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Editor’s Note: Taking the Ice

Thirty brave souls—I might be projecting just a bit—show up for the first day of the winter term workshop Learn to Ice Skate. Before taking the ice, the students spread out around the skate-changing room just off Kenyon Arena, checking in with their instructors, getting fitted for skates, and signing insurance waivers.

“If you’ve never been on the ice before, you’re required to wear a helmet,” junior Lydia Waldo announces to the class. She’s one of three instructors along with sophomore Rose Kelly and senior Elizabeth Green. I ask Green how many of the students are beginners. “Probably about one-third,” she says. “The others probably skated when they were younger, but haven’t been on the ice in years.”

The divide is immediately clear as a little more than half the class strides confidently through the blue double doors leading to the rink; the others, numbering 14, take a little longer to get ready, fidgeting with helmets and retying skates, before taking tentative steps onto the ice. These are my people. I’m to join them—though not today; I have to take notes—a novice among novices, 45 years old, a Vermont resident for 15 years, the father of a 10-year-old skater. My eyes are riveted on the beginners as they hug the boards, a flurry of thoughts running through my head: Who needs to know how to do this? Why would someone think they need to know how to do this? How can I get out of this?

Already, they’ve dubbed themselves the Wall Crew, and they march along the wall single file like penguins, taking short, choppy steps, as if performing a slow-motion conga line. “All right, hands off the boards,” Waldo instructs. Oh no, so soon? I think. Waldo then leads the group through a series of exercises—they learn how to safely fall, how to get up, how to stroke, how to stop. After 30 minutes, most of the group can skate down and back, their legs no longer ramrod straight, their steps less tentative.It dawns on me that when I come out—with skates next time—I’ll be all alone in ability.

And fear.

“You’ll be fine,” Waldo assures me. “It’s going to be fun.”

I don’t believe her, until I look out and register the looks on the faces of the Wall Crew.

Okay, I allow. Maybe.

Old Chapel: A Sense of Belonging

You are reading this column shortly after the 45th president of the United States was inaugurated on January 20. Inauguration Day, where the transfer of power happens peacefully, is a cornerstone of our democracy. It’s a time when, as Americans, we face forward together and start anew.

The contentiousness and divisiveness of this past election cycle won’t be old news by Inauguration Day. Indeed, one candidate winning the Electoral College and another winning the popular vote, and the evidence of how urban areas versus rural areas voted, reveals how we are in some ways a deeply divided country.

Like most communities, we feel the divisions at Middlebury, too. Many voted for Clinton. Many others voted for Trump. The aftermath of the election revealed that the deep divisions in our country are also evident on our campus. We would expect nothing less in a diverse community of vibrantly shared educational ideas. That is the Middlebury that I know, and the Middlebury that you know.

But now more than ever, we must affirm that the Middlebury we know is a place where everyone belongs. While we may have philosophical and political differences among us, we are also committed to engaging courageously and curiously in the public sphere to explore these differences.

We encourage conversation about disagreement. That’s the robust public sphere that we all should be working toward, and what the idea of “rhetorical resilience” that I have been promoting this academic year is all about.

Every single one of us belongs here—our students, our faculty, our staff, our alumni. We belong here whether we graduated in 1946 or 1976 or 2016, because despite radical changes to the size and scope of Middlebury, we are essentially the same institution: one that lives up to its motto of Knowledge and Virtue. We belong whether we earned our bachelor’s degree in English or economics, whether we played lacrosse or played violin. We belong whether we studied abroad or never left Vermont. We belong whether we studied at the Language Schools, or Bread Loaf, or are part of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies—the newest part of our newly complex Middlebury—because we all have high standards, we all believe in excellence, we all believe that education is a powerful tool of transformation.

Middlebury is an evolving community, just as our nation is changing, evolving, becoming more diverse, and more integrated. We hope to avoid the stratifications that we have seen evolve in our country, but where we do see them, we must address them. We must build bridges among our student bodies in Vermont, and California, and abroad, among our alumni communities, so that we all are welcome and able to cross them.

How do we build those bridges? By having conversations. By connecting and listening, respectfully, to those with whom we believe we may have little in common and discovering our commonalities. By understanding that we don’t have to agree to be in community together.

We build our bridges and celebrate our belonging, by focusing on what brings us together. We understand how Monterey, a campus with a 10-year relationship with Middlebury, belongs because of the shared values that unite us. We understand how a talented and ambitious student who is the first in his or her family to attend college, and a talented and ambitious student who is the fourth generation in his or her family to attend Middlebury, both belong because they both possess the gifts of intellect and curiosity that we value most here. We understand how conservative alumni, liberal alumni, and apolitical alumni all belong because regardless of political outlook, they all have looked at the same mountains that surround our campus, and walked the same pathways, and learned in the same halls.

When Middlebury College was founded in 1800, it was after a divisive episode involving the allocation of government funds. There were then further arguments about whether the campus was to be built on the east or west side of Otter Creek. And yet, there was a clear sense that no matter on which side of the creek the campus was to be built, a strong bridge over the river always needed to be part of the design. And the citizens of Middlebury remained genuinely and openly committed to building a college together, and a campus was built, and an educational community formed that has been working to build bridges, both literal and figurative, ever since.

We all belong because we are all Middlebury, and we are a community that builds bridges, and then crosses those bridges, together.

Patton can be reached at president@middlebury.edu.

Road Taken: Let’s Give It a Name

 

As many Long Trail hikers know, Vermont has its own presidential range. It’s less lofty than the famous one over in New Hampshire, but four peaks between Bread Loaf Mountain and Lincoln Gap—partially
visible from the Middlebury campus—bear the names Mount Wilson, Mount Roosevelt, Mount Cleveland, and Mount Grant. 

And right in the middle, between Roosevelt and Cleveland, is a lesser summit called Little Hans Peak. Little Hans? What was he president of? Where did that name come from?

Well, I’ll tell you. I know. I was there.

In the summer of 1970, just before my senior year, I got a job as one of four members of a Green Mountain National Forest trail crew. Three of us were college students, and our leader was Ray Secor, a Navy veteran and seasoned hiker who already had his Long Trail end-to-end patch.

We went out on Monday mornings and returned late Friday, camping out during the week along the trail. One week as we worked north of Bread Loaf, we carried a bag of some food product—I forget what, but it might have been chocolate bars—that included a hand puppet, presumably for the entertainment of children like us.

The puppet—basically a small plastic bag printed with a face and hands sticking out—was named Little Hans. It said so on the package. We waved Little Hans around from time to time and made dumb jokes. And as we trekked between our campsite and the spots where we worked on the trail, we repeatedly crossed an unnamed summit.

As the week progressed, a consensus emerged that this hump between Presidents Cleveland and Roosevelt was worthy of a name. At camp one evening, Ray carved a small sign. The next day, we attached the sign to a tree on the summit. It read “Little Hans Peak.”

I’m a lifelong hiker, though I rarely get back to Vermont and haven’t revisited that section of the trail since that week 46 years ago. So you can imagine my surprise as I leafed through the September 2016 issue of Backpacker magazine and encountered a short article recommending a peak-bagging walk in the Green Mountains: from Cooley Glen Shelter to Mount Wilson and back, crossing the summits of Cleveland and Roosevelt and, in between, Little Hans Peak.

I gawked in disbelief. To confirm what I was seeing, I ran and grabbed my copy of the Long Trail Guide, 2011 edition. And there it was—in boldface, on Page 136—Little Hans Peak.

During the past half century, I’ve lost touch with my trail crew colleagues. But Ray Secor, John Anlian, and Bob Llewellyn, wherever you may be, please take a bow.

Rob Waters spent nearly 40 years as a newspaper reporter and editor at dailies around the country, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, and the Raleigh News & Observer.

Disruption in the Classroom

disruption-openerweb 

It was just before lunch as Alex Bickart loped down a relatively quiet hallway in his small Vermont high school, his thoughts elsewhere, when he was startled by his guidance counselor, who wanted a word with him. (“My first thought was, ‘Oh God, what’s happened?’” Alex recalled.) 

This was early last September at Peoples Academy, a regional high school in Morrisville, Vermont, a half hour’s drive north of Montpelier. The school serves about 250 students from eight rural communities; Alex’s town, Elmore, is among the smallest. “Our downtown,” he noted, “is five buildings.”

Alex stands out. He’s six feet, seven inches tall, with a wide range of interests: he skis, plays tennis, and competed last year in the Science Olympiad and the Vermont Envirothon, in which student teams explore natural-resource issues. And that September morning, his counselor had pegged him to be an ideal candidate for a rather nontraditional learning initiative. Which is how he wound up in a small, windowless room meeting with Bill Rich, a 1999 graduate of the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English and the coordinator for the Vermont Bread Loaf Teacher Network. (Now 23 years old, the network fosters year-round collaboration for teachers educated at Bread Loaf; Rich coordinates the group of educators working in Vermont.)   

An education consultant, Bill Rich easily connects with young people—he has taught English in both middle and high schools—and he struck Alex as affable and chatty while describing a yearlong, full-credit course that was being made available to a select group of Vermont students.

What Rich described was unlike anything Alex had ever heard before—students would be responsible for not only designing their own curriculum, but deciding what they would study. “And then he was gone,” said Alex, “and I was left with a choice: continue with the mind-numbing repetition that is every English class ever, or take a risk on this mysterious program that seemed to promise so much?”

Ultimately, he said, it wasn’t much of a choice at all, and a few weeks later he found himself with 20 other students who had traveled to Middlebury College—most from schools in or near Addison County, plus three who are homeschooled—in kicking off the second year of this pilot project titled “What’s the Story?” Designed and run by the Vermont Bread Loaf Teacher Network in collaboration with the College, the project flips the traditional approach to high school courses: Students choose their topics (the one requirement is that they involve “work toward positive change”) and design their curriculum, working in multiage, multischool teams; teachers act as coaches or mentors from the sidelines.

During the fall, students would research, blog about, and develop their topic idea, with feedback from adult volunteers. On an overnight retreat in late October, the students would pitch their ideas in short, TED Talk–style presentations. They’d then form into five teams. Each team would choose a single topic, on which its members would work—theoretically, at least—in creative, technology-aided collaboration until spring.

By design, each project should be different than any other, but to shape and assess everyone’s learning, Rich and Tim O’Leary, an English teacher at Middlebury Union High School and 2007 Bread Loaf grad, had devised specific academic standards that each student was required to meet. To pass, every student would have to show they’d developed skills, knowledge, and experience in communicating, creative problem-solving, self-directed learning, savvy use of multimedia, collaboration, and active citizenship.

In his consulting work, Rich uses brain science to help schools design personalized learning plans. “The big challenge,” he says, “is to make sure the students are really emotionally engaged in the work they’re doing. The ideal is, how do we design learning so that the work students do is going to prepare them for the rest of their lives?”

***

Bill Rich, MA English '99

Bill Rich, MA English ’99

What’s the Story?” was developed in 2014–15, as an elective that involved 11 students from five Vermont high schools, each doing an individual project on family farming. Last year the project expanded into a full-credit course on student-selected topics; 10 teachers from the Vermont Bread Loaf Teacher Network acted as mentors to the teams, with about 60 community volunteers also involved, including some College staff. Most of the volunteers helped individual students refine their initial topic interests during the early “I-Search” phase; the adult responders were urged to ask “probing or clarifying questions,” to suggest resources, to “help push their thinking.”

Today, as the 2016-17 school year begins, the Vermont Bread Loaf Teacher Network hopes to keep growing its course, into what could become a model—statewide, even nationally—for the effort to make high school education more meaningful—and memorable.

“We’ve known for years that not all children are best served by sitting in the classroom in rows and having the teacher lecture them, and we’ve seen a tremendous change in the ways that people can access knowledge,” notes David Sharpe, a retired teacher who chairs the Vermont House Committee on Education as a state representative from Bristol. “The role of teachers is changing, from delivering pedagogical information to coaching students. The model where students pick a subject to research it and make a presentation—that’s the type of model that I think education is moving toward.”

Vermont has put muscle behind that movement, with two recent changes in education law and policy. After years of failed efforts to promote creative change in how high schools deliver education, in 2013 the Legislature enacted Act 77, the Flexible Pathways Initiative. The law now requires that every high schooler get the chance to combine learning experiences from within and outside the school classroom, in personalized ways that may propel more young Vermonters toward postsecondary success.

Also in 2013, the state made its education standards proficiency-based. Rather than just passing classes, in order to graduate students will have to show they’ve gained actual skills, knowledge, and experience. Vermont is leaving it to individual schools to decide how they’ll do that, but has required that new graduation requirements be in place for the Class of 2020.   

Bill Rich calls those two changes a “double helix, of personalization and standards-based learning.” The key question, he says, is “how do we make high school an environment where there really is personalization, but we don’t lose the standards?”

Most students who attend Middlebury’s graduate School of English are educators working toward master’s degrees, and for these normally harried schoolteachers, Bread Loaf becomes a kind of think tank, an incubator for new ideas—and up on the mountain campus one summer afternoon in 2014, a group of Vermont teachers sat on a lawn and started talking about a new type of course.

The time was right, with the passage of Act 77 and the change in standards, and the College had brought in a sizable grant from a donor who wanted to support a project aimed at social change in Vermont. The teachers sketched out a course that could be based, in creative ways, on multimedia storytelling.

“We weren’t sure it was going to take off and work,” Rich recalls. “We underestimated the power of our design.”

“To me, the power of ‘What’s the Story?’—and where it could impact schools and school systems significantly—is in its focus on students taking the lead, and constructing their own learning,” observes Peter Burrows, the superintendent of schools in Middlebury and its surrounding small communities. Burrows has been closely involved with the project and says it’s hard to legislate the kind of change within schools that Act 77 is calling for—but “What’s the Story?” may be helping point the way. 

“When you look at how ‘What’s the Story?’ has been developed and designed, students are provided with a structure,” he notes, “but within that structure, there is immense responsibility they have, to construct something meaningful to them. And they have to present that, so there’s action involved as well, which is a critical piece of what needs to happen.”

***

By April, the students had been working—some more than others—on their projects for several months. Team members often live in different communities—one resides up in Derby, on the Canadian border—so most of their meetings are virtual, using Skype, email, or other digital tools to stay in touch. But with deadlines looming, the teams made weekend plans to convene with their mentors in central locations to gauge their progress. Almost immediately, it was clear that some teams were doing just fine; others were struggling.

In a classroom at Middlebury Union High School, one team was focused on the state’s recent decision to cut the number of emergency dispatch centers, from four centers to two. The project idea came from Brennan Bordonaro, a soft-spoken sophomore from rural Hancock, which sits along the eastern border of Addison County, just down the hill from the Snow Bowl. That day, Bordonaro was wearing a Vermont Fire Academy ball cap; he’s been a member of his local fire department since he was 14. He’s also a hunter, a fisherman, and a member of the regional ambulance crew. His initial take on the dispatch-center cuts, he said, came from talking with locals in Hancock, other volunteers like himself.

“I went into this very one-sided—I didn’t know the other side,” he admitted. As his team gathered information and interviewed people like the state’s public safety commissioner, however, his viewpoint expanded.

“I think the real issue is that neither side talks to the other side. There just isn’t enough communication,” he said. “Each side has their own viewpoint, and neither is listening to the other.”

In the next room, teacher/mentor Ben Krahn, MA English ’09, seemed frustrated with a team that hadn’t yet refined its vague interest in solar power. The students needed to put a video together, but they didn’t know where to begin.

“I think we need to get messy,” Krahn urged. “Let’s figure out the beginning—what does the beginning look like? Is it a shot of something, or someone talking? Let’s figure out how to start it.”

There wasn’t much response. But about 25 miles away at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, another team was closing in fast on its goal.

“Breaking Binary” was this group’s title. Its three members, two from CVU and a homeschooled middle schooler, were in the media lab finishing a film on how schools can broaden perspectives and vocabulary around gender identity. Their blog was full of probing reflections, and in a week their film would win one of the top awards at the second annual Freedom & Unity youth film festival in Montpelier.

“I’ve worked really, really hard on this—I’ve been in here at least an hour and a half every day since January,” said CVU junior Eva Rocheleau, as classmate Becca Cottrell prepared to record a voiceover.

classroom_eva-fiona

Fiona Nelson and Eva Rocheleau

“So how,” Cottrell read, “do we as teachers, students, friends, and leaders support a safe and accepting school community where everyone can thrive, regardless of gender identity or expression?”

Hearing the playback, CVU teacher/mentor Emily Rinkema, MA English ’03, exclaimed, “Perfect!”

Later, Rinkema reflected on what she’s witnessed during the year. “We don’t always know what a student is really learning, and independent study isn’t always a well-targeted learning experience,” she said. “With this, we really see the growth. We have particular targets—and they’re getting feedback along the way.”

Dark-eyed and full of ideas, Eva Rocheleau is involved with a school club called Think Tank, which works to promote education reform. She also plays Ultimate Frisbee and sings world folk music with Village Harmony, a summertime touring choral program for teens. When she started the I-Search process, Rocheleau was first interested in the threats facing honeybees—but when she shifted her focus to gender identity, she discovered a new-found passion for the subject.

“I have to stop and remind myself, ‘Oh, I’m going to get credit for this amazing experience that’s changing my life?’ This is what I want to do,” she said. “I want to make activism documentaries. So it was almost overwhelmingly exciting for me to do that.”

Rinkema, Rocheleau’s mentor, has seen this transformation in students before. “There’s something that happens occasionally, where a course stops being a course for a student,” she said. “Partway through the first semester, that happened for Eva.”

At the third school, in South Burlington, Bill Rich was helping guide Alex Bickart’s group, which was struggling to pull together its work on foster parenting in Vermont. Later, Rich put things in perspective.

“They’re adolescents,” he said. “When given autonomy, they tend to mess up a little. It’s okay; let them mess up. Give them some feedback. It’s remarkable how much they learn about themselves when they don’t have us hovering over them the whole time, telling them what to do.”

***

After he was introduced to “What’s the Story?” during its first year, Bill Koulopoulos, the College’s director of academic technology, decided to make the course the focus of his dissertation for an educational doctorate at Columbia University.

“For a teacher, this is Shangri-La,” he explains, “because it brings together 21st-century skills where students learn to collaborate, learn to communicate, learn critical thinking, and they create. You provide them with the equipment, you have people from different backgrounds giving them feedback, they move from their world to the outside world, and the final product is something that could be used to advocate for change. At this young age.”

In May came the final phase. During their last overnight retreat at a center in Lincoln earlier in the month, the teams previewed their work to each other. Then they were challenged to take it to the outside world, advocating for change in some way.

On a Saturday morning, Eva Rocheleau and teammate Fiona Nelson arrived at U-32 High School in East Montpelier to lead a workshop at the Queer and Allied Youth Summit, organized by the nonprofit organization Outright Vermont. After showing “Breaking Binary,” their 10-minute film, Rocheleau explained to a classroom of high schoolers drawn from around the state the difference between first-order and second-order change.

“First order is something you can change really easily,” she said. “Second-order change might take a team of people. It might take months or years.”

She asked, “What tactics have you seen that have worked, when you want to make change?” Noting answers and ideas on a whiteboard, she asked about identifying change makers to talk with. How do you set up a conversation? What can make it a success?

A few days later, another presentation’s setting could hardly be more different. It was the monthly meeting of the Hancock Fire Department. In a small room behind the parked fire engines, 10 company members sat around a table in sweatshirts, flannel shirts, and ball caps. Brennan Bordonaro and teammate Brynna Kearns, also a sophomore at Middlebury Union, presented their film on the emergency dispatch cuts.

“We spent about eight months doing research,” Bordonaro told the firefighters. “The consolidation isn’t the biggest issue—it’s communication between departments when there is an emergency.”

There were some questions, some discussion. Then one firefighter said, “You did a good job.”

“Yeah—you did an excellent job,” added the chief, Jacques Veilleux, before razzing his fellow volunteer firefighter. “I take it the other three did all the work?” Bordonaro smiled. He didn’t have to say that he had, in fact, worked very hard.

***

Nearing the point of no return, the team with an interest in solar power found a late focus: net-zero homes, which produce as much energy as they consume. They finished their project just in time, though Indigo Woods, a Middlebury Union High School junior who wound up working by herself on the project’s website, wasn’t sure they’d make it.

“Different members had different ideas about how to approach the project, and what the topic should be,” Indigo said. “Sometimes it didn’t seem like we were all on the same page…but in the end, we did pull it together. And I think I learned a lot about working with people.”

Alex Bickart had a similar thought. “Beyond high school, if you’re doing a project with someone it’s not going to be a four-day thing—you’re going to be working with these people for months. It was really useful to figure out how that works.”

In late May, Tim O’Leary, the Bread Loaf alumnus who is the project’s lead teacher, turned his ninth-grade classroom at Middlebury Union over to Ella Nagy-Benson, a local tenth grader whose team’s project focused on Act 77, the Flexible Pathways Initiative. Her goal was partly to spark interest among the ninth graders in joining “What’s the Story?” next year.

“It never feels like school when you’re working on your project because you’re working on something you care about, and you’re treated more like an adult,” Nagy-Benson told them after showing her team’s film. A shy, slender Nordic skier, lacrosse player, and classical pianist, Nagy-Benson said that her participation in the course had helped her grow more confident.

“At the beginning,” Nagy-Benson told the class, “you don’t think you could do something like that, but you’re forced to step out of your comfort zone. If you’re looking to get more out of your education, I would strongly recommend ‘What’s the Story?’”

Nobody responded. There were no questions, and no one signed up. Later, O’Leary reflected on why.

“These are ninth graders—I’m pretty sure they’ve never before been invited into a conversation about their own learning.” What seems to work better, he said, is to identify a student who seems like a prospect, as Alex Bickart had been identified, then have a talk with him or her.

“So much of what we do is to give students a means of creating agency,” O’Leary said. “I think in the nature of that individual conversation, the student can see themselves as an individual.”

As the school year ended, Dixie Goswami wrote in an email that the project is “making waves and making history.” A retired professor—at Clemson and Bread Loaf—who never seems retired at all, Goswami directs the nationwide Bread Loaf Teacher Network; she’s its lead promoter of new ideas and projects.

“One way it’s making history,” she wrote, “is by giving learning opportunities and agency to young people who don’t have private resources, to do these things that are quite routine in elite institutions. The other way is by demonstrating what you can do as a member of a network that includes Middlebury College and the Bread Loaf School of English, with local communities and with schools that include economically diverse populations, forming a network that works.

“That’s a model for liberal education all over this country.”

***

With summer vacation a few days away, Ben Krahn, the English teacher at Middlebury Union High School, opened a desk drawer in his classroom, lifted out a stack of term papers, and dropped them back in with a thunk.“The paper a student writes: it goes to us and that’s it,” he said. “These videos, like ‘Breaking Binary’: the most powerful audience for these is other students.”

Among the 21 students who showed up for the project’s first September gathering, only one dropped out. All the rest passed. “In September, they were deer in the headlights,” Krahn recalled, “and when we finished in May, the kids had ownership. Of everything.”

“What’s the Story?” may not be right for every student, Krahn said, but “I think the balance of this and the traditional course could be a real model. ‘What’s the Story?’ doesn’t replace everything—but it gives kids practice in certain skills that you get in the traditional classroom, but you get better in a project like this.”

Krahn and his wife, Courtney, a teacher at the local middle school, met as Bread Loaf grad students; now they’re parenting two preschoolers, and they both spend the school year juggling the unceasing demands on teachers today. Courtney Krahn shared a note she had received from a student she worked with, in both her regular classroom and through “What’s the Story?”

“You have one of the hardest and most underappreciated jobs in the world,” wrote middle schooler Emily Pecsok. “After seeing how much you impacted my life, I realized I really want to become a teacher so maybe one day I can help a student in the same ways you helped me.”

To Courtney Krahn, that note said something important—and it wasn’t about her. “I think this letter speaks to how deeply students crave meaningful, intelligent and social connections,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “Because we spent time in carpools and conference calls together; because we worked together in real environments—coffee shops, public libraries; because we existed on equal playing fields; and because our work was real, she suddenly felt a different connection.

“In an educational world where sticky notes cover my desk, Common Core standards are noted on all handouts, and I’m tasked with juggling the role of teacher, nutritionist, nurse, parent, therapist and disciplinarian in the span of an 80-minute English class, there is something sacred to be found at the heart of ‘What’s the Story?’”


John Elder Turns the Page

elder

As he speaks of life in retirement, John Elder’s voice brims with serene delight. His students and colleagues have come to recognize this note as a hallmark of the man, both inside and outside of classrooms, during his four decades at the College. Whether leading a discussion or a hike, sharing ideas or food, reciting poems or playing a game of Go, he radiates a sense of equanimity and zest.

In conversations we’ve shared over the course of 30 years, I’ve noticed how often John begins a sentence by saying, “It’s interesting.” He uses the phrase often, this summer of 2016, as he answers questions about his life. “You know, it’s interesting,” he tells me, “how many of my greatest blessings have arrived seemingly by chance.” The blessing he mentions first is his wife, Rita, whom he met in the choir at Pomona College, where both were undergraduates. 

We are sitting in his study, in the zero-net-energy house that he and Rita arranged to have built for their retirement, in the town of Bristol, 12 miles from Middlebury. John has folded his six-foot-two frame into a chair flanked by stacks of books, letters, news clippings weighted down by a granite cobble, and yellow legal pads inscribed with his minuscule script. A faint smile reveals his amusement at being interviewed by an old friend. As he ponders his responses, which emerge in shapely paragraphs, he gazes across the room, his eyes the blue-green of ocean. 

The walls display tokens of his past and current passions—broadsides of poems by Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry, a sheet of Japanese calligraphy, an Ansel Adams photograph of Yosemite Valley, three banjos. A map of the nearby town of Starksboro, where the Elder family tends a sugarbush, hangs next to a map of Connemara, in western Ireland, where John and Rita have gone exploring in recent years. A meditation mat rests on the floor, a book about mysticism on the desk.

This super-insulated new house, with 30 solar panels on the roof and an electric car in the garage, is only a few blocks away from the handsome, drafty, largely wood-heated Victorian where John and Rita reared their three children. They had hoped to live out their days in that beloved old house, but then Rita was diagnosed with an illness that would, over time, make the many stairs and narrow hallways a challenge. So they decided to build an accessible home to accommodate her needs. “And my eventual needs, as well,” John adds, rubbing his knees, which have carried him on thousands of miles of walks and runs.   

The move into a sun-powered, handicap-friendly house is one in a sequence of postretirement surprises that John describes in Picking Up the Flute, his captivating memoir of this new phase in married life. The book’s title alludes to another of the surprises—learning to play Irish music with Rita, she on a concertina, he on a wooden flute. Each chapter of the memoir features a reel, jig, or other traditional tune—all of which can be heard, performed by John, on his website: www.johnelderauthor.com.

These lively, haunting tunes are only the latest genre of music that John and Rita have shared. Both were classically trained, she on the piano and he on the French horn, and both considered attending a conservatory. Instead, each eventually chose to pursue a degree in liberal arts—which was how they wound up singing together at Pomona College.

“I planned to study philosophy,” John recalls, “but I took a class with a wonderful English professor, who drew me into the field in which I’ve spent the rest of my life. That’s one of those blessings that came to me by chance. I met the right teacher at the right moment.”

As a doctoral student at Yale, John was guided by another gifted teacher, Charles N. Feidelson Jr., his thesis director. “He modeled for me how to be a scholar who reads literature for insight into human existence.”

On completing his PhD, instead of seeking a position at a research university, such as Yale, John applied to liberal arts colleges that resembled Pomona in focusing on undergraduate education. At the top of his list was Middlebury. So he gladly accepted an invitation to join the faculty there in the fall of 1973, and he stayed until his retirement in 2010. During those years he served stints as chair of English and director of environmental studies, taught regularly in the Bread Loaf School of English, pioneered community-based courses, published a series of important books, and rose through the ranks to become Stewart Professor and finally College Professor. The latter title, which entailed no departmental affiliation, acknowledged the breadth of John’s teaching, writing, and service.

He had not expected to stay at Middlebury for his entire career. At first, he and Rita assumed that after a few years in Vermont they would return to California. They had both grown up in the Bay Area, where their families still lived. They had imprinted on the Western landscape, which made the Green Mountains seem humble, and they had been shaped by the cosmopolitan, freewheeling coastal culture, which made the ways of New England seem guarded. 

But after moving to the neighborly town of Bristol, joining community groups, and shepherding three children through school, they came to feel at ease among Vermonters. They also came to appreciate the surrounding landscape, with its richly layered human and natural history. From their house they could hike into mountains crisscrossed with tumbled stone walls and pockmarked with cellar holes from vanished farms, yet wild enough to harbor black bears and bobcats. A steep, forested ridge, visible from their back door, would earn official designation as the Bristol Cliffs Wilderness Area.

Over time, John came to see Vermont, along with much of New England, as a “recovering wilderness,” where cleared fields, long abandoned, had reverted to woods, and long-absent wildlife had returned—not only bears and bobcats but also moose, coyotes, and catamounts. He traces these discoveries about his adopted place in Reading the Mountains of Home. This is perhaps the finest of his dozen books, in the way it braids together history, science, indigenous lore, family stories, and tributes to the literature that has shaped his understanding.

The earliest of those literary influences was the Bible, which his father, a Baptist minister, read aloud at the dinner table. “I loved the King James Bible,” John tells me. “It was so much livelier than what we were reading in school. The stories were so juicy, the language so intriguing.” In The Frog Run, a personal narrative that ranges from discovering Zen to harvesting maple syrup, he reports that “Scriptures like the Psalms grounded my earliest spiritual experiences, inspired my first love of reading, and enhanced my appreciation of the natural world.”

Another early influence was Henry David Thoreau. “In high school I became fascinated by wilderness,” John says. “I went to the library and read all the Sierra Club books, with their gorgeous photos. They kindled in me a reverence for nature that was an extension of my reverence for the Bible. Then at 15, I was given a copy of Walden, and it came as a revelation. It opened me to the American nature writing tradition, which I have explored ever since.”

elderdetailOne fruit of that exploration is The Norton Book of Nature Writing, which John coedited with essayist Robert Finch. This pioneering anthology has helped to foster a vigorous field of research and teaching. Two years after the first edition appeared, and partly through its influence, a group of scholars and writers founded the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment. John has served on the organization’s board ever since, including one term as president, while membership grew to some 1,500, drawn from 30 countries.

In addition to Thoreau and his American successors, John counts among his literary guides the classical authors of the pastoral tradition, such as Ovid and Virgil, as well as the English Romantics, especially Wordsworth, and Japanese haiku masters such as Bashō. But no writer has had a deeper impact on his reading of landscape than Robert Frost. During the latter decades of his life, the celebrated poet spent part of every year just up the road from Middlebury, in the village of Ripton, near the Bread Loaf campus. From that vantage, he observed nature and people with an eye “versed in country things”—to borrow a phrase from one of his poems—and recorded his findings in memorable verse.

“Another of my blessings,” John says, “is to live in a place that has been brought into art by a great writer.” He knows much of Frost by heart, including the long, profound poem “Directive,” which frames the sequence of hikes recounted in Reading the Mountains of Home. “Reflecting about this poem,” John explains in the introduction, “has helped me understand how the mountains around our home assumed their present form, as well as what it might mean to identify with such a place on earth.”

As John and Rita came to identify with their adopted home in Vermont, the notion of moving back to California faded away. Of all the inducements for staying, the ones John mentions most often are the rewards of teaching at Middlebury, especially the chance to work with inquisitive, idealistic students. “I felt so well suited, and so well supported, in my work at the College,” he says. Within this “community of learners,” he was free to follow his intellectual path wherever it led—to nature writing and environmental studies, to coteaching with scientists, to leading classes on Vermont’s Long Trail or local farms, to studying Japanese and spending a sabbatical in Kyoto, to directing Bread Loaf programs in New Mexico and Alaska.

“Unlike so many New England colleges,” he notes, “Middlebury wasn’t founded by a church but by a town, with the intention of educating youth to lead meaningful and useful lives.” Judging by emails sent to me by a few of his former students, John has fulfilled that purpose splendidly.

“Unconditional love is a strong current that runs through John’s teaching,” writes Byron Rath ’10, who took a course with John entitled Farm Stories. “There’s something about his love for literature and teaching that’s renewing.” Rath moved to Vermont from rural Missouri, and often felt out of place among students from big cities and private schools, but through John’s class, he recalls, “I came to understand my upbringing as a strength.” Studying the writing of Wendell Berry and other agrarians gave him a sense of purpose, which has led him to his current position with the Soil Health Institute, a nonprofit devoted to stewardship of the world’s fertile land. 

After graduating from Middlebury, Alvin Ung ’94 returned to his native Malaysia, where he works as a consultant in leadership development. During his first year at the College he felt lost, and might have left, had he not found a mentor. “John saw something in me that I did not see in myself,” Ung writes. He was astounded when this celebrated professor agreed to direct his senior thesis. “Most of the time he left me breathless—literally—because he had this habit of asking me to walk the trails near the College while discussing my drafts. He remembered the rickety structure of my papers and he proposed revisions while he named the trees around us. He himself is a tree offering shade to many. Now I’m spending the rest of my life learning to live out his values.”

As a senior, Corinne Almquist ’09 took a class with John focusing on American food culture, which opened her eyes to the issue of malnutrition in poor communities. In her first year out of college, she created a gleaning program in Addison County to provide fresh, local food to low-income families. Now, as a midwife and women’s health nurse practitioner, she writes that “one of John’s greatest gifts is his ability to find the seed of an idea in his students and help nurture it to become something so much larger.” Having recently visited him, she is reminded that “even a 10-minute conversation with John makes the world feel more connected, more precious, and more replete with wonder.”

John Schubert ’80, recently retired from the U.S. Forest Service as a wilderness ranger, remembers taking John’s seminar called the Literature of Attentiveness to Nature. He writes, “Over the decades, I have often reflected that the example of John’s life inspired me to live a fuller, more sincere, generous, humor-filled and kinder life of my own. In short, simply who he is inspires me to be a better person.”

Another Forest Service veteran among John’s former students is Tom Van de Water ’83, who teaches high school science in the Adirondacks during the academic year, and during the summer works as a fire lookout in Idaho. “From my freshman seminar at Middlebury to my senior thesis,” he writes, “John shaped the direction of my life. He modeled how to read closely, listen, question, pay attention to detail, and work hard with a sincerity and love that encouraged, inspired, and awed us.” Van de Water remembers going on a 10-mile charity run with John, talking the whole way, and also remembers bicycling to the Elders’ house in Bristol, where Rita would greet him with a warm bowl of soup. 

At the beginning of a course entitled A Portrait of a Vermont Town, Aylie Baker ’09 recalls, John told the students “we were doing something that hadn’t been done before, and he didn’t know how it would turn out.” It turned out quite well. Through interviews and storytelling, they learned about the community of Starksboro and helped the residents achieve a deeper sense of place.  She came away with the feeling that “if we listen deeply enough we might catch the echoes of a past place and time and begin to understand how it resonates into the present. Through this process I think we all learned that it matters where we direct our listening and who we listen to.”  Today, as a graduate teaching fellow at the University of Oregon, she credits that experience with stoking her interest in community storytelling.

Harrison Hobart, MA English ’12, who left a business career in his middle years to become a teacher, studied with John at the Bread Loaf School of English. He writes that “John adeptly applied the tools of a master teacher: the clear-minded capacity to listen and understand each student and a literary fluency born of a deep immersion and personal engagement—and fostered them in us. I experienced more healing and growth in that summer than at any other time in my life. Never have I been so encouraged to put as much of myself, my best, courageous, and chastened self into the world.”

To suggest John’s impact on past and current colleagues, one example must suffice. Amy Seidl, who teaches now at the University of Vermont, began her career at Middlebury. “I saw how much John loved—a term I believe he would use—the study of the environment. He loved thinking about it historically, politically, and literarily,” she writes. “This holistic and truly loving view is one I try to emulate.”

***

Ironically, the very intensity of John’s engagement with students helped prompt his decision to retire at the relatively early age of 63. After graduating, many students keep in touch with him, and some become lifelong friends. He recommends them for jobs and graduate programs; attends their weddings, concerts, and plays; reads their manuscripts; and faithfully answers their letters, emails, and phone calls. “While I treasure every one,” he explains, “I felt I had all the former students my life could hold. I retired early out of a desire to encounter this next phase in my life actively. I liked the idea of drawing a line, stepping over it, and seeing what might be on the other side.”

In what he calls the “spacious world of retirement” he has found much of interest. Not only the adventure of building a house and playing Irish music but also doing carpentry with twin grandsons, celebrating the birth of a third grandson, watching his three children flourish in their careers, studying Spanish and ancient Chinese philosophy, carving wooden spoons, baking bread, and memorizing more poetry. He regularly offers courses in a Bristol initiative called Hogback Community College. “It’s neighbors teaching neighbors,” he says. “We share our knowledge with one another.” John’s own classes have included an evening session on Emily Dickinson at the bakery and a several-day writing workshop at a conserved forest in town.

He has undertaken these ventures out of the same desire that led him to regularly create new courses at Middlebury and to survey the mountains of Vermont. One of his favorite Zen aphorisms says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” With characteristic modesty, he says, “I am a very good beginner, but only a middling achiever. I love launching into new activities.” While his memory does not grasp Irish tunes as quickly as it once grasped classical music, and his fingers are not as supple on the flute as they were on the French horn, and his back is not as fit for splitting wood or his legs for clambering over rough trails as they were when he was a young man, he perseveres in walking, sugaring, making music, and following every other path of discovery. Along with his new activities, John continues the spiritual search that led him from a Southern Baptist upbringing to conscientious objection during the Vietnam War, then to Quakerism, Zen Buddhism, and contemplative traditions of East and West. He continues to serve on the Bristol Planning Commission and on the boards of Sterling College and Vermont Family Forests. The Elders’ own family forest is the 142-acre sugarbush they call Maggie Brook, where three generations harvest Earth’s sweetness.

***

Earlier in this record-hot summer of 2016, at a reading from Picking Up the Flute, John told the audience: “Our forests are changing under the stress of global warming. As temperatures rise, sugar maples may not be able to regenerate. Animals and plants will be forced to move farther north, or some will disappear entirely. So I often feel grief when I think about the future of this land. But if you love a place or a person, and they fall ill, you don’t love them the less. In fact, you love them more.” His words contained a truth applicable to any place or person, but one could sense that the person he had chiefly in mind was Rita, and the place was his Vermont home ground.

“Grace, as our ancestors affirmed, is ultimately what sustains every good thing in our lives,” he declares in Reading the Mountains of Home. When I quote this passage to him, he remarks, “I’ve been criticized for using words such as grace and sacred in my writing, but I refuse to give them up, because they point to things that are of utmost importance. I do believe in grace. I don’t have the theology to justify it, but I think we receive gifts from the universe.” Surely John is one such gift—for his family and friends, his colleagues, his readers, and above all his students.

“Though writing remains for me such an engrossing practice,” he says, “teaching has always been my main calling.” What has he most enjoyed about his vocation? He smiles, remembering. “A class begins as a collection of individuals. But then, as you explore ideas and texts together, a moment comes when everyone cares about everyone else’s learning, and a community forms. One can feel it happening—a kind of liftoff, as if we’re taking flight together, all singing the same tune. Together, we achieve understanding that none of us could achieve in isolation. In those moments, teaching is bliss.”

In Conversation with President Laurie L. Patton

 

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Laurie Patton is no longer a new president. That designation came to a symbolic end on July 1, the beginning of her second year occupying the chief executive’s office on the third floor of Old Chapel. But she stopped seeming like a new president well before that. Was it when she presided over Middlebury’s 215th Commencement in May? Or when she welcomed alumni to campus in June? Or did her newness gradually fade over the course of her first year as she stepped into the classroom to guest lecture for colleagues? As she expertly presided over community conversations, large and small? As she crisscrossed the country and the oceans getting to know alumni who, in her words, are “responsible for building this place that I love so much”?

Honestly, it doesn’t matter when Patton ceased to be a new president. What matters is that she now has the perspective to discuss what it means to be president of this institution, and the experience to understand how it is shaping her and she it.

Over two long interviews in her Old Chapel office—the first in July and the second in September—supplemented with shorter conversations and through email exchanges in the intervening months, Patton spoke with Middlebury Magazine about the challenges of the job, the evolution of higher education and liberal learning, and what a future Middlebury may look like. This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.        

Middlebury is a very different institution today from the one many alumni experienced as recently as 10 or 15 years ago. How has our growth changed the nature of what it means to be
Middlebury’s president?

A new insight I’ve developed over the past year is that a president has to decide in any given moment—of conversation, of decision making—whether we’re big or we’re small, and whether the value is to be big or small. So when it comes to efficiency of systems, we need to think like a more complex institution, and we are getting there. The “small” has to do with the values that we share—how we make decisions, how we communicate. I don’t mean the systems of communication—they need to assume complexity—but rather the tone of communication, so I think those are all more village-type values that also make a difference.

What challenges does this present?

We need to be careful that we don’t undergo mission creep, which is a difficult thing for a complex institution. It’s one of our biggest challenges—that everything will be relevant to us. We also have to stay confident about the fact that we don’t look like a traditional liberal arts college and we don’t look like a traditional university. We are neither.  Most people, even traditional folks and Middlebury folks from 50 years ago, really like the idea of Middlebury as a newly complex institution. I think even in the DNA from 50 years ago—having spent time last summer with the Class of ’66—there’s a real excitement about that. There’s real engagement and there’s an expectation that new complexity will yield positive results. However, there’s also some anxiety about it, and as a president, you have to manage that as well.

I’m curious to know your opinion on why issues of race and inclusivity blossomed across the higher ed landscape last year?

I believe that Ferguson and other events around police profiling and police treatment of people of color sparked it. A lot of the events on the national scale heightened what was already there on campuses, and it allowed students to push on certain kinds of agendas of inclusion that they may not have been so activist around in the past. I think that’s number one. Number two, I believe it was a tipping point for things that had been building on campuses, and what we are seeing in higher education is a place where we created numerical inclusivity but were not as aware of the systems of support that we needed to put into place to really manage that, and there are any number of models.

I think one of the hardest things about this issue is that there’s no quick fix . . .

I agree, I don’t think there’s one single answer to how you build inclusivity on campus. You just can’t be competitive around every single metric. I believe that would be an ill-advised way to move forward. I do think that it would be incredibly important to make sure that each campus’s approach to inclusivity is true to its character and true to its values. So with Middlebury, we are of course far more diverse than we were even 20 years ago, and certainly 30 years ago. We continue to be more diverse partly because that’s a value for me. However, I’ve said on a number of different occasions I don’t think that fixating on numbers is the right thing. What I am going to fixate on is making sure that we have the support systems in place for the folks that are here, including building on things we’re doing right now.

This fall, you’ve spoken about teaching students to become resilient in the public sphere, even giving this skill a name: rhetorical resilience . . .

It’s both a skill and a disposition, and if we are to live up to our educational mission, it’s incumbent upon us to cultivate this ethic. To do so, we need to figure out how to make our public spaces more inclusive of everyone and to have these spaces be the place for rigorous, constructive, free speech.

How do you move from saying you want to do this to putting it into action?

Well, as long as I’m here, I want to have arguers come together. I want a team of arguers who are committed to each other, who love to argue, who are colleagues, to show students how to engage in typical conversations across difference. It’s an important value for us, and I want to become the place where students really learn how to have those tough conversations. I think we will be able to do that. I’m pushing for constructive debate. I don’t even care if it’s civil, as long as it’s constructive.

I firmly believe that we have the DNA to make this happen. Many Middlebury students are already there, but can we be even more like that? Can we make it an explicit value? That’s where I really want to take it.

Well, from one hard topic to another to another: financial sustainability. What are our challenges  as an institution and what are we doing to meet these challenges?

The simple answer is that we’re spending more than we’re taking in. And so, over the next five years we are committed to achieving a new level of financial sustainability. It’s a big project, it’s a hard project, and we have to execute on it. It’s our number one challenge right now, but it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not a crisis. So how do you create an ethos of fiscal efficiency and discipline when it’s not a crisis? How do you create that discipline that we simply need for the future?

The plan we’ve created, with the support of the Board of Trustees, uses several different levers to both hold costs flat in a number of different areas while making sure that our focus on income generation and fundraising remains as aggressive as it can possibly be.

And I must state the obvious: we must do this in a way that is consistent with our values.

On the fundraising front, you identified three top priorities for your first year: financial aid, annual giving, and the president’s discretionary fund. How did you settle on those and what is our outlook for fundraising?

Well, to begin with, financial aid—or what I prefer to call student funding with purpose—represents a core value for Middlebury and for me personally. Annual giving directly supports the essential operations of the institution. And the president’s discretionary fund supports the innovation we must pursue as an institution to continue to thrive.

That strict focus on three priorities has created some difficult conversations on campus about other priorities, but we agreed to stay focused, and I’m pleased to say that we surpassed our goals in all three fundraising areas last year.

I believe that people have seen that the discipline of sticking to those three things and continuing to do so over the next couple of years is important.

Shifting gears a bit, could you describe the working relationship you’ve developed with the undergraduate faculty over the past year?

I think the Middlebury faculty is extraordinary. It wasn’t a surprise in any way, but some things stand out. I have experienced them as ready to work, ready to engage, ready to think in new and innovative ways.

I find them all very much aware of the changes that are happening in higher education. Of course they have different opinions about it. As one example, we had a tough discussion around how to change our civilization requirement this year. We had really good, open debate, we had a vote, and we went forward with a significant change. I’ve seen that same attitude on a couple of smaller initiatives as well.

So I’ve been impressed with the way faculty have responded to our new governance system, the way they’ve responded to me as a president, as well as to the style that I’m trying to create for leadership. I can’t say enough good things about our faculty.

You bring up the changes that are happening in higher education. The liberal arts have always evolved, in some way, with the times. How do you see a liberal arts education evolving during the next decade?

You know, I think there are three key concepts at play when talking about the evolution of the liberal arts: integration, adaptation, and innovation. Integration speaks to a student’s capacity to find a place for her knowledge in the world; adaptation is the ability to “turn on a dime” in response to a new environment; and innovation is understanding when to ask a new question and how to implement the answer in an effective way. All three of these areas are both skills and dispositions and require a certain kind of creativity and humility as well as courage.

I think the creative questions that Middlebury students have always been trained to ask will be at the front and center of our next decade, but with a twist. The students of the future will need to operate in the digital world where interactive databases and artificial intelligence—the likes of which we’ve never seen—will be facets of everyday life. And they will also need to comprehend urgent environmental challenges, challenges that already are altering life on this planet. And I think they will be comfortable working in collaborative environments. Students of the future are going to need to tackle these challenges in groups, not alone.

 OK, so, getting more granular, if we’re projecting 10 years out, for students entering the marketplace—both of ideas and employment—in 2026, what skills will they need to succeed?

Well, this era can no longer be defined simply as postindustrial. We’re entering a cognitive age, where knowledge and the service economy are at the center of what we do. So students will need digital skills, communication skills, and team skills. If they’re going to thrive in this environment, they’re going to need to be familiar with complexity, with neuroscience, with data analytics. But—and this is important—that doesn’t mean that disciplines such as history or philosophy or the traditional sciences become less relevant. They become more relevant because we need to look at the past in order to study the future; we need ethics and epistemology even more than before if we care to remain curious and creative in this new era.

You made a face when you said the word “relevant.”

[Laughs] I’ve never liked that word, because ultimately it’s not adaptive. If a conference in Delhi on early-Indian history now requires bodyguards because that moment in history has become so essential to a nation’s identity, does that mean that same scholarship was irrelevant during times when such security was not needed? Knowledge is always relevant; when we lock on to a restrictive idea of relevance, then we’re unable to adapt when we need to do so. 

And this comes back to the notion of integration that you talked about before.

Exactly. These new methods of learning and these new areas of discovery can be integrated into traditional liberal arts education in some wonderful ways. I’ve never really thought of liberal arts as “traditional” in the sense that they should always focus on “what we’ve always done.” Rather, liberal learning should make all of us permanently and joyfully uncomfortable, and permanently and joyfully restless. That’s because we’ve become curious for the rest of our lives.

 So how do we, as an institution, plan for this? Envisioning Middlebury—this year of conversation we’re having about the future of the institution—obviously seems like the first step.

I think that the Envisioning Middlebury process continues to be at its core a strategic planning process, but I think what’s exciting about it is that for the first time everybody’s voice will matter and everybody’s voice includes the undergraduate college, Monterey, the Language Schools, Schools Abroad, School of the Environment, and Bread Loaf. There’s a lot of energy in the Schools Abroad, too, in all of those arenas, and I think that people are beginning to interact more and see how they could work with each other while maintaining their separate identities. And so we have the good groundwork for this kind of highly consultative strategic planning process.

The other thing that was a wonderful pivot that we made about six months ago is that we’re not going to be creating a long list of to-dos for our strategic plan. We’re going to have six or seven strategic directions that people can then envision themselves in and propose their own strategic planning underneath those directions.

I really want those directions not to be business as usual. I want us to frame them in a way that wakes everybody up, and I’m very committed to that; what that looks like, we don’t know yet. I have my own idea of where we want to go, but I am articulating that through questions so that the process is not simply performative. My role is more like a head coach of this project, and I think that Susan Baldridge, our provost, has done a really wonderful job of keeping it on track and keeping people excited and engaged.

Middlebury just hired a new dean for spiritual and religious life. With data showing that college students are becoming increasingly secular, what is his role on campus?   

I think the two biggest trends that religious life professionals face in higher education today are the students who self-identify as having no religious ties and students who are interested in interfaith work. 

The so-called “Nones” cover a wide range of experiences—some have left a childhood tradition, others have never had one, and then there are those who are actively committed to a secular humanist perspective. Our team at Middlebury is prepared to address both those who come from traditional backgrounds as well as those who don’t have affiliation but who are seekers, who are interested in a spiritual grounding to their lives without necessarily building that grounding through a traditional structure of religious authority.

And the interfaith work . . .

We’ve already seen it at Middlebury with groups such as MOSAIC (Middlebury Organization Supporting All Identities and Cultures), and I expect we’ll see even more in the years ahead. And it’s happening on campuses across the country. I run a national workshop for liberal arts college professors in this area with the Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago, and it’s phenomenal to watch the dynamism in these new interfaith models emerging.

When I think of interfaith work, I think of people of different faiths coming together for the greater good of a community . . .

I think that’s perhaps the most common application, this service-and-conversation model that campus religious professionals use to facilitate both greater understanding of different cultures and shared purposes.

And this ties in, again, to the idea of knowledge; I wouldn’t be in this business if I didn’t believe that more knowledge should make you a better person. Being literate in religious traditions is important if one is to have a comprehensive understanding of how the world works. But let’s take this further. What’s the ethical element of religious literacy? Does our understanding of different religious faiths contribute to character building? Could one channel this understanding toward the creation of a civic space where people would not be deterred by differences but would find a sense of common purpose? You may never agree with someone else on certain topics, but could you still come together in this space to create something for the greater good?

 On this and other topics, I’m wondering about our location in rural Vermont. It seems like we’re seeing a youth culture that is increasingly urbanized and a society that is focused on urban areas for innovation and creative thinking. What are the challenges and advantages of a four-year residential experience in a small town in northern New England?

I think that Middlebury’s commitment to the environment and its spectacular setting will always make it a place that people are drawn to. But we also need to think differently about college towns like Middlebury, which is both a rural community and a cosmopolitan one. I think interactions between town and gown are even more important than ever, because we are interlocked and interdependent in so many important ways. I have focused in the last year on the ways in which the town and college can collaborate on a common education purpose—funding internships in arts organizations, for example.

I also think that the urban/suburban/rural divides are a great way to frame the conversations across difference that all colleges are challenged by these days. We just had a vibrant orientation for first-generation students—and what I loved about it is that you had students from Brooklyn, South Side Chicago, Los Angeles, intermingling with students from suburban Connecticut and farm communities in Iowa and Wisconsin. It was tremendous to be a part of, and the conversations were partly about differences of race and ethnicity, but they were also about the rural/urban/suburban experience. That’s inspiring.

 Speaking of culture change, when you moved to Vermont, you joined a new community. But joining the community wasn’t your only new
experience. As a college president, you are experiencing a community in a way that is very different than one experienced by a dean or a professor. What has that change been like?

That’s a great question. The community of alumni and trustees are the biggest constituents that a president has that are different than a professor or a dean. I did have a lot of contact with alumni as a dean, but it wasn’t as the chief executive, so I didn’t have the same sense of obligation to them. I think about alumni as the people to whom I should be grateful for building the Middlebury I have already come to love.

I think of the trustees as deeply accomplished and insightful friends of the community who have chosen to give their time and energy to Middlebury when they could be doing a thousand other things. I count on them for advice, almost every day. And because I am also a trustee, I think about the way we can be a collegial and diverse group whose fiduciary responsibilities are carried out with joy and inspiration. And I’ve found the response has been phenomenal.

Last question: Speaking frankly, how do you deal with everyone in town knowing who you are? With everyone seeing you through the
filter of “president”?

I love this question. For the most part, I find it fun. I don’t think of myself as an intimidating person, so there are times when I laugh because people are nervous when they come to the office or meet me for coffee. I tell them they can be nervous around the role, but not the person. Middlebury faculty, staff, and students have been responsive to a more informal everyday leadership style. And then when we move into a formal occasion such as Convocation, we can be more connected because we know each other on an everyday basis. I find that inspiring. 

The only downside is what I call “the cauliflower effect.” On a rare day when I don’t have anything scheduled, and I feel like going to the store to buy ingredients to make my favorite cauliflower dish, it’s never a simple anonymous trip to the store. In addition to the warm greetings of hello, which I love, occasionally folks feel like they have the president’s ear in the checkout line and will bend it. Sometimes they’ll even be surprised that I am doing my own shopping and comment on my choice of cauliflower. But because I love the town of Middlebury, and love interacting with local businesses, I generally find it fun!

I’m making a note that if I ever see you in the grocery store, I will simply say, “Hi.”

[Laughs]

Why Do Americans Distrust Science?

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On the late afternoon of October 6, as a Category 4 hurricane lumbered toward the southeast coast of Florida, conservative political commentator Matt Drudge sent a pair of messages to the 414,000 people who follow him on the social media app Twitter: “The deplorables are starting to wonder if govt has been lying to them about Hurricane Matthew intensity to make exaggerated point on climate” and “Hurricane Center has monopoly on data. No way of verifying claims. Nassau ground observations DID NOT match statements! 165 mph gusts? WHERE?”

Earlier that afternoon, radio host Rush Limbaugh presaged the Drudge Report founder’s comments when he announced to his listening audience, “The National Hurricane Center is part of the National Weather Service, which is part of the Commerce Department, which is part of the Obama administration, which by definition has been tainted just like the [Department of Justice] has…With hurricane tracking and hurricane forecasting, I’ve been able to spot where I think they might be playing games because it’s in the interests of the left to have destructive hurricanes because then they can blame it on climate change, which they desperately continue trying to sell.”

Limbaugh allowed that Matthew was a “serious storm,” and he was right. By the time the hurricane’s posttropical remains had been absorbed by a front that was moving across eastern Canada, it had been responsible for an estimated $5–7 billion in damage ($4–6 billion in the U.S. alone)—and 1,044 fatalities.

An estimated one thousand residents of Haiti died after the storm ravaged that island country—a day before Drudge implied that the American government was intentionally exaggerating the hurricane’s strength to score political points. And 38 Americans lost their lives as a result of the storm’s impact on coastal communities in the days that followed Matthew’s initial U.S. landfall—in the early morning hours of October 7.

Now, is Matt Drudge or Rush Limbaugh or anyone else who might have suggested that Hurricane Matthew’s strength was exaggerated by a government agency—for partisan political purposes—responsible for the deaths of American citizens? That’s both virtually impossible to know and equally as dangerous to suggest as the initial comments themselves.

What is not in doubt, though, is that the American public and American scientists have drifted far apart in their perception of vital scientific issues, and this disconnect poses a clear and present danger to an educated and engaged citizenry. And it’s important to note that this disconnect exists across the ideological spectrum; it is neither a conservative nor liberal, a Republican nor Democratic “war on science.”

We’re all complicit. Even the scientists themselves.

***

hope you’re still reading this story. That is, I hope you didn’t stop because you saw this piece as an attack on conservative thought and beliefs. I hope you didn’t drop the magazine in disgust, decrying yet another example of a liberal bashing Republicans. But here’s the thing. You’d have a valid point. I chose to lead this story with an anecdote that conformed to my worldview—basically that people who don’t believe in anthropogenic climate change (or worse, people who actively seek to mislead the public) are inherently dangerous to mankind. I can obviously cite scientific consensus on the issue not only to bolster my point but to justify my decision to begin the story this way. But you know what? I could have also cited scientific consensus on another issue—whether it’s safe to eat genetically modified food—and chosen an anecdote involving GMOs, but I opted not to do so. I’d like to think that that is because, as a professional writer, I understand how to write a strong opening, and that when a recent event involving mass destruction and death sits within the context of the story topic, then focusing on that anecdote is an obvious solution. But you should know something. The GMO thing? My personal beliefs are in conflict with scientific consensus. That surprised the hell out of me, and, quite frankly, prompted me to be even more curious about why we, as a populace, see things differently than scientists do. (And that curiosity is a good thing, I would learn; more on that later.)

So let’s see if you’re as surprised as I was.

Like most U.S. adults, I believe that genetically modified foods are unsafe to eat; scientists believe otherwise. In a 2015 study conducted by the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), just 37 percent of the general public said that it is safe to eat genetically modified foods. By contrast, 88 percent of AAAS scientists say that such foods are safe. And that 51-point gap? It’s the largest opinion difference between the public and scientists on any issue surveyed. It’s larger than the differences in opinions on whether humans have evolved over time (98–65 percent); whether childhood vaccines should be required (86–68 percent); whether climate change is mostly due to human activity (87–50 percent). (In all of these cases, scientists represent the higher numbers.)

So, you tell me: Should I have led with an anecdote about genetically modified food, since on no issue are scientists and the public further apart?

I guess that’s to be debated.

What really isn’t up for debate is the main takeaway from the Pew report, which is that “citizens and scientists often see science-related issues through different sets of eyes.”

I wanted to know why, so I turned to a psychologist, a philosopher, a political scientist, and a physicist to shed light on this issue.

***

Barbara Hofer seems to be a relatively laidback person—until she starts talking about a topic that she cares deeply about; then, she practically radiates energy. I met the psychology professor for coffee one morning in the Davis Library’s Wilson Café, and about halfway through our conversation about the public’s understanding of science—and the global implications therein—she stopped mid-sentence and declared: “I care about this so passionately.”

That’s why I was there talking to her, having read a journal article that she recently cowrote, in which she and her coauthor presented research on why the public was struggling to better understand science, why it matters, and what can be done about it.

We had started by talking about scientific literacy, what I had—somewhat erroneously, it turned out—thought of as simply being well-read about scientific issues.

“I don’t think anyone would argue that there is a need for improved science literacy,” Hofer told me. (On this issue, a vast majority of those surveyed by Pew seemed to agree. Nearly 80 percent of the public said science has made life easier for people, yet both the public and scientists were highly critical of science education in America. Just 29 percent of adults said it was above average, a figure that drops to 16 percent for scientists.) “But we need to be very careful about how we rely on this literacy and even how we define ‘literacy.’”

Hofer brought up a view that psychologists refer to as the “knowledge deficit”; that is, if you simply acquire knowledge about an issue, you’ll understand it better. (What I understood as being well-read.) “Then why aren’t we seeing greater acceptance of evolution and climate change?” On these issues, the public remains far removed from scientific consensus. While 97 percent of scientists believe that the earth is warming (and have produced studies showing this to be the case), a quarter of the public says there is no solid evidence. On evolution, 98 percent of scientists say that humans have evolved over time, while one-third of U.S. adults say we have existed in our present form since the beginning of time.

“Literacy can’t just be content,” she said. “It’s a fallacy to believe that if we just impart more facts then we’ll have done our jobs. The definition of scientific literacy needs to be thought of as an understanding of the very nature of science itself and how it is conducted.”

She added: “So much of what we are encountering is a failure to understand the epistemology of the issue.”

(A quick note: If you’ve been out of the classroom for a while, it’s possible that the word epistemology rings a bell, but its definition escapes you. It means the study of the nature of knowledge; an epistemologist is one who studies how we know what we know. Both Hofer and her colleague in philosophy, Heidi Grasswick, whom I interviewed for this piece, speak often about epistemology, so I thought it best to offer this refresher.)

“One of the fundamental tenets of the scientific method is that knowledge is always open to revision. That’s how you produce solid science, science that is durable,” she said. Indeed, she makes this very point in her journal article, writing “scientists work toward increasingly accurate approximations to describe phenomena in the world and revise them as new information becomes available, usually through modification.”

And people can have a problem with an absence of absolute certainty. Hofer talks about epistemic cognition, basically how people think about reason and knowledge. The absolutist stance, where one holds a dualistic view that you are either right or wrong based on knowledge that is certain, is perhaps the most problematic dimension when it comes to scientific understanding, Hofer said. (For instance, I’ve spoken to someone who told me he was withholding judgment on climate change until scientists had reached 100 percent consensus.) This might explain why, according to the Pew report, at least a third of the populace believes that scientists do not agree that the Earth is getting warmer or humans evolved over time, despite the fact that 97 and 98 percent, respectfully, believe it to be true.

There is also a multiplistic stance in epistemic cognition, in which knowledge is based on interpretation and belief without clear criteria “for ascertaining the truth value of a claim.” About five years ago, Hofer conducted a study with Middlebury first-year students, gauging their attitudes toward evolution. She was stunned to learn that one-third of those students applied the colloquial definition of theory to scientific theory, stating that it meant one person’s opinion. Further, “a surprising number of students thought we should teach intelligent design right alongside evolution—even if they believed in evolution—so that people could ‘make up their own minds’ in the issue. This floored me. Science is not a belief system, it’s a method of investigation,” she said in describing an extreme instance of multiplistic cognition as applied to scientific understanding.

And then there is the evaluativist view, what Hofer described as an integration of objectivity and subjectivity, an appreciation for the relative nature of certainty, and a recognition that knowledge is contingent and contextual. 

“But even then you need to be epistemically vigilant,” she said. “Students and the public need to understand where the biases are. They need to understand how to critically evaluate claims and studies.”

They need to know whom and how to trust. And when it comes to epistemic trust, there are few, if any, people on the Middlebury campus who have thought more about this than philosophy professor Heidi Grasswick.

***

“I am an epistemologist, first and foremost,” Grasswick told me one day over lunch. “And I love thinking about not just what counts as knowledge, and what we do as individuals, as knowers, but how the circulation of knowledge is itself a philosophical issue. We’re dependent on others for knowledge, and not just experts, but us, here, talking.”

(As an example, she asked me what my birthday was. When I told her, she asked how I knew. “You don’t actually know that on your own,” she said, smiling slyly. “You’re depending on other people to tell you something as personal and individual as when you were born.”)

Grasswick said that testimony has become a more prevalent topic in epistemology during the past few decades, which drew her toward the epistemology of trust. “For us to depend on other people,” she said, “we’re going to need to have some sort of grounding in trust, and not just trust in information, but also trust in a relationship.”

Grasswick is the George Nye and Anne Walker Boardman Professor of Mental and Moral Science at Middlebury, and she says that philosophical reflections on “the repercussions of how society thinks about itself, how people think about themselves, and how any shift in knowledge might lead to a shift in practice” have always fascinated her.

Last January, she gave her inaugural lecture as the forenamed professor, a talk titled “In Science We Trust!—Or Not? Developing a Situated Account of Responsible Trust in Scientific Experts.” (It was this talk that initially turned me on to this subject as a potential story.)

“Scientists are often surprised or dismayed when their work is met with distrust or rejection by members of the general public,” she said then. “As far as they are concerned, they are engaged in the most robust form of knowledge generation available. They are the experts on their topics, and it seems to follow that nonexperts should follow what they have to say. Furthermore, since sound policy making needs to be based on sound science, it’s deeply worrisome that trust in science is not widespread.”

“It is worrisome,” Grasswick told me, when I asked her about this statement. “But it’s not as simple as just saying, ‘Trust me.’”

To begin with, she said, there are legitimate, contemporary reasons why people may distrust scientists. Scientists have been wrong, she said, citing the devastating effects of thalidomide use among pregnant women in the 1950s; and they have behaved unethically, even criminally, such as with the 40-year clinical study in which the U.S. government studied the progression of untreated syphilis in African American men in the rural South—withholding a known cure for thirty years after the efficacy of penicillin was proven, all under the guise of receiving free health care. 

“Entire communities, understandably, lose trust in the institution,” she said. “And there are two levels at which this impacts knowledge. The most obvious is that if I don’t have a reason to trust, then I’m going to miss out on that knowledge. And then there is the impact on knowledge generation, itself. If you have a group of scientists who have no input from those who are socially situated differently, you run a far greater risk of being influenced by biases.

“It’s the idea that you need to diversify your scientific community in order to be able to see some of the holes or the blind spots in your thinking,” she said. “No matter how good a scientist you are, you must start with an assumption; that’s part of the scientific method. But you also need people who see things differently. And then the scientists can work it out, and maybe some of the theories live and some die.”

I asked her about scientific literacy, and Grasswick echoed Hofer nearly word for word. “Knowing some basic facts that are understood as scientific facts is not going to help you all that much. If you are going to be literate in science, you need to have an essential understanding in how science works. And then you can discern what makes for a robust application of science versus a less robust application, and this builds trust.”

With this in mind, I asked Grasswick about the increased privatization and corporatization of scientific research and how one could be epistemically vigilant, as Hofer prescribes, in order to build trust in these institutions and, therefore, their results.

“I think it comes down to what we want to demand of these institutions, these companies, in order for us to say, ‘OK, we’ll give you our trust.’ I touched on this in my talk when I said that trust can come from a history of that party willingly circulating knowledge rather than hiding it from you,” she said. “And as soon as we find out that there has been information hidden or manipulated, then that itself takes away from our trust, as it should as reasonable beings.”

But what if we can’t be reasonable?

***

sat down with political science professor Matt Dickinson the day after presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met in their second debate, a clash the New York Times described as “unremittingly hostile,” and one that seemed to end with the populace agreeing on only one thing—at least democracy itself did not go up in flames on that autumn evening.

I hauled out my now dog-eared copy of the Pew report and asked him about the findings that showed that Democrats are more likely than either Independents or Republicans to say there is solid evidence of global warming or that more Democrats than Republicans disagree with scientific findings on the safety of genetically modified foods, and he offered a wan smile.

“The party sorting that has increasingly matched party labels with ideology has not helped the discourse,” he said. “It’s made it too easy for people to think that the opposing party is increasingly out of step with what one believes is right. And I think part of what’s happening is when a scientific consensus dovetails with a policy objective that resonates with one party more than the other, then that doesn’t help people appreciate the science.”

I tell him that I know that every generation likes to think about themselves in extremes—things are either better or worse than they’ve ever been—but it sure seems like we’re seeing extreme views right now.

“The liberal Republican and conservative Democrat have become extinct,” he confirmed. “Before, you wouldn’t necessarily dismiss what a Democrat said or what a Republican said by virtue of their partisan affiliation, because that wasn’t an automatic indication of what their beliefs were. That’s not the case anymore. And what we’re seeing is that when you have ideologically active partisans presented with conflicting evidence, they double down on their initial inclinations. The people with the most well-developed worldviews are the ones who are most resistant to accepting disconfirming evidence.”

We touch on the subject of trust, and Dickinson said that when we view our governing institutions as out of touch with our concerns, as a significant portion of the electorate does, “we increasingly are willing to discount what they tell us is the truth. And if you don’t trust the government, why should you trust the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health?” The populist movement that has aligned itself with Donald Trump on the right and with Bernie Sanders on the left has further exacerbated these inclinations, Dickinson said. “One of the hallmarks of populism is a distrust of elites, and that seems particularly pronounced in this election cycle. And science can be a part of that.”

***

could have ended the story there, but that would have been depressing—plus I promised you a physicist, and I think you’ll be glad that I did.

Rich Wolfson is the Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of Physics, and he’s taught at Middlebury since 1976. Like any other Middlebury professor, his office bookshelves creak under the weight of their load, which, in his case, includes Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond and Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky, along with the dozens of physics texts that have titles too long to include here.

Wolfson has authored a number of books himself, including Simply Einstein: Relativity Demystified and the texts Physics for Scientists and Engineers, Essential University Physics, and Energy, Environment, and Climate. The last book is about to reach its third edition, a milestone that Wolfson seems particularly proud of. Before achieving his PhD in physics, he earned a master’s degree in environmental studies and focused his thesis on environmental ethics.

He is active in outreach communications to what he calls “the non-science public,” something he has been doing for decades, “long enough that I have seen scientists move from looking down their nose at folks like me who reached out to lay people to recognizing that ‘hey, this might not be a bad idea.’”

Wolfson has taught courses on climate change since the 1990s and a specific course titled The Science of Climate Change since 2002. Designed for nonmajors, the class addresses the following questions: “Why do human activities affect climate? What future climatic changes can we expect? And what will be their impacts?”

He says that the course always fills—anywhere from 24 to 36 students. Half tend to be environmental studies majors, though not those already in the science track. The rest include religion majors, econ majors, history majors. (Similarly, Grasswick reports that her course on Science and Society draws not only philosophy majors and other humanities students, but also neuroscience majors and biochem majors. “I’ve had students tell me that it’s so great to also think about science in addition to practicing it.”)

On the day that I visited Wolfson in his sunny Bi Hall office, his Science of Climate Change students were taking an exam. Sporadically, they would filter into his office, seeking clarification on one question or another. Most queries were focused on one specific part of the exam, a classically Wolfsonian-inspired entreaty to analyze a climate system for a fictional planet named Zorq. For weeks they’d been studying Earth’s energy flows, Wolfson explained, and this particular task was a simpler subset of what they’d been studying.

As the top of the hour neared, students began to spill into the office, dropping off their exams. To each, Wolfson asked, “Did you get Zorq?” Responses ranged from the confidently affirmative to shakier “I think so?” As I prepared to leave, I thanked Wolfson for his time and added, “I hope they all get Zorq.”

“They won’t,” he replied. “But that’s not entirely the point, is it?”

I smiled, and thought about something Barbara Hofer had told me. Those first-year students who had failed to understand the meaning of scientific theory, who had wanted creationism to be taught alongside evolution to ensure a “balanced debate”? A longitudinal follow-up to that study showed who had changed their views and why. Those who had exhibited “scientific curiosity” by indicating they intended to take further courses in the sciences (whether they had actually done so or not) had changed the way they thought about the issue.

I don’t think I have to tell you what they thought.