Professor Profile: Ned Hall

When I meet Philosophy Professor Edward J. Hall in his charming office, he is shoeless, sitting in an armchair and chatting with one of his former students. When she leaves, he gives her a bear hug as though they are old friends. The only facts I know about Hall are that he teaches metaphysics and epistemol-ogy, and that he’s famous for bringing cookies to class.
By Emma V. R. Noyes

When I meet Philosophy Professor Edward J. Hall in his charming office, he is shoeless, sitting in an armchair and chatting with one of his former students. When she leaves, he gives her a bear hug as though they are old friends. The only facts I know about Hall are that he teaches metaphysics and epistemol-ogy, and that he’s famous for bringing cookies to class.

We sit down to talk, starting from the beginning. Hall attended Reed Col- lege and graduated in 1987, studying chemistry before applying to the masters program in philosophy at Princeton. He almost applied to graduate school for chemistry, but one class on ethics changed his course completely.

“It was life-changing,” Hall tells me. Although he had read Henry David Thoreau in high school, he had never seriously studied philosophy. In his eth- ics course, Hall first read John Stuart Mill, then Immanuel Kant. “Kant was mind-blowing. I remember sitting in the library just pouring over ‘Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals,’ trying to understand it line-by-line, and [I was] just gripped.”

Hall received his Ph.D. from the Mas- sachusetts Institute of Technology. He also worked as a professor there until he was “poached” by Harvard in 2005. “I hope to stay for as long as I can remain intelligent,” he says.

Right off the bat, Hall noticed a dif- ference in the environment at Harvard. During his first semester teaching at the University, a cluster of students would follow him outside of the class- room after lectures, peppering him with questions and picking his brain. Hall says that he had more interaction with students outside of class in that first semester than he did in 11 years at MIT.

Now, Hall is known on campus as the professor who always brings cookies to class. “It’s a relatively recent innovation,” he says. The cookie tradition began the year Hall first taught Empirical and Mathematical Reasoning 17: Introductory Logic. His TA at the time, Eliza-beth Miller, suggested that he administer weekly quizzes. When Hall implemented this plan, it meant keeping students in class for an extra two hours on Fridays. The cookies, Hall explains, entered the scene as a way “to soften the blow.”

But the cookies soon became much more than that. “It’s gotten a little out of hand,” Hall acknowledges with a smile. Gradually the cookies became a fixture in his classes, and, now, he brings them to nearly every lecture. While baking for dozens of students might be time consuming, Hall bakes with his son, so it’s a chance to spend time with his family, too. Hall also firmly believes that cookies are a great way to make students happy.

When I first ask Hall what he does in his free time (besides baking), he laughs and asks, “In my what?” According to Hall, the average Harvard professor’s experience is very similar to that of students. Professors have a tough time saying no to commitments and, conse-quently, load up their plates with too much to do. It is an issue that, in Hall’s own words, professors should “join in solidarity” to fix.

The free time he does have is spent with his family. He cooks with his wife, Barbara, and plays games with his two sons. In the summer, the family spends as much time outside as possible—no surprise for a philosophy professor first exposed to the subject by Thoreau.

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