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Teaching the American Negro Spiritual

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

CO70-5-07-clemmons-011Twilight Artist in Residence François Clemmons teaches a January term class called the History of the American Negro Spiritual and Its Influence on Western Civilization. He has found that teaching this subject to young people with little connection to the lives of America’s slaves takes special understanding and some creative techniques. Clemmons describes the class and some of the resources he uses, below.

Watch Clemmons  perform “I’ve been in the storm so long.”

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Writing about American Negro spirituals is my passion. I’ve been singing these glorious songs since my earliest conception in my mother’s womb. This legacy was passed down to me by my mother, my grandmother, Minnie Green, and my great-grandmother, Laura Mae Sanders. I sang these songs at home and in church when other children were singing “Mary Had Little Lamb” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” and other typical nursery rhymes.

African-American-Spirituals

The index provides a systematic listing of Negro spirituals

In putting together the collection of The Index to African American Spirituals, Kathleen Abromeit and I wanted to make available to all young singers, professionals, and teachers information as to what was available and, in some cases, where one can still purchase these arrangements. We focused on solo arrangements, but just as much is becoming available for all levels of choral groups. Much of it unfortunately is out of print. But we do know libraries, private and public, where copies can be had with a little research. Schomberg Public Library in New York City, Oberlin College, Fisk University, Spellman University, Morehouse University, Jackson State University, Morgan State University, Harvard, Howard, and Yale Universities, just to name a few.

I use this publication and several others that I am familiar with in my January term class at Middlebury College on Slavery and the American Negro Spirituals. Some excellent resources are The Book of American Negro Spirituals arr. by the Johnson Brothers, The Music of Black Americans by Irene Southern, Songs for Today, Arr. Clemmons, Songs of Zion—United Methodist Church, and Wade in the Water by Arthur Jones. In addition, there are several notable publishers who are making an effort to republish collections made famous by tenor Roland Hayes; bass, Paul Robeson; and alto, Marian Anderson. Arrangers such as Hall Johnson, H. T. Burleigh, John W. Work, Nathaniel Dett, Eva Jessye, Roland Hayes, Jester Hairston, the Johnson Brothers, Florence Price, and Margaret Bonds are featured.

These publications are augmented in my class by recordings, DVDs and CDs by classical singers, pop artists, jazz musicians, vocalists, and instrumentalists, as well as live performances by me, along with members of the community and faculty. With the help of local artists, I have been able to form the core of a chorus to sing these songs and occasionally to perform a solo here and there. However, the hardest part of passing on the legacy of these songs has been developing a fuller understanding of the secrets to unlocking the unique impact of this repertoire. Spirituals appear quite simple and naïve in print. Most of the “authentic” arrangements I’ve seen can be sung by amateurs as well as young beginning singers. The simple texts and pervasive repetition are highly deceptive. Rare is the student who brings his life experiences to this work, which demands it.

So in order to really teach this work, I must discuss with the class and in small seminar groups the life of slaves and their unique struggle in their 17th- and 18th-century world. Some of the students come prepared for the intellectual stimulation and comparisons, but on the whole, most have almost no true perception into the humanity, or lack thereof, of this humiliating experience. In all fairness, much in our society produces this condition in students and encourages them to see only the ultimate outcome or the topical aspects of this repulsive situation: American Slavery.

The path toward teaching the inner life of these songs is lined with patience, encouragement, and understanding. Our society has wrapped many unpleasant experiences in pageantry and superficial holiday recognition. It often takes much determination and creativity to read the signs of the reality of peoples who have been slaves in this environment. Most of the students have no idea that many if not all of the songs have a double meaning: one applicable to the Bible and its spiritual strengths and another that plans for insurrection and flights to freedom.

The slaves were overtly taught, by the official churches and parsons and priests who visited the plantations, a submissive theology based loosely on several biblical texts referring to “slaves, obey your master” (Ephesians 6 chapter 5-9 verses; Colossians 3 chapter 22 verse; and 1Peter 2 chapter 18 verse) and “render under to Caesar those things which are Caesar’s and unto God those things which are God’s” (Mark 12 chapter 17 verse, and Matthew 22 chapter 20-22 verses).

Many of the students today do not know the inner voices, relationships, and intricate weavings of the theology of the Bible and don’t really relate to its profound world impact along with its acknowledged philosophy, poetry, and inspiration. I begin with Old Testament legends such as David, Saul, Solomon, Ruth, Daniel, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, and Ezekiel. Then I add the life of the Christ, Paul, Mathew, Mark, Luke, Judas, John, and Mary and Joseph.

Because of the nearly unlimited variety of the biblical texts of the spirituals, we are only able to touch on the core stories and events that are important to the slaves. My next role is to wed together an understanding that for over 250 years this country was built on the free sweat of human beings with the students’ grasp of modern economic development (which may be in conflict with moral perspective) and  the principle of personal empowerment. We would not be the nation we are today if it were not for this forced, free labor; in most cases the students’ parents would not have the expected prosperity many of them take for granted, and our standing in the rest of the world would have a very different impact.

The next step requires that I build bridges to the hearts of the students. My experience has taught me that the easiest, quickest, and most permanent way to do this is to have the students share with me who they are—the special characteristics of their families, their chores and hobbies, whether or not they have pets, why they chose to come to this college, and why they chose to take this course. None of these answers in and of themselves are that terribly important. What is important is the powerful atmosphere it builds to establish community and a visible, tangible relationship with every member of the class. We begin to form a shared, academic family. One that feels and shares with each other and does not just know things intellectually.

Almost imperceptively and immediately the tone of the classroom lessons and the singing choices change. In nearly every aspect we become an organic, fully functioning ensemble with one united goal in mind, to dislodge the secrets and inner codes of the American Negro spiritual and its creators. At this point it is obvious to me that we have collectively absorbed and moved on beyond the beauty and surface appeal of this great music. The syncopated rhythms, the traditional hymn-like melodies, and the acknowledged variety of these simple biblical stories and melodies were the facts that initially drew many of the students to the repertoire, its practice, and history. Now they operate from “within” this experience on a completely different level.  This level includes all of the previously mentioned requisite aspects to understanding this experience but now also engages the much deeper sense of empathy and spirituality.

From this perspective the students and class in general begin to know themselves and the slaves as a connected people, and they value the practical experiences that they can now relate to. A joyful song is not just a joyful, ecstatic shout or a foot-stomping, clap-worthy, sometimes hypnotic self-indulgence. In like manner, a sad song is not just mournful and painful and longing for death. These songs begin to express the deeper soul longing to be free and to know the human dignity that is understood by all of humanity. The slaves who created this repertoire are no longer just over there or back there in history. Their lives and stories live today and are worthy of knowing and sharing.

Old Chapel: Liberal Arts Evolution

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

On the eve of the fall semester, President Liebowitz issued an exhaustive 11-page report to the faculty that was as bold and provocative in its thinking as it was ambitious in its length. In it, he addressed the evolving nature of a liberal arts education—specifically its cost and relevance.  We spoke to the president about his ideas.

Let’s start with cost and relevance. . .  

Well, I think there’s a tipping point beyond which people sit up and take notice about what they are paying for. And while I believe that a liberal arts education is priceless in the greater scheme and long-term view of things, people don’t always have the capacity and luxury to think long term, especially coming out of the worst recession in a century. I think more people have been paying more attention to cost, value, and relevance. And that’s why I wanted to address this issue.

What are some of the cost implications?
Wage and salaries represent about half of all of our costs. And we have significant fixed costs related to our infrastructure. So we have to take a look at how we deploy our staffing based on what we feel is the most important pedagogy, and where that pedagogy is absolutely essential and where it is a luxury.

As we think about a Middlebury education, we have to acknowledge that one of the most important reasons students come here is because of the personalized approach to learning that one will get, the opportunities to engage faculty who are committed to undergraduate teaching and who understand that the core mission of Middlebury College is undergraduate education.

But let’s step back and ask if that means students have to have that 100 percent of the time. If you look at a student who has gotten the most out of a Middlebury education, what does his or her four years look like? How much of it is really one-and-one instruction, how much of it is really in small seminars? Hopefully a large part of it, but it’s certainly not the entire part. So before we think about continuing to do what we have done as we have done it, we have to step back and ask, “Might there be another way?”

Let me give you one example that is illustrative of the opportunities we have (and it shows why we have a comparative advantage over our peers): Our Chinese department is second-to-none in teaching Chinese language, literature, and culture. It is remarkable both in its rigor and how our students emerge four years later with a fluency and a sensitivity to the culture of the language that they are studying. At the same time, we hear repeated commentary about the department’s narrow course offerings at the senior seminar level from students who have returned from studying abroad at our sites in China; [these offerings] reflect the professional experience and expertise from a relatively small number of faculty. The students see too few opportunities to apply their Chinese language capabilities to contemporary issues. So instead of hiring two more faculty in the Chinese department to cover China’s economy or Chinese-U.S. relations, in Chinese, why not tap into our existing resources in China, at our sites in Kunming, Hangzhou, and Beijing, where we cover environmental sciences (Kunming), the arts (Hangzhou), and the social sciences (Beijing)?Why not tie in classes that are going on in Beijing with classes at Middlebury? An 8:30 p.m. seminar in Beijing would be an 8:30 a.m. class for Chinese majors in Middlebury.

We’ve hired the faculty to teach our students in Beijing, and now we can have that course in two places using videoconferencing and technology that didn’t exist three to five years ago. The ability to bring in expertise from our 38 sites around the world presents this kind of opportunity for us in multiple languages across many disciplines. And so without ever increasing the size of our faculty, we can expand our curriculum significantly and provide important new opportunities to our students. And that’s just one area we can think about a little bit differently.

So, tell us more about untapped potential . . .     
Well, despite having great educational resources such as the language schools (since 1915), BLSE (since 1920), and schools abroad (1949), they have largely existed in a vacuum. They have served separate cohorts of students, with occasional overlaps with our undergraduates, but only recently. These programs represent untapped resources for the College. The challenge we face now is rationalizing—leveraging, if you will—these resources to the benefit of our core mission, which is undergraduate education. Which is to say, if these programs produce financial surpluses for the College, great. If they provide important and unique educational opportunities to our undergraduate students, then even better. So a lot of my attention is given to strengthening this network of educational programs to the benefit of the entire institution, and especially our undergraduate students. It’s time we capitalized on these long-standing programs.

What role do you see technology playing?
For a period of our history, our isolated location was a great benefit. It was an oasis of sorts, an escape from noise, a place where students could come and have a contemplative four years immersed in their studies. But the world has changed dramatically since those times. I don’t think students can afford to be totally checked out, isolated from what’s going on in the rest of the world for four years, and then jump in when they graduate.

Technology is a great leveler. Even for those students who go abroad—and that’s 55 to 60 percent of our student body—technology will still be key, because it will allow students to stay connected after they return. It also is a way in which faculty can rethink pedagogy. Collaborative learning and accessing information instantaneously have become so important. Technology plays a role in how faculty can do so much more than the standard 50-minute lecture three times a week. But we have to be smart. There’s good technology and there’s not-so-good technology, technology for the lazy and bored. We don’t want that. We want to retain our focus on undergraduate education, human contact, but that’s not mutually exclusive from finding ways technology can enhance that experience.

How might the curriculum evolve?
Students being learned in the classics and foundations of the liberal arts should not change. It’s crucial that students learn fundamentals from Western and Eastern texts. Those are building blocks to understanding the human condition, and they don’t lose their relevance.

However, when you talk about the organization of the curriculum, and you divide things by, say, the regional division of the world (Asian studies, African studies, Latin American studies, etc.) it assumes that the old order—state institutions—play the most significant role in world affairs. If we learned anything since 9/11, we learned how non-state actors are becoming more and more important. So, we need to think about how this kind of change alters how we organize, at the least, our international curriculum and also how we view “the world.” And then there are the ways disciplines have evolved. It’s tidy to say “I’m a biologist” or “I’m a chemist,” but what’s happening in between the established disciplines is, in many ways, as significant and exciting, if not more. Then again, graduate schools continue to produce PhDs almost solely within disciplines. So it’s tricky. But it’s worth examining what we learn, how we learn it, and what constitutes knowledge in today’s world. Just because something has been done a certain way doesn’t mean it should always be done that way.

Also, we need to set our expectations for what students need to know. What represents the best launching pad for students not only to get a fundamental base in a liberal arts education, but also best prepares them to thrive in the world?

This leads to how our students learn . . .
I’d like to think of a Middlebury education as being a sum of all the parts, and that they all support one another, rather than being perceived to be in competition with one another. So it’s not a zero sum game, but rather a summation game.

Now, there is a risk of charlatanism when students get involved superficially in a number of disciplines. But through projects like the Solar Decathlon or the “Hydrogen tractor” winter term course taught by two alums last year or MiddCORE, we see examples of where you have a superb academic experience in the classroom supporting and being supported by what students are doing outside the classroom. And that’s an important aspect of today’s liberal arts education.

Though I understand it, I don’t necessarily believe it’s in the best interest of our students that during the past 25 years, we have become so focused on excellence in the classroom, we have devoted less attention to what students are doing outside of class. We as a faculty need to see how life outside the classroom is a crucial element of a Middlebury education.

What about the evolution of the student body?
Diversity of life experience and diversity of thought are the two most important things in creating a vibrant learning environment. If we manage to bring together students of different world experiences and of different thought—political, social, cultural—it will enrich the educational environment significantly.

I started teaching here in 1984 and seemed free to make statements in my political geography class that 15, 16 years later would have been challenged by students whose life experiences would have rendered my positions and my lectures dated and, well, provincial. We now have students from more than 75 countries, so to speak about international development or dictatorships or freedom of speech takes on a very different character when people who have experienced a very different system or lifestyle can say, “Wait a minute, what about this perspective?” That’s what we try to do here: provide different viewpoints so as to stretch our students’ understanding and comfort levels as they study across the liberal arts.

If we successfully answer the relevance concern, does that solve the cost issue as well?
Partially, yes. It buys us time. But we can’t assume a five or six percent growth in the cost of a college education forever. So we need to work on both. We have to make “the relevance case” more strongly in order to attract and retain the best students, and we have to address cost before we lose too large a segment of the population who believes it would be impossible to finance a Middlebury education.

Dalai Lamas—in History and in Person

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

What is a Dalai Lama? And how is His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama different from (and similar to) the previous 13?

A week before His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s visit to Middlebury, a large audience at Dana Auditorium heard some answers to the questions, “What is a Dalai Lama?” and “Who is this Dalai Lama?” Professor William Waldron sketched the spiritual and temporal role Dalai Lamas have held since their rise to prominence in 16th century Tibet, adding insights about the particular life and role of Middlebury’s honored guest.

The title “Dalai Lama” itself suggests the complex history of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism. “Lama” is Tibetan for “guru” or “teacher”; “Dalai” is Mongolian for “ocean.” The title is loosely translated as “Ocean of Merit” or “Ocean of Wisdom,” and Waldron explained how it harkens back to the Buddhist leaders’ patronage by Mongolian princes who ran—and defended—Tibet from the 13th through 17th centuries. Far from otherworldly spiritualists, these Buddhist lamas operated amidst Mongolian and Chinese political plays, with each power exercising control over Tibetans through their spiritual leaders.

Buddhism didn’t arrive in Tibet until the 7th century, and the monks who brought it from India were not entering a spiritual vacuum: practitioners of Tibet’s indigenous shamanic spiritual tradition, Bön, resisted the Buddhist influence. Originally armed pastoralists like the Mongolians, the Tibetans took to the Buddhist teachings of compassion. Bön and Buddhism ultimately developed a syncretic relationship, and during the four-century span prior to Mongolian political rule, it was the Buddhist monasteries who provided a stabilizing cultural force, serving as keepers of literacy and iconography, even lending money (similar to the role the Catholic monasteries played after the fall of the Roman Empire).

Waldron noted that while Dalai Lamas have for centuries wielded political and spiritual influence, it is the latter role Tibetans value most. Traditionally, the Dalai Lama is considered the reincarnation of the revered bodhisattva (or “enlightened being”) of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. Bodhisattvas cycle through many earthly lifetimes, delaying their own rest in nirvana in order to help liberate others from suffering. In the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist tradition especially, Waldron noted, “the many bodhisattvas represent the potential for cultivating awakened properties within oneself.” This awakening, through meditation and other practices, allows a person to see reality without the ulterior motives and grasping of the ego; the awakened person is free to engage others with compassion and wisdom.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was a toddler in his mud-and-stone village when a lengthy, detailed process identified him as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama. Given the restless time into which he was born, he went from a closely tutored child in a Lhasa palace whose only exposure to technology was an old film projector, watches, and a telescope to a world traveler who counts among his friends prominent scientists, philosophers, and religious leaders. (His own education demanded decades of studying scriptures and the highly advanced logic of Buddhism; he earned the equivalent of a Ph.D. in philosophy and is the author of dozens of books.)

And although Waldron noted that the 14th Dalai Lama “is not the first to be beleaguered by politics,” the politics that have beleaguered His Holiness are of a modern scale. Fearing for his life during the increasingly restrictive Chinese occupation of Tibet, he fled in 1959 and found asylum in Dharamsala, India, with many other Tibetans. As Pico Iyer notes in his biography of the Dalai Lama, The Open Road, “One in five Tibetans—more than a million—died of starvation or in direct encounters with the Chinese. One in 10 was jailed; all but 13 of the more than 6,000 monasteries in Tibet were leveled.”

While he has tirelessly engaged in efforts on behalf of Tibet’s autonomy, His Holiness recently abdicated his political role as his people’s temporal leader (Waldron noted that his traditional political authority lodged mostly in central Tibet, but that this abdication nonetheless changes “the religious polity of classical Tibet”). He remains active fostering Tibet’s monastic and cultural traditions in exile while calling for a “global ethics” that supersedes religion or culture to engage and develop what is common to all humans—kindness, responsibility, and compassion. Toward this end, he regularly hosts conferences in Dharamsala that pursue questions about cognitive science and meditation, Buddhist doctrine and quantum mechanics, and commonalities among religions. This self-described “simple Buddhist monk” doesn’t claim to have universal answers, and in fact, suggests that while Buddhism works for him, it may not be a good fit for others. As a quote from the Buddha displayed in the Dalai Lama’s home temple in Dharamsala says, “As one assays gold by rubbing, cutting, and melting, so examine well my words and accept them, but not because you respect me.”

Tickets to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama are now sold out. Live video feeds will be provided to both Dana Auditorium and the McCullough Social Space during both of his talks. Seating for these on-campus video viewing areas is free and open to the public, and is available on a first-come, first-served basis.

We will also be streaming the lectures live online. This link will be live a few minutes before the lectures begin: http://go.middlebury.edu/dlstream


A Wedding in Haiti (Audio)

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Listen to Julia Alvarez ’71 read from her latest book A Wedding in Haiti.

 

 

 


Cashing Out

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

So, it appears that the physical paper dollar, that crumpled, bacteria-ridden, piece of filth that resides in your pocket—along with all its grubby cousins, coins—will one day, perhaps one day soon (!), go the way of the wampum, the animal pelt, the tobacco leaf as a form of tradable currency. That’s what David Wolman ’96 would like you to believe, and after reading his fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable book The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers—and the Coming Cashless Society (Da Capo Press, 2012), I’m right there with him. Good riddance to the greenback, I say.

All I needed to know to come to this conclusion can be found in one sentence on page 28: “Traces of the bacteria staphylococcus have been detected on 94 percent of all U.S. dollar bills.” Never mind that, on the very next page, a friend of Wolman’s at the Centers for Disease Control essentially says that for people to become sick from dollar bills, they would need to be “sucking on banknotes or inserting them in their noses” to even put them at risk of becoming sick, to which I say, close enough. And indeed, Wolman joins me in being disgusted by food handlers who take a sweat-stained dollar from someone and then use the same contaminated fingers to drop a lemon into someone else’s drink. Gross, right?

Wolman’s case for the end of money goes far beyond the ick factor, though. As he points out, there are all kinds of reasons to get rid of cash. It’s the currency of crime, for one (think: robbery, counterfeiting, and drug dealing); it’s insanely expensive—and we’re not just talking about what it costs to actually make the currency but the cost of inefficiency associated with cash and cash transactions (or non-transactions); and it’s dangerous for reasons we don’t often think about (eco-costs, for example).

Throughout the book, Wolman finds fascinating characters to shed light on the inadequacies and toxicity of cash, and he spends just as much time talking about what will (and should) replace cash in the coming years.

Wolman is a contributing editor at Wired magazine, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find him spending a fair amount of time addressing the number of digital alternatives—and their inventors, champions, and pioneers—to cash transactions. (Some seem a little screwy to me, but others induce that familiar feeling of “of course,” followed by “why didn’t I think of that?”)

The most fun, though, might be the vicarious thrill of tagging along on Wolman’s Plimpton-esque journey of going cashless, himself, for a year. I won’t spoil anything, but there are some humorous moments where the rule of the given realm is still cash money.

I should acknowledge that David Wolman is a friend of mine. We’ve published his writing in this magazine, and I’ve been an avid reader and champion of not only his magazine journalism but also his previous books (A Left-Hand Turn around the World and Righting the Mother Tongue). Yet all these connections aside, The End of Money is just the type of book that curious readers, like me, would naturally gravitate toward. And I wasn’t disappointed.

You won’t be, either.

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Fans of Eudora Welty, who died in 2001, will joyfully immerse themselves in yet another aspect of the much-loved and complex author, and lovers of gardens will discover a kindred spirit (or three) within One Writer’s Garden: Eudora Welty’s Home Place (University Press of Mississippi, 2011), by Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown ’75.

Playing off the title of another Welty favorite—One Writer’s Beginnings, her 1984 memoir in which she chronicled her life along with some instruction on how to write—Haltom and Brown have delivered an equally evocative narrative of a family garden, a fading Southern culture, and a span of time and history from the 1920s to postwar America.

For those who know Welty’s work, 1119 Pinehurst Street in Jackson, Mississippi, is as familiar an address as one’s childhood home. It was from here, after all, that she wrote so many of the stories that have earned a lasting place among modern short stories. But this beautiful book unearths a different and deeply rich glance into the Welty home that many have not seen before.

Haltom first became engaged in the project as a local gardener in Jackson, when she approached the aging Welty with an interest in revitalizing the family garden. The Welty home and surrounding gardens had been a celebrated centerpiece at the hands of a younger Eudora and her mother, Chestina, who had designed the original garden in 1925. Tended with care by Eudora for decades after that, it had fallen into disarray in her later years. With Haltom’s help, she began to re-imagine the once vibrant sanctuary, recalling the flowers and plants that had flourished under her mother’s hands.

Private papers released a few years after Welty died in 2001 affirmed that the garden had indeed offered both solace and inspiration for her. Haltom and Brown have included several writings that were previously unpublished, including literary passages and excerpts from her private correspondence. They highlight not only the connections to Welty and her writing, but also to the time period in which she lived. Divided into four parts, the book covers the gardening seasons and also illuminates four decades of radically evolving Southern culture—from the 1920s to the postwar 1950s. Through Haltom and Brown’s writing, we see the role of garden clubs and yardmen as social norms, and the way gardens were upheld as the ideal antidote to all that could possibly fail one—the healing quality of combining work and introspection. The writing is colorfully interspersed with handwritten notes, garden maps, local advertisements, and plenty of photos—both historical and contemporary. Appendices tucked into the back include wonderfully cataloged information, such as planting lists over the decades, a breakdown of roses and annuals, a partial list of plant names that occur in Welty’s works, and even a discussion guide for book club goers.

Those familiar with Welty’s writing will remember how she often included images of Southern flora in her writing—“The Worn Path,” and “Flower for Marjorie”  are but a few—and the authors of this book help draw those connections, giving one a better understanding of the role that flowers and gardens play in her works. One passage reads as follows:

References to flowers and gardens colored her fiction and correspondence. Their consistent presence in her writing reveals that the flower garden lay at the heart of her inner world, sustaining her creativity and stirring her imagination.

Complementing the authors’ well-tended prose is a rich collection of full-page images by noted landscape photographer Langdon Clay, who captured the revitalized garden at all its current seasonal highpoints.

This is truly a book to be relished over time and enjoyed for many years to come. The pages are silky smooth; even the type is carefully laid out. The heft of the book itself encourages long leisurely reading by a sunlit window.
—Blair Kloman, MA English ’94

 


Lessons from Liberia

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Eight months and 3,000 miles southeast of my final game in Middlebury’s Pepin Gymnasium, I stand on the sidelines of a different court. With my eyes closed, they sound almost identical: shoes squeak, shots echo off the rim, players grunt, whistles trill.

But in the middle of Liberia’s capital city, only a few blocks from where Charles Taylor oversaw an unfathomable reign of terror, it’s strange to consider that a game like basketball could exist, much less flourish.

To an outsider, “flourish” may seem like an odd word choice. There is no roof on this gym. Garbage and sewage are swept into gutters on the sidelines, and paint peels off the concrete floor and wooden backboards.

Yet three times a week for the two hours before dark, the LPRC Oilers—a team in the Liberia Basketball Association—get to forget about life beyond the end lines and a community struggling to heal deep wounds, and they become enveloped in the coalescent and transitory power of basketball. I am their assistant coach.

On this day, the final practice before the beginning of the LBA’s Championship series, I recognize the quiet, focused energy of athletes on the verge, an intensity I lived for during my time playing basketball at Middlebury. It’s unnerving to feel it with another team, and in this environment, a bit out of place. But as incongruous as the feeling is, it is equally reaffirming—a testament that basketball isn’t about cameras, fans, or rankings, but about the guy next to you.

And the Oilers understand this better, perhaps, than any team I’ve ever seen.  Growing up amid some of the cruelest conditions on the planet, basketball represents something special to these athletes. For them, the game offers an escape from their common experience. Their wins are tangible evidence of the power of dedication, and their championship run an immutable statement to teamwork. While basketball is woven into my life, inseparable from everything else, for this team the game is discrete. It provides an alternative to a jaded reality that has been consistently marred by senseless violence. As Liberia looks to redefine itself as a functioning democracy and a model for post-conflict societies, smaller communities are increasingly important.

Paradigm shifts begin at the bottom, and this team is a shining example. And their example is spreading. For our final games of the season, LPRC’s local refinery has arranged for buses to ferry workers to the games. In an environment with precious little to root for, the Oilers have inspired a community.

Liberians still have a long, difficult road ahead of them: in my three months as an assistant coach, I have witnessed bribery, extortion, vandalism, ineptitude, and corruption; I have seen brawls break out over bad calls and games delayed by monsoon rains. But the attitude of the Oilers—their determination and teamwork—provide exactly the right place to start.  In so many ways, my experience in Liberia has been nothing like my experience with the placid dependability of Middlebury. But in important ways, it has been—you just need to close your eyes, shift your focus, and appreciate that the power of basketball knows no borders.

Andrew Locke was a tri-captain of the 2010-2011 Middlebury College basketball team.


Academy Honors

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For over 200 years the American Academy of Arts & Sciences has been electing leading “thinkers and doers,” from George Washington to Albert Einstein. Recently the Academy announced its 2012 class and among those honored is volcanologist Katharine Cashman ’76, the Philip H. Knight Distinguished Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Oregon.

Cashman’s research over the years has led to great insight into what triggers volcanic eruptions and has helped to predict those events. With a two-year Fulbright scholarship in New Zealand, where she earned a master’s in geology from Victoria University, and a doctorate from Johns Hopkins, she has spent her career researching volcanic hot spots on all seven continents. But her love for geology began at Middlebury. “I wouldn’t be a geologist if I hadn’t gone to Middlebury. First and foremost in terms of inspiration was Professor Peter Coney. From the very start, he treated all of his students as peers and professionals and truly challenged us to think for ourselves. Although sometimes frustrating, it was also exhilarating to be handed a problem and then have to figure it out.”

Another professor helped further Cashman’s interest in the study of volcanoes. David Folger, who had left Middlebury to work in Wood’s Hole, Mass., hired her as a research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey in 1979. He then encouraged her in a transfer to the Cascades Volcano Observatory after the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State. Although she had studied active volcanoes in Antarctica, this was a turning point for her. She arrived at Mount St. Helens just months after the eruption. “The opportunity to work with the USGS team at Mount St. Helens convinced me that this was the direction that I wanted to pursue—I love studying geologic processes that happen on human time scales and that affect human populations because it means that I can indulge my love of solving scientific puzzles with the feeling that maybe something I do will ultimately help to reduce volcanic risk.”

Her impressive body of work has done that and more. And her accomplishments caught the attention of the Academy of Arts & Sciences. While normally Cashman would have gotten the notification of her election while at the University of Oregon, she is spending a three-year leave at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom as an AXA research chair and professor of volcanology. (AXA is a French insurance company that has recently started sponsoring research into environmental hazards.) So she received word she’d been chosen as a Fellow by the University of Oregon communications director. She says she felt “stunned” by the news—but obviously honored.

“It’s very humbling to be joining an honor society that includes so many people in my field, who I’ve looked up to all my career. The fact that my ‘class’ includes people like Hillary Clinton, Judy Woodruff, Andre Previn, Clint Eastwood, and Paul McCartney just seems surreal!”

As for opportunities that may open up for her, it’s too early to tell. But the Academy is also a leading center for independent policy research. For now, Cashman says, the announcement has led to some enjoyable personal benefits. “It reached several of my high school friends, from whom I’ve received a flood of e-mail. It’s been fun to reconnect with them after so many years.”

Kathy Cashman, along with sisters Susan ’72 and Patricia ’72, received an honorary doctor of science from Middlebury in 2008.