Meet Dartmouth’s New Endowed Professors: Darrin McMahon

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Darrin McMahon is the Mary Brinsmead Wheelock Professor.

Darrin McMahon
“The project I’m working on now is a history of light in the age of Enlightenment,” says Darrin McMahon, the Mary Brinsmead Wheelock Professor. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00) 

This is the eighth in a series of profiles of the 10 new endowed professors in the arts and sciences.

Darrin McMahon, the Mary Brinsmead Wheelock Professor

Specializing in Western intellectual history, Darrin McMahon joined Dartmouth’s history department this year from Florida State University, where he was the Ben Weider Professor and Distinguished Research Professor. His recent books include Happiness: A History, which was named among the best books of the year by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Library Journal, and Slate; and Divine Fury: A History of Genius. His writings have appeared The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.

What being named to this professorship means:

Mary Brinsmead Wheelock was the wife of the first president of Dartmouth and the mother of the second. My father continually reminded me not to get too big for my britches, but I’m proud. It’s a great honor among colleagues.

Current research Interests:

The project I’m working on now is a history of light in the age of Enlightenment. Light is a central metaphor of the Enlightenment, and I’m interested in that, but also in the process going on at the same time—the practical challenge of lighting cities using public lighting. It’s a bit of a departure for me; I tend to do long-range intellectual history, and with this I’m looking at things like lantern technology and how you illuminate a city of 300,000 people. It’s hard for us to imagine. We speak now of light pollution—we have ubiquitous light. But for people during the early modern period, their life rhythms were dictated by the rising and setting of the sun. Lighting was extremely expensive, and tallow candles were smoky and didn’t give off a lot of light, so after the sun went down you couldn’t do a whole lot. Lighting begins to change the rhythms of life quite dramatically.

On teaching:

I teach a two-term sequence on European intellectual history, and I’m teaching a course on the history of happiness, which I wrote a book about. Happiness is a key idea in the Western philosophical tradition. It’s a major religious focus. It’s important in literature, ethics, psychology, economics. Almost everyone is interested in happiness, but undergraduates especially are wrestling with the question, trying to figure out what they might do in life, who they might be with, what kind of people they want to become. The question of how to be happy, how to live a fulfilled, flourishing life, is a pressing concern, and this course allows them to sample what many well-informed people have said on the matter and then craft their own philosophy of happiness.

Why Dartmouth:

In high school I applied to Dartmouth and was admitted, but I wasn’t able to afford it. So in some ways I feel like I’ve finally come back to where I was supposed to be. It also has to do with the mission of Dartmouth as a liberal arts college. I believe deeply in teaching students how to think, and giving them the tools that they can go on to apply to anything they want to do in life. It’s an immense privilege to be able to do that in a place like Dartmouth. I’m very grateful to be here.

The Endowed Chairs

Since 1787, Dartmouth has recognized its top faculty with named professorships. These chairs—traditionally supported through endowed gifts from alumni, family, and friends of the College—honor faculty whose scholarship, teaching, and service exemplify Dartmouth’s core mission.

“Endowed professors reflect the best of Dartmouth,” says Dean of the Faculty Michael Mastanduno. “These scholars are not only at the top of their respective fields—they are generous and committed teachers and outstanding citizens of the College community.”

This year, 10 members of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences have been appointed to endowed chairs. In addition, the Tuck School of Business appointed Praveen Kopalle the Signal Companies’ Professor of Management; and Rahul Sarpeshkar joined the faculty this year as the inaugural Thomas E. Kurtz Chair in the William H. Neukom Academic Cluster in Computational Science, with a primary appointment at Thayer School of Engineering.

Hannah Silverstein, MALS '09