At this year’s Commencement, President Anthony W. Marx recognized two retiring faculty members with these tributes.
Fredric L. Cheyette
Professor of History
Historian Barbara Tuchman wrote that “No age is tidy or made of whole cloth, and none is a more checkered fabric than the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages change color depending on who is looking at them.” For more than 40 years, Fredric Cheyette has fixed his well-trained eye and imagination on the Middle Ages, uncovering and piecing together fragmentary evidence to bring a vanished world vividly to life for students, historians and readers around the globe.
As a teacher, he is renowned for having students engage with primary sources and draw conclusions as historians do. The lessons he teaches in the context of interpreting ancient documents resonate with his students long after they leave Amherst. Intellectual mysteries are to be embraced, ambiguity must be tolerated in the search for truth, and patience and care are the paths to discovery.
Cheyette’s scholarship encompasses royal justice, arbitration and compromise in feudal France; the place of law in the origins of the state; and the history of the Western European landscape from antiquity through medieval times. In the course of reconstructing medieval field patterns and road systems from aerial photographs, he made discoveries that shed new light on the transition from the Roman Empire to the medieval world. His decades of work on the medieval culture and politics of the region now known as Languedoc culminated in an award-winning book, Ermengard of Narbonne and the World of the Troubadours, a remarkable portrait of the life and times of a 12th-century viscountess who ruled the city of Narbonne, and of the troubadours who spread her fame in poetry and song.
Of the Middle Ages, Fred Cheyette has written, “We must be prepared to leave our own world and enter another, the one in which Ermengard and her poets lived. No ship will let us disembark on that shore. No native guide will welcome us. We must find our way there document by document.” Professor Cheyette has, in fact, transported us to the Middle Ages—lifting portcullises to take us inside castle keeps, sharing interpretations of texts illuminated by hands stilled long ago, offering bird’s-eye views of ancient roadways and making introductions to princes, knights, peasants and warrior women. We are grateful to him for taking us along on this extraordinary journey.
James Q. Denton
Professor of Mathematics
When James Denton arrived at Amherst in 1964, the number of statisticians teaching at liberal arts colleges was in the single digits. Yet it was clear from the outset that Denton had found his home. A mathematician with passions for music, engineering and philosophy, he asks questions that move beyond medians and binomial designs to encompass the elusive nature of the creative process and the aesthetics of problem solving in many spheres. An admirer of Bertrand Russell, Denton maintains a philosophy of learning and teaching that is reminiscent of Russell’s view that “Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise.”
Seeking understanding has been a lifelong avocation for Denton. As a child, he dismantled and reassembled clocks in order to learn about their workings. Later, he taught himself how to build instruments such as oscilloscopes and volt-ohm-milliammeters from kits. Equally inspired by the mechanics and splendor of music, he mastered, largely on his own, the French horn, the piano and the organ, as well as a large body of music theory and musi-cology; he was playing in a professional
orchestra by the time he was a teenager.
Denton entered Caltech to become an electrical engineer, but after being dazzled by a freshman chemistry class taught by Linus Pauling, he became a chemistry major. As a young chemist, Denton was asked by a supervisor to learn to analyze data from a single book, Statistics for Chemists. He chose to attend graduate school to develop a more thorough understanding of the subject. A Ph.D. later, and in the years since, he has focused his research in biostatistics, engineering statistics and the theory of statistics.
As a teacher, Denton is known for his challenging, open-ended questions. He expects students to be active participants in their own learning and stresses the importance of finding the neatest and most elegant solutions to the problems he presents. Denton views his role as that of a guide and contends that “Mathematics is not a spectator sport, and students should be prepared to play.”
As Amherst’s first statistician and first African-American faculty member, Jim Denton was a pioneer. We know he will continue to blaze new trails and wish him Godspeed, wherever those trails take him.
Photo: (Top to bottom) Samuel Masinter '04; Robert Tobey