Published: Oct. 5, 2017

Event recognizes four outstanding professors for significant achievements in their fields.

Newly minted professors of distinction have notable expertise in artists’ personas, natural-language technology, classic poems and climate-change education, and on Sept. 21, they offered a public overview of their work.

Four faculty members in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder discussed their research and scholarly work in an event that formally honored them. This year’s ceremony acknowledged Mark Amerika of art and art history; Carole E. Newlands of classics; Martha Palmer of linguistics; and Mark Serreze of geography.

These professors, nominated by their peers and departments, were selected as “professors of distinction” by the college.

The honorees spoke about their careers, research, achievements and inspiration. Here are a few takeaways from each professor’s presentation:

Blurred creative lines

Amerika, a professor of distinction in art and art history, is the founding director of the new doctoral program in Intermedia Art, Writing and Performance in the College of Media, Communication and Information.

Amerika, speaking about “The Artist as Fictional Persona,” addressed the blurred lines between conscious creator and unconscious catalyst.


Amerika, Palmer, Serreze and Newlands (left to right).

As a professor of art and art history and an interdisciplinary artist, Amerika focuses his work around his idea that a fictional persona can be conceived as, “a kind poetic apparatus, a literal creative mechanism that I intuitively turn on without even thinking about it.”

This creative process is an act of dissociation, enabling the artist to, according to Amerika, “embrace the role of psychic automaton.” The artist must submit to the immersive state of mind produced by the unconscious creative potential. The psyche is thus liberated and expresses itself in whatever medium it has access to.

“Artists are like professional athletes. They are meant to play out their performances-to-be on whatever compositional playing field they happen to be on,” Amerika remarked. The changing personas of the psyche alter the piece as it goes, he continued, compelling the creator to stay entrenched in the inspiration of the instant.

Reimagining, not abandoning, the classics

Newlands, a professor of distinction in classics, is an expert in Augustan, post-Augustan, and Medieval Latin literature and culture, particularly Ovid and Statius.

She guided her audience through time with a lecture on “Confronting the Classics: Ovid in the Caribbean.” Newlands discussed an early poem of Sir Derek Walcott, “Hotel Normandie,” in which, at a point of crisis in his life, he imagined an encounter with Ovid.

Ovid was famous for an epic poem on transformation titled Metamorphoses, but emperor Augustus of Rome was intolerant of any artwork that threatened the ideology of his regime, so he banished Ovid.

Through the confrontation with the exiled Ovid, with whom he imaginatively identifies, Walcott finds his own voice by relocating Ovid’s richly nuanced world of myth and poetry — and Metamorphosis — to the Caribbean.

Ovid’s poetry of exile and transformation inspired Walcott to move away from the position of the oppressed, inspired by the political corruption on his islands, to capitalize on his poetry’s dual classical and Caribbean heritage.

“Confronting the classics means for Walcott not abandoning the classics, but reimagining them and their uses in dynamic new ways,” claimed Newlands.

Toward a smarter Siri

Palmer, a professor of distinction in linguistics and the Helen & Hubert Croft Professor of Engineering in the Computer Science Department, discussed how linguistic annotation can help computers understand language.

In a talk titled “Capturing Meaning,” Palmer noted that the meanings of words and sentences, within all languages, can vary. While humans can understand differences in word meanings through context, machines have much more trouble. This leads to problems in which the language-processing systems such as Siri and Alexa are inconsistent and sometimes unreliable.

“Siri and Alexa are our promised ubiquitous personal assistants, like C-3PO in Star Wars, but they don't often do what we want,” Palmer said.

Learn more about the college professors of distinction on the College of Arts and Sciences website.

Thus, Palmer and her colleagues have been working to annotate verbs with multiple meanings, so these technologies can better understand what users are saying. So far, “more than 150,000 sentences have been annotated to differentiate 2,500 verbs with more than one meaning.”

These complex annotations have been completed in several languages—not just English. Companies and universities may use these annotations to boost the global capabilities of artificial-intelligence applications that use natural-language processing, she said. 

Educating the public about climate change

Serreze, a professor of distinction in geography, a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences and the director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (a polar and cryosphere information center that distributes regular updates on sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic) at CU Boulder, is no stranger to the limelight.

His lecture, “Shifting Priorities: A Personal Journey,” explained his educational career, particularly how he decided to take on the duty of educating the public about climate change.

He has had many different roles within the academic and climate change communities during his time at CU Boulder, from student, to “soft money” researcher, or a researcher who relies almost exclusively on grants, to now-educator.

As Serreze’s career and research progressed, “It became obvious that the Arctic was changing,” he said. The melting ice sheet, and the consequences of the melting on the environment, became his focal point.

In addition to speaking to government officials and the general public about the perils facing the arctic, he has also published a book, several book chapters, and has helped author more than 100 scholarly articles.

Serreze is often a public face of climate science research, and favors an informational approach on this issue, condemning “the shrill from both sides.”

Reporting by Kyle Houseworth and Lauren Massie.