Prelude - Autumn 2017

Paige Parvin 96G

When I was a student, there was no internet.

I’m not saying I had to walk miles to school in the snow, but I did have to walk to the library. I had to find books and touch them. And there was this stuff called microfilm that required sitting for hours in the dark, watching old images flash by in a machine that made a strangely soporific whirring sound.

My son, an Emory junior, is more likely to type some words and hit “search.” When you think about it, the degree to which the web has transformed the student experience is incredible. What’s even more incredible is how quickly we’ve all come to take for granted that parallel universe where nothing is real, at least not in a physical sense, but everything is available. Nearly anything we might need or want to know is at our fingertips, nanoseconds away.

But there is something about encountering materials and objects “IRL” (in real life, as the kids say these days) that leaders at Emory believe is worthy and important. Research is more than pressing “search.” In our feature story on innovations in undergraduate education, Astrid Eckert, associate professor of history, observes, “Students know how to google before they get here, but we are trying to show them there are things you can do with a world-class research library.”

Those things include seeing letters handwritten by President Barack Obama when he was a college student himself. They include engaging with a range of materials from the Beat Generation, including photographs, correspondence, and first editions of works by some of the most influential voices of the time. As a research university, Emory is committed to showing students the value of evidence-based learning—from hands-on lab science to global experiences that immerse them in other cultures. And those are just a few opportunities we’ve covered in this magazine.

There’s perhaps no better example of the importance of primary evidence than our cover story on the work of Emory anthropologist Jessica Thompson, who recently made ripples around the world with her discovery of the oldest-known DNA from Africa. Although the conditions across most of the continent have not been kind to ancient human remains, Thompson believed the climate in the Malawi highlands might have allowed some to stay put. She led a dig in a remote area of the country that uncovered human bones of hunter-gatherers—some of which were more than six thousand years old. Thompson’s research supplies information about human evolution that was previously missing. 

As evidence goes, it does not get much more real—more primary—than ancient bones buried in the earth for millennia. To find them, Thompson and her team had to travel thousands of miles, dig into the soil, and touch physical pieces of history. 

That’s an experience worth leaving the laptop behind.

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