Healing, growth and tikkun olam at BU by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

From researcher and professor to dean of Harpur College: That describes Celia Klin’s career trajectory at Binghamton University. Klin, who has a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, began teaching at BU in 1994 as an assistant professor. She later became a full professor and, after serving in various administrative positions in her department, served as associate dean for academic affairs in Harpur College in 2013, senior associate dean in 2017 and interim dean in 2020. 

In an e-mail interview, Klin noted that being dean leaves her little to no time to teach and less time to do her own research. “As a professor, most of my time went to teaching, mentoring students and research,” she said. “A smaller amount of my time was spent on departmental and university service, such as committee work. As dean of the college, I’m involved in the same categories, but with a very different balance. I am currently doing no classroom teaching – which I miss! – and spending somewhat less time on my research, although I continue to run a lab in the psychology department. Fortunately that allows me to continue to work with undergraduate and graduate students.”
Her current focus is on university service and leadership. Klin noted the varied range of those she serves: “We are a college of almost 11,000 students and more than 600 faculty. To give a sense of our size and complexity, we offer about 1,200 courses each semester across 40 departments and programs. We have well over 100 undergraduate majors and lots of graduate programs. My time is spent working closely with department chairs, a large dean’s office staff, an advising office, and on and on. The work includes everything from implementing new academic programs, to working with alumni groups, managing a large (but never large enough!) budget, faculty hiring, and really, just whatever comes up on any particular day.”

Klin feels Harpur College is “an amazing place” and its past serves as an inspiration. “It’s a college with a proud history, having started as a small, public, liberal arts college in the 1950s, with the then radical notion that a liberal arts education was not only for the privileged, but belonged to everyone,” she said. “It is also a college with tremendous opportunities.”

Her first task will be to deal with difficulties that arose due to the pandemic, but Klin is also excited about the future. “Most immediately, there will be the need to heal the wounds of the pandemic – the losses our students have experienced, the huge impact on communities of color, the missed opportunities in scholarship and collaboration,” she said. “There are also many exciting areas for growth including new curricular programs, improved infrastructure, new international collaborations, a more diverse, inclusive and accessible campus, and emerging areas of scholarship. I’d love for us to provide faculty with more support for their scholarship, as even modest internal grants for things such as lab research, or travel to archives, can have a huge impact on faculty scholarship and can help us recruit and retain excellent faculty.”

Building on the past, Klin said the college is working on a number of innovative programs and curriculums, including a major in global public health based on a collaboration between the departments of anthropology and Africana studies. “This should be exciting to students with interests in issues such as disease prevention, health advocacy, environmental health and health disparities,” she said “We are also working to create a minor which has the working title of ‘Computational Liberal Arts.’ This would allow students from any major to acquire additional digital and computational skills, such as coding, data analysis and digital storytelling, as well as to question the role of the ever-expanding digital world on so many aspects of society. I would love to see the growth in the arts, where we already have considerable strengths. To ensure that Harpur College continues to offer students a broad liberal arts education, we need to be careful to balance the current emphasis on majors in the STEM fields with support for the humanities and social sciences, as well as studio and performing arts.”

Klin’s own research is in the field of psycholinguistics, also called the psychology of language. “I am fascinated by what seem like simple questions about language, but turn out to be incredibly difficult to answer,” she said. “As proficient language users, we often fail to realize the genius of language understanding: When people are reading this article, what they are actually doing is staring at a pretty arbitrary set of squiggles on a page. But given the amazing human brain, in tenths of a second, these squiggles are translated, not only into word meanings, but into rich ideas, images, concepts. My work asks how that happens. What are the mental processes that we use to translate the squiggles into complex ideas?”

A project that received attention recently focused on the ways language use has responded to changing technology, particularly text messaging. “Texting provides an interesting linguistic challenge: The fast back and forth of text-messaging exchanges mimics some of the complex dynamics of a face-to-face conversation,” Klin noted. “Yet, when we text, we are missing a lot of important cues that are used when we have a face-to-face conversation, such as tone of voice, gestures and facial expressions. In a series of papers, we’ve asked what texters use in place of these cues to convey the types of nuanced meanings that are essential in a conversation. In doing so, we have examined how a number of aspects of text messages, such as punctuation, are understood. (Hint: ‘Okay.’ with a period can be understood as anger!) What’s fascinating to me about this line of research is that language is always evolving and the explosion of new digital forms of communication have provided language researchers a way to observe language change in real time.”

Klin’s research is intertwined with her Jewish identity. “I come from a family of immigrants, whose journey to the United States involved stopovers in a number of countries and languages,” she said. “This is no doubt one of the reasons for my fascination with language. I grew up sitting in my grandparents’ living room in Windsor, Canada, listening to family conversations in Yiddish, and at my family’s dinner table in New Jersey, listening to my parents speak French (but only when they didn’t want my brother and me to understand). I was fascinated, from a young age, at how the mind understood language. And I was struck by the contrast between the obvious complexity of understanding language, which was apparent when it was a language I didn’t speak, with what I experienced as total simplicity of understanding my own language.”

Her commitment to providing students at Harpur College with the skills they need to interpret the world partly also comes from her Jewish background. “The long, cruel history of antisemitism is no doubt one of the reasons that I have a strong commitment to being a part of college that provides students with a rigorous, challenging, liberal arts education where they learn, perhaps above all, to distinguish misinformation from truth,” she noted. “The ability to reject untruths, propaganda and conspiracy theories is central to the functioning of our society and sometimes even to our survival. I hope that the work we do at Harpur College plays a small role in tikkun olam – healing the world.”