For 72 hours in late January, a campus becomes consumed with the unusual.
Ten hooded figures crept across West Cemetery, the small graveyard along Route 30 and across from the Mahaney Center for the Arts. It was just before sunrise on a frigid January morning, and the only sounds were footsteps crunching through hard-packed snow. Marching in two parallel lines, the 10 carried between them a plank upon which a motionless figure rested. They arrived at a large stone mausoleum, setting down the plank and assembling around the body. One person knelt as if to perform rites and thrust into the air a limp, yellow figure.
Then a young women intoned, “We gather this day to sacrifice…SpongeBob.”
And in fact, the object is a stuffed SpongeBob SquarePants. As the yellow blob is held aloft, the group manages to chat several rounds of “SpongeBob, SpongeBob,” before breaking into laughter.
The second day of the Hunt has begun.
The Hunt is a three-day competition that many would likely call a scavenger hunt, except this search-and-discover mission is unlike most others.
Two Hunt masters compile 100-plus clues. (By rule, the masters are the leaders of the previous year’s winning team.) Hunt masters can task teams with anything from building a Rube Goldberg machine with no fewer than seven components (clue #85) to recording an interview with someone from the Class of 1975 (clue #78).
The first Hunt was held in January 2008 and arose from Middlebury’s Programs on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts (PCI). The year before, Ron Liebowitz and his wife, Jessica, had convened a working group of five faculty members to brainstorm extracurricular programming and a dedicated workspace that would facilitate creative problem solving and intellectual risk taking among students. The Middlebury president felts these traits were lacking—not just among the student body, but among 18–22 year olds more broadly. This committee—Daniel Scharstein, the late Ana Martínez-Lage, Noah Graham, Suzanne Gurland, and Antonia Losano—included professors in computer science, Spanish, physics, psychology, and English. And their ideas were as diverse as their disciplines.
“Ron believed that students had to be given more opportunity to be creative and stop doing everything that they were comfortable with,” explained Liz Robinson ’84, who has overseen PCI since its creation. “In high school, many students were perfect and had done everything really well, and Ron wanted them to take some risks and try some things they were interested in, whether they were going to fail or not.”
It was an hour before the 2015 Hunt would begin. Joy Wood ’17, captain of “Scott’s Tots,” stood before her assembled team. Nine people sat around a circular table, watching the clock and discussing strategy. Joy announced that her dorm room would serve as team headquarters for the next three days. It would be home to all the team’s video cameras and chargers, she said, as well as a base for video editing. Anyone interested in learning about basic video editing, she added, should come by later in the afternoon to sharpen their skills.
She explained how to access the team’s Google spreadsheet and made sure that everyone had the proper contact information to coordinate communications. When no one had any more questions, the nine team members stood and formed a queue behind a cardboard box at a neighboring table. Each person grabbed from it a blue sweatshirt—the de facto team uniform—and then left to take care of any last-minute preparations.
As it came closer to the 9:00 a.m. clue release, anticipation continued to build. Across campus, eight people—members of a different team—sat around a table while five stood behind seated members, peering over their shoulders. Five laptops were arrayed around the table, sharing space with three cameras, two external hard drives, a pocket camcorder, and a nest of chargers and cords. People continued refreshing their computers in anticipation of the Hunt clues being released.
“They’re up!” someone yelled.
Across campus, 12 other teams bunched around their own computers and smartphones, reading the same clues and preparing to dive into three days of competition.
“Seeing the clue list is like opening your Christmas presents,” said Angela Santee ’13, Brainerd CRA and five-year Hunt veteran. “But what makes our Hunt grounded in Middlebury are the efforts that the Hunt masters make to connect it to the community and talk about topics that are relevant to us.”
The clues makes evident why the Hunt is special. This year, the two Hunt masters—Kirk Horton ’17 and Melissa Surrette ’16—came up with 106. They started developing them last summer.
The clues are designed to encourage Middlebury students to solve problems they’d never find in a classroom, to create connections with other people and places, and to celebrate Middlebury’s institutional and student culture.
“The Hunt connects people,” said Liz Robinson. “Those cohorts become really close because they are together for those three days and they are so intense and competitive. There’s the connection there, but then there’s the connection to […] older alums, to the past and to people in the past, to their peers at our institution, and to people around the world.”
Per tradition, the Hunt masters develop clues that encourage participants to engage with professors, administrators, staff members, town residents, and each other. “The year we competed, we noticed that while the clues were a blast they also engaged with different parts of the community and the town,” said Horton. “So we made a conscious effort to include all of those aspects.”
The Hunt is at its best, said five-time participant Angela Santee, when the Hunt masters decide to really push the teams to see what they can do in three days.…“Because you just never know what people will pull off.”
Clue number eight: freestyle rap battle.
“We should charge you a fee, we’re gonna bask in glee, Monday night, you grovel before me!” Tom Dobrow ’16 rapped to a thumping bass line as his teammates cheered and his opponents looked on. “We’re going off the top of our head! The Hunt 2015 is life, and y’all are DEAD!”
To wild applause, Dobrow, in a purple Brainerd tank top, sunglasses, and a metallic green necklace, worked his way around Hepburn Lounge, adding the opposing teams’ names into his rhymes.
Some of these rappers were team members; others were friends willing to spit rhymes. Dobrow repped Trial by Combat, Santee’s squad, and he was among the dozen or so participating in this rap battle, which started around 10:30 p.m. on the Hunt’s opening day. All the furniture had been pushed to the room’s perimeter to give the rappers mobility—and they weren’t shy about using it. Rappers yet to perform were waiting for Dobrow to finish so they could take their turn. After everyone rapped to the first song—Ratatat’s “Loud Pipes”—they’d get a second shot with Eve’s “Let Me Blow Ya Mind.” None of the rappers knew which songs would play or wrote their raps down.
Members from the 13 different teams filled the lounge. During the competition, each team was allowed 10 official competitors, but could also use as many “contributors” as they needed—and plenty of students were willing to join in. “Everyone contribute[s] to different degrees—some people maybe in one video and other people may … just write one ode to a Battell bathtub—so it’s collective,” said Wood, the captain of Scott’s Tots.
Organizers believe a well-rounded team is necessary to win the Hunt. Some team captains recruit for specific skill sets, and competition for prized team members can become fierce.
“It’s really good to have a nice blend of talents,” Erika Sloan ’16 said. “Not everyone has to be artistic or musical or good at singing or shameless in public, you just need a good mix of all of those things.”
While important, team construction is only one part of Hunt strategy. Successful Hunt teams have highly organized systems of communication and coordination. Santee’s group used a Google Doc to coordinate completing different clues—a typical strategy. She had arranged the Google Doc—which team members updated constantly throughout the competition— to show the 106 clues, their point values, those members currently working on the clue, and any associated notes/tips about the clue others might find helpful. The spreadsheet was color-coded—challenges deemed impossible were tagged red, challenges underway tagged yellow, challenges completed were green, and challenges that required group participation were purple. As soon as Santee’s team successfully completed the rap battle, they changed the tag for clue eight, “Freestyle rap battle,” to green.
On the Hunt’s second day, and three hours after sacrificing SpongeBob at the mausoleum, two members of Trial by Combat were en route to Burlington to visit the Echo Lake Aquarium and Science Center. For the entire ride, they were balancing an egg on a spoon. The two were about to complete clue three (Roooooooaaadtrip!! To the Burlington Aquarium—six points; bonus points if you keep an egg on a spoon for the entire trip without breaking it). Pulling into the parking lot, they were careful not to dislodge the camera documenting the egg still balanced in the spoon. As the two walked into the aquarium’s lobby, a number of pedestrians turned and looked quizzically at the two guys bustling past them with an egg on a spoon, a giant poster, and a camera.
“For an individual participant, I think the shamelessness is a pretty big part of success,” said Erika Sloan. “A lot of the clues involve embarrassing yourself in public or doing silly things in public, so you really can’t be afraid of that kind of thing. Creativity is really important.”
Certainly many Hunt clues require students to shed their self-consciousness. “Civilians” walking around on campus who are not participating in the Hunt would likely be scratching their heads if they saw people licking strangers’ elbows or walking around clad in nothing but a banana peel—but for Hunt participants, it’s all part of the game.
The Hunt’s beauty isn’t in its competition, however, but in the collaboration it spurs. “On the one hand we can be isolated in Vermont, and this is a problem sometimes,” said President Liebowitz, explaining this rather unusual spirit of collaboration. “On the other hand, it is an incredible benefit to student culture that is unique even among residential liberal arts colleges. Students, during their four years here, are socialized into an unconscious understanding that they are going to rely on the 2,400 students on this campus for most of their cultural, social, and intellectual stimulation. Therefore, there is an unwritten rule about how kids here interact with one another—it’s less competitive, despite being such a high-pressure-packed academic institution. Within the student body, there is an incredible civility and also a collaborative, noncompetitive type of environment.”
A few members of the original Innovation Competition Committee—including Suzanne Gurland, an associate professor of psychology—had experience with academic scavenger hunts, which they thought could serve as models for Middlebury’s competition.
“I was a college student at the University of Chicago in the late ’80s and early ’90s and there was an annual scavenger hunt,” said Gurland. “One of the things that we all loved about it was the intellectual fun. Everyone was having a blast but it was also really challenging, hard questions.”
In fact, Chicago’s scavenger hunt—known to Chicago students as “Scav”—is the largest of its kind. Created in 1987, the competition began as a part of the university’s summer carnival and has since taken on a life of its own. Similar scavenger hunts exist at other schools. For instance, MIT has hosted its “Mystery Hunt” since 1981. While both of these competitions involve some lateral creativity, they heavily rely on engineering problems and puzzles that require what may be thought of as classroom knowledge for success.
At a meeting on August 8, 2007, Middlebury’s Innovation Competition Committee resolved to create a competition “different than many that we have heard about at other schools. Ours will be deliberately broad in scope as to reflect innovation in a liberal arts environment.” They decided upon the scavenger-hunt format and by September, a list of tentative names for the competition had already emerged: the J-term Chase, the Middlebury Mystery, and Mystbury were early top contenders. In January the committee had created a final product: the Hunt.
“I would wager that competitions at Chicago and Cornell take on a more cutthroat type of approach,” said President Liebowitz. “Competition for [our Hunt] is intense as well, but I know that the way that Middlebury students work together and the way that they ‘compete’ is a little bit different.”
It was early evening on the Hunt’s second day, and Melissa Surrette, a Hunt master, sat on her bed while two Hunt participants reenacted a scene from Fifty Shades of Grey. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t too explicit.) Crouching behind Melissa’s pullout closet in the corner, Kirk Horton, the other Hunt master, tried not to laugh too loudly.
The Trial by Combat members were trying to solve two clues. Clue one: a dramatic reading from Fifty Shades of Grey—three points. And Clue 93: on Fridays Surrette goes to bed at 8:00 p.m; come read a bedtime story to put her to sleep—five points.
Outside Surrette’s doorway, about 25 Hunt participants had lined up to regale her with their own bedtime tales. A mermaid was waiting, as was a guitarist and a group that had brought hot cocoa to sweeten the deal. Many team members knew Surrette prior to the Hunt and one girl, who was in a class with her, had taken a story they’d read together in class and modified it so she became part of the story. For another 40 minutes, Surrette sat in bed listening to bedtime tales. Horton, giving away his hiding spot by laughing, eventually moved to the other side of the room to enjoy the creative performances.
While Surrette and Horton successfully orchestrated the 2015 Hunt, not all Hunts have gone as smoothly. During the Hunt’s first year, members of its advertising committee put stickers all over doors and walls on campus—a campaign the College’s custodial team understandably found frustrating. Another year, a clue inadvertently encouraged teams to hack into the all-student email system. By 2010, student interest in the Hunt seemed to be on a terminal downswing.
“I was given the authority to support student initiatives and programs,” Robinson said. “But I couldn’t run them myself if there wasn’t interest. There were a couple years where the Hunt wasn’t as popular, and then in 2010 we didn’t have it.”
In 2011, after a winter without a Hunt, two seniors—Ben Wessel ’11 and Taryn Tilton ’11—approached Robinson, telling her they wanted to resurrect the competition. She happily complied.
Wessel and Tilton put in play several techniques to revitalize the competition and encourage broader participation. One method: encouraging more photo and video documentation—both to increase visibility and to enable students off-campus to participate.
Wessel and Tilton’s efforts were successful. That year, the Middlebury Campus published an article titled “The Hunt Comes Back With a Bang.” And since 2011, the Hunt has gone on every year, as has the practice of using technology in creative ways to make connections. In recent Hunts, social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram have become integral to the competition even when the Hunt masters don’t specifically include them in the clue list.
The 2015 Hunt was coming to a close. Horton and Surrette, standing onstage in Crossroads Café, asked the cheering crowd to hold their applause so they could announce the competition’s winner. All the Hunt participants—and more than a few of their friends—had arranged themselves around six round tables before the stage.
Many were still laughing, having just watched a video presentation of the most interesting and hilarious submissions (as chosen by the Hunt masters), and talking about their favorite clues. Everyone looked exhausted, as staying up all night the final evening of the competition has become a Hunt tradition.
“The first night I went to sleep at 4:00 a.m., and the second night I went to sleep at 6,” laughed Wood. “And the last night I obviously don’t sleep at all.”
“It’s exhausting,” said Sloan. “But it’s so much fun and it builds friendships to stay up all night like that doing ridiculous things.”
Friendships forged during the Hunt are often some of the strongest participants make at Middlebury.
“My freshman year when I did [the Hunt], those kids that I did it with became some of my best friends,” Wood said.
Angela Santee recalled how the Hunt shaped her relationships during her junior year, giving her and her friends a foundation for lifelong friendship and communication.
“As juniors—already divided in our social circles because half of everybody was abroad—we really bonded over those three days, and then afterwards we had so many great memories crammed into a 72-hour period that we could draw upon,” Santee said. “We still send each other things on Facebook when something reminds us of a clue, or we think it would make a great clue for a subsequent year.”
Surrette and Horton had already awarded the most enthusiastic male and most enthusiastic female (which went to Erika Sloan). Then they announced the third place team and followed by the second place.
Finally the time had come to announce the winner.
“And the winner is…Trial by Combat!”
Santee and her teammates were yelling before the Hunt masters had finished the end of the sentence.
“It’s not really about winning for me at this point,” Wood said after she and her team didn’t come out on top. “Middlebury says ‘we want you to go do this silly thing that will challenge you and make you cry and have the time of your life and make friends and be a better leader and do all of these ridiculous things.’ I think that’s pretty cool.”
Following three days of competition and months of planning, the 2015 Hunt was over. After congratulating everyone, Horton and Surrette packed up their equipment and walked out of Wilson Hall. Already they have next year’s Hunt masters in mind, and when the two members of Trial by Combat take over in a week or two, it will be time to prepare for Hunt 2016. After all, only 360 days remain until clue release.