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Civility, Please

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

tolerance finalOn the afternoon of September 11, 2013, a Middlebury student and four acquaintances, who are not enrolled at the College, removed 2,977 American flags that had been placed in the lawn in front of Mead Chapel by members of a pair of student groups—the Middlebury College Republicans and Middlebury College Democrats.

The flags were set as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the 9/11 terror attacks, and the act of vandalism left many in the community shocked, angry, hurt, and confused. The student who helped uproot the flags said she found the display offensive to Native Americans and believed the area on which they had been placed had once been an Abenaki burial ground (a claim a local Abenaki chief disputed).

In the days that followed, media attention—mainstream and social—prompted an outpouring of commentary, which included threats and vitriol directed at individuals and the College itself.

In the wake of these events, we sat down with President Liebowitz to talk about civility, responsible discourse, and community standards.

In your e-mail to the community after the incident on campus you made a specific point of stating that as an academic community it’s incumbent upon us to encounter difficult issues, but that doesn’t mean that civility goes out the window when you do so, which is what happened.  
Right. We cherish freedom of speech, but it can’t be at the expense of silencing others. And in this case, we had people who felt very strongly about something, and whether or not we agree with it, it’s their right to voice it. But they can’t voice it by silencing others, by being destructive, and that’s what they did when they forcefully removed the flags.

Civility is a must. We’re an academic institution, and so we don’t only teach facts. We also teach how to argue, how to debate, how to engage, how to learn. And being civil is a key part of doing all of these things.

It seems that when the degree of passion rises, civility starts to slip. Not always, but often.
I think the larger political environment is really in some ways the genesis or the driver of what you’re talking about. If we become less civil on this campus, it’s a reflection of, or it’s an inability to stay removed from, the vitriol that one sees in current national politics.

I mean, I don’t remember this ever—I’ve been a political junkie for a long time, and I can’t recall this level of vitriol. I believe in some ways that models behavior for some individuals, and it only takes one person at one point in time to create this feeling.

There’s a paradox here too, and that is the fact that within this community, we’re overly polite towards one another most times. We’ll have less rigorous and vigorous debate and discussion than one might find, say, if they were in Morningside Heights or in Cambridge. So things can get bottled up, and then when emotions do boil over, people don’t always know how to disagree.
So it’s a combination of things, but I think the bigger issue for us is that Middlebury in some ways is a reflection of a larger political environment that isn’t always pretty.

One of the things that happened in response to this was a flood of vitriolic commentary. Not to excuse the original act, but at the same time, nothing warrants threats against one’s life.
No, it’s terrible. I myself received hundreds of e-mails, literally hundreds of e-mails, and some of them were beyond imagination in terms of the anger, the vitriol, the hatred. The Campus editors told me they got these commentaries in comments on their blog as well. I think many of those writing were not a part of this community, but some of them were.

But let’s not forget what was done here and on what day. September 11 is still an emotional and significant event, and the impact of that day was felt—and continues to be felt—by many, many Americans. People were angry about the disrespect shown for the nearly 3,000 who perished in the attack, but the deep emotions extend far beyond that.They extend to all those who, on the account of that terrorist attack, went to two wars, many of them killed or injured. Their families, no doubt, would view what happened on our campus as unacceptable—not to mention the legal, but highly provocative desecration of the American flag. So the anger and harsh response, while itself very unfortunate, reflects the deep feelings held by so many. There are obviously other ways a protest can be done.

But I do think the tenor of the reaction is also linked to this polarizing political climate. Instead of debate, we mostly see and hear only the extreme views on both ends of the ideological spectrum.
When Bill O’Reilly talked about this incident on his show, The O’Reilly Factor, it was a terrible display of reporting. It was irresponsible and unnecessarily fueled the anger. The show’s producers obviously didn’t check facts with anyone familiar with what actually happened.

After the segment was over, I went upstairs and stopped at my computer. In the three minutes that it took me to close up downstairs and come upstairs, I had already received 18 e-mails, 18 e-mails from people who had watched The O’Reilly Factor, e-mails from Abilene, Texas; Salt Lake City, Utah; Chicago, Illinois—writing threatening comments that were largely uninformed. They took verbatim what they heard on the show from “reporter” Adam Carolla and from Bill O’Reilly. And it continued for several days.

And to answer your question, no, I don’t think such a response was warranted. Though again, I understand the anger and disgust at what happened. Certainly it’s disappointing to see any of them come from Middlebury students, but I would say the overwhelming majority came from outside the College.

But even the ones from Middlebury students point to something that you’ve talked about—close the laptop and go talk to somebody.

And don’t rely on a comment section or Twitter or—
Anonymous comments, anonymous comments.

Anonymous is even worse. But even when comments are attributable, go talk to someone. Why do you think folks are more likely to respond to a comment section than walk down the hall and talk to someone?
I think it’s just a reflection of how technology has made it so easy for people to comment.  It’s far easier to do something in a faceless way because you don’t have to face the response. Angelique Kidjo, in her Fulton lecture, made this point very, very strongly.  She told the students: “You must face the person with whom you have a disagreement.  In the end, you might not ever speak to that person again, but you can’t end a relationship—you can’t say, ‘I’m not going to speak to my friend for 10 years’ and not speak to them, you’ve got to talk it out.”

This message is a tough one for this generation, because this generation relies so much on, and has really grown up with, social media as the major source for interpersonal communication. So it’s a real challenge.

There were opportunities for students to talk about the flag issue at a series of forums with faculty members. But they were poorly attended, with the exception of maybe one.
I think two.

One or two.
There were, I believe, at least six sessions, and  the best-attended one had maybe 12 students, which is a nice size for such a discussion, but yes, overall attendance was less than what we thought it would be.

In the days after, I went up to Proctor, and I sat down at a table with students and tried to figure out why that was the case—why an incident that created angry debate did not lead to large gatherings to discuss it with faculty. I think by the time the open sessions rolled around—which didn’t take place until the following week for a whole host of reasons—people were formulating their own ideas, they were having so many discussions about this in the dining halls, in their dorms, in their classes,  that they were unsure about what the open sessions would be like. Or maybe it was our students’ already full schedules.

And there’s an interesting twist that students are talking about, which is to say, “What do you think President Liebowitz, what do you think the ultimate harm to the community has been as a result of this?” I pushed them to explain what they meant. At first I was thinking they were concerned that Middlebury’s reputation had been dragged through the mud. But no, they didn’t mean that at all.

What those in Proctor meant seemed to be much more nuanced. They said, “If, in the future, this act serves to silence people who want to speak out and have honest debate, it will have hurt us terribly.” And this was coming from people who largely disagreed, some passionately so, with the act this student committed. Students feared it would further shut down future conversations on important issues.

The strength of this institution is the ability to engage in debate and hear other people’s views and learn from them. And if this incident leads to even a subtle silencing of people to speak out and question the status quo or the prevailing thought, and question even the institution’s perspective on any and all issues, we will have really hurt the College and our students. They need to hear different viewpoints—we all do.  This incident cannot diminish people’s willingness to engage in difficult topics. If it does, then the College will have become a lesser environment for learning.

In the Queue: A Man’s World

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

realmanT Cooper ’94 has done an extraordinary thing. He has written a book about a subject that many people either find uncomfortable or uninteresting because it is so far removed from their own lives, and he has made it entertaining and consciousness expanding. Cooper’s latest book, Real Man Adventures, talks about the world of the transgender male, which is Cooper’s world. He takes us through his transition from female to male to the point today, where he is an adoring husband and stepfather to two children; he tells this story with humor and without dwelling on the intensely personal details that discussions of transgender sometimes do.

Reading Real Man Adventures is a little like eating  a smorgasbord. The dishes are all different and served in a variety of ways, and when sampled in small portions, they are fully satisfying. Cooper’s chapters are similarly set out for sampling—highly varied, short, and delectable. There are interviews, lists, letters, descriptions of dreams, snippets of conversations. In a brief interview with his wife, he asks her to list five ways that he is “typically male.” First on the list: he’s “self-involved.” An interview with an LA police officer, who transitioned from female to male, includes a discussion about the fact that the officer transitioned into “America’s most hated (a black male)” and Cooper transitioned into “America’s most loved (a white male).”

In one chapter, a transcript of a telephone conversation between Cooper and a State Department official shows a frustrated Cooper, who had been living as a man for years, desperately trying to change the gender on his passport: “All those guys in Iraq, getting their genitals blown off by IEDs, do you make them change their passport from M to F when they come home, because they don’t have penises anymore?” he finally asked, because the rule required him to prove that he’d had complete sexual reassignment surgery. On a similar bent, another chapter is devoted to a survey Cooper conducted of 31 men about whether they pee standing up or sitting down, and one chapter lists “40 successful men my stature or shorter.” Among them: Jon Stewart and Justin Bieber.

Having experienced life as both genders, he certainly can speak with authority about the differences. He claims that men have it better. Males earn more income, do not get sexually assaulted or beaten, and have more power and clout in general, he says. And all men are members of the “Man Club,” of which there are many benefits: “In Man Club, if you raise your voice and express anger about something, other members of the club actually pay attention and often respond favorably.” And, “In Man Club, you really do talk about sports with strangers when at a loss for conversation.”

But, unfortunately, there is fear mixed in with the pleasure of being male, and these fears are also documented in Real Man Adventures, from incidents of transgender people being assaulted in public restrooms to being unmasked by airport body scanners. Cooper describes a nightmare in which he’s rushed to the hospital, bleeding, and the doctors and nurses are working feverishly to save him. As they cut away his pants, they discover he’s not what they expected, and the shock causes them to lose focus on saving his life.

Cooper wants people to understand that “I am happy and able to be myself in the world.” Although, he says, if he could ask for anything, he’d ask for a few more inches of height

Serene Velocity

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

TedPerry__BMA1564When Ted Perry first stepped foot on the Middlebury campus in 1978, having been lured away from the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where he held the lofty title of director of film, he discovered a college that had no film courses in its curriculum; it had no film equipment; it did not have a professional screening facility.

Now, look at that photograph on this page, an image captured by one of Ted’s former students. Look at that impish half grin; look at how Ted smiles as much with his eyes as with his mouth. It’s not hard to imagine him looking that way when he arrived at Middlebury 35 years ago, seeing a blank canvas stretched out before him. He surely delighted in imagining what could be, just as we can express a measure of delight in recognizing what has been.

Ted has worn many titles—too many to mention here, at least in any way that gives them proper weight—and has taught an array of bright students at Middlebury and elsewhere (Iowa, Texas, NYU), yet what has remained constant is a state of what colleague and friend Stephen Donadio has described as “serene velocity,” (which is also the title of a film that Ted has long admired).

This is what set Ted apart in the classroom—and as a scholar, as a teacher, and in the world of film, where he is held in such high regard. No doubt this state of serene velocity will accompany Ted into retirement, as he turns his attention and that impish smile to further avenues of exploration that await his attention.

A recent Sunday tested that theory. An overcast afternoon found Ted in Otter Creek Bakery with one of his grandsons, 10-year-old Sutton. As the young boy quietly enjoyed a giant chocolate cookie, Ted softly greeted other customers (a neighbor, a former chair of the Middlebury Board of Trustees). How serene (!).

“What a nice way to spend the afternoon,” a friend remarked.

“We’re about to go clean the third floor of the house, then we’re going to unpack and shelve my books. After that, we’re going swimming,” Ted replied, as casually as one would ask for a pack of sugar. “Now, when are we going canoeing in the Adirondacks…?”

Inside Out

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

PrintWhen you approach New York’s Bellevue Hospital on 1st Avenue and 26th Street, its magnificent gated fence looms above. Enclosing the original redbrick structure, it stands tall and spiked, constructed from wrought iron and coated in black. Menacing yet strikingly beautiful, the main gate bears the simple words “Bellevue Hospital” in a font imbued with traces of an asylum. Separating interior from exterior, it speaks of a time long past. The imagination can only run wild with what lies beyond their craggy form.

Bellevue is a buzzword. It denotes “nuthouse,” and “loony bin.” It is referenced in countless films and books as the solution for the mad hatter traipsing through the house uttering nonsense. It is its own punch line.

Unbeknownst to many, however, it is also the oldest public hospital in the country and the training ground for many top American physicians; yet, its infamous moniker often conceals the care and compassion that happen inside.

During the past year, I have worked in Bellevue’s child and adolescent psychiatric inpatient unit, conducting trauma screens, in-take interviews, and assessment scales for various psychiatric disorders. Many of the children I screened were plagued by loneliness. They had slipped through the cracks and seemed lost to the world. They ran the gamut of personas and ranged in age from five to 17.

Some refused to speak; others could not stop talking. Some came from the foster-care system; others from the Upper East Side. Some hugged me; others spit in my face.

Several months ago, I attended the initial assessment of a 10-year-old boy from the Dominican Republic. Having the fewest credentials in the room, I pulled up a chair and sat in the back.

The boy had been adopted and entered the United States at the age of five. Prior to his adoption, he suffered from severe neglect and malnourishment. His mother had admitted him to Bellevue for disorganized thought patterns, increased mood swings, and overt aggression at school. When I entered the room, he sat facing the wall, crouched like a timid animal with eyes tight shut. It was hard to imagine that such a child a few days ago had put his fist through the window.

He was asked questions and answered few. When the boy was asked to recite his birthday, he said he didn’t know. How odd, I thought. With the other patients I had met, even the most damaged, all knew their birthday. Children love to tell you their birthday. They tell you their age down to the very last detail—eight and three-fourths, ten and a half, nine and a quarter. I had never met a child who could not recall his own birthday.

After the assessment, I was invited to meet with the physicians and discuss the diagnosis. I sat in the corner as each resident and medical-school student presented. Their diagnoses were elaborate, layered, and sophisticated beyond the little medical knowledge I had gained. The birthday episode was not mentioned. The attending physician nodded her head and said little. To my surprise, she asked me what I thought.

“I find it very odd that the boy doesn’t know his birthday,” I said.

The attending offered a small, knowing smile.

“Yes,” she replied, “it is quite unsettling.”

It was later discovered that the boy was mentally retarded. In accordance with the group’s original assessment, there were signs of comorbidity with bipolar-1 and generalized anxiety. However, the true culprit was more obvious: the boy didn’t know his birthday because his brain could not comprehend the concept.

I am at the bottom of a long ladder that points toward medicine. Sometimes I’m not even sure if I’ve made it onto the first step. However, I have discovered that my intuition—my ability to sense when something is awry—is perhaps on the right track. Sometimes the solution to the problem is simpler than we perceive. Often, the solution is in our capacity to listen.

Jessica Halper ’11 lives in New York City, where she is finishing her postbaccalaureate for medical school. She currently works as a research assistant on trauma and posttraumatic stress disorder studies at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Things That Happened, Things to Do — Week of April 15

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Our regular recap of goings on at the College and a look ahead to events on the horizon. As always, we hope to call your attention to items that captured ours and alert you to events that you won’t want to miss. If you have a news item that you think we’d be interested in, drop us a line at middmag@middlebury.edu.

  • Jay Parini weighed in at CNN.com on whether paper-grading software could replace the human, professorial version. The D.E. Axinn Professor of English and Creative Writing drew on his 40 years of teaching (and paper grading) to limn the difference.
  • With a Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action in the wings, Professor of Political Science Erik Bleich wrote in Atlantic.com that “A collective, nationwide effort by private institutions can transform the debate about affirmative action.”
  • Cold stone seats and leaden skies fit the occasion. On Tuesday, April 16, Middlebury joined 300 venues worldwide marking the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” with public readings.  The lunchtime audience sat in the wind at Gifford Amphitheatre as theatre professor Dana Yeaton first read the letter from the eight white Birmingham ministers who scolded that the freedom march was “unwise and untimely.” A tag team of 26 student and faculty readers then delivered the fruits of King’s mighty pen. Read the letter here.
  • The Spring Student Symposium kicks off Thursday evening with a keynote address by actor and alumna Cassidy Freeman ’05 and performances of all kinds. Friday is filled with visual art and architecture exhibits, oral presentations, and poster sessions. The range and sophistication of student work is mind-blowing. Plus it’s all very fun. The full schedule is here.
  • Boston Globe jazz critic Bob Blumenthal calls him “a jazz treasure.” Now a Middlebury resident, sax and trumpet master Miles Donahue will bring his quintet to the Town Hall Theater Friday evening. Everyone gets a free CD, too.
  • Earth Day is Tuesday, but since many Earthlings gotta work, the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op will host a party on Saturday from 12-3 pm at the store on Washington Street. Live music, a seed and seedling exchange, stuff for kids. Not to mention our planet’s signature contribution to the Milky Way—food.

Old Chapel: Language History

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

language dive finalIn higher education, language learning is synonymous with Middlebury. For nearly a century, the College has held unique status as an unquestioned leader in intensive, immersive, language instruction. We recently spoke to President Liebowitz about how this came to be, how language instruction at Middlebury has evolved, and where we are headed in the future.

How did this legacy begin?

We happened to have been the fortunate receptors of a bizarre idea in 1915, which was to replicate Germany at a time when the country was out of reach to individuals because of World War I. For about three years, a Vassar professor named Lilian Stroebe had been looking for a remote location in the United States where she could establish a school for learning German. She had very specific needs—which is why she had been looking for three years—that included the necessary infrastructure to house, feed, and instruct students, yet be situated in a place where there would be few, if any, distractions. Her plan was predicated on total learning immersion, where students would eat, sleep, live, and breathe German.

Poughkeepsie wouldn’t work; it was a bustling mill town at the time. So she searched. And in 1915, a colleague of hers was taking a train ride through the Champlain Valley and saw buildings under construction on a hilltop; a fellow passenger told her that she was looking at Middlebury College. This colleague had found Stroebe’s ideal location. Fortunately for us, Middlebury President John Thomas saw the wisdom in Stroebe’s idea and granted her the right to begin the Middlebury German School. Schools in French and Spanish followed soon after.

How was this received at the College?
Well, it challenged the status quo of what was going on at four-year liberal arts colleges, this idea of utilizing the campus during the summer for educational purposes. And a Vassar professor proposed it; so it wasn’t organic or homegrown. And, I believe there was a concern that it would dilute or minimize the role of the September to May academic program.

In any case, President Thomas and the board argued that it was worth the experiment. By embracing the notion of total language immersion and by establishing what was really a separate entity for older, post-baccalaureate students, which was open only during the summer months . . . you can reasonably say that this was one of the most important decisions in the history of the College. It launched the College’s “international” efforts and broadened Middlebury’s horizons in many ways.

Was it deliberate to enroll only older students?
Yes. At the beginning—and for several decades after—the Language Schools were populated almost entirely by students who were pursuing or going to pursue graduate degrees. And once the Schools were well established, by the time of Stephen Freeman’s tenure as vice president, oversight of the Language Schools was quite separate from the rest of the institution, even though we are a small college.

When Freeman was vice president (the 1940s), there were fewer than 1,000 students on this campus, yet the summer Language Schools enrolled more than 1,000 students during this period. This was a program that was set up for a different cohort of learners, with more than 90 percent of them pursuing master’s degrees.

Let’s talk about the fact that there is not a “Middlebury method”…
Right, but there is a Middlebury way: intensively immerse the student in the target language and culture; provide that student with the best teachers possible; have that student eat, sleep, and breathe the foreign language; provide a cocurricular program that reinforces the way you communicate; and reinforce it with the Language Pledge—every student signs it and thereby pledges to speak only the target language while in the program (24/7 for the entire session). The Language Pledge is the defining characteristic of language learning at Middlebury. It’s what has set us apart—it’s how we became established as language leaders.

What’s interesting about this approach is that it was a key component of Stroebe’s vision; it’s why she chose such a remote location as Middlebury. But during the first several decades, I’m not sure how much of a challenge the Pledge was because, remember, the learners were graduate students then. There was some proficiency in language among them all. Immersion was essential to learning, absolutely, but everyone coming to the Language Schools had some facility with the language they were studying when they arrived. This changed with the introduction of some older student “beginners” in some Schools, but the numbers were small. But that began to change.

By the time I spent my first year at the Russian School (more than 30 years ago), the Language Pledge was in full force and quite noticeable. I was taking beginning Russian, and I can tell you, it was brutal not being able to communicate easily. But there’s no better way to learn a language.

So when did this enrollment philosophy change?
It was a decisive choice in the 1970s, one that coincided with the advent and rise of study abroad for undergraduates. We had been running schools abroad, in language, for graduate students for years, beginning in Paris in 1949. But by the 1960s, a movement arose in undergraduate education that spending one’s junior year abroad was a good way to expand the horizons of our students. Since we had the schools in place to serve the graduate students enrolled in our Language Schools, it was logical to use those programs to serve undergraduates, too. But still, the philosophy was to commit our students to total language immersion. This means we had to better prepare these students; they would have to be able to speak the language at a certain level of proficiency when they went abroad, which, in turn, led to increased interest in undergraduate enrollment in the Language Schools. More than 150 Middlebury undergraduates now enroll in the Language Schools each summer, most before leaving for their intensive, immersive junior year or semester abroad.

Now, there was a fear among some at the Language Schools that undergraduates, specifically beginners, would change the immersion atmosphere and weaken the effectiveness of the Schools; that is, beginners would make total immersion impossible. But that proved not to be the case.

We now have 37 sites abroad, but one thing that hasn’t changed is full language immersion.
Right. One of our challenges in our study abroad philosophy is that students are expected to sign a Language Pledge when they go abroad to Middlebury schools. In most of our programs, they are immersed in the target language, learning among local students, native speakers. They’re not just taking a French class. They’re taking a history class, in French; politics, economics, art history, and so on, in French. On the one hand, that creates the ability for students to take so-called “content” courses in language. It’s so valuable to learn this way, and it is unusual, too.

But it’s excruciatingly difficult and challenging. You’re living in a new environment, and it takes a while to adjust, even if the best language teachers prepare you. It’s an eye-opening experience for most students and, I should add, potentially frustrating. So there are mixed emotions among our students about study abroad. It’s not what you see in the movies: junior-year abroad in Paris, enjoying the finer parts of French culture while still studying in English. Our approach is very challenging, but the rewards on many fronts are clear and often come later.

For some, the trade-off can be the enjoyment factor. We’re wrestling with this feedback we’re getting from our students. They typically attain a far greater degree of linguistic growth and competency than students in other programs, but a number of them, to be honest, will say that their time abroad is not as fun as others. And that’s something for us to wrestle with; kids want to have fun. Surprise! It’s a balancing act.

What about the impact of the Language Schools on the undergraduate curriculum? Japanese wasn’t taught until the Japanese School opened…
And Chinese, and Arabic, and Modern Hebrew. The evolution of the Language Schools and the selection of the new ones—starting with the opening of the Chinese School in 1966—mirror and reflect the demands coming out of the undergraduate College.

John Berninghausen, who built our undergraduate Chinese department and is now an emeritus professor, will tell you that the Language Schools brought excellence to many of our language departments. Our undergraduate language departments are among the best in the country because we’ve had a huge advantage of having decades of experience coming from the Language Schools to the undergraduate College. It has had a profound impact on the quality of our undergraduate language instruction.

So, where are we headed?
We need to continue to perfect and improve upon our pedagogy that deals with face-to-face instruction, plus develop online content, providing a viable hybrid approach to learning.
We’re very good at bricks-and-mortar teaching and learning; we’ve been doing it at a very high level for close to 100 years. We’re also developing our online capabilities—and within this, we’re finding that the demand for a hybrid approach is great. Face-to-face instruction combined with excellent online content that can be accessed anytime, anywhere.

Ten years from now, bricks and mortar will still be incredibly important and central to certain types of learning. But rich, authentic, high-quality, immersive, online content will be essential. There’s great demand from students who have gained a whole year in linguistic competency during an intensive summer language session to retain their proficiency. And unless you are going to immerse yourself in a country where the language is spoken, or return to the Language School, you will not find an equivalent academic environment than what quality online material can provide.

And then there is the hybrid approach. We will need to continue to develop pedagogies that embrace both in-person and online learning in a way that each complements the other. We can’t predict with any confidence how things will look more than a few years out. In the 1990s, the College engaged in creating multimedia content for language teaching in a broad, systematic way.  But technology was the inhibitor to innovation in pedagogy. Today, technology has evolved and advanced so greatly it no longer serves as the inhibitor, but is the facilitator of new approaches to learning. Yet, the current technology will evolve further, making online learning even more natural, appealing, and effective to students. We need to be prepared to take advantage of such changes if we wish to retain our leadership position in the teaching of language and culture and prepare our students for life beyond Middlebury.

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.”


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.


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.