Courtesy of the John and Catherine MacArthur Foundation
26 individuals — six with Yale connections — from various academic and professional disciplines received a life-changing phone call on Wednesday from the MacArthur Foundation.
These individuals were selected for the Foundation’s prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, which guarantees an unrestricted stipend — known informally as a “genius” grant — of $625,000 paid out over five years to further their creative work. The six Yale-affiliated MacArthur Fellows include Danielle Citron, an affiliate of the Yale Information Society Project, and five alumni: cultural historian Saidiya Hartman GRD ’92, cognitive scientist Joshua Tenenbaum ’93, criminal justice reformer Lisa Daugaard ’95, algorithmic theatre artist Annie Dorsen ’96 DRA ’00 and classicist and translator Emily Wilson ’01.
“I was astonished to receive the fellowship,” Wilson said. “I got the news by phone as I was walking to collect my kids from the school bus, and it was very hard to believe that it wasn’t a cruel prank.”
The award honors individuals based on “exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishments and potential for the Fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work,” according to the MacArthur Foundation’s website. The fellowship awards the grant to individuals separate from their institutional affiliation.
Individuals are assessed by a rotating pool of nominators chosen from a wide range of career fields. After the initial nomination, an anonymous Selection Committee reviews the contenders for the fellowship, recommending between 20 and 30 people for the fellowship.
Hartman, who has written several books recontextualizing the role of freedom in history, said she was honored for her work bringing the lives of the “enslaved, marginalized, anonymous and unnamed to the fore because of their significance in both helping us understand operations of power and … transforming social relations.”
Two of Hartman’s books — “Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and the Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America” (1997) and “Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slaver Route” (2007) — directly highlight the afterlife of slavery in modern America through systematically excluded narratives.
A third book, released earlier this year, titled “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,” underscores the importance of freedom for young black women who fled the South for the North in the early 20th century. According to Hartman, the women discovered that the systematic oppression they face in the North is still “brutal.” The book discusses the ways in which the women identified “their confinement to the bottom of the labor market as a new slavery” and channeled this realization towards enacting social change.
Tenenbaum also studies human behavioral patterns by combining disciplines such as mathematics, statistics and data science, physics, cognitive science and computer science. According to the foundation’s website, Tenenbaum’s work “shed[s] light on human learning, reasoning, and perception.”
Tenenbaum explores the possibilities of “bringing artificial intelligence closer to the capabilities of human thinking” through two ideas he began researching as an undergraduate at Yale: one-shot learning and intuitive physics.
According to Tenenbaum, both concepts involve how a human with a very limited sample of information — such as a small child who sees an acorn once and understands what an acorn is — can form an astonishingly complete picture of a situation.
“Our minds effectively follow the physical world,” said Tenenbaum. “Robots don’t have the kind of intuitive physics that a young child has in terms of their flexible ability to engage with the physical world and choose what they’re going to do.”
Tenenbaum credited his current work to the interdisciplinary course curriculum at Yale.
“If you study the mind, you don’t have to choose between X, Y or Z subject,” Tenenbaum said.
While Tenenbaum focuses on the interaction between a person and their environment, Daugaard looks at how interpersonal relations apply to criminal justice reform. She helped found the Law Enforcement Assistance Division (LEAD), which advocates replacing policing with public health and harm reduction services.
“One thing I knew about my life was that I was definitely not going to get a MacArthur fellowship,” Daugaard said.
Daugaard’s approach to criminal justice reform has shifted since her time at Yale. She felt her job was to “get in the way of whatever [the police] wanted to do and stop it if possible.”
After several successful years of winning court cases against prosecutors, Daugaard realized that her team’s approach was not affecting structural change and chose to cooperate with police.
“If you want to change an institution, you can’t talk down to people and tell them how they should think,” Daugaard said. “You should make your goal intelligible with a framework that’s accessible to them. We’ve found this new framework for criminal justice reform much more promising.”
Now, Daugaard works as a public defender with LEAD.
Dorsen’s work is rooted in the theoretical and artistic representation of artificial intelligence in theatre. After Dorsen read an essay by computer scientist Alan Turing, similarities between artificial intelligence and theatre became apparent to her.
“Theatre is about producing an effect on an audience and a kind of artificial humanity, and, from one perspective, that’s what actors do,” said Dorsen. “They are actually humans but also trying to give the impression of being human at the same time.”
Dorsen collaborated with computer scientists to produce several algorithmically-generated theatre works and coined the phrase “algorithmic theatre.” In 2010, her first algorithmic play, “Hello Hi There,” features two chatbots unsuccessfully trying to discuss human nature via phrases being generated by technology in real time. Another project, “Yesterday Tomorrow” (2015) transforms the score of “Yesterday” by the Beatles into “Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie.”
Dorsen said that each performance is uniquely generated. The work is about the possibly unsettling creative process of nonhuman intelligence.
Wilson was honored for her work about language and its evolution.
According to the MacArthur website, Wilson aims to “bring classical literature to new audiences in works” by connecting ancient texts with modern society, “highlight[ing] assumptions about social relations that underlie translation decisions.” Wilson is well-known for her 2017 translation of Homer’s “The Odyssey.”
Wilson said she hopes to increase public awareness of “literary translation as an essential intellectual, creative and hermeneutic endeavor.” She also hopes to “[make] more people aware of how interesting it can be to study and engage with pre-modern cultures,” she added.
Citron focuses on the role of cyber harassment in perpetrating online abuse. She focuses on its often sexually violent nature and disproportionate toll on women.
Her 2014 book “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace” discusses several forms of cyber stalking and online harassment as a legal violation of human rights, privacy and the First Amendment. She analyzes the social and legal structures that perpetuate this model of cyber harassment and suggests ways to reform the problematic system.
The six fellows plan to use their grant awards to further each of their strong career missions, spreading the effects of their work through books, research and the societal implementation of ideas.
942 individuals have been designated MacArthur Fellows since the fellowship’s founding in 1981.
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