Colgate experts give tips related to their work, from researching in the rainforest to embracing empathy.
Research the Rainforest — 100 Feet in the Air
Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Catherine (Cat) Cardelús studies patterns of biodiversity. Her work has focused on canopies in Ethiopia and Costa Rica. “Climbing the tree is the easy part,” she says. “The hard part is staying up there for eight hours.” More from Cardelús:
I use a crossbow to get a fishing line over the branch I want. I follow the fishing line with a heavier line, and then I bring up my line. These are big canopy trees — at least 100 feet tall with a massive diameter. You can have six people sitting in them; everybody anchors the tree. Then we put on our harnesses and check each other.
Be an Inchworm
Special knots and tree-climbing equipment help you inchworm your way up. Stand, move a knot up, bend your knee and bring a stirrup up with you, then stand on the stirrup and push up. It can take from 15 minutes to a half an hour to climb 100 feet.
Wiggle While You Work
There are little seats built into the harness, but there’s a whole thought process of, “Can I sit here for an hour?” I’ll have the point of my toe leaning against one branch and then sit back; if you happen to find a spot of a branch that doesn’t have plants, you can sit on that. You can also put your rope behind you and lean on your rope like it’s a seat. It’s very delicate. You’re constantly wiggling and adjusting.
Don’t Drop It
You need free hands to do your work. My pen, pencils, paper, garden shears, and water bottle all have strings on them that are tied to my body. I have a chest harness that police officers wear — everything I need is right there.
Use Your Pants as Paper
Sometimes we get up there and realize we forgot a pen, or the data sheet. You’ll do anything to not have to climb down and back up. So you think, “I can do this without a pen,” or “I’ll write on my jeans.” Or, “I don’t need water. I’ll drink someone else’s water.” You have to be flexible.
My students and I spend a lot of time talking about how to measure up there and how it differs from the forest floor. You can’t do as much area, so how do you get out farther than your arm’s length? You really reach into physics and geometry, and you think about distribution of weight. You can throw an anchor from where you’re seated, triangulate, and pull yourself across the branch. It takes incredible physicality, but also patience — with yourself, the weather, the snake that’s maybe on your branch when you get there.
No Monkeying Around
When I climb with my students, we usually have teams of three. I’ll have two teams in two different trees, and we’ll communicate over walkie-talkies: “We’ve got monkeys in our tree. We’re coming out.” Monkeys are beautiful to watch; however, they’re intimidating when you’re on a 10-millimeter rope. You don’t want them to cut your line — they have canines and nails. My rule is that we get out of the tree: The monkey always wins.
Do the Cat Walk
I pace my day. I’m a slow walker; my students call it the cat walk. Walking an hour with a 50-pound backpack is a lot in the heat, then you set up the tree and sit, take data. You have to conserve your energy.
Smile, You’re on Canopy Camera
All these organisms — porcupines, kinkajous, and mice — have established highways on branches across the rainforest. I’ll set up a camera to see what they are doing to my plots at night. I’ll have electronic equipment up there, measuring light, humidity, and temperature, and they’ll chew the wires. A camera gives me the technology to see who is doing what and how I can make it so a mouse does not eat my stuff. I’ll put the equipment in little houses, or I’ll dangle it from a branch.
This summer, Cardelús and her husband, Professor of Biology Eddie Watkins, traveled to Colombia with five other scientists to look at field sites for their next forest conservation and canopy research project. “I’m interested in the biological significance of the area,” she says. “There are large tracts of forest that are uninterrupted. An old growth rainforest canopy that has all the epiphytes, which is what I study, takes 500 to 1,000 years to develop. Those are becoming rarer and rarer to find in the world.”
Work Really Remotely
Associate Professor of Geography Mike Loranty, who studies changes in Arctic ecosystems, does his fieldwork in boreal forests and the tundra in northeastern Siberia and Alaska. Here’s what he’s learned conducting research in these remote areas.
Be Low Maintenance
You might be at a field station where all the fresh water is brought in on a truck, so you get one shower a week and it has to be short. You may have a chance to go for a swim, so it’s not unsanitary conditions, but it’s not like being at home and coming home at the end of a long day to have pizza, a beer, and a shower.
Have a Backup Bear Plan
In the U.S., we’ve always carried bear spray. In Russia, that only became legal in the last five years I was working there, so before that, we didn’t. When I was there in 2012, my Russian colleague told me, “I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve only seen one bear. You’re not going to see a bear.” That year, we saw a bear. It wasn’t trying to eat us, but it came way closer than you want a bear to be. It chewed up some of our equipment, and it was a really uncomfortable situation. This Russian colleague had a flare, so he threw it at the bear. Eventually it moved, and we maneuvered in a way that the bear was no longer between us and our car, which was a half mile away. We made a hasty retreat.
Channel Your Inner MacGyver
A lot of my field-based work uses environmental sensors hooked up to data loggers, as well as instruments to measure greenhouse gas emissions. These are fairly sophisticated devices with a lot of components. If you were to use those instruments in Hamilton, N.Y., you could plug them in, use a generator, or regularly switch batteries. In the Arctic, that’s not the case — it’s all solar power and batteries. Even if I’m doing work in Fairbanks, Alaska, I can go to Lowe’s and get extra batteries and wiring supplies, or I can order solar panels or any other parts I might need. But when we’re in Siberia or other remote communities, those options don’t exist. So you need to anticipate what your needs might be and ship those things ahead. And when things do go wrong, you need to either be comfortable losing data or be able to MacGyver your way out of it.
Leave Your Shorts at Home
We go in the summertime and the temperatures can be 80 or 90 degrees Fahrenheit. There are also a lot of mosquitoes because these are wet landscapes. So we’re not going out in shorts and T-shirts, having a nice time on the tundra. We’re in long pants, boots, and long-sleeve shirts with nets over our heads.
Be Careful Not to Overwork Yourself
Above the Arctic circle, the sun doesn’t set in the summer. After dinner, it’s still light out, so you can end up walking back to the lab, or if you’re collecting samples, you can wander back out and think, I’ll do a few more. If you’re not careful, you can keep working and realize it’s suddenly 1 a.m.
Don’t Be a Know-it-all
We work in a lot of Indigenous communities, and you need to remember you’re a visitor there. Even though I have a certain kind of expertise, I don’t have the same kind of knowledge as people who have cultural ties to the place and who have lived there for generations. It’s important to be aware of that, to respect that, and go in with some humility. Because a lot of times when we do science, it’s not like we’re always making new discoveries. We’re often just rediscovering things that locals have known for a long time and presenting them using Western scientific norms — as opposed to, for example, traditional ecological knowledge or an oral history that people in the community might know.
This sort of humility and understanding is important more generally as well. The cultural norms can even be different in situations like waiting in line at the airport or what you might expect at a restaurant or a hotel. If you just approach these remote places with an open mind and be grateful for new experiences, things usually shake out all right.
Loranty’s current projects continue to focus on changing Arctic ecosystems. With funding from NASA, he and colleagues from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are using satellite data to map how beavers are moving northward due to climate change, and measuring methane emissions from newly formed beaver ponds. With funding from the National Science Foundation, he and a colleague at the University of Connecticut are using Artificial Intelligence and a database of drone imagery to map Arctic vegetation change.
See Inside the Earth
Karen Harpp, professor of earth and environmental geosciences and peace and conflict studies, has been researching the Galápagos since she first traveled there in graduate school. “The Galápagos are volcanic islands,” she says, “and they’re fed by a mantle plume, which rises from above the core inside the earth. It is a big column of hot rock that comes to the surface. For us to see what’s going on inside the planet, we analyze the lava that is erupted from volcanoes, which, in turn, is produced by the mantle plume.” Harpp discusses what it’s like to study this different type of core curriculum:
Permits and Planning
The Galápagos Islands are a national park overseen by Ecuador, so you need permits to work on any of the islands; you have to coordinate your work with park officials and the Charles Darwin Research Station, which supports research efforts in the area. You have to present the park officials with a detailed plan, tell them exactly how you’re going to collect the rocks, and prove you’re going to do it without any environmental damage. (If you’re a tourist, there are only a few islands you can visit, and you have to have a naturalist guide with you the whole time to make sure you don’t bother the wildlife or do anything risky.)
On larger islands, the park lets you set up a field camp, so a boat drops you off. For smaller islands, you have to sleep on a boat and go onto the island during the day, to minimize environmental impact. It is a very small boat, with only a few bunks. The cook’s space is the size of a bathroom stall, and there’s a tiny table where you all sit around and eat.
Scoop the Seeds
You can’t take fresh food into the field because of the risk of contaminating an island with seeds or a grain that could grow. (You can’t anyway, because there’s no fridge.) Any food you bring has to sit in a freezer for a few days to kill any bugs that might be in it. Usually, we eat oatmeal for breakfast, canned tuna and crackers for lunch, and pasta for dinners. If you’re being supported by a boat, you don’t have to bring food, but the ship’s crew still can’t feed you anything that has seeds in it. For instance, if they serve cucumbers or tomatoes, they cut the seeds out — because if you go to the bathroom on the island, you might start a tomato plant, and we can’t be ecosystem engineers inadvertently.
If you’re sleeping on a boat while doing fieldwork, the boats have plenty of water because they are supplied with desalination systems. But if you’re dropped off by a boat onto an island, you have to let the research station know ahead of time how much water you’re going to need, they help you get that amount, you bring it with you on the boat, and you line up the jerricans at your campsite. The Galápagos are on the equator, so fieldwork is very hot, you’re thirsty, and you have a limited quota per person per day.
You can’t be seen by tourists. That’s a park rule, because they don’t want tourists to think they can go anywhere they want — the park is so careful about damage, you can’t even take a rock or shell home as a tourist. If we happen to be working near a tourist site, we have to go at the beginning or end of the day or when they’re at lunch, or we have to work elsewhere until they are gone so we don’t get spotted.
Watch Your Step
Some Galápagos birds nest on the ground, some in crevices of lava flows, others just out in the open. So you have to be vigilant not to disturb their nests or destroy anything; fortunately the birds are also pretty vigilant and will make a lot of noise if you get too close.
Carry a machete because some of the islands have dense vegetation, often with spines. After a few days in the field, you emerge looking pretty beat up with rips in your clothes.
Walking on Broken Glass
Lava is generated when rock melts inside the Earth (which we call magma), where it’s really hot. So when it gets erupted onto the surface and exposed to air, the surface of the lava freezes quickly. Think of it as black glass. On top, sometimes it’s in tiny fragments — so you’re walking on broken glass, which is reasonably stable to walk on, but your boots can get shredded. Fortunately (and unfortunately!), lava flows have different shapes and structures. There’s a kind of lava called ‘a’a [pronounced ah-ah], which is a Hawaiian word for an especially uneven terrain made of lava. We joke that it means “ouch” because it’s very sharp. It can take you hours to cross a kilometer of ‘a’a. And you have to be very careful not to fall, because if you get injured out there, you’re a long distance from help. The opposite end of the spectrum is something called pahoehoe. When the lava moves slowly enough that the surface doesn’t crack as it cools, it becomes ropey, like you skidded into a rug and squished it up (though it’s definitely not soft, it’s still rock!). We call the pahoehoe “highways” because they’re so much easier to walk on.
Harpp and Meg Gardner, senior lecturer in educational studies, received a National Science Foundation grant for their Virtual Galápagos project. In this summer teacher-training program, undergraduates from Colgate and Utica University built an interactive website for third graders.
Discuss Controversial Topics
Professor of Political Science Stan Brubaker teaches constitutional law, American politics, and political theory. He also moderates Colgate’s annual Constitution Day debate.
In these polarized times, how can we discuss controversial topics with others? It’s hard — especially when social media makes it so easy to “like” one’s way into an agreeable crowd, so simple to “share” only the news that reinforces our point of view, and so satisfying to decry those with whom we disagree.
To venture opinions that challenge the circle of the like-minded can be risky; even with good intentions, individuals have found themselves ostracized, canceled, rejected, or worse.
Nonetheless, the subjects I teach are inherently controversial. Even after nearly a half-century of teaching, I know I still have a lot to learn, but I’ll pass on a few things that seem to work.
First, I like to encourage the idea that we’re looking at something, something that is external to us and the particular elements of our personality and beliefs; we might draw on these elements to help highlight what we see and how we see it, but we can’t simply stop with these personal reactions. In constitutional law, for instance, I often start by handing out drawings, face down, and ask the students to turn theirs over and tell me which they have — a rabbit or a duck? Usually, they divide roughly evenly. Then I point out they are looking at the same drawing; they’re just seeing it differently. Once an individual is fixed seeing it one way, say the rabbit, it’s often hard to “unsee” it and instead see the duck. But we talk about which lines to highlight, and then the duck snaps into focus and it might be hard to see the rabbit again.
Unlike the clever artist, the framers of the Constitution didn’t deliberately try to fool us with ambiguities. Nonetheless, the words they gave us and that “we the people” ratified and amended leave us with many puzzles. And beyond the text, we need to consider what else should go into constitutional interpretation — the original meaning or more often meanings, historical context, background principles, political practice, inference from structure and relationship (separation of powers and federalism), underlying moral principles and political theories, precedent, penumbras, and pragmatic concern with consequences. Does the equal protection clause permit race-based preferences in colleges for purposes of increased diversity? Can California ban the sale of pork from pigs “confined in a cruel manner”? Metaphorically, do we have a duck or a rabbit before us? The issue can be viewed either way, but unlike the drawing, we need to decide which one is right.
Many students are tempted to draw back to their feelings or elements of their personal identity, “speaking as an X, Y, Z,” but I insist they make an argument. Why should we be persuaded that this is the right way to see the issue? Or they might, in the name of peace and community, say, there’s “no right answer,” just different answers. Maybe, I will reply, but why should we think “no right answer” is more persuasive than any of the other possibilities? If they were a justice on the Supreme Court, would they write, “There’s no right answer to the question before us, but speaking as an X, Y, Z, I feel…?”
After students become more adept at constructing their arguments, I take matters to another level, either in class discussions or moot court exercises, and get them to make the best possible argument for the position they oppose. This is sometimes called the “ideological Turing Test”: Can they make the argument so effectively that I can’t tell whether it’s their own or the position they oppose? This is a mind-bending exercise, and few fully succeed. Occasionally, in the course of this effort, students will actually change their own position; they find the other more persuasive. More often, they’ll stick to their guns, but come out of the exercise with greater appreciation and respect for the opinions of others.
When I run the Washington, D.C., Study Group, we do a case study of the policy process, where we take a case actively on the policy agenda — health care, social security reform, campaign finance, electronic surveillance, and privacy — learn as much as we can through readings and talking with policy wonks and political actors, then try our own hand at coming up with a good policy. We soon realize that good policy is rarely a matter of getting the bad guys to stand aside. More often it’s a matter of balancing complex interests and tradeoffs.
Lastly, I would add the importance of sharing a meal together. When I teach an FSEM, I add to the usual “how to’s” (read, research, write, etc.) a dinner devoted to “How to Pick up a Fork,” in the conviction that dining, with good manners and good conversation, is one of the higher forms of being human. When I bring a speaker or debaters to campus, I almost always follow up the event with a dinner with students and faculty and staff members. We begin with introductions, followed by lighthearted conversations with our neighbors, and then with a clink on the glass, we turn to the speaker’s topic. The discussion might wander in any direction, but we follow one rule: There’s only one conversation at the table, no drifting off to side conversations. Dining together, I’ve found, has a remarkable effect. The formality of being seated brings civility. The act of sharing a meal brings a sense of commonality. And conversing in these circumstances usually brings some sense of common venture in the nourishment of what humanist Leon Kass has called “the hungry soul.” If successful, the dinner points beyond itself. Readers of Plato’s Republic might recall that early on there is the promise of dinner, but piqued by the cunning Socrates, the participants become so engrossed in the question, “what is justice,” that thoughts of food are left behind.
(When Highly Civilized Human Beings Are Flying Overhead, Trying to Kill You)
One August day in 2013, Professor Jane Pinchin and I drove down to New York City to talk to alumni about a fledgling program we were calling, mostly to ourselves, a book group on steroids. Since then, Living Writers has grown into a program with 6,000+ participants who read along with the students in ENGL 360 every fall, and who often join us, virtually or in person, for author appearances and book discussions.
At that 2013 event, there were 50–60 people in attendance, and things went along pretty much as they do, until we were nearing the end. A middle-aged man sitting halfway down the rows of chairs, wearing a button-down shirt and khakis, raised his hand. He had this to say:
I was a physics major at Colgate, graduating in 197_. I had a high-powered career as an engineer, then a consultant, and along the way I got married and raised a family. In high school and college, I read all the time, then my life got busy and I stopped. Now that I have more time, I want to get back to reading, but I find I’ve forgotten how. Please, can you tell me how to read?
Earlier that day, on our drive down, Jane and I had talked about which books to recommend (Zadie Smith’s NW, George Saunders’ Tenth of December, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story), and we had prepared to talk about why reading is worthwhile (for pleasure, for beauty, for knowledge; as a hedge against loneliness and also a topic of conversation at cocktail parties).
Then and now, it seemed obvious the guy wasn’t asking about the mechanics of reading. Rather, he wanted to know how to read in a world that conspires in every moment to prevent us from doing so (hence the subtitle of this piece, lifted from George Orwell’s wartime essay, “The Lion and the Unicorn”).
What is it about the modern world that makes reading so darn difficult? Besides the obvious (iPhones, cable news, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, etc.), neurobiology offers a compelling answer. Researchers studying the brain waves of people reading literature have discovered that 1.) It lights up every region of the brain; 2.) It engages nearly every cognitive skill (making meaning, solving problems, recalling the past, predicting the future, retrieving vocabulary, etc.); and 3.) It takes a huge amount of energy. Much of this energy, writes literary critic Sven Birkerts, is devoted erasure, to self-silencing. “We suspend our sense of the world at large, bracket it off, in order that the author’s implicit world may declare itself.”
To the retired engineer in the middle of the room on that August day in 2013, I’d like to say a couple of things: 1.) I applaud your courage in asking a couple of literature professors how to read; and 2.) Whatever answer I gave back then was probably lousy. Try this one instead:
Read like a child. Remember what it felt like to gobble up books? To fall into a Nancy Drew or Harry Potter novel? How time stopped, and you felt as if the world of the novel was real-er than the one you were living in? That feeling is still out there, waiting for you. Also, keep in mind that listening to a book is just as good as reading one, especially if the only time you can carve out is on the subway or the stair machine.
Read what you like. If you’re not sure what that might be, ask a bookseller or librarian for recommendations, or read reviews written by professional reviewers, published in newspapers and magazines.
Start every day with a poem. Some days it will feel like dental floss for the brain; other days, it will give you a jolt of pleasure as powerful and surprising as the sight of a 360-degree double rainbow.
If you happen on a really good book, stick with it, even if it hurts. Stick with it especially if it hurts. “Good writing never soothes or comforts,” writes novelist Joy Williams. “It is no prescription, neither is it diversionary, although it can and should enchant while it explodes in the reader’s face.”
Read as if there really are highly civilized beings flying overhead, trying to kill you, and the only way to save yourself — the only way to save the whole world — is to keep on reading. Here’s one great writer, Ian McEwan, talking about another great writer, Martin Amis, who died in May: “In his final months, he read the complete works of Edith Wharton. He wrote two weeks ago to say that he could no longer read with a pencil in his hand. That may have been his one important concession to his illness.”
— Professor of English Jennifer Brice continues to teach Living Writers, which she co-led with Jane Pinchin (the Thomas A. Bartlett Chair and professor of English emerita) until Pinchin retired in 2015. For more information on Living Writers, visit colgate.edu/livingwriters. Also, Brice is publishing a new book titled Another North, which is an essay collection releasing in 2024.
Consider the Contrary
Professor of Philosophy Ed Witherspoon teaches Logic I (Phil 225), in which he provides students with methods for evaluating the validity of arguments.
There is a story from the ancient world of a sage who was visiting a harbor ringed with altars and statues dedicated to Poseidon. The local guide said, “These are offerings from sailors who survived storms and dangers by praying to the god.” To which the sage replied, “And where are the offerings of those who prayed and did not survive?”
The sage’s response points out the flaw in the guide’s reasoning. The guide claims that the sailors’ prayers to Poseidon caused their safe passage. As the sage reminds us, you can’t establish a causal claim just by enumerating cases in which the proposed cause was followed by the putative effect; you also have to consider whether there are cases in which the proposed cause was not followed by the putative effect.
We all recognize the need to consider both positive and negative instances in evaluating causal claims. No one would go along with me if I said, “There have been several instances in which (A) I put on shoes and then (B) a hurricane struck, so my putting on my shoes causes hurricanes.” But when it comes to confusing or contentious causal claims, even normally astute reasoners can be misled. A successful Florida businessman is funding a clinic devoted to so-called “medical freedom,” where patients with COVID-19 can receive non–FDA-approved treatments. In a recent interview he justified his faith in ivermectin as a cure for COVID-19: “I’ve seen people take it who were sick, really sick, and it works.” Our sage would ask, “And how many people with COVID-19 took ivermectin and did not recover?”
A structurally similar fallacy occurs when people are motivated to argue against a causal connection. An opponent of capital punishment made the following argument to show that the death penalty has no deterrent effect: Interviews with all the prisoners on Texas’s death row revealed that none of them thought about the death penalty when they committed their crimes. Upon a moment’s reflection, the question, “Did the threat of the death penalty deter these convicted felons from committing capital crimes?” answers itself. But that answer does not touch the question of whether the death penalty has a deterrent effect. For that, you’d have to look for people who would have committed a capital crime if not for the threat of capital punishment. (For the record, I doubt there is a significant number of such people, but establishing that would take some serious data collection and analysis.)
An argument in a similar vein is sometimes advanced by opponents of gun control: Even in states and countries with strict gun regulations, terrorists get access to weapons and commit mass shootings, so gun laws do nothing to deter terrorism. What question would our sage pose in response to this reasoning?
Students in an introductory logic class learn to recognize poor arguments and get tools for constructing good ones. You may not be able to spend a whole semester thinking about how to think, but you can cultivate the habits of mind that studying logic fosters — habits like articulating your assumptions and presuppositions, seeking out and listening to people whose views differ from yours, and looking for evidence against your preferred conclusions. There is no magic bullet for avoiding bad thinking, but with care and good will, we can all move from fallacy to sagacity.
See the Beauty of Empathy
As a college chaplain, I have had the privilege of building relationships with students from many different religious traditions. For those students who believe that religious life is important, I always encourage them to “see the beauty” in other religious traditions. All too often, particularly within the many theological streams of Christianity, we are quick to notice what is different in other religious traditions and then criticize and label them as wrong. This way of living not only leads to a critical spirit but also causes us to overlook the profound beauty of other religious traditions and cultures as well as the positive contributions they bring to our world.
“I believe it is important first to see the beauty in other people, especially if there are cultural, religious, political, or social differences.”
Rev. Corey MacPherson
In the same way, I believe it is important first to see the beauty in other people, especially if there are cultural, religious, political, or social differences. While seeing the beauty first can perhaps mean outer appearances, that is just a tiny part of what I mean by beauty. As Helen Keller once wrote to a friend, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched — they must be felt with the heart.”
I define empathy as: the genuine commitment to know and understand another person, driven by no other desire than to see and appreciate the unique beauty they bring our world.
Once we begin to understand, even in small ways, how others — who may have very different religious, social, and political views — are also striving to simply navigate this complex life based upon all they have experienced in their own journey, we can start to see what a precious gift they are to our world.
So, let us continue to embrace the responsibility of cultivating the splendor of empathy in our world with the unwavering belief that every life truly is a precious and beautiful gift.
— Rev. Corey MacPherson is the chaplain and Protestant campus pastor. He has written numerous devotionals as well as articles on preaching and servant leadership and has been a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.