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A Humanist Among the Scientists: A Conversation with Caltech’s Maura Dykstra

Historian Maura Dykstra discusses 19th-century China and how she became interested in it

Published on Friday, March 17, 2017 | 12:58 pm
Maura Dykstra Credit: Caltech

When you walk into Maura Dykstra’s new office at Caltech, one of the first things you notice is a table covered in scrolls, brushes, and calligraphic Chinese characters. For Dykstra, a new assistant professor of history, calligraphy is not just a hobby—it is practice to help her read and analyze historical documents. Dykstra is a historian studying the policies, government, and everyday life in China during the last dynasty—from the 17th to the early 20th century. We sat down with her to discuss Chinese history, calligraphy, her hobbies, and the importance of teaching history to science students.

What is the focus of your research?
I’m interested in how people are governed and how policy decisions—made in order to help society flourish and keep people from doing bad things—produce opportunities for cheating, produce opportunities for beauty, and produce unexpected consequences. I’m interested in how all of the institutions that we live with today are a combination of incredible human invention and sometimes strange circumstance.

What led you to study history?
I dropped out of high school when I was 15—partly because I hated history. I hated the expectation that I was supposed to listen to what teachers were saying and look for clues about how they understood reality in order to present those things back to them as answers about universal truths. I really didn’t like this vision of how knowledge worked. It involved generalizations about complicated historical truths and it demanded the student’s acquiescence to the instructor’s view of how the world worked. It didn’t encourage the student to wonder about the world of the past or the future.

My mother’s condition for letting me drop out was that I continue my schooling, so I took some classes at City College of San Francisco. I dabbled in philosophy and film, only to drop out after three semesters to join an internet company back when that was the fashionable thing to do. I taught myself programming and HTML, and dreamed about the way that these new tools of communication and exchange would revolutionize the world by facilitating the transfer of information.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, that new world I had expected to emerge seemed far away. Foolish, even. I realized that I wasn’t interested in spending the rest of my life chasing around people’s HTML problems. I was actually interested in trying to do something that would make the world a more bearable place for myself and for the other people around me. Something that could bring people closer together and allow them to express their differences in productive ways as a more immediate goal for those of us who had been dreaming of a global information society but woke up in a divided world.

I went back to school to take some history classes out of curiosity and, in the course of doing that, I developed the conviction that history can actually help us solve problems today. History gives us a perspective on the questions of the present day that requires us to expand our point of view beyond the most obvious parameters. A careful attention to how things came to be imbues us with an appreciation for the possibilities of what might have been and opens us up to questions that people caught up in the current moment might forget to ask. I believe that historical inquiry can offer insight not only into specific problems in the current day but also into the assumptions behind those problems and the world that exists beyond them. I decided to commit myself to the study of history when I realized how powerfully it can redefine the way that we ask questions about our lives today.

What’s it like to be a historian at Caltech?
In general, the link between humanities learning and practical problems in the current day is an extremely tenuous and sometimes problematic one. The lessons that we learn from humanities are often several steps removed from current problems. The important thing becomes attention to how those intermediate steps between research and theory and then application both within and beyond the humanities disciplines can be navigated. What is uniquely wonderful about working at Caltech is that I get to be in the same place as people who are working on the problems of today and in a community where a conversation across disciplines is encouraged.

If I am puzzling out a problem about contracts and the game theory around contract enforcement, or if I’m interested in the political implications of a certain legal system, or if I’m curious about information policies and their influence on democratic institutions, I can actually go find someone here who studies that subject. More likely than not they will agree that conversations about shared subjects across disciplinary boundaries are opportunities for exploration. The collaborative, cross-disciplinary profile of Caltech’s faculty makes these conversations not only possible, but genuinely exciting.

Why is history important for STEM students?
I believe the best way to contribute to the knowledge of this generation, and to make the best possible future for the world, is to expand our imagination of what’s possible. One of the things you often find in history is that people make choices that turn out to be not very beneficial for them because at the time they were facing a problem, they couldn’t imagine anything other than a binary option, or they couldn’t draw on other traditions and ways they translate into their own problem.

It’s important for people who will go on to become political leaders or intellectual figures or innovators to understand some of the complexity involved in operating across systems with very distinct historical characteristics. I think many people who get involved in the humanities in general and in history in particular do it because they want to find a better way to have a conversation about things that matter with people they don’t already agree with. When we simply discuss the things that are in front of us with our own perspective as the guiding compass, we miss a lot of opportunities for thinking outside of ourselves.

What do you like to do in your free time?
There are all sorts of things I do to make sure that I don’t just stay in my head. In addition to doing calligraphy, I am a potter, so sometimes I do ceramics. I enjoy cooking. I am a fencer and a martial artist. When I was doing postdoctoral research at Harvard, I worked at a press that used 19th-century technology to print things. I learned how to set type. I learned how to carve plates to make intaglio prints.

Of course, I love to travel. That’s one of the best parts of the job. I get to go all over the place chasing down materials. I get to visit all sorts of beautiful, interesting places. When you’re a historian, your laboratory is the world—and the more you study it, the more interesting it becomes.

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