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Patricia Hampl, English

English Regents Professor Patricia Hampl, along with political science Regents Professor John Sullivan and philosophy professor Geoffrey Hellman, has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In good company

Three CLA professors are elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

By Deane Morrison

May 15, 2007

Her career has been marked by one honor after another, but for writer and English Regents Professor Patricia Hampl, just being at a place like the University may be the greatest reward of all. As a freshman, she found the University "... the magical city of endeavor and possibility, a parallel universe that is not imaginary but where the imagination has property rights." (See, we told you she was a writer.) For Hampl, political science Regents Professor John Sullivan, and philosophy professor Geoffrey Hellman, following where their imaginations lead has just earned them election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among other 2007 electees to the 227-year-old academy are former Vice President Al Gore, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, filmmaker Spike Lee, and pianist Emanuel Ax. Since its founding in 1780 by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock and other scholar-patriots, the academy has chosen scientists, artists, civic, corporate and philanthropic leaders from across the spectrum to carry out, according to its Web site, "analyses of complex social, political, and intellectual topics in an objective environment." Infinite possibilities Topics don't get much more complex than the ones Hellman tackles. As a philosopher of mathematics and science, he is fond of plumbing the depths of these disciplines, asking questions that scientists and mathematicians don't usually ask. Of particular interest are axioms that deal with infinity, a symbol for which appears in many calculus equations. "For example, when you build a bridge or a building successfully, you're often relying on some mathematical operations that use infinity," Hellman explains.

"Too often, the arts are seen as decorative, merely an ornament on American intellectual life. But this inclusion reminds us that the arts are central to the American enterprise."--Patricia Hampl

He loves delving into questions such as what and how we really know about the infinite. "It's axiomatic that every line contains an infinite number of points, but ... that infinity of points could not possibly be counted," he says. "And, though it sounds paradoxical, a line from here to the moon has exactly the same number of points as a line measuring the diameter of a proton. Still, we do not know how large that number is. We seem to need new 'axioms' to decide that question. But how could we justify these even if we found them? "I feel fortunate that I've been able to find a niche where I could pursue these [and other] interests and keep up on my music," says Hellman, who is also an accomplished pianist. "It's an example of the possibilities an institution like the University of Minnesota provides." Fear factor It was students who first helped Sullivan find the path that led to one of his biggest contributions to political science. "I was teaching an undergraduate class on [political] tolerance in the early 1970s , using standard measurement procedures," he says. "But the students expressed uneasiness with them. We developed new methods of measurement and got new answers."

John Sullivan, Regents Professor of political science
John Sullivan, Regents Professor of political science, is an authority on political intolerance.

What Sullivan was looking for was the roots of political intolerance, an attitude that groups of people who raise one's hackles should be denied certain political rights like the right to assemble or vote. Theories of intolerance had rested on tests of people's reactions to groups presented to them by the experimenters--that is, groups they may not have found objectionable at all. And the prevailing explanation for intolerance had been that people feared the despised group might have power and an agenda and could possibly enact their platform. "But we found that intolerance isn't based on that kind of rational assessment at all," says Sullivan. When he and his colleagues developed tests that measured people's reactions to groups that they actually disliked, it came out that the important reaction was the visceral one. "Whether the [disliked] group was powerful or not didn't matter. Mostly, it was a fear that they might do things out of the ordinary that violated norms," says Sullivan. Some people, he says, are able to think "sober second thoughts" about whether it's right to apply different standards to certain groups when deciding what a person's political rights should be. But not everybody can or does take the time to sort out negative "gut feelings" about others. It's possible, however, to overcome such feelings by emotional reassurances that dampen the negative emotional reaction directly, he says. In later work, Sullivan and psychology professor Eugene Borgida have studied how people in rural communities can avoid ending up on the wrong side of the "digital divide" between the Internet-savvy and the Internet-deprived. They found that where market forces were allowed free rein, a gap developed between rich and poor in terms of taking advantage of the Internet. But if a community invested in Internet technology for all citizens and offered training, poorer people who were civically involved also were able to benefit. She can tell you stories Few writers have been able to capture the thoughts and feelings of the contemplative mind as well as Patricia Hampl. The author of numerous essays, poems, and memoirs, Hampl was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for her book "I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory" and received the Pushcart Prize for her short story "The Bill Collector's Vacation." As editor of the anthology "Burning Bright," she collected sacred poems from the Christian, Jewish and Islamic traditions. In her memoirs "Virgin Time" and "A Romantic Education," Hampl holds a magnifying glass to her Catholic and Czech-American roots, respectively. In "Blue Arabesque," she takes a journey through the art world and the artistic life, starting with her profound reaction to Matisse's "Woman before an Aquarium." All her books have won praise for their exquisite prose, and her last three have been named "Notable Books" of the year by the New York Times Book Review. In 1990 she won a MacArthur Fellowship--also called a "genius grant." Her latest book, "The Florist's Daughter," is due out in October. Her impressive resume notwithstanding, Hampl has reason to rejoice at her and her fellow CLA professors' election to the academy. "The real satisfaction for me is that the Academy includes artists along with scholars and scientists in its membership," she says. "Too often, the arts are seen as decorative, merely an ornament on American intellectual life. But this inclusion reminds us that the arts are central to the American enterprise. I'm delighted, too, that the University of Minnesota is being recognized by the Academy in a broad array of disciplines with new members."