College of Arts & Sciences

arts&sciences

From the Dean

By Ann E. Cudd, Dean of Arts & Sciences | Photo by Kelly Davidson

At the College of Arts & Sciences, we have hundreds of faculty members who are true experts in their respective crafts. These teachers and researchers apply themselves to lifelong callings, building deep expertise through years of advanced training followed by many years practicing their trades. Of these master craftsmen and women, you will find none more inspirational than Robert Pinsky, our William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professor and the former poet laureate of the United States. His contributions to the craft of poetry are multiple, and include not just writing, teaching, and translating, but also the Favorite Poem Project, which celebrates the role of poetry in our daily lives. I encourage you to dig into our feature story on this gifted poet.

Reading how poetry infuses Professor Pinsky’s life inspires me to consider how my craft, philosophy, defines my life and approach to leading the College.

Philosophy poses the why question—as in, OK, but why?—to an extreme (some find annoying) degree. Why do you define utility (or rationality or humanity or equality or responsibility or…) in that particular way? Philosophers categorize and organize their ideas conceptually, then build counterexamples and hypotheticals to test opposing views. We decide on our fundamental metaphysical and ethical commitments, defend a point of view that enshrines those commitments, and recognize that they typically come with a bullet to bite. We are professional skeptics and nitpickers. Philosophers read carefully and between the lines, look for puzzles, and try to see what is missing and what begs asking, “Why?” We look to what has been said in the past and what is being ignored in the present, and pose different answers against each other.

Philosophy informs my work as a dean when I try to contemplate the vast diversity of disciplinary perspectives that are represented in our College. It helps me think about what holds the arts and sciences together as a common enterprise in liberal education. My philosophical commitments play an essential role in what I think the mission and priorities of our College should be and how those are to be approached. My most fundamental philosophical commitment is to the rationality of mutual advantage, which entails the imperative to reciprocity and justice. My favorite passage in all of philosophy is the poetic climax of Part I of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan: in the state of nature there is “no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Rationality demands that we cooperate (according to Hobbes, under the direction of a wise sovereign) for the benefit of each individual and the collective benefit of all—a maxim for a dean of arts and sciences if ever there was one!

Of course, it is not only professors who hone their crafts here, but also students. Our undergraduate and graduate students learn to examine the world through different lenses—the lens of a philosopher is very different from that of a chemist, for example. The best measure of our success as educators is the value that a CAS education has added to a student’s life. I am inspired by the callings that our alumni choose to pursue, and I can often discern the imprint of a liberal arts and sciences education in their efforts. One alumnus profiled in this issue of arts&sciences, Mark Johnson (GRS’89,’95), enthralled me with his stories about cyclists and his commitment to his craft. He simultaneously pursued two crafts in researching and writing his book on doping in sports: competitive cycling and creative nonfiction writing.

I encourage you to reflect on your craft or calling and share those thoughts in a letter to the editor (thurston@bu.edu). And if you are considering pursuing a new calling, we have resources to help you seek out a new career at bu.edu/alumni/careers.