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Road Taken: Déjà Vu

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The graffiti on the wall down the block from my student apartment in Paris was profane, referencing oil. I walked past it at least once a day in the winter and spring of 1991 on my way to class at Reid Hall, the building shared by Middlebury’s School Abroad with a cluster of other American colleges. Often, I walked by twice, once to class and again in the evening on the way to the home of the family I was renting from; they lived in another apartment a few blocks away from mine.

It wasn’t the only reminder that the Gulf War was unpopular in that corner of France. Dinners with the family—included in my rent and at least as educational as my semester of classes—featured regular conversations about current events.

All this returned with the clarity of a formative moment after the November 13 terrorist attacks on Paris. I work in a newsroom, so I spent the evening reading about those harrowing events unfolding across the Atlantic. The next morning, I woke after a lengthy dream, in which I was walking home from work through the darkened Paris streets. I stopped at a small restaurant, nothing fancy, and felt I was known there, a regular. It was my first dream of Paris, and my first in French, in years.

I don’t want to name the Parisian family I lived with, but other students of the era who rented from them will no doubt know who I’m talking about. The father was a school principal and an ardent Socialist, and the mother, his younger second wife, was Syrian. She had a young son, maybe eight or nine years old, whom she’d brought with her when she left Syria.

They were wonderful people, and I did indeed learn as much from them as from my classes. After spending my first five days in Paris with no one but the family, speaking nothing but French, I showed up at Reid Hall for the first day of class, and the first word I heard was a slack “Hey,” one of several cultural divides that proved hard to navigate that semester.

Most Thursday nights were couscous nights at the family’s apartment, and I remember them still as some of the best meals of my life. Often visitors—usually from another part of the Arab world or North Africa—would come by, bearing Tunisian pastries or dates stuffed with a mix of cheese and honey.

Conversation turned to the Gulf War. As the lone American at the table, I was often called on to explain the ways of my government. I wasn’t a supporter of the war, but I wasn’t prepared to offer a heartfelt denunciation either. Diffidence was my shield against my fellow diners’ questions. At one point, we decided that we’d consider me a Swede, officially neutral.

The question, or entreaty, that stayed with me from those conversations, because it is so resistant to solutions, was Pourquoi est-ce que les Etats-Unis peut pas fouter la paix au Moyen Orient?

Why can’t the United States leave the Middle East the fuck alone? Our economy’s thirst for oil is such that this question struck me, even then, as rhetorical or unanswerable.

Perhaps that was a failure on my part. Would another student in my seat at the dinner table have decided to seek an answer, or at least to reassure a Syrian woman resettled in Paris that her question was worth answering, even haltingly and incompletely?

To recall that question again, posed by a Syrian, reminds me that the conflict now manifesting itself in terrorist attacks and waves of refugees was already under way, visible and audible and angry, 25 years ago.

Alex Hanson ’92 is the features editor at Valley News, a daily paper in Lebanon, New Hampshire.


Old Chapel: The Big Ask

LaurieWEBIt was a beautiful May day, a few weeks before Commencement, and some students and I were sitting outside, enjoying the warm afternoon and the deepening greens of the mountains around us. We were talking about the end of the academic year, their approaching graduations, and their hopes and fears. Like most college seniors at the finish of their undergraduate careers, they expressed a healthy mix of anticipation, preparedness, eagerness, and nostalgia as they talked about the prospect of the future.

Some of these students also discussed how difficult it had been for them to discover their own voices and learn how to express them, especially when anything they said could be reposted online, and mocked or critiqued. In our conversation, we talked about how many faculty members, myself included, had experienced such unwanted cyber-exposure and survived, and went on to write more, and they all could too.

Then a student said something to me that I’ve been thinking about ever since: “Yes, but when we are still finding our voices, when we still don’t know who we are and need to experiment with those voices, that’s a big ask.”

It is a big ask. In a sea of constant digital connectivity, in an online world where anonymity is both a bane and a blessing, and where anything you post or publish can be met, almost immediately, with a scathing response (sometimes anonymous, sometimes not), it’s a big ask.

But, I propose that it’s a necessary ask, and one of our primary obligations as educators is to help students find ways to discover their voices, and to provide opportunities for them to express those voices without fear. The moment someone finds his or her voice, and then has ways to express that voice, is the moment of personal transformation in education.

I believe this challenge is all the more acute today because we live in an era where public approbation and disapprobation comes fast and furious, and is happening on a much larger scale than ever before.

But such challenges are also a part of history. I grew up in Danvers, Massachusetts, formerly known as Salem Village. While today Danvers is a thriving Massachusetts town, many of its citizens are still aware of the historical legacy of the Salem witch trials 300 years ago and what happens when a community does not allow for free, curious exploration without judgment. One of the little-known healers of the Salem Village community in the period right after the trials was Reverend Joseph Green. He helped citizens rebuild their town by allowing just that—for both accusers and accused to speak. In my view, he was an educator par excellence.

My academic work in India is also focused on helping people come to voice, and be committed to their own forms of creative expression. One project I am working on is a study of women learning and teaching Sanskrit, a language that they’ve been barred from mastering for over 3,000 years. It is fascinating to witness how these newly empowered teachers of a sacred language share that power with others in their classrooms.

Another project is focused on ancient forms of dialogue in India. Storytelling often takes the form of dialogue between two or more characters and shows how they grapple with a particular dilemma or challenge. In fact, reading the dialogues of ancient India can be much like reading the exchanges on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn today.

Many of these ancient conversations are between teachers and students and take place within intentional communities in forests and in mountains. When I read them now, they remind me of Middlebury and how powerful the bonds of teacher, student, and community can be in helping young people find their voices.

So for deep, long-term reasons located in the past, as well as the more immediate reason of creating a vibrant exchange in the present, I believe Middlebury has a responsibility to make that “big ask.” We need to create more environments to encourage students—literally to give them courage—to claim their voices in the public sphere.

This is the most urgent educational task before us today.

Patton can be reached at president@middlebury.edu.

And follow her on Twitter: @LaurieLPatton.

Editor’s Note: Hear Here

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What does summer sound like to you? In Middlebury, the soundscape is as distinct as the season itself; it’s as if the entire ecosystem has awoken from its long winter’s nap.

The day’s symphony begins as the sun rises, with open windows serving as speakers for the awakening world. I hear the songbirds long before I open my eyes; their melodies become as much a part of dawn’s auditory background as a beeping delivery truck is in a Brooklyn alleyway.

I don’t know much about birds. I can admire the martial bearing and precision of a hawk—
nature’s predator drone—conducting surveillance, and I delight at the sight of an oriole or a cardinal or any other brightly colored feathered creature. And sure, I know a jay or a bobwhite when I hear one; but for years I had no idea what was singing to me each summer morning. “Robins. Warblers. Hermit thrush,” a friend told me. I turned to Google and quickly identified the hermit thrush as one of my frequent serenaders. The state bird of Vermont, the hermit thrush has been called the “Mozart of the bird world.” Refined taste I have in birdsong.

The notes of the hermit thrush give way to the peals emanating from Mead Chapel’s bell tower each Friday afternoon. This summer marks the 31st season of the College’s annual carillon series, an event that brings musicians from around the world to perform on Middlebury’s carillon—one of only two in Vermont. George Matthew Jr., the College’s carillonneur for the past 30-plus years, has the August schedule to himself, and his performances are not to be missed.

Of course, if I’m honest, the sounds of summer are not always kind to the ear. As I write next to an open window on a pleasant June afternoon, a jackhammer does battle with some concrete down the street. And soon, the mowers will arrive for their weekly incursion, the growl of their engines linking up with the dat-dat-dat-dat of the jackhammer to form a particularly noxious duet. But no matter, evening will quiet things down, and then the hermit thrush will return to start the day anew.        

Pursuits: First Impressions

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Nick Temple ’99, Founder of Wild Card

We live in the golden age of the movie trailer, where every tiny revelation of a would-be blockbuster has the potential to go viral. That first teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Forty million views in just three days. And when the trailer for Deadpool debuted on Conan, Ryan Reynolds’ potty-mouthed mercenary character rode the ensuing buzz to a $132-million opening in February, a record for an R-rated film.

Last winter, another movie about a uniformed marksman—American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper as real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle—became every studio executive’s dream: a “four-quadrant film” that connects with men, women, and the over- and under-25 audience, boosted by an edge-of-your-seat trailer. “They didn’t sell it as a war movie,” says Nick Temple ’99. “They sold it as a story about a man in an incredibly difficult situation.”

Temple’s advertising agency, Wild Card, worked on the campaigns for both American Sniper and Deadpool—as well as The Martian, Jurassic World, Black Mass, and a host of forthcoming releases that barely fits on a single whiteboard in his Culver City, California, office. By his measure, there are as many as 70 trailer shops in the business, but maybe seven “wind up doing the lion’s share of the big movies”—Wild Card among them.

Growing up in Chatham, New Jersey, the U.K.-born Temple majored in German with a minor in film studies at Middlebury. He got his first exposure to feature filmmaking through an internship on the Rutland set of Icebreaker (basically Die Hard at a ski lodge). Temple shot some short films on video for his classes, a process he found enjoyable, “but ultimately what I loved was the editing and assembly of it.”

After college, Temple drove across the country with a friend, picked up some odd jobs with film crews around Los Angeles, and finally scored steady work at a postproduction house in Burbank. “I took a job running tapes around town—you get the lay of the land that way,” he recalls. “And at night I was bothering people in their edit bays.”

In short order, Temple went from runner to managing runners to assistant editor to junior editor. He jumped over to Trailer Park, the world’s largest entertainment marketing agency, as an editor in 2003, and there his career took flight. Temple cut a Super Bowl commercial for Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds starring Tom Cruise, which spawned ongoing relationships with both Spielberg (he’s worked on all of his films ever since) and Cruise (most notably the Mission: Impossible franchise). And the connections “tree-branched out from there,” says Temple, who got the entrepreneurial bug in 2007.

Wild Card was founded as an LLC with two partners, a couple of edit bays, and 1,400 square feet of office space in Burbank. (Temple later bought out his partners and is now the company’s sole owner.) Since moving to a 7,500-square-foot office in Culver City in 2010, Wild Card has nearly tripled its space and quintupled its staff. “There’s a threshold:  how do you sustain a creative culture without compromising your work?” says Temple, who still cuts anywhere from five to eight trailers a year himself.

Just a few short years ago, a brilliant marketing campaign would guarantee a solid opening weekend for even a stinker but now, with social media, if a movie is bad, the word gets out after Friday’s matinees. Conversely, positive word of mouth can propel a hit like The Martian to a final gross of $228 million domestically—four times its opening weekend numbers.

But it all starts with that first impression of the trailer. Temple still likes to get out to the multiplex with his wife, Alison. “When we used to go to the movies I’d want to watch all the trailers and gauge people’s reactions,” Temple says. “Now with two girls, ages three and five, we’re lucky if we get to the theater on time. And more often than not, it’s Alvin and the Chipmunks.”

Road Taken: Food Matters

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It’s not hard to imagine, I’m sure: Middlebury College in the late 1970s, back-to-the-land students in a back-to-the-land state at an institution that hadn’t quite gotten the memo on what we were
interested in and why. For instance, unlike today, when sustainability is not just an ethic to study but also one to live by, our dining halls had not yet discovered 
whole grains or local produce. So a bunch of us did what free-living students do—we abandoned the meal plan and decided to feed ourselves.

We set up shop at Weybridge House, where many of us lived, laying claim to the kitchen. The Middlebury Co-op—at the time entirely based on pre-orders and bulk-food purchasing—became our primary food source. Each month we sat around the big, round dining room table to determine our needs for the next four weeks.

The Co-op was situated in the old railroad station on the northern edge of town, lending an impression that our food had just been unloaded directly from freight cars. Every 30 days we dragged home sacks of grains and beans, nuts and dried fruits; we procured monster blocks of  Vermont cheddar and a most memorable 40-pound bucket of peanut butter with oil swirling on the top. For vegetables, we went to local “pick-your-own” farms, and stored root crops in the Weybridge basement alongside our home-brewed beer. (The beer was legal by state and College law at the time, or at least we convinced ourselves that this was true.) We baked our own bread, made yogurt by the gallon, sprouted everything possible, and, even once, attempted to make tofu.

We got by on $10 a week, per person, not including ice cream and the whole pig we once roasted in the forest by Bread Loaf. Each member contributed to the account and was assigned a night to cook. We had a daily lineup of dinner guests, mostly fellow students seeking momentary refuge from food on the hill. (I think they also enjoyed the candles, wooden bowls, chopsticks, beards, and long hair.) Sundays, however, were reserved for honored guests. Parents came, as did professors and College administrators. Dean Erica Wonnacott—with whom one of us was too often in some kind of negotiation—was a frequent guest; even President Olin Robison paid us a visit.

The College dining policy was to reimburse off-meal-plan students at 50 percent of their cost, which was $12.50 a week. However, with a doctor’s excuse, one could receive the full $25.00. Some of our pediatricians from home were willing to affirm our newfound dietary restrictions; others were not. I vividly remember the satisfaction of sharing my signed excuse letter at the dinner table. To this day, I imagine ours was the only U.S. bank account to have had the registered name “The Doctor’s Excuse”; I believe I still have a canceled check squirreled away somewhere in my attic.

A not-insignificant legacy of our group is that one of us, Richard “Wiz” Wiswall ’79, became an organic vegetable farmer; to this day, he owns and sinks his hands into the rich soils of Cate Farm in Plainfield, Vermont. Another legacy—I’d like to think, anyway—is that today’s Middlebury student is supported by a far better health-aligned dining service. No doctor’s excuse required.

Larry Childs ’81 is a senior trainer and consultant with Project Adventure, an international nonprofit organization that focuses on experiential education.

Editor’s Note: The Conversation

ed note_CMYKuIt was nearly a year ago when I reached out to Dena Simmons ’05—a beautiful writer and fiercely intelligent young woman who works at the Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale—to see if she would be interested in writing a feature essay on what it means to confront racism in America today.

For our fall 2015 issue, I wanted Dena to draw on both her own life experiences and those experiences lived by the students, teachers, and activists she’s encountered in her career. “I want this essay to speak to every reader,” I said, “and to be clear that this is an issue that involves all of us.”

The resulting work was her brilliant “We Cannot Afford to Walk Away,” whose title is drawn from this passage in the essay: We cannot afford to walk away, to turn off our screens, and to carry on with our comfortable lives. None of us, especially those in power, have the right to be comfortable. It’s through discomfort we learn and transform most. Questioning, challenging, and curbing racial injustices is everyone’s job.

A few weeks after we published Dena’s essay, Middlebury held the first of three campus gatherings in which issues of race, inclusivity, institutional history, free speech, and cultural appropriation were talked about, wrestled with, and argued over; tears of anguish and tears of frustration were shed. And while the catalyst for the meetings was one incident, it became clear to all that we were talking about more than an isolated occurrence. Questioning, challenging, and curbing racial injustices is everyone’s job.

For this issue’s cover story, we hired a dear friend, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer John H. White, to help us continue the conversation that began with Dena’s essay. While on campus he spoke to a crowded Wilson Hall, and among his inspirational words of wisdom was the affirmation that we all strive to “recognize the somebody-ness of everybody.” It is what we must do if we are to learn and transform and become a community where, as Laurie Patton has so eloquently stated, inclusivity is not a problem to solve but an everyday ethic.

Old Chapel: The Next Level of Discussion

LaurieWEBThis has been a year of uncomfortable conversations on campus. And that makes me comfortable.

This year, the administration, the student body, and campus as a whole had some difficult conversations with each other. We talked, sometimes calmly, sometimes heatedly, sometimes quietly, and sometimes loudly, about diversity and inclusivity, and what that means and should mean at Middlebury in 2016.

These conversations at times have been painful for those in the center of them, and for those who were closer to the edges, listening in. We heard truths, and sorrow, and impatience. We heard hopes, and fears, and dreams, and frustrations. And we heard moments of real engagement and possibility.

Why does this make me comfortable? Because these are important conversations, and our ability to have them reveals our strength as a community. We all, from time to time, must speak uncomfortable truths to one another. That is what it means to have “arguments for the sake of heaven,” as I mentioned in my inaugural address. These are discussions worth having. Part of the nature of a college campus, and certainly a campus such as Middlebury, is that a free exchange of ideas is not only expected but encouraged. Uncomfortable truths are a matter of course. Professors present ideas to their students that make them uncomfortable. Students in turn can present ideas to professors that make them uncomfortable. Students can also wrestle with  course material, or class discussions, or campus events, or with each other. Staff have also played critical roles in these tough conversations.

But  discomfort is not a reason to avoid free expression, even when it comes to expressing thoughts and ideas and beliefs about  inclusivity. Supporting free speech and supporting inclusivity in our language, our conversations, and our actions are not goals that are at odds with each other. In fact, they are helpful complements to each other. Supporting both allows us to take our discussions to the next level, where we can make mistakes without fear because we want to become more aware than we are today. We want to be stronger. We want to do better.

Diversity and inclusivity are not “problems” that we’re going to “solve.” They are part of an ethos that we need to hold up every day, even if we might fail to fulfill that ethos on a regular basis. They’re values that we live by. They are values for us to talk about, and consider, and embrace, as we grow in our understanding of what they mean today—at Middlebury and in the wider world.

There are many ways to have these conversations. We talk in person, one on one, in groups, in meetings, in symposium. We talk on the phone, through text and email. We put our names, our voices, our faces to our words. We humanize them. We own them.

But we must be more mindful, I believe, about our conversations when we talk through social media, which has an ever-increasing multitude of channels for us to communicate though. There are so many ways to speak one’s opinions. But there are also so many ways to be silenced. Tap a few keys and you can shut down a conversation you disagree with, or mute a voice you don’t like, or send a message of shame without ever having to own your words. The worst conversation is the conversation that isn’t allowed to be. My rule for us is: Face-to-face conversation first. Social media second.

We have had uncomfortable conversations, and we will keep on having them. And we’re bringing our conversations to the next level: The Alliance for an Inclusive Middlebury is planning a spring conference titled “Activists, Allies, and Accomplices: Responses to Racism Today.” The conference will consider contemporary responses to racism and examine historical precedents. Middlebury students will discuss white ally-ship and student activists from other colleges will discuss their experiences this last year and the issues they faced. Rinku Sen, the editor of Colorlines, will be the keynote speaker and Rashawn Ray, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, will discuss racial uplift through activism and social policy. JusTalks will be working with every incoming student next year in workshops helping them live in community while developing the crucial skills of engaging with real differences.

Yes, some of our conversations have made  us uncomfortable this year, but I’m comfortable that we’re having them. I’m comfortable knowing that we are learning from our mistakes, and we’re holding each other accountable—to own our words, to push us to the next level of inclusive excellence. We have so much we can learn from each other—as long as we keep talking, and keep listening.

Patton can be reached at president@middlebury.edu.