Professor Darin Hayton: Historian, Cyclist, Chemist

This is the first in a new series by the Clerk, “The Secret Lives of Faculty,” in which we meet and chat with professors to get to know them on a more personal level.  We hope this series sparks more dialogue between students and professors and allows us to interact with more recognition of the humanity of the other.

Darin Hayton is Associate Professor of History of Science and chair of the History Department.

When I sat down to chat with Professor Hayton, we met in his office, where the walls are covered in shelves of books, some reaching so high one might need a ladder to reach them.  The collection of books seems typical of a historian – old, numerous, and wide-ranging in subject matter. There was an antiquarian aura that pervaded the space. The room, however, belied a deeper truth about Hayton: he has a roving, adventurous spirit.

Darin Hayton has taken, in his own words, a “rather circuitous route” to his current position at Haverford.  Originally from Los Angeles, California, Hayton grew up traveling up and down the West Coast, settling in at a young age to a keen awareness of the beauty of the outdoors and an eagerness to explore it.  He proudly states his heritage as a product of a big public high school and a big public college as well, California State University, Long Beach, where he majored in chemistry.

His sense of adventure was stoked in part by the wide spread of his family across the western U.S.  “I had family all the way from Arizona to Fairbank, Alaska,” he said. So while Hayton enjoyed living in Los Angeles during the school year, “I would not call California home, per say, although that’s where my mailing address was most common.”

His roving, young spirit, love of travel, and admiration for the outdoors eventually put him on a bicycle.  He loved riding and being outside, riding up and down around California, visiting family and friends, and simply enjoying what the world provided.  When he got older, he moved to Europe to race bicycles. When I asked him more about his experience there, he responded frankly, “As I think everybody should do when they’re young, I made a bunch of really bad decisions.”

He claims, however, that his past times traveling, exploring, and engaging in different spaces did not have the typical kind of influence on him that one would expect.  Even those bad decisions did not impact him in the common sense of the word.

“Everyone who is asked a question like that about your past always tell these great stories about how the past influenced the present,” he noted.  “In hindsight I can see remarkable similarities in the sort of personality I was developing as a kid living for prolonged periods in various parts of the western U.S. and experiencing incredibly different social and cultural spaces… As a historian, I think that is the wrong way to look at the past.”

Even when examining his own life and the paths he has taken, Hayton is incredibly aware of how the way that we understand the past shapes our conceptions of the present.

When asked whether there was a moment or interaction that moulded him, especially during his college years, Hayton gave a different kind of answer: it was not a moment, but months, semesters in college, working in a chemistry lab, that formed him.

“[We had to] imagine what would a project look like, what are the goals that we are seeking, and how might we get to those…that was powerful.  And it was less a moment and more a couple of semesters of success and failure, more failure than success.”

“I will however say, I think those experiences, those formative experiences, in places that were sometimes very challenging to figure out how to navigate because they were unfamiliar, I think those experiences inform how I do history and why the way that I do history is, quite frankly, better than the way a lot of other people do history.”

He does not mean this in a common, presumptive sense, however.  Hayton noted that a lot of people embark on the project of “doing history” in efforts to glorify or justify the present, while he considers his method as one that “problematizes or calls into question the present.”

This is particularly interesting when one considers why Hayton thinks we should all be doing history.  Hayton thinks that one of the central reasons we should do history is to counter the commonplace, ubiquitous invocation of the past in order to justify the present.  “[Everyone invoking the past is] almost always doing it to justify a particular set of values in the present,” he says, and in so doing, “they are almost always violating the past in order to do so.”

In noting this, Hayton expresses a deep concern for our understanding of the present society and the places we hold within it, and this concern has to do precisely with how we understand the past.

“So you study history because…it gives you the tools to realize that they are violating the past and how they are violating the past, and it gives you the sense to understand that the vast majority of people who are looking at the past are doing so…as a soup bowl out of which they are going to ladel their ‘evidence’… to justify some project they are engaged in right now.”

Hayton’s conviction of the importance of doing history is not lost.  In fact, he considers it “the mother discipline, noting that “every discipline turns to and claims to rely on the past, whether that past is a year ago, or that past is a millennium ago.”

In shorter form, Hayton urges the study of history because, simply put, “it will make you a better person.”

You can listen to the interview here

Photo courtesy of Darin Hayton.