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Self-Fulfilling Rhetoric

Categories: General, Midd Blogosphere

Anyone who pays attention to the news gets a regular dose of misery, as media outlets, and the people they quote, seem to vie for more alarming ways to recount the gridlock, stonewalling, and infighting of our nation’s leaders.

I’ve wondered if these situations are as bad as described, or if the descriptions cause the various players to act the way they are depicted (rising or sinking to expectations). What if officials X and Y were called “thoughtful and cooperative” instead? Would they try to be? And if others believed X and Y had been thoughtful and cooperative about something, would that have an impact on how they might approach X and Y in the future, perhaps setting the stage for a more fruitful encounter?

I realize the dynamics are more complex than this, but there’s no doubt that certain rhetoric can help create the very situations we are trying to abate. The national discussions about gun control and immigration reform employ loaded language and assumptions on each side of the debate, which, I believe, are not helping us find solutions to these problems and sometimes make things worse. The same can be said for discussions about same-sex marriage, or decriminalizing drugs, or affirmative action in higher education, or gender identity, or underage drinking, or women serving in combat, or immigration reform. Almost any topic comes with sets of assumptions and related rhetoric that can stop understanding in its tracks. Once people embrace assumptions, true understanding hasn’t a chance. This pattern is woven into the fabric of our society.

This is where I believe Middlebury comes in. We have an important role to play in influencing how our society converses. I think we can lead by example.

We have been making a concerted effort on campus to advance the skill and the art of talking together. We’ve set up safe places, centered on respect, where people can talk directly with one another about whatever is important to them and strive for mutual understanding—from Justalks, which debuted in J-term, to campus Open Forums to public panel discussions and other venues. I have been heartened by how many students have participated, how seriously they have taken their part, and how eager they are to learn.

I see “Middlebury dialoguing” as a hopeful step—one that could change our society’s reckless conversational habits, because when Middlebury students learn to listen to others and to reach deep understanding, they will be able to plant the seeds of understanding wherever they go. These skills, learned and practiced here, can be taught to others and can make ripples that will sustain over time.

I welcome your comments and observations. Do you think college students can raise the level of discourse in this country? Do you have other suggestions that might change the tone of debate here and in the wider community?

—Shirley M. Collado

 

Stepping Outside Comfort Zones

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

My guest blogger this week is Kathryn Benson ’13, writing about a question that made her stop and think. I’ve enjoyed working with Kathryn in her leadership roles on campus. She is active on many fronts and always seems to have creative ideas about ways to address pressing issues.

—Shirley M. Collado

Two summers ago, I was part of a student panel during reunion weekend. A man in the audience posed a question that I will never forget: “What have you done at Middlebury that you never expected? What opportunity have you taken that has surprised you?”

I was the last panelist to answer this question, and as I listened to the other students talk about how they had done everything from joining the Ultimate Frisbee team to learning Russian, my heart began to race because I could not think of anything I had done that was out of my ordinary routine. Sure, I had taken classes that challenged me in new ways. And I had been a leader in a number of clubs and as my Commons co-chair. Yet none of these things truly pushed me outside my comfort zone. And as I looked back at my time at Middlebury, I realized that none of the things I had done thus far set me apart from the student I was in high school.

A few weeks after that panel, I was asked to be a member of Weybridge House, also known as the environmental studies house. At that time, I did not consider myself an “environmental person,” and I wondered if living in Weybridge would actually be a good fit for me. I did, after all, keep my lights on more than they probably needed to be, I took unnecessarily long showers, and recycling was not my number-one priority in life. But I had always wanted to learn more about living a lifestyle aimed to serve the environment just as much as it served me. And so I signed up to live in Weybridge House for my junior year. I decided it was time I did something I had never planned to do, and it was time for me to live outside my comfort zone and routine.

Living in Middlebury’s environmental house was something I never imagined myself doing, yet it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had at Midd. I met some of my best friends in that house, and I learned how to caramelize enough onions to feed the 300 people who came to Weybridge Feast.

As the beginning of my last semester at Middlebury draws near, I once again ask myself those wise words from the man at the reunion panel: What have I recently done that I never expected? What opportunity have I taken that has surprised me? Middlebury truly is a safe space for us all to step outside our comfort zones in order to try something new.

It doesn’t matter if you are a senior crossing things off your bucket list or if you are a first-year deciding what extracurricular you want to be a part of—our campus and its surrounding Vermont backdrop offer so many unique opportunities, and I’ve found that it’s the ones you least expect to explore that offer you some of the greatest memories. So I invite you to ask yourself the questions that man asked me: What have you done at Middlebury that you never expected? What opportunity have you taken that has surprised you?

The Big Picture

Categories: General, Midd Blogosphere

This week, my guest blogger is Rachel Sider ’14.  Rachel is a tireless advocate for many causes, and she encourages students to work together on behalf of issues that matter to them. She has worked with such groups as the national student organization J Street U, Community Council, Somali-Bantu ESL Tutoring Group, Juntos, and the Judicial Board Selection Committee.

I always enjoy hearing students’ viewpoints about issues they are concerned about, and would like to encourage any students who are interested in being considered as guest bloggers to contact Jennifer Herrera or me.

—Shirley M. Collado

Growing up reading the newspaper over breakfast each morning and hearing stories about far-off lands from my journalist grandfather cultivated in me a yearning to address global problems. That is ultimately why I chose to attend Middlebury. Despite its rural location, the curriculum, student body, and campus initiatives focus far beyond the surrounding sheep farms and rolling pastures—they aim to address the international community and its challenges.

As a leader on campus I have always admired how my peers maintain this outlook and are able to think globally. In my opinion, that’s the beauty of the liberal arts experience. But while many students come to campus to learn to engage the world, there seems to be a disconnect between this mission and overall leadership in community initiatives. I noticed this trend of disengagement just months into my freshman year as attendance at J Street U meetings dwindled and concern for group sustainability mounted. In talking with other student leaders, I realized that my own concerns were symptomatic of a greater, campus-wide issue; students arrive each fall eager to get involved, yet many lose interest or prioritize other activities as the semester progresses.

Trust me, I understand—I have done the same. I have found myself overwhelmed with class projects and readings and lost sight of the bigger picture. I have groaned at the thought of organizing another J Street U discussion when I still have a Juntos board meeting to attend and Arabic poetry to analyze. Too often I have seen campus clubs and service organizations lack sufficient membership to effectively fulfill their missions, tackle community needs, and cultivate new leaders. Don’t get me wrong—there are thriving groups doing excellent work on campus—but I know there is the potential for even greater success and impact.

As we kick-off the spring semester, I think back to the passion I felt as I perused headlines over pancakes years ago—my belief that justice and coexistence require better knowledge of global social and political realities. I urge students to reconnect with their own interests, wherever they lie in the world, and to find new ways to translate their passions into civic engagement. For me, the liberal arts experience is about utilizing our global mindset and academic insight to facilitate some sort of action. If we are developing the tools to engage the world—creativity, analytical thinking, initiative, excellent communication—why not put them to work now?

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you agree or disagree that this is an issue facing our campus? Do you feel that we are becoming more disconnected from our willingness to take action and promote change? How can we hold one another accountable for exercising our liberal arts talents in ways that truly engage our community on campus, throughout the state, and around the globe?

 

It’s That Time of Year

Categories: General, Midd Blogosphere

Welcome back!  I hope you had a rejuvenating holiday break and that you are looking forward to an exciting J-term.n One of the things I love about this time of year is the snow. Many of us longed for it last winter because it was in short supply. This is why I was delighted to return from being away for the holidays to so much of it. In the past two weeks alone we received more snow than we did all last year. I find that the snow-covered ground offers a sparkling brightness to the darkness of winter.

Nevertheless, the winter season and the New Year also bring the prospect of fresh beginnings, opportunities, and time for reflection that typically prompt us to make new resolutions for things to improve or change.

I’d like to share with you some of my resolutions for 2013.

  • Look up at the sky more and take in all that Vermont has to offer.
  • Get better at cross-country skiing.
  • Spend even more time with students.
  • Get regular quality time in with my family, even though they live far away.
  • Teach a strong spring psychology course (Approaches to Psychotherapy).
  • Don’t take myself so seriously and remember to have fun at work.
  • Empower my team and students to create the best student life experience at Middlebury.
  • Exercise, exercise, exercise.
  • Travel to a completely new and exciting place.
  • Get more sleep!

What are your New Year’s resolutions or commitments for 2013? What are you willing to do to follow through on them? What are you willing to do to help someone else follow through on theirs?

Let me know how we can work together to motivate and support each other on sticking to our New Year’s resolutions and commitments for improvement or change.

—Shirley M. Collado

Thank You for the Dark

Categories: General, Midd Blogosphere

When December rolls around, those of us who haven’t lived here long enough to completely acclimate are often surprised, sometimes depressed, by how DARK it can get. By four in the afternoon, it can feel as if the whole world is going down for a long sleep. Rip Van Winkle may have lived in a place like this.

Middlebury is nearly 4 degrees closer to the North Pole than my hometown of Brooklyn, which means that Middlebury’s winter nights are longer than Brooklyn’s. On December 21, the winter solstice and longest night of the year, the sun will set here at 4:18 p.m., and it will set in Brooklyn at 4:32.

But I don’t think those 14 fewer minutes of daylight account for the gloominess that seems to descend over Middlebury in the dim afternoons. Another force of nature adds to the phenomenon: the Champlain Valley is one of the cloudiest places in the U.S., with Burlington receiving only 159 days of sun a year. These two things—murky, overcast skies and quickly descending nights—combine to create a very challenging experience.

That’s where the lights come in. If the nights feel deep and lonely, the glorious lights that blanket trees, glitter in windows, and turn sidewalks into magic do the opposite. They offer a playful tonic against the doldrums and signify hope and human ingenuity. Without the darkness, we would not be able to enjoy the lights. So, this year, I’m giving thanks to the dark.

I’d like to wish you all a very happy winter break, safe travels, and a multitude of lights.

See you next semester.

—Shirley M. Collado

 

 

 

 

The Words We Use: An Audio Blog

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Before Thanksgiving,  I wrote about the importance of actively engaging in meaningful, direct discussion. Then Anthony Perez came to see me, offering to share a recording of a conversation he had with a friend, Alan Sutton ’14, about the sensitive topic of sexuality. Anthony is a junior from Los Angeles and is majoring in Spanish and minoring in Portuguese. His actions—initiating this discussion and then sharing it with the campus community— take courage and resolve. I am pleased to include the recording here, and I want to thank Anthony and Alan for taking this important step. I hope this will encourage further dialogue across campus.
—Shirley M. Collado

The following dialogue has emerged from my genuine desire to understand how students on this campus consider non-heterosexual culture. I did not have any clear direction or pre-written questions when Alan Sutton, a junior here at Middlebury College, and I sat down to record a candid conversation about sexuality.

What immediately surfaced within the first few minutes of my interview with Sutton was a familiar reality for me: the difficulty that surrounds terminology and nomenclature within the non-heterosexual community. If you don’t currently identify as gay, bisexual, or lesbian then where do you stand? Even more intriguing to me was the question of how normative standards on this campus, and beyond this rural environment, foster a space for speech that is degrading to some.

This small clip is just the beginning in what I hope will be a continued conversation that tackles the necessary issue of creating a comfortable community for every student on campus. —Anthony Perez ’14

 

Let’s Connect: Say It and Own It

Categories: General, Midd Blogosphere

In the last 15 to 20 years, I’ve noticed that communication between people has become increasingly indirect. There’s been a steady erosion of interpersonal contact in favor of texting, tweeting, facebooking, and e-mailing. We can feel engaged and involved without having to “do” anything.

I remember a time when students couldn’t send me e-mail because e-mail wasn’t available; so they would come to my office or meet me somewhere in person. We would talk, resolve things, meet over a cup of coffee, and forge understanding. And when people needed to talk about something important, there were few options other than to engage with one another directly. It wasn’t possible to deliver messages indirectly the way it is now. And it wasn’t possible to be anonymous.

Is this a sea change?

This societal change has allowed people to avoid taking personal responsibility for conveying their ideas, opinions, and needs. It allows faceless, nameless posts in a universe of empty noise. And it sometimes encourages what I consider irresponsible or avoidant behavior: putting ideas out there without owning what you say. I’m concerned that a time may come when we won’t know any other way. The unfocused, hollow methods of communicating will become the norm, and people will not have the interpersonal skills they need to lead effective lives.

Beyond our communication style, we seem to be losing something else critically important—human connection.  A recent article in the Atlantic cited research showing that although people are highly networked today, they are lonelier than they’ve ever been.

Last week, a group of students came to the first Campus Open Forum to talk about sexual assault. These forums are hosted by Community Council, SGA, and the Office of the Dean of the College and are designed to provide an open space in which members of the campus community can honestly discuss student life topics of interest and any issue they wish to address. As I listened to the discussion, I realized that everyone there was longing for this type of personal interaction. They were there to be heard and to engage candidly with others. That’s the beauty of a residential campus like Middlebury: we can make these connections happen when we choose to.

Lots to talk about

There are many meaningful discussions underway on campus right now: how the endowment is invested, what activism is, sexual assault, quorums at faculty meetings, involvement in student government and other initiatives, faculty/staff-student-community relationships, finding venues for social life, and more. The College is committed to finding ways to encourage members of this community to come together for meaningful conversation and action.

Last year, I encouraged students to turn off their social media for one week to see what it is like. Needless to say, I received a great amount of resistance to this suggestion. But it’s not necessary to “go dark” in order to have face-to-face connections; it is necessary, however, to make these connections a priority instead of following the path of least resistance.

I hope that we can all get into the habit of asking ourselves whether we can hold a particular discussion in person instead of remotely, and I would like to encourage everyone to get involved in the many conversations underway on campus.

I’d love to hear what you think. Do you agree or disagree with me? Do you feel that we are living with more noise and less understanding? And are you willing to put yourself out there in order to have better connections with others on campus?

Other Places for Conversation

  • In addition to the Campus Open Forums, other great conversations happen weekly at the Fireside Chats, hosted by the Institutional Diversity Committee. These are informal discussions with a weekly theme that intersects with identity, diversity, community, or education and the Middlebury experience.
  • SGA holds open office hours each week in Crossroads Café.
  • Community Council holds open meetings on most Mondays at 4:30–5:45 p.m. in Axinn 220.
  • PALANA House hosts topic-based discussions two–three times per year called PALANA Uncensored.
  • Several student organizations are also having topic-based discussions during their weekly meetings.
  • Check Middlink for other upcoming conversations, and post any you’d like to host.
  • Middblog and The Campus offer opportunities for thoughtful discussion, and students are encouraged to submit opinion pieces that foster dialogue.
—Shirley M. Collado