Tags » Featured Post

 
 
 

Under Pressure

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

courage_treeWeb

One year ago, in November 2013, following Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s sudden reversal on a pro-European treaty, thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets to protest his decision and, more generally, to demand greater democratic reforms for their country.

During the first few weeks of demonstrations—organized in great part by young people—inhabitants of Kiev brought sandwiches and other provisions to protesters. For four months, they braved extreme winter weather and, though they were unable to foresee the tragic challenges that lay ahead, they remained true to their vision of a renewed, democratic Ukraine.

In August, China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress announced electoral reforms for Hong Kong. Fearing the proposed changes might ultimately result in an imposed, preselected leader, students began to demonstrate in the city’s center.

In both these cases, not just students but people of all ages courageously put aside the demands of their daily lives to fight for something that, no matter how cynically it’s sometimes portrayed, remains remarkable in the human spirit: the desire to live without fear.

When we reflect on such courageous acts, sometimes it’s difficult to discern what comprises their extraordinary nature. Are we moved by stories of endurance, of people withstanding subzero temperatures? Or do we respond to the ability to persevere despite uncertainty?  Or the drive to “speak truth to power”?  The great Silver Age Russian poet Anna Akhmatova reflected on this matter for many years and suggested there were several elements that make up the complex faces of courage, daring, and fortitude.

In this edition of Middlebury Magazine, we find a wealth of these different elements, whether it be World War II veteran Frederick Kelly’s story of flying behind enemy lines to drop supplies to the French Resistance, or journalist Zaheena Rasheed’s return to the Maldives immediately following its 2012 political crisis, along with her resolve to uncover the circumstances surrounding a fellow reporter’s disappearance—this despite threats on her life.

Sometimes, though, courage can be less public and more intimate—but no less moving. Consider Daphne Perry’s unflinching battle with breast cancer, or Hannah Quinn’s hope to create a community that can address depression’s challenges. We also find here miraculous stories, including Chime Dolma’s account of leaving Tibet as a young girl. The Chinese authorities had accused her father of dissent, and she had to be transported out of the country in a box.

Based on her experience of dictatorship, Akhmatova came to believe that fortitude is one of courage’s most critical components. Many people can be daring, but to have fortitude requires an inner form of strength that sets it apart from daily life. The stories recounted here are all testimonies to this fortitude, and to the human capacity to endow with meaning those old but potent words that, despite their threadbare use, still move mountains: freedom and truth.

Run to the Roar

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

courageWeb

Around 300 or so years after the word courage first gained foothold in the lexicon (it was spelled corage in Middle English and curage in Old French), Milton wrote, in Paradise Lost, the words “courage never to submit or yield,” essentially establishing a definition that we are all familiar with: “that quality of mind which shows itself in facing danger without fear or shrinking; bravery, boldness, valour.”*

In our cover essay, the decorated international correspondent Ellen Hinsey beautifully writes about where courage comes from, explaining what makes a person courageous while asking all of us: what would you do if faced with similar circumstances?

On the following pages is a collection of essays, oral histories, and narratives—eight Middlebury voices, each serving as an example of unshrinking bravery, boldness, or valor in the face of danger or fear. For some, their stories relate courageous moments, stands, or a way of life. For others, courage is found in the very act of writing these essays, of expressing these feelings.

Within the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of courage, from around 1300, describes “the heart as the seat of feeling, thought, etc.” Chaucer wrote of courage this way. Later, Shakespeare did, too. As far as these eight Middlebury essays are concerned, courage defined this way works just as well.

*This, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Antoinette Rangel Is Having the Time of Her Life

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

RangelWeb

She knows it sounds excessively earnest, but Antoinette Rangel ’09 tells her colleagues, “It’s been a pleasure to serve the American people with you today!” every evening before leaving the White House. (And it does sound so like Aaron Sorkin that one can almost hear patriotic music swelling in the background as she walks and talks. But after talking to Rangel and her friends and colleagues it becomes clear that the enthusiasm is utterly genuine.)

As deputy director of Hispanic Media Outreach for the Obama administration, Rangel has served as a major point of contact during a year in which Hispanic media outlets have been especially keen to hear the president’s position on certain issues. The days before President Obama announced his executive action on immigration—which aims to protect more than four million undocumented immigrants—were the “kind of days you’re so busy you can hardly see straight; you forget to eat lunch; you’re moving a million miles an hour, fervently ticking items off a never-ending to-do list.” Rangel insists, however, she was smiling the entire time.

While tweeting from the White House’s bilingual Twitter account during the president’s speech on the executive action, she couldn’t help but think of all the work preceding that moment. In particular, one of the president’s lines stood out to her: “We were strangers once, too.”

“It was very powerful,” she writes in an email, “for the president to remind us all of what binds us together as a nation: a tradition of welcoming immigrants is the very fabric of who we are.”

Since creating jobs like Rangel’s, the administration says it’s seen broader coverage from Hispanic outlets, which not only report on the White House’s work on immigration, but also on health care, student loans, the minimum wage, and other topics. During previous administrations, Hispanic media was addressed under the larger banner of specialized media.  (Though this would’ve been a difficult tradition to keep, since Hispanic media outlets are proliferating, with more than 20 having been formed since 2000.)

Rangel says that within the White House, people have viewed the Hispanic media coverage of the executive actions as largely positive, although she acknowledges that this year immigration advocates have become impatient for the federal government to act. “It’s tough to be patient,” Rangel writes. “I know, as a Latina myself, how it impacts millions of lives daily.” Later she adds, “In my family, I’ve seen the impact of lack of education, opportunity, and access to health care—for me it isn’t just statistics on a page but people in my life whom I love.”

When Rangel first got her job in the Obama administration, one of her cousins asked something to the effect of “Oh, are you going to be the help?  And take care of the girls?”

That fueled her, she writes, saying it “reminds me how important being part of this administration is; because I think about my family and all the other young Latinas who might not think it’s possible to work in a place like the White House. And to them I say what the president says so often: dream big dreams.”

**

Rangel’s days rarely end when she leaves her White House desk. Most evenings after work she heads straight to class at Georgetown Law School, where she also serves as a transfer peer mentor. Rangel had been a law student at Northeastern, in Boston, when she took the job in the Obama administration’s communications office in 2010; now she’s catching up in night classes. She’s also in a gospel choir and twice a month works the night shift at a women’s homeless shelter in Northwest D.C. In what free time she had, she’d been training for the Marine Corps Marathon, which she completed in November while wearing a liberal amount of American flag apparel.

But Rangel revels in the frenetic pace of her days. In fact, when Univision profiled her as one of the 15 most influential Latinos or Latinas in the executive branch, she told them the one thing she’d change is the number of hours she has to work—that is, she’d like to be in the White House more. Apparently, the long days and the vow to be attached to her Blackberry and iPhone aren’t enough. “Even on the most tiring days,” she says, “the place still takes my breath away.”

**

When Rangel was a kid, she had a very typical list of dream jobs. She was intrigued by the elephant trainers she saw every year at the circus near her home in the Bronx. She considered becoming an actress or a singer. Once she got older, however, her ambitions grew.

She attended La Guardia High School, best known as the setting for the 1980 film Fame, hoping both for a good education and time to sing. Her English teacher Ed McCarthy says she didn’t voice any specific ambitions, but that she was “driven to do good.” Before graduating, she considered becoming a lawyer or running for political office, testing out the latter by serving as copresident of her senior class. Then, in 2005, she went to Middlebury as a Posse Scholar. At Middlebury, Posse students arrive early their first year, and Rangel was the first person to introduce herself to everyone. And she just kept going from there.

Rangel served all four years on the Community Council; she lived at the social house KDR.  She played rugby, sang jazz, attended weekly Posse meetings, and led a spring-break service trip to the Dominican Republic. She volunteered at a nursing home nearby, as well as with the Migrant Farmworkers Coalition. She was president of the College Democrats. She also worked on several political campaigns—the summer after she completed high school, she campaigned for Gifford Miller when he ran against Mayor Michael Bloomberg in NYC. As well, she did a summer stint for Hillary Clinton before the 2008 presidential primaries, telling the Middlebury Campus that fall, “I believe that Hillary has the experience to lead starting on day one.”

Ross Commons Dean Ann Hanson served with Rangel on Middlebury’s Community Council and recalls a time when Rangel was nearly speechless after running into Chief Justice John Roberts, who was on campus to give a lecture. Earlier, Rangel had sat at his table for lunch and later that day he said hello while passing her on the sidewalk.

“You’ll never believe it, Ann,” Hanson remembers Rangel saying, “but he knows my name!”

Murray Dry, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science, recollects that Rangel wanted to be a U.S. senator. He was skeptical about how feasible this career path was, but admired Rangel’s work ethic enough to entertain the idea. “She wasn’t the type of student who only takes courses she would easily succeed in,” Dry says. “She was not the top student, but worked incredibly hard. I admired that. Sticking with something, it’s not something you see in every student.”

Dry believes Rangel would make an excellent representative—a job she’s considered. In fact, she told at least one White House reporter that she hopes to one day join New York’s congressional delegation. And she’s spoken of similar ambitions to those close to her.

Julia Stevens, a childhood friend, remembers when they were in ninth grade Rangel saying she was going to be governor of New York someday. “I was in awe of her,” Stevens says. “I don’t know how she does it. I don’t think I’ll ever know.”

And Sheyenne Brown ’09, who was in Rangel’s Posse class, predicts that after Rangel graduates law school and is a “badass civil rights attorney” for awhile, she’ll “be the first woman or Hispanic president.” Brown continues, “I’d say she had been very clear about her political aspirations from the very beginning. If not explicitly, then in her demeanor.”

Rangel impresses those around her with her drive, her ambition, and her ability to accomplish a lot. Which means that her busy D.C. life must feel comforting: it’s the way she’s always led her life. If anything, her chief strategy seems to be amassing experiences until all obstacles are scared away in the face of brute busyness.

After ending her collegiate career as president of the Student Government Association, Rangel went to Northeastern, planning to apply for summer internships at the White House every summer until she was offered a job. She didn’t have long to wait. After her first year of law school, she landed an internship in the White House Office of Political Affairs. There she ran into an old friend, Josh Earnest, a deputy press secretary in the White House. (The two had worked together on a gubernatorial campaign in Florida in 2006.) That summer, they often had lunch together, and as Rangel was preparing to return to Boston to begin her second year of law school, Earnest suggested she apply for a full-time job as press wrangler. She said she couldn’t, that the timing was bad. But after spending the night thinking it over, she changed her mind.

“When I returned to planet Earth,” she says, “and realized I’d just been offered the opportunity to interview for a dream job, I emailed Josh at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning and said I was 150 percent in and that I’d do whatever it took to get the position.”

**

RANGELBRIEFING (1)

Official White House Photograph by Pete Souza

Most of her personal peanut gallery, the ones who have been placing odds on how far she’ll go, have been on White House tours. Rangel estimates she’s given hundreds—tours for her mom’s best friend’s third-grade class, for friends from home, for Middlebury professors. They comment on how balanced and healthy she looks, but don’t quite understand how that’s possible, given how much she’s doing.

“People call me turbo, or very type-A,” Rangel says. “It is very hard for me to sit still.” She adds, “I thrive off being busy and am definitely a workaholic.” It’s these qualities that make her an effective advocate for the causes that are important to her, says Josh Earnest, now the White House press secretary. “Her success stems from her tenacity and determination to fight for what she believes in.”

Perhaps, say some, Rangel’s ability to stay balanced comes from perspective, perspective that allows her to be serious about her work while never taking herself so seriously (a quality rarely seen in Washington).

When Sheyenne Brown met Rangel that first week at Middlebury, she remembers that the LaGuardia High graduate had been on a “mismatching kick where she wore these crazy clothes. I just knew it was because she was trying to be different.” Different from Middlebury, maybe, but perfectly in synch with who Rangel was—a new place wasn’t going to change that.  (Her freshman year, Rangel and her father made a cardboard Ben & Jerry’s pint for her Halloween costume—extending a family tradition of designing and constructing outlandish costumes—and several people at Middlebury remember it even today.)

It’s momentarily stunning to hear Brown describe Rangel as “one of the most obnoxious people I’d ever met,” though, to be honest, Brown’s sentiment is both understandable and endearing, especially when you hear her talk about it. (At the beginning of their freshman year, the two had driven to Vermont together, with Rangel playing “Chariot” by Gavin DeGraw on the car stereo repeatedly. “Sheyenne will never forgive me for playing that song,” she says.)

“I guess Ant kind of grew on me like a fungus, and I honestly say that with such love and gratefulness,” Brown says. “She pretty much forced her way into my heart, and I can’t even pinpoint when I started to adore her the way I do now.”

**

One White House tour in particular stands out for Rangel. When her sister Elia first saw the Oval Office, “the gravity of it hit her, and her face lit up with excitement and turned bright red.”

“It’s very exciting to share this place with others,” Rangel says. “Every day it feels surreal, like at some point someone will wake me from this incredible dream.”

Out of anyone else’s mouth, such sentiment would sound excessively earnest. But for Rangel, it just sounds . . . right.

Jaime Fuller ’11 writes for New York magazine. She previously covered politics at the Washington Post. As an editor with the Middlebury Campus, she covered the “Rangel Administration” of the College’s Student Government Association.

Laurie L. Patton Named Next President of Middlebury

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

IMG_9858_Laurie_Patton_horiz2_hirez

The Middlebury Board of Trustees today named Laurie L. Patton, dean of Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the Robert F. Durden Professor of Religion, as Middlebury’s next president. Patton will take office on July 1, 2015, succeeding Ronald D. Liebowitz, who has served as president since July 2004.

Patton, a distinguished religion scholar and translator of classic Indian Sanskrit texts, joined Duke in her current position in 2011. Trinity College is the largest of Duke’s undergraduate schools, with 5,200 students, 36 academic departments and programs, and 640 faculty members. It awards nearly 80 percent of the university’s bachelor degrees. As dean, she is responsible for overseeing the educational mission of Duke’s core undergraduate liberal arts programs, including curriculum, faculty hiring and development, student research, assessment, and the College’s $370 million annual budget. Under her leadership, Trinity College raised more than $300 million for professorships, financial aid, educational initiatives, and other priorities.

Patton’s selection followed an extensive, six-month search conducted by a 20-member search committee chaired by Middlebury trustee Allan Dragone Jr. ’78. The committee engaged in a process of broad outreach to students, faculty, staff, and alumni. From an initial list of more than 250 individuals nominated or put under consideration, the committee gradually narrowed the pool to a dozen and then to a small list of finalists, before unanimously recommending Patton to the full board on Tuesday. Patton will be the first woman to lead Middlebury in its 214-year history.

“I can’t imagine a place that more fully exemplifies my interests and commitments to higher education than Middlebury,” said Patton. “These last five months have been a wonderful experience for me as I have had the opportunity to learn more about this great institution and the values it holds dear. I have so many people to thank, starting with the search committee and Al Dragone, and I am truly honored with the confidence the Board of Trustees has shown in me today. I look forward with anticipation to joining this community of faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents, and friends.”

Marna C. Whittington, chair of the Middlebury Board of Trustees, called Patton an “outstanding choice” to be the next president. “Laurie is an accomplished scholar with a deep commitment to the liberal arts and a global perspective on the value and role of education,” said Whittington. “She lives the values of Middlebury, and I am confident she will provide the leadership and innovative thinking required to maintain the positive momentum and success Middlebury has experienced during Ron Liebowitz’s tenure as president.”

Patton, 53, is married to Shalom Goldman, professor of religious studies and Middle Eastern studies at Duke. The two met at Emory University. Goldman will become a tenured professor in the Department of Religion at Middlebury College.

Dragone, who led the search process and spent many hours with Patton in recent months, said the search committee was deeply impressed. “Laurie combines qualities of scholarship and leadership to an extraordinary degree,” said Dragone. “She is enthusiastic and passionate about students and the totality of their experiences, from the classroom to the lab, from the performance space to the playing field, from the time they spend abroad to the way they can participate in the life of the Middlebury community in Vermont. We have found an exceptional leader in Laurie Patton and I know she is committed to building upon the institution’s strong foundation.”

Patton earned her undergraduate degree in comparative religion and Celtic languages and literatures from Harvard University in 1983. She received an MA from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 1986 and her PhD in history of religions from the University of Chicago in 1991. Patton’s first teaching position was at Bard College from 1991 to 1996.

Before she joined Duke, Patton taught from 1996 to 2011 at Emory University in Atlanta, where she was the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Religions. While at Emory, Patton served as chair of the religion department from 2000 to 2007; founded and co-convened the Religions and the Human Spirit Strategic Plan; was the inaugural director of the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence; and from 2000 to 2010 was founder and co-convener of Emory’s Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding Initiative. In 2005 she received the Emory Williams Award, the university’s most prestigious teaching honor.

Patton is the editor or author of nine scholarly books on South Asian history, culture, and religion, includingMyth as Argument: The Brhaddevata as Canonical Commentary; Bringing the Gods to Mind: Mantra and Ritual in Early Indian Sacrifice;and Jewels of Authority: Women and Text in the Hindu Tradition. From 2008 to 2011, she served as president of the American Society for the Study of Religion.

In addition to writing two volumes of original poetry, Patton has translated the classical Sanskrit text, The Bhagavad Gita, for the Penguin Classics Series.

“Laurie Patton’s commitment to the success of students and faculty has made her an extraordinary leader at Duke,” said Duke Provost Sally Kornbluth, the James B. Duke Professor of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology. “She is energetic, creative, and passionate about scholarship and learning. We could not be more proud of her appointment at Middlebury.”

Liebowitz announced in December 2013 that he wished to step down following the 2014–15 academic year. By that time he will have served as president for 11 years and as a member of the Middlebury faculty for 31 years.

“Ron Liebowitz has been a transformative leader and his impact upon this institution will be felt for generations,” said Whittington. “Middlebury students have a richer experience than ever before because of the innovations he championed, and the institution is stronger than it has ever been.”

Liebowitz called Patton a “remarkable scholar whose deep commitment to her field would be an example and inspiration” to students and faculty alike. “I look forward to working with Laurie in the months ahead to create a smooth transition to what I am sure will be an outstanding presidency,” he said. “Jessica and I look forward to welcoming both Laurie and Shalom to Middlebury.”

Wild Moose Chase

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

MooseWeb

In search of Vermont’s most mysterious creature

I tumbled headlong down the hillside once, twice, three times before landing in a heap of snow beside Ky Koitzsch, a wildlife biologist from in Waitsfield, Vermont and also my guide as we trekked along a remote ridgeline in the Green Mountains, east of Granville, Vermont, in search of moose.

“The avalanche method,” I explained, as I struggled to extract my splayed cross-country skis from nearly three feet of powder. “It works almost as well as skiing when the hill is this steep.”

After untangling my limbs, I reattached my skis. Ky waited all of five seconds before setting out again along the moose tracks, not noticing the difficulty with which I was clambering after him. He had eyes only for the hoof prints that curved out before us, disappearing into a dense thicket of decapitated firs.

“Tracks!” called Ky from twenty yards ahead. “Here are our first moose tracks.” He pointed into the snow with his pole. “They’re not fresh—probably two days old or so, judging by the amount of snow that’s blown into them.” The tracks were widely spaced and diagonally staggered.

He then skied a few yards and, leaning over, put his head a few inches from an indentation in the snow.

“Here’s a good one!” He drew me to his side with an animated hand gesture. “You see how this side is deeper?” He didn’t give me a chance to respond. “You can tell the direction the moose is traveling based on the uneven depth of the print. When the moose walks, it puts most of its weight on the front of its hoof, just like we do. So the deeper side of the print with point in the direction the animal is moving.”

He rolled his balled fist through the snow, mimicking the movement of a moose on the hoof. “We’ll follow these for now. They should lead us to some fresher tracks.”

Our trek took us still higher into the Green Mountains and further from the national park access road that had deposited us into these snowy woods. Ky was confident that we’d find fresher tracks before the day was out—if not an actual moose.

“Come look at this, Conor,” Ky said without looking up from the trunk he was scrutinizing. “This is a great example of bark stripping. You can see marks from the moose’s teeth. Moose only have bottom incisors, so the scraping will always be angled upwards.”

I ran my hand along the grooved surface, thankful for the momentary respite from our energetic jaunt.

Other than tracks, trees display the most prominent signs of moose. During the winter months, moose in the Vermont woods rely on woody twigs for food, and evidence of moose munching on trees could be seen almost everywhere Ky and I turned. The tree Ky pointed to was a striped maple, one of the many varieties that moose will eat during the winter.

“The food moose eat in the summer is buried now,” Ky said. “Now, instead of greens like leaves and aquatic vegetation, the moose will browse on mostly woody twigs and bark. Around here, I find that during the winter, they eat mostly striped maple, balsam fir, hobblebush, and occasionally cherry and birch.”

Moose derives from the Algonquin word “moz”—meaning “twig eater.” And moose certainly live up to their name. The animals consume staggering amounts of vegetation. A typical moose will eat sixty pounds of vegetation in a day. All of which is digested in a moose’s massive, four-chambered stomach.

We stopped in a meadow about thirty yards away from a striped maple tree that a hungry moose had stripped of its bark.

“These,” he said, gesturing to the meadow of firs surrounding us, “have been chowed! Notice that none of these firs are more than five feet tall—moose stunt their growth by coming back and eating here for multiple years.”

“Do you think they’re fresh?” I asked.

He ripped a branch off the closest fir tree. “Look at this,” he said, handing me the branch.

I glanced at it, then back at him. I could tell the end had been chewed off, but didn’t know what else I was looking for.

“Notice the color of the bark,” he told me. “You can tell from the brown color of the inner wood that this moose passed through at least two days ago. If this bite had been taken any more recently, the inner wood would still be yellow or even green.”

We moved through several meadows that had been trampled by browsing moose. Ky followed one pair of tracks for a little bit before picking up a new one—and then a newer one.

“Ah, here we go. Check this out. You can tell this is a moose rub based on the height.”

I studied the patch of trunk he was discussing. Starting at about three feet off the ground (and then spanning another four or so feet) the tree’s bark had been rubbed away, leaving stringy bits of wood hanging at the top and bottom edges.

“This bark wasn’t eaten, it was rubbed off by the moose’s antlers. You could tell that the bark on that striped maple we saw before had been eaten because of the incisor grooves and the clean edges,” Ky said. “But you can tell this fir was rubbed because there are no incisor grooves.”

He removed a glove, running his bare hand along the trunk. “See?” he said. “Totally smooth. Also, the edges of the bark are stringy and frayed when antlers rub them.”

“Keep your eye out,” he said.

As fast as we were moving, Ky reminded me that we couldn’t hope to match the speed of a moose travelling through the woods. I found it hard to imagine animals as large as moose moving swiftly through the labyrinth of brambles and fallen trees that were clawing us from all angles.

“Look at this!” Ky said, “This is great! A fresh moose bed—it can’t be much more than a few hours old!”

We stood before a rounded depression in the snow—a bowl a moose’s body had created. At its center was a heap of what looked like tiny chocolate eggs. A few inches beyond, it appeared someone had spilled a dozen highlighter markers. I couldn’t take my eyes off the fluorescent urine and the pile of droppings.

“Pick one up,” Ky said. “We’ll see how long ago the moose was here.”

I picked up a small piece of scat. It was an egg-shaped pellet, not much bigger than a marble.

“Is it warm?”

“No,” I said, squeezing the pellet. “It’s not frozen though.”

Ky picked up another pellet from the heap, rolling it between his fingers. It broke open like an Easter egg.

“Sawdust.” Ky showed me the digested bits of wood. “That’s really all it is. Now if we were looking at coyote scat—or any other carnivore, for that matter—it might have been uglier. This is basically just cellulose.”

We started following these new tracks, which Ky estimated were made about an hour earlier.

“I’ll bet she heard us,” he whispered. “We can’t be far behind her now. As we ski, try to be as quiet as you can.”

We spent ten minutes in vigorous pursuit. The tracks reached an open meadow and pivoted sharply, turning uphill. Then they turned back downhill. Or were they a different set of tracks? I slowed down, unsure.

“It looks like she went higher up into the mountains,” Ky said, pausing. “I’m thinking we should probably head back. We’ve had this cow moving pretty fast for awhile now, and she’ll already be pretty warm in weather like this. We really ought to let her be. She’s probably struggling as it is.”

“Of course,” I said, trying not to sound disappointed.

 This essay is an abridged version of a longer story and video produced for the winter term course Writing the Adventure.

The Foreign Student

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

coatesweb

A journalist embarks on a voyage into the unknown.

I started studying French two years ago. I was 36, and it had dawned on me that there was something embarrassing about the fact that I was monolingual. Perhaps this was about class, as I had gone from my working-class Baltimore roots to the literary world of New York. Perhaps it was about New York itself, where in a 30-minute subway ride you can easily hear five different people speaking five different languages. Perhaps it was my wife, who’d fallen in love with Paris and demanded that I visit, sure that I would fall in love, too. Or perhaps it was just me, feeling a little too settled and looking for something radical to shake up the routine. I had no idea how radical the experience would actually be.

The thing about studying a foreign language is that it really is a foreign language, which is to say that it’s a dizzying array of words to be memorized, rules for how those words should be assembled, and customs for when those assembled words should be deployed. And those customs sometimes bend back on themselves—the polite form of a personal pronoun can be both self-deprecating and threatening. You have to recognize the context. This is the reason why I speak of the process of “studying” French and not the impossibility of “learning” it. I am a native English speaker and a writer. A large part of the joy of my vocation comes from understanding that it’s impossible to “learn” the English language, if only because the language refuses to sit still. I acknowledge that the French tend to be more conservative in this regard, but the point still stands due to the sheer size of the language.

What I quickly learned was that saying I am going to “study” French was like saying I am going to sail to China. The language is so vast that one can, all at once, feel both great progress being made and a great distance still to go. Sailing from California to Hawaii is far and difficult to achieve; getting to China is farther—and harder—still.

I faced this dynamic several times this summer while studying French at Middlebury. The College’s 11 Language Schools are the gold standard for those seeking to go beyond their mother tongues.
Middlebury insists that you not speak your native language for the entirety of your stay, communicating solely in the language that you are studying. For me this meant seven weeks of all French; no English.

The effect of this was to turn every single encounter, large or small, into a mental Pilates class. This is true, not simply because of the difficulty of the language, but because of what that difficulty does to the ego. The kind of students attracted to the language tended to be people who were educated and smart. And yet to learn French, most of us were reduced to the mental equivalent of three-year-olds. The result was a constant mental exercise, not simply in recalling the language, but embracing the fact that whatever we might say would almost certainly be wrong. The onslaught was forceful and unremitting—the most basic requests became an exercise in one’s capacity to endure humiliation.

And I think this was Middlebury’s greatest reward, and also the greatest reward in studying another language. Many of us were from worlds where we were constantly complimented on our intelligence. But acquiring a foreign language—at least as an adult—requires you to part with all of those compliments and the assumptions you make about yourself. That is the place where true learning can occur, in that uncomfortable spot where your “smartness” cannot save you. I came to Middlebury to continue to study French. But what quickly became clear was that I was, in fact, studying how to study.

A Planet Without Apes

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

apeweb

Peter Walsh ’82 believes that wild gorillas and chimpanzees face ecological extinction unless we radically rethink conventional conservation strategies.

A deadly virus sweeps uncontrolled across Africa, leaving thousands dead. The scenario is now bleakly familiar, but this particular Ebola outbreak—in 2006—wasn’t nightly on our television screens, nor did it galvanize the international community. Why?  Because its victims weren’t humans, but gorillas.

The virus didn’t quite wipe out the western gorilla populations found in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and both the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. But diseases and poaching have left these animals in catastrophic decline, and the World Wildlife Fund has classed them as “critically endangered.”  The question becomes: how to save them?  Perhaps, says one expert, vaccinations are the answer.

The opinion isn’t popular, since conservationists have traditionally favored a more hands-off approach. However, Peter Walsh, lecturer in primate quantitative ecology at the University of Cambridge, is challenging the orthodoxy. “Some people in the primatology community hate me,” he says. “My criticisms are fairly blunt. But being popular is not my objective in life.”

Walsh knows about unconventionality. After graduating from Middlebury with a BA in history in 1982, he spent several years “bumming around.”  He drifted to California, cutting lawns and working as a busboy and in a shoe store. He took community college classes in basic math and science and realized his aptitude in these disciplines. And after seeing a job posting for a field assistant on a project studying prairie dogs in South Dakota, he applied, got the job, and was hooked. Now he advocates using rigorous scientific reasoning to gain insights into animal populations.

His work has led him to some of the world’s most distinguished universities—he received his PhD at Yale, was a group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, and currently lectures at Cambridge—and to the depths of the African jungle.

Today, Walsh is sitting in his Cambridge office, readying himself for his next trip to the Republic of Congo. “Ten hours in a 4×4 just to get to the site,” he says. Huge photographs of gorillas decorate his walls. On his office bookcase, he has a pygmy crossbow, complete with a quiver of black-tipped arrows.

Walsh was among the first to identify the threat Ebola poses to the gorilla population (and, by extension, the threat it poses to the humans who live near the animals and hunt them for meat).
Nature published his groundbreaking study, in which he identified Ebola as killing 5,000 gorillas. Now, eight years later, a new epidemic is causing havoc across West Africa.

At the time of this writing, the virus has killed 3,800 people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria—with another 8,000 confirmed or highly likely cases. Walsh believes we need bold thinking to save both humans and gorillas. It’s time, he says, to concentrate on what’s effective right here, right now.

He says the hands-off, “Garden of Eden”-style approach to saving gorillas hasn’t worked. “They are in precipitous decline. But primatologists say we can’t disrupt the balance of nature, that vaccines are the agents of the devil. That the gorillas would be so stressed out by the process of daring that their immune systems would be suppressed, or they’d freak out and kill people.

“Well, I can tell you one result of our captive gorilla study: they did not freak out. To get that study off the ground, I wrote to hundreds of people explaining that vaccination was not dangerous. I had to make rigorous scientific arguments to counter irrational, hysterical, emotional ones.”

This first-ever trial of a measles vaccine in habituated gorillas took Walsh years to set up. Funded by Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft, the study is being prepared for publication.

He also recently coauthored a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that examines the first Ebola vaccine trial on captive chimpanzees held at the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana. The study found the vaccine safe. But the National Institutes of Health, which runs the primate center, has decided to shut the center down, saying that chimpanzee research is now “largely unnecessary.”

Walsh, though, remains undaunted. He’s now looking to the private sector, which shares his willingness to take risks. Currently, he’s working with German philanthropist Sabine Plattner and prominent conservationist Magdalena Bermejo on a new project that uses telemetry to track western gorilla populations, which move far more quickly and further than their mountain gorilla cousins.

Now it takes up to five years to find a group of lowland gorillas and acclimate them to tolerating visitors. But if these populations, situated in the Republic of Congo, can be efficiently tracked and vaccinated against communicable human diseases, they can be habituated to tourists much more rapidly. Responsible tourism—run by businesses but advised by conservationists—will help locals find live gorillas more valuable than dead ones. And it’s this kind of project, Walsh says, that will save these animals.

But he believes the conservation establishment needs to wake up if gorillas are to survive beyond the 21st century. “Conservation has this learned-helplessness thing,” he says. “This is the way it’s always been. You’re not going to be able to change things. You can’t do that. I understand Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Steve Jobs now—and their thinking that if you want to do something, you should just go ahead and do it, shut your ears, and be willing to fail. Eventually, you’ll succeed.”