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

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

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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.”

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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.

***

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