Marybeth Nevins

nevinsIn each issue of this newsletter, we profile a faculty member who makes innovative use of the library or academic technology.  This issue features Marybeth Nevins, Assistant Professor of Sociology/Anthropology


What is your area of research? How did you come to be interested in this topic?

I am a linguistic anthropologist and my broad research focus is the comparative study of language and culture. Within this I specialize in minority language communities, particularly Native American language communities. I have been particularly interested in the language of colonial encounters:  how persons in Native American communities have expressed themselves in their dealings with missions, schools, government officials, commercial media and anthropological researchers. More broadly, I am interested the role of encounters involving Native Americans (and other minority language communities) in the formation of the US as a modern nation state.  Lately I have become interested in the social history of concepts of language—what language is and what language does—together with notions of environment.

The path to all this was a long and winding one. I attribute my interest in anthropology to my childhood in rural, recently desegregated North Carolina. This prompted in me a desire to understand the personal dimensions of social change. I was lucky, I think, to see the classroom as a place to exercise this desire and the library as a place to browse and widen out my classroom interests. And I always count myself lucky to have engaged with so many dedicated teacher-scholars along the way.

Why are the library collections and staff important to you?

Special collections and archives are an inspiration for my research and a mainstay of my classes. Working with archival materials is a wonderful way of involving students in making their own discoveries, and rethinking the story of who we have been and who we may yet become.  Since two early Middlebury figures—Edwin James, Class 1816 and Henry Schoolcraft—became key members of 19th century scientific expeditions to the West, Middlebury has an unusually rich collection of early scientific research and literary materials on Native Americans, materials that were also founding documents of the American expansion. For my upper division linguistics class, Language and Power, I value our Special Collections’ superb collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century schoolbooks. Reading these reveals struggles to define American English, and with it terms of civic participation, that still define us today. All of my upper division classes spend time in the archives.

I have benefited immensely from the Undergraduate Research Office, which has funded research assistants who travelled with me to northern California to work on a collaborative research project with the Susanville Indian Rancheria. This work will culminate in a book and in preparation I have had a big assist from the Digital Liberal Arts media tutor program. Between my research assistants and DLA tutor, we composed a map of Maidu homelands for the book—a map that places Maidu names alongside the settler names for towns, meadows and mountains, and orientated to five directions in accordance with the creation stories.

Most of my classes require students to collect and analyze their own language and communication data, and to present that analysis to others.  The Digital Liberal Arts Initiative has been important for training students in my upper division classes in the use of annotation and presentation programs. The Wilson media lab has providing an engaging venue for that work.

What did you do prior to working at Middlebury College?

Most of my time has been doing research and teaching at colleges and universities, and working with members of Native American communities. I worked for three years at the Fort Apache Reservation in Arizona, where I also served as a consultant and project director. While I was writing up my research I worked at the library reference desk and developed digital humanities and linguistic projects with the Electronic Text Center. After that I moved around with my family filling visiting faculty positions at Hamilton College, and at public universities in the western United States. I worked as a consultant on heritage language and culture programs with the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona, the Susanville Indian Rancheria in California, and with the Wovoka Documentary Project in Nevada.

Other than your office, the Library, or home, where do you go to enjoy yourself?

I love to walk with my family and our dog, Nova, by the river and on the Trail Around Middlebury.  It’s great having so many trails so close at hand.