Effective March 9, Dr. James Byrne, Humanities Tutor (History of Science), has been ratified by the Academic Council and approved by the Board of Governors as interim Vice President and Chief Academic Officer. James brings a wealth of experience to the position through his leadership roles in the Academic Council, Admissions and Financial Aid Committee, and Rhetoric Program.
Several weeks ago, third-year Quest student Parker Carruthers had an opportunity to sit down with James to discuss his new role, his background, teaching at Quest, what his Question would be, and other interesting facts.
PC: Let’s start with your background. Tell us about where you’re from, etc., and what brought you to Quest.
JB: I came to Quest from Princeton, where I had been teaching in their writing program for five years. I received my PhD from Princeton, so I was there for at least 10 years or so altogether. And when I was on the market the year I ended up coming here I didn’t really know anything about Quest.
PC: What year was that?
JB: I started at Quest in 2012. So, this would have been fall of 2011 when I was applying. The job ad sounded like I fit very well with what Quest was looking for—a historian of science, and also someone who could teach in the Foundation Program and someone who could teach the Rhetoric class. Since the classes I’d been teaching at Princeton were mostly quite small classes of about 12 students each, I thought that what I do would translate well here.
I looked into Quest because I hadn’t heard anything about it, and I found there had been an article on Quest in the New York Times, and this was around the time David Helfand first did his Ted talk. So, I found a lot of information that sounded great. But what really sold me on Quest was when I came out for my on-campus interview.
When I gave my sample class, I was really impressed by the way the students, who didn’t really have any reason to jump in and participate or be enthusiastic about it, engaged. I think I was in one of Fei Shi’s [Arts and Humanities Tutor] Identity and Perspectives classes, and I came in and did the first day of my Chivalry and Feudalism class that I was teaching at Princeton at that point; which is a different version of the Chivalry and Feudalism class that I offer here.
The students were really super enthusiastic; we had a great conversation. I gave them a little text to read and talk about, and I thought it was all really exciting. And then I also really connected with the faculty that I met here. When Quest offered me the position I accepted it right away.
PC: That’s a great story. So, moving on a little bit more here, into your specific research interests which you mentioned a little. Explicitly, what do you do, and what are you into, and maybe why are you into it too?
JB: I’m a historian of science, and my interest in the history of science really goes back to my undergraduate days. I started my undergraduate career as a math major. I originally wanted to go into finance, but I met investment bankers in New York, and I decided, “Maybe this isn’t for me.” I also started doing history classes because I had always been really interested in history and really enjoyed that. One of the professors that I had, who ended up being one of my advisors at Columbia, is a historian of science and economic life. He was really excited to have me because I had a math background, so I could understand some of the technical stuff.
PC: Sort of an in-between almost.
JB: Yes, I got really excited about it and I ended up doing a double major in history and math and doing my senior thesis on a medieval introductory textbook to optics. I really enjoyed doing that, so I applied for grad school in history of science, got accepted, and continued from there.
My specific areas of research are broadly medieval and early-modern science. My big research project right now is I’m working on finishing up a book on how astronomy was taught and practiced at medieval universities.
PC: And when you say medieval, what age/time are we looking at?
JB: For me, kind of broadly 1200–1500. That’s the period I mostly cover in the book, for example. And more recently I’ve also been moving my research interests a little bit later. I’m interested in looking at some things that are not only European, but also looking at places that Europeans travelled to. And then I’m especially interested in looking at rural forms of knowledge about nature.
There’s been a lot of work recently on early-modern science looking at the role of craftspeople, artisans, engineers, and their contributions to the history of science. But those are all very urban-focussed studies where people are mainly looking at cities that were important in European trade networks. But this is still a period where the great majority of Europe is rural. And there actually is a lot of concern about understanding not just traditional ways of doing agriculture, but of trying to manage things in a more efficient or rational way. I’m interested in looking at that and then at how that kind of knowledge spreads around and interacts with other cultures’ knowledge of rural things as Europeans go on to have colonial encounters around the world.
PC: That’s fascinating. Switching gears now, what is the role of the Chief Academic Officer, and what does this new position mean to you?
JB: Broadly, I’m the person who’s responsible for overseeing academics at Quest. I’m not the dictator of academics, we have an academic council that is responsible for setting a lot of our policies or approving changes to the curriculum. My role is to administer academics; to make sure that we’ve got a full slate of courses to teach, and we have faculty to teach them, and the policies we have surrounding academics are administered fairly for both faculty and students. And to generally make sure that the needs of faculty are being met, that the academic needs of students are being met, and that academics at Quest are functioning well.
I’m excited about starting this position.
PC: How long ago did you come into it?
JB: This is my third week I think, maybe fourth, it hasn’t been very long. I’m definitely new to the position and still learning the ropes. I had been interested in thinking about academic administration as a possible career direction, so this seemed like a good opportunity when it arose. I’m excited to see what I can do in the position, how it works for me, and how it works for Quest.
PC: Here at Quest, what courses have you taught? And if you could have your dream course, what would you like to teach?
JB: I teach a lot of courses at Quest. I teach Rhetoric, and I’ve taught every milestone except for Question. I teach Cornerstone and Rhetoric both pretty regularly. I’ve taught Keystone before but it’s not one of my regular milestones.
And then I teach a course in every area of the humanities Foundation. In Texts I have Divine Comedy, in Culture I have Peasant Cultures, and in Scholarship I have The Scientific Revolution.
And then my current Concentration courses are Slavery, Democracy, and Capitalism, which looks at slavery in the Trans-Atlantic world. I have Chivalry and Feudalism, which is a kind of medieval social and political history course, a little bit of cultural history too. I was supposed to teach Science, Exploration, and Empire for the first time in April, but I had to unfortunately cancel that course so I could fulfil my duties as CAO. And I have History of Evolution which is a look at the sort of early 19th through mid-20th century ideas about biological evolution.
I think that’s my current set of concentration courses.
PC: And then the dream course?
JB: That’s a good question. I really like all the courses that I teach now. There are a few things I would really like to do. One thing that I think would be really great would be to work with Court [Ashbaugh, Director of Labs,] and team-teach a course on historical experiments.
PC: So not only biological processes but also getting into physical sciences and things like that?
JB: Yes to recreate some things. As you get further and further into the 20th century, some things would take too much elaborate technology to do, but a lot of 17th, 18th, and 19th century experiments could be done in our labs. I would really like to do something where it was a combined science and history course where we both re-enact the experiments and try to understand them as they related to exploring scientific theories and then put them in a historical context.
That’s something I would definitely like to do.
PC: That would be a blast.
JB: One of the things this position means is I teach quite a bit less frequently than I would if I were just a member of the faculty. For me the hardest thing about the position is that I really like teaching, and going down to maybe one or two classes a year instead of six is a big change.
PC: A big shift absolutely. This is sort of a fun question, tell us something about you that we may not know. This could be a hobby, sport, extracurricular, maybe an instrument you play, really anything.
JB: Hahaha okay, I don’t play any instruments, well at least. I’m kind of a nerdy guy, so I’m an avid Dungeons and Dragons player. I don’t know people might be interested in that. I have typical kind of nerdly hobbies. And then I ski, and I also cook a lot.
PC: What is the best meal you’ve cooked recently?
JB: For my birthday, my partner got me a couple of the stone bowls that you serve bibimbap in, and I’ve been using those to make bibimbap in…
PC: Ohh a little bit of Korean?
JB: Yes, it’s been really tasty. They’re the bowls you get pretty much at restaurant quality, so…
PC: I’m jealous. To wrap up, if you were a student, what would your Question be?
JB: I usually say, “Where did modern science come from?”
PC: And where would you go with that, where would you take it?
JB: Because I’m a historian of science, I’m interested in what are the things that happened or what had to happen to get to the modern scientific method.
PC: Great. That’s it! Thanks so much, James.
JB: No problem.