state of the system during the brief flash is what’s recorded.”

Kealhofer likens a regular electron microscope to the camera with the slow shutter. The continuous electron beam generates a blurry image of a process as it’s happening, but short electron pulses can record a sharp picture of the changing system. “This technique lets us watch a movie of a phase transition, such as the melting of a solid,” she says.

To generate these short electron pulses and observe what’s happening at ultrafast time scales, Kealhofer has to set up her research lab. “Setting up a lab at a small college is challenging because on day one you start with an empty room,” says physics chair David Tucker-Smith. “Undergraduates can be very helpful—and it’s an extraordinary experience for them—but they have to be trained. We were excited to find stellar faculty with ambitious lab programs and the talent to mentor students in establishing those labs.”

Next to arrive in the department is theoretical physicist Swati Singh, who comes in the spring. Singh earned her Ph.D. at the University of Arizona and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Theoretical Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics at the Harvard/Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She will teach Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics.

“Singh’s research output is quite broad in scope, encompassing theoretical studies of quantum effects in disparate physical systems,” says Tucker-Smith. “Most recently she and her collaborators have been investigating the possibility of using superfluid helium to detect gravitational waves.”

And next fall, Kate Jensen will arrive after completing postdoctoral research at ETH Zurich. Jensen, who earned her Ph.D. at Harvard, is an experimentalist who is interested in probing materials in order to better understand them. “Jensen’s work has an applied bent and will be interesting to a broad range of students, including some who might want to go into engineering,” says Tucker-Smith.

“Each of these faculty members brings a new focus to the physics department, complementing the research currently being done here, and also adding to it tremendously,” says Tucker-Smith.

“At a time when women continue to be underrepresented in physics, it is especially exciting to have hired three such talented women,” says Dean of the Faculty Denise K. Buell. “We are delighted to have been able to hire them as a cohort.”

Read more stories

In the spirit of Confronting Climate Change, three Williams professors discuss whether we can avert a sixth mass extinction event


Sixth Extinction

There have been five major extinction events since the evolution of complex animals. Each time, the planet underwent changes so acute and so rapid—in geological terms—that most living things were killed off before they could adapt. As our understanding about the so-called “Big Five” events has grown, we’ve come to realize that we’re now in the midst of a sixth extinction. The cause, scientists say, is us.

Human behavior is disrupting the very biological systems on which we rely. Chief among a list of culprits are deforestation, habitat fragmentation, ocean acidification, and climate change.

To address the college’s role in climate change, Williams is pursuing an ambitious set of initiatives set forth in fall 2015. Work is under way to achieve carbon neutrality by 2020 through goals that include reducing emissions, investing in sustainable design and building practices, and developing renewable energy projects. The college is also investing in its educational mission, making climate change a campus-wide theme of inquiry for the 2016-17 academic year.

In this spirit, just before the start of the fall semester, Williams Magazine brought together three faculty members whose research and work intersect with this year’s theme, Confronting Climate Change. Leading the conversation was Nicolas Howe, assistant professor of environmental studies and former journalist, who studies the cultural and religious dimensions of environmental problems. He was joined by geosciences professor Phoebe Cohen, who’s using the fossil record to study the second mass extinction at the Late-Devonian period 375 million years ago, and Elizabeth Kolbert, Williams’ Class of 1946 Environmental Fellow-in-Residence, co-chair of Confronting Climate Change, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of e Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (Henry Holt & Co., 2014). The three explored how the planet is changing, what can be learned from past extinction events, and how Williams is informing the conversation about global climate change.

NICOLAS HOWE: Why do so many scientists think that we’re in the midst of a mass extinction?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: The evidence is extremely simple. The background extinction rate is usually very slow. So if one mammalian species goes extinct in a human lifetime, something weird is going on. If many species go extinct, as we are now seeing, then something very weird is going on. We are learning more and more about what happened during past extinctions through the work Phoebe does, for example, looking at the fossil record. And researchers are monitoring the rate at which species are moving through various categories of extinction: “vulnerable,” “threatened,” “near extinct,” and “extinct.” Based on what scientists know from past extinctions, they project that if we continue at this pace with well-studied groups, we’ll reach mass extinction rates—loss of 75 percent of all species on earth—within a few hundred years. That’s incredibly fast.

PHOEBE COHEN: Most mass extinctions take thousands of years. That’s the temporal window over which we’re allowed to see them, based on the limits of the rock record. But you can only truly say that there’s a mass extinction after it’s already over.

HOWE: What can we learn from past mass extinction events? How quickly can nature rebound afterward?

COHEN: The answer to how quickly the planet can rebound has to do with what’s causing the extinction and how quickly that cause goes away. The two best-studied extinction events are the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) and the Permo-Triassic. During the K-Pg, a giant rock fell out of the sky, there’s evidence of increasing volcanic activity, and the dinosaurs—among many other living things—went extinct. It was relatively sudden and mostly due to external factors. As a result, the rebound was faster. During the Permo-Triassic, there was warming, high CO2, and toxic gasses being released into the ocean and atmosphere because of volcanism. That extinction took longer to happen, and it took way longer to recover from, because it was as if the whole planet was sick, internally.

HOWE: So what makes the current situation fundamentally different?

KOLBERT: The Permo-Triassic is the worst mass extinction that we know about—and probably the worst since complex life began. It ended the Paleozoic Era and began the Mesozoic Era. Recent research indicates that a huge CO2 release took place over thousands of years. But on an annual basis, less CO2 was being released back then than what we’re currently releasing now, which suggests that we’re pushing the system really, really fast. We don’t have the distance of 250 million years to understand how that will turn out.

If we continue at this pace…we’ll reach mass extinction rates–loss of 75 percent of all species on earth, within a few hundred years. That’s incredibly fast. -Elizabeth Kolbert

HOWE: What might the world look like after a mass extinction?

KOLBERT: One possibility is that we’re creating a world of insects. Most of the world’s species are invertebrates, and they’re poorly catalogued. But they may be less prone to extinction, because they have very fast generation times and produce a lot of young. They can evolve pretty quickly compared to, say, pandas.

COHEN: Cosmopolitan species that can survive in many types of different environments, like rats, also tend to survive most extinctions.

HOWE: And a number of researchers are optimistic about the possibility of cosmopolitan species repopulating the world.

The Big Five Extinctions

1 END-ORDOVICIAN EXTINCTION; 444 million years ago; 86% of species lost
The cause was probably a short, severe ice age, potentially triggered by the uplift of the Appalachian Mountains, which lowered sea levels. Exposed silicate rock drew CO2 out of the atmosphere, chilling the planet.

2 LATE-DEVONIAN EXTINCTION375 million years ago; 75% of species lost
One of the least understood extinctions, it’s thought that the deep roots of newly evolved land plants stirred up the earth, releasing nutrients into the ocean. This triggered algal blooms that depleted oxygen in the water.

3 PERMO-TRIASSIC EXTINCTION; 251 million years ago; 96% of species lost
Causes include an eruption in what is now Siberia that blasted CO2 into the atmosphere; bacteria- releasing methane; rising global temps; and ocean acidification, stagnation, and oxygen depletion that released poisonous hydrogen sulfide.

4 END-TRIASSIC EXTINCTION; 200 million years ago; 80% of species lost
To date, no clear cause has been identified. But mounting evidence suggests global climate and ocean disturbances, similar to those seen at the Permo-Triassic, played roles.

5 CRETACEOUS- PALEOGENE EXTINCTION; 66 million years ago; 76% of species lost
Volcanic activity and climate change put many species under stress. An asteroid impact eliminated them and the dinosaurs.

KOLBERT: We’re mucking with some pretty basic geochemical and biological systems that have been functioning a certain way for quite a long time. When we’re driving our cars, we’re running organisms that were alive 100 million years ago through a motor and combusting them. We’re reversing a process that took many tens of millions of years to run in one direction— and we’re running it backward, very fast. We don’t know how that’s going to turn out.


COHEN: That’s right. The fossil record bears that out, to some extent. It’s interesting to think about how quickly the earth will rebound once the cause of the mass extinction goes away. So if we kill off a bunch of things and then all fly to Mars and leave the earth alone for a while, the rebound will probably be relatively fast. But we’re not going anywhere as a species, so the cause of the current mass extinction will persist. That means the extinction will likely be prolonged, and the recovery will take longer—more like the Permo-Triassic extinction event.

HOWE: Has the window slammed shut in terms of averting a disaster?

COHEN: The window to avoid the worst—or at least to avoid things that may affect billions of people—may already have closed. But I don’t think we’re at a point where both of the poles are going to melt or sea levels will rise tens of meters. Our energy systems are changing and will continue to change.

KOLBERT: Researchers have looked at the time it might take to transition our energy systems. If we had 100 years to switch from fossil fuels, we could do it. And we probably will make that transition in 100 years. But you can put a lot of carbon into the air in that amount of time. It’s not clear you can take it out.

COHEN: It begs the question of what’s natural. We’re never going to return to a previous state. The earth will be different, even if we all stop driving cars and begin sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere immediately. As an earth historian, I find learning about past mass extinctions comforting. In retrospect, they’re just small moments in the history of the planet. Life will persist in new and interesting ways that we can’t even imagine, long after we are gone. That thought doesn’t make me any less motivated to create change now, but it helps me sleep a little better at night.

KOLBERT: Certainly the issue of climate change is much more top of mind than it was, and it’s only going to be more so as California burns and Louisiana floods. It’s getting very hard to avoid the issue.

COHEN: July was the hottest month on record, ever.

How do 10 billion people live lightly on the land? –Phoebe Cohen

HOWE: As one way to avert a mass extinction event, biologist E.O. Wilson proposes setting aside roughly half the planet as a permanent preserve. There are also efforts to do assisted migrations and de-extinction (also known as resurrection biology) through selective breeding or cloning.

KOLBERT: There are scientists who have the cells of the last three of some now-extinct species—usually animals, but also plants—in the refrigerator. But first let’s start with keeping things alive. There are bighorn sheep in Yosemite for the first time in 100 years. (The federally endangered species was re-introduced to Yosemite and Sequoia national parks in March 2015 as part of a complex, multiyear recovery effort.) The Endangered Species Act of 1973 demands that we do this work to conserve species and the ecosystems they depend upon. But as more and more species need that kind of help, the question of where you put your resources is pressing. Wilson’s proposal makes a lot of sense, but it’s easier said than done.

COHEN: It’s politically challenging. And while habitat restoration or habitat protection might actually be useful in the long run, neither addresses the underlying problem.

HOWE: Is it possible the answer to mass extinction may be one of the oldest in the environmentalists’ playbook? That is: Live as lightly on the land as you possibly can, and don’t play Russian roulette with evolution.

COHEN: How do 10 billion people live lightly on the land? What does that look like?

KOLBERT: All of these questions are relevant for the Williams students of today. We have at least two sets of values that are profoundly in conflict. One is eliminating poverty, bringing as many people as possible to the kind of standard of living we enjoy. It seems only equitable. But it’s also an ecological catastrophe if you consider our impact on the planet. So you’re faced with saying that anyone above a certain standard of living— one that we’d consider pretty minimal—had better radically reduce their consumption, or resigning yourself to a terrible ecological outcome. It’s very, very difficult to thread that needle. How do you engage students in thinking about these questions?

COHEN: My intro-level course is the most important course I teach, because I’m getting students who aren’t necessarily going to become geosciences majors. It’s not a course explicitly about climate change, but we talk about how the planet’s system works, and, at the end of the semester, we talk about how part of that system is us, screwing up the system. Empowering them with an understanding of how the earth works and what we’re doing to it is really important in a time when climate science denialism is still rampant.
HOWE: This is the first generation to grow up with climate change as a public fact, even if the scientists have understood it for a really long time. There’s no before and after climate change for our students. The environmental studies students already care. My dream would be to get the students who don’t yet care to take environmental studies.

KOLBERT: These issues—climate change, mass extinction—present a fundamental challenge even to the humanities. This question of what does it mean to be human needs to be revisited. What are the defining characteristics? One of them turns out to be that we’re capable of—and in the process of—completely changing the world.

COHEN: I’m excited to see climate change as a campus- wide conversation this year as opposed to one that’s primarily happening within environmental studies or geosciences. It needs to be something all our students are learning about and exposed to thinking about. It’s not just about the mechanics of CO2 or saving pandas or growing your own food. It’s bigger than that.

HOWE: Having a sustained conversation is essential. That’s the most important aspect of Confronting Climate Change—the duration of it, and the fact that there are going to be a variety of speakers addressing the issue in various ways, from economic, legal, and scientific standpoints.

KOLBERT: A useful outcome of Confronting Climate Change would be understanding where our emissions really come from. If you ask students what they think should be done to reduce the college’s emissions, they say things like: “Let’s unplug all the dorm-room refrigerators.” I’m deeply opposed to mini-fridges. They’re inefficient. But if you actually run the numbers, it turns out that they’re a trivial part of Williams’ energy footprint. So the next step is digging down and seeing what the numbers are. And when you do that for your own life—or for the Williams life, collectively—you find things that are upsetting.

COHEN: I hope institutionally that this inquiry leads to a bigger commitment to energy efficiency and changing our energy sources. It’s something we’ve talked a lot about. We’re building our new buildings very efficiently. But we still have a lot of old buildings on campus. Figuring out what to do with those buildings isn’t as exciting as, say, pursuing Living Building status for the Class of 1966 Environmental Center. But the old buildings matter a great deal.

KOLBERT: The question of how many buildings matters.

HOWE: We’re looking at both big and small changes that will make a difference. But many of the people we’re bringing to campus, including Bill McKibben (an author, educator and environmentalist), would argue that, without a broad-based social movement that’s global in scale, we’re not going to be able to avert a catastrophe.

COHEN: It’s hard for me to envision that social movement. It’s conceptually challenging.

Having a sustained conversation is essential. That’s the most important aspect of confronting climate change.–Nicolas Howe

KOLBERT: One could argue that we’ve never voluntarily done social change on a global scale before.

HOWE: Certainly not to give up something. Large social movements have always been about getting more of something—whether it’s rights or political freedom.

KOLBERT: Theoretically you could frame it in such a way that we are getting something.

COHEN: A future.

HOWE: You have to throw everything at the wall that you possibly can: new technologies, better scientists, more scientific research, social movements, policies. A good outcome of a focus on climate change this year would be that every student, no matter what their interest is, no matter what their career plans are, understands that they have a role to play.

KOLBERT: And that they have a stake. Every student graduating from Williams now will feel severe effects in his or her lifetime.

COHEN: Climate change is only part of the full extinction story. Our food systems come into it, as do the way we build our homes and move around the world. It comes down to showing students how it’s all connected, so they can go out into the world and make informed decisions and—we hope—bring about change. Many of my students are choosing careers that in some way involve climate change. It seems like it’s a more normalized way of thinking. We do a good job of showing students that there are lots of different ways they can be involved.

Read more Williams Magazine articles

2015 CDE graduate Diala Issam Al Masri named Rhodes Scholar


Williams College CDE Graduate Diala Issam Al Masri Named Rhodes Scholar

Media contact: Noelle Lemoine, communications assistant; tele: (413) 597-4277; email: Noelle.Lemoine@williams.edu

RhodesScholarWILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., November 28, 2016—A recent graduate of Williams College’s Center for Development Economics (CDE), Diala Issam Al Masri ’15, is one of three newly named Rhodes Scholars from Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, or Palestine. This is the first year that the Rhodes Trust is choosing scholars from that region, the result of a new partnership with the Saïd Foundation that was announced in June. Al Masri is the first CDE graduate to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.

The Rhodes Scholarship is among the oldest and most prestigious academic awards for college graduates. It provides two or three years of study at the University of Oxford in England. Al Masri was selected from among hundreds of applicants from the new Middle East region.

Al Masri heard the news she’d been selected for the Rhodes while celebrating Thanksgiving at the home of Williams professor Magnus Bernhardsson. “There were a few moments of disbelief, then pure, overwhelming joy,” she said. “I feel deeply grateful to everyone who got me here, and at the same time, a responsibility to live up to the trust placed in me.”

A native of Lebanon, Al Masri received a Fulbright Scholarship to further her studies at Williams, taking a path less traveled to the CDE. Typically, CDE students are already working as economists in their home countries, but Al Masri came to the CDE directly after completing her bachelor’s degree in political science/international affairs with a minor in economics in 2014 at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

The CDE offers an intensive, one academic year master’s degree program designed for economists from low- and middle-income countries, to provide them with a thorough understanding of the development process, emphasizing analytical techniques helpful to policymakers. It is one of two master’s degree programs offered at Williams (the other is a program in the history of art).

Since receiving her master’s in policy economics from the CDE, Al Masri has remained at Williams, working first as a teaching assistant at the CDE for the Class of 2016, and now in the Economics Department as a research assistant for professors Peter Pedroni and Peter Montiel. Her research encompasses determinants of capital flows and the long-term relationship of finance and development.

Pedroni said that while working with Al Masri, it became quite clear that her talent and ability for research outpaced what one would normally expect from a research assistant.

“Diala is at this stage of her career without doubt and by no small margin the strongest student to come from the CDE program,” Pedroni noted in his letter to the Rhodes selection committee. “In terms of aptitude and technical ability, I would say Diala is far more comparable to the best of the Williams undergraduates who double major in economics and mathematics, many of whom go on to study among the top five economics Ph.D. programs in the U.S. But most importantly, Diala has developed a sense of research maturity that exceeds even the most talented of our top undergraduates.”

Al Masri says her plan is to pursue graduate work in economics at Oxford to further her studies of econometric techniques and continue in a career as an economist and an academic specializing in low- and middle-income countries and fragile states. She points to two specific programs at Oxford—the Institute for Global Economic Development (OxIGED) and the Institute for Economic Modeling (INET)—as programs she would be involved with in her studies.

Al Masri’s educational journey started in her hometown in a rural area in the Lebanese mountains. She recalls hearing many times how being a woman in a male-dominated society would impose limits on her, but instead she says it empowered her. As an undergraduate student in Lebanon, Al Masri was very involved with leadership and humanitarian organizations. She was one of six Lebanese students chosen to be part of the Middle East Partnership Initiative Student Leaders program, where she interacted with leaders from the Arab region.

She participated as a leader in the Global Classrooms UNA-USA Model United Nations and served as a trainer for Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian aid agency that helps people survive after conflict, crisis, or natural disaster. She helped implement a pilot project on women’s empowerment with the United Nations Development Programme and worked with the World Youth Alliance’s Middle East operation to support Syrian refugees who were arriving in her hometown.

Pedroni said that working with Al Masri is a pleasure not only because of her technical ability, but also because of her deep sense of intellectual devotion that she conveys for the subjects that she pursues. “I have no doubt that Diala will make good use of her intellectual talents and abilities for social contributions,” he said.

Al Masri is the 38th Williams student to be named a Rhodes Scholar since the program began in 1902. The most recent previous Williams recipient was Brian McGrail ’14. More on the scholarships and profiles of the three Middle East region recipients can be found on the Rhodes Trust website.


Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions on U.S. applicants are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.


Read more news releases

A friendship born at Williams in the early 1990s has led to a new $500,000 award for outstanding Christian medical missionary service


From Williams to Africa

By Julia Munemo

A friendship born at Williams in the early 1990s has had a tremendous effect on health care in rural Africa. In December, a nonprofit founded by the two classmates will announce the first winner of the Gerson L’Chaim Prize, a $500,000 award given to someone who moved to Africa to provide medical care to the poor—and who has been doing that work already for a considerable period of time.

Jon Fielder ’94 is a medical doctor and Christian missionary in Kenya, where he’s lived since 2002. Mark Gerson ’94 was trained at Yale Law School, now runs several businesses, and is a devout Jew. They met their freshman year, became close over long conversations at the snack bar, and stayed in touch through medical and law school.

Jon Fielder ’94 (left) and Mark Gerson ’94 (center) speak with a community worker.
Jon Fielder ’94 (left) and Mark Gerson ’94 (center) speak with a community worker.

Gerson says he was always impressed by Fielder’s intellectual curiosity and moral commitments. When Fielder took a year off from medical school to work with Mother Theresa in Calcutta, Gerson says, “his need and desire to serve the poor was an inspiration.”

So in 2002, when Fielder had completed his residency at Johns Hopkins and was planning to serve as a medical missionary in Kenya, Gerson made what would be the first of many philanthropic donations to Fielder’s work. “His donations to support HIV-infected patients at the hospital started before I even arrived,” Fielder says.

Gerson explains that even when he couldn’t give very much, he was committed to supporting his friend’s work, and he knew that “if Jon said my philanthropic dollars would have an effect, I could absolutely trust him.”

The problems Fielder faced in rural Kenya were enormous. When he arrived at Kijabe Hospital, deep in an escarpment in the Great Rift Valley, he was the only member of the staff who knew how to treat HIV. Medical supplies were limited, and the medicine that could prolong the lives of HIV-positive patients was impossibly expensive.

“Thanks to Mark’s early gifts, we were able to establish a subsidy program through which patients paid what they could afford, and the hospital paid the rest,” Fielder says. Within a few years, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief provided those medicines for free, and Gerson’s gifts—along with those of others he and Fielder brought together, including Sean Fieler ’95—were directed at bigger-picture problems, such as a lack of facilities and trained personnel in the region.

In 2010, Gerson and Fielder established the African Mission Healthcare Foundation (AMHF). The AMHF has built clinics around Kenya and in other countries; established a medical-personnel training program; and supported other medical missionaries doing similar work to Fielder.

When asked why this type of philanthropy is so important to him, Gerson says, “The Torah tells us 36 times to love the stranger, and who is more of a stranger than people suffering from TB or AIDS or any number of disabilities in a rural African village?”

Since founding AMHF, Fielder has helped train thousands of physician’s assistants and nurses, who now work in clinics around Kenya and Malawi. “It is amazing to think that a dozen years ago, I was the only person at Kijabe who could treat HIV, and now there all of these people doing that work in clinics located much closer to where the patients actually live,” he says.

But the fact remains that in many regions, doctors like Fielder are the only health care providers for thousands of local residents. “It is obvious to me that the work these medical missionaries do is completely extraordinary,” Gerson says of the four finalists for the prize. “They have devoted their whole lives to it, they moved there and they don’t ever leave. But they don’t see themselves as extraordinary.”

Gerson and Fielder hope the prize, which will be awarded annually, brings recognition to the work these medical missionaries are doing and encourages others to donate.

“Resources for health can stretch much farther in Africa than they do in America,” Fielder says. “These doctors have been in Africa for a long time, the hospitals have been there a long time. Our focus is to support that kind of longitudinal institution building, because of the huge effects those institutions have on the populations they serve.”

To learn more about the AMHF or the four Gerson L’Chaim Prize finalists, visit http://www.amhf.us/.





Read more stories

History professor Charles Dew ’58 has published a memoir about his childhood growing up white in the Jim Crow South and his awakening at Williams


The (Un)Making of a Racist

In his compelling new memoir, Professor Charles Dew ’58, one of America’s most respected scholars on the history of slavery, shares the story of his childhood growing up white in the Jim Crow South and how his consciousness—and conscience—were raised at Williams.

“How did someone as white as you come to study our history?” The question, Charles Dew ’58 recalls, “rocked me back on my heels.”

It was 1994, and the question was asked by an African-American man at a conference for public school teachers in Tidewater, Va. Dew, a beloved Williams professor and noted scholar of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, had just given a talk about industrial slavery and opened the door to questions.

Dew began to answer him, explaining how research for his dissertation on the Tredegar Iron Works during the Civil War led to an interest in enslaved ironworkers and, ultimately, his first two books.

“And then I stopped dead,” Dew writes, recounting the experience in his memoir The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade, published in August by the University of Virginia Press. “I knew this was not what this teacher wanted to know. I paused again, but this time actually to think.

“To tell you the truth, I never really sat down and thought about this before. I just went after what fascinated me as a historian. But I think I started studying the South and race and slavery because I wanted to know how white southerners—my people—had managed to look evil in the face every day and not see what was right there in front of them, in front of us. I grew up in the Jim Crow South. Segregation was all around me. I never saw it.”

Dew’s “awakening” to racial injustice occurred at Williams, where for the first time he lived and learned alongside black classmates and slowly began “thinking about my part of the country in ways that had never occurred to me before, critically, analytically, with a mounting need to know and understand.” As a Williams student, he writes, he underwent a process of “consciousness raising and conscience raising.”

Now, as the college’s Ephraim Williams Professor of American History, with more than 50 years of teaching southern history, he’s shared with countless students his memories of growing up on the white side of the color line. “My students remember these stories,” he writes. “They invariably ask probing questions in class and often stop by my office to continue our discussions.

“So,” Dew continues, “I decided to write it down.”

Dew was born in 1937 in St. Petersburg, Fla. His ancestors participated in slavery and fought for the Confederacy; his parents embraced racial segregation. On his 14th birthday, he writes, “My sense of history came fully into focus … when my father presented me with twin gifts that marked my coming of age as a white son of the South: a Marlin .22-caliber bolt-action rifle and Douglas Southall Freeman’s massive three-volume history of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command.” That year he also received a copy of Facts the Historians Leave Out: A Youth’s Confederate Primer as a gift from one of his father’s law partners, who, Dew writes, “felt it was important for a southern boy to grow up on the right side of history.”

Looking back on his childhood, Dew writes, “I realize now that many of the Jim Crow customs I learned growing up I absorbed more through a process of osmosis than through verbal instruction.” He describes knowing without ever being told that the two jelly glasses and two sets of chipped china in a corner of the family’s kitchen cupboard were for Ed, the black man who mowed the Dew family’s lawn, and Illinois, the black woman who did their housekeeping.

“I learned never to shake hands with an African-American person. Pop never did … so I never did,” Dew writes. “I addressed African-American men and women who worked for us by their first names. I did not use their last names prefaced by Mr. or Mrs. or Miss because my parents never did.”

He adds, “the same racial etiquette that brought Illinois to the back door of our house did not permit my mother to walk through the front door of hers.”

His father believed strongly in the value of education, and, Dew writes, “On several occasions, his travels on behalf of clients had taken him to New York City. There, a disproportionate number of the men who impressed him the most, who both spoke well and wrote well, had gone to Williams. Pop had never heard of the place, but … he liked what he saw.”

After attending Woodberry Forest, an all-boy’s independent school in Virginia, Dew followed his older brother, John, Class of ’56, to Williams. Their father apparently had no qualms about sending the young men north for the first time in their lives. “I think he considered the southern armor in which we were clad to be impenetrable,” Dew writes. “We would get a first-rate liberal arts education; we would learn to speak well and write well. But we would be impervious to change in ways that really mattered: Our ideas on things like politics and race would remain grounded in the soil of the South.”

For a while, that proved to be the case. “The scales did not fall from my eyes the moment I stepped onto the Williams campus,” Dew writes. He cringes at the memory of visiting a white classmate’s room a few days after the fall semester began and reciting a racist joke “in a Negro (as we said then, if we were being polite) dialect” at the very moment their entry-mate Ted Wynne ’58, who was black, walked by the open door.

Embarrassed, Dew later sought out Wynne. Though neither mentioned the incident, Dew writes, “I realized as I walked away that something remarkable had happened. I had never carried on anything approaching a real conversation with an African-American individual that approached … an exchange between equals.”

Dew’s love of history was ignited, in part, by a “life-changing” seminar on the history of the Old South taught by Robert C.L. Scott. “We studied slavery, antebellum politics, rising sectional tension, secession and the Confederacy—all with the gloves off. … Professor Scott … did not preach to me or to any of us in the seminar. He did not have to. The materials we were reading spoke for themselves. “Halfway through the seminar,” Dew writes, “I wanted to be a historian.”

After completing his Ph.D. at the Johns Hopkins University, Dew returned to Williams as a visiting professor of history for the 1977-78 academic year. He has been a member of the faculty ever since.

A “scholarly thunderclap” occurred the day Bob Volz, then custodian of the Chapin Library of rare books, invited Dew to see a new acquisition. It was a broadside dated Aug. 2, 1860, stamped with the seal of Betts & Gregory, Auctioneers, Franklin Street, Richmond, Va. On the left-hand side of the page was a list of categories of slaves: “Extra,” people of exceptional height, musculature, and physical attractiveness or with special skills; “No. 1,” men at their full physical development or women at the peak of their childbearing years; and “Second- rate or Ordinary,” possessing a “defect” like the mark of a whip, or with bad health or attitude. Next to each category were that week’s market prices, written by hand.

Today, the market report is the first thing Dew shows students in his Old South and American Civil War classes. “Their reaction is often one of puzzlement followed by stunned disbelief, as well it should be at the onset of the 21st century,” Dew writes. “But then the ramifications of what they are looking at begin to sink in. It is a profoundly educational document.”

Toward the end of the semester, he asks his students to examine two more documents. The first is a letter to Thomas Jefferson’s executor from P.H. Leuba, who purchased a 14-year-old enslaved girl from the late president’s estate. The girl, Jeanette, arrived at Leuba’s home badly burned after a run-in with the overseer at Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, and Leuba sought a reduction in her price now that she was “damaged.”

The second document is a rare one—a letter written by Eavans McCrery, an enslaved man in Kentucky, to Elizabeth McCrery of Roanoke, Va., who inherited him from his late master. In it Eavans implores his mistress to sell him to a potential buyer in Kentucky so that he may remain close to his wife and child.

Dew asks his students to analyze the two letters line by line and answer a question: “Would antebellum white southerners experience guilt over slavery after reading what is written here? Or did they find ways to look at the consequences of slavery in the face on a daily basis and experience no guilt over the South’s ‘peculiar institution’?” The class discussion the day the students turn in their papers is one of the best of the semester, Dew writes, with the students evenly split on whether antebellum southerners felt guilt. Dew thinks they didn’t.

“Once notions of white supremacy and black inferiority are in place in the American South, they are passed on from one generation to the next with all the certainty and inevitability of a genetic trait,” he writes.
“It is a sordid tale,” he adds, “all of this, spanning centuries and generations, but we are not doomed by it. We can do better, we have done better. But we must do better still. We have to shuck off the last vestiges of that reptilian skin of racism, even if we do not think we are still carrying it around. Because we are.”

Dew recalls how he intensified his own efforts to “shuck off” that skin while home for the summer before his senior year at Williams. He’d begun driving the family’s housekeeper, Illinois, home after work so that they could “really talk” to each other. One day during the 25-minute ride to the south side of St. Petersburg, she asked him a question he’s never forgotten: “Charles, why do the grown-ups put so much hate in the children?”

Dew closes his memoir with that question in mind: “We should strive to be, and we should become, the generation of ‘grown-ups’ who finally, at long last, refuses to put ‘the hate in the children.’”

Charles Dew is the college’s Ephraim Williams Professor of American History. His memoir The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade (University of Virginia Press, 2016) is dedicated to Illinois Browning Culver.

Read more Williams Magazine articles

Psychology and anthropology major Charley E. Wyser ’17 discusses the importance of the environment and its effect on mood and happiness


I Am Williams Voices: Charley Weyser ’17

In a new video, psychology and anthropology major Charley E. Wyser ’17 discusses the importance of the environment and its effect on mood and happiness.

watch more videos

Teach It Forward

The Campaign for Williams


Teach It Forward

Enjoy a collection of Teach It Forward talks and videos from our first year of campaign events. The $650 million comprehensive campaign launched in fall 2015.

Visit the Williams Campaign website.

Varsity Sports

Arts at Williams

Campus Events