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Eating Well

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

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I’ve come to Vergennes Laundry in search of a tart, that exquisite strawberry verbena tart expertly captured on the cover of this magazine, but it is not to be. For the second time in two days, I’ve missed the Laundry’s celebrated creation, its availability on a given day dependent on the quality of strawberries from a limited number of local sources that morning.

Yet instead of the tart, here are the best croissants in Vermont, rich, flaky, crusty as anything from the Boul Mich or Saint-Cirq Lapopie, great rich loaves of pain au levain, cardamom buns, fresh radishes with chive butter, and fresh rhubarb popsicles. The effect is entirely deliberate and evocative of a country bakery in an old-time suburb in the Île de France. And here is the basis of all art—the mapping of one thing onto another and saying they are “like” each other. Vermont, in every way culinary and agricultural, has come to resemble Dordogne, Burgundy, Tuscany, and other celebrated regions like them in Italy, California, Mexico.

To even call Vermont’s local-food tradition a “movement” anymore is to deny its thriving presence for more than a generation, growing and deepening every minute. It’s so pervasive that it represents something almost Platonic about northern New England in its evocation of homegrown husbandry, thrift, work, and the poetry they give rise to. That’s probably because it overlaps with the previous hardscrabble era, when the only way to farm was organically and permaculturally.

As Wyatt Orme’s story (“The Art of Perfection”) and the rest of the food pieces in this issue demonstrate, Vergennes Laundry and its owner Julianne Jones ’07 epitomize everything about the College’s longtime commitment to fostering Vermont’s tradition of sustainable farming and food distribution. In the production, purchasing, and preparation of food, and in the study of local and sustainable agriculture, the College’s faculty, administration, and student body are united.

Every semester my nonfiction-writing students propose and write stories on local and regional food programs, including our own. Middlebury’s Organic Farm provides some of the seasonal produce served in the dining halls. The seven students of Middlebury Foods are making it easier for low-income Vermonters to pay the premiums that come with all this bounty, and Middlebury FoodWorks fosters internships for students in farming and food production in two locales: Louisville, Kentucky, and here in Vermont, including at Vergennes Laundry.

Other alums are digging in to the tradition at its earthiest level. A former student of mine, Geordie Lynd ’08, came from a family of organic dairy farmers in New Hampshire and as an undergraduate worked every semester at a farm on Munger Street. Now he operates his own organic dairy in Cabot, Vermont. Other alums are raising goats and cheese; grass-fed meats; or, like Suzanne Calhoun ’14, from Jericho, Vermont, value-added products like Suzanne’s Sweet Savories sauces.

It makes you imagine Middlebury and Vermont as existing in a cornucopian ideal of foison and plenty. Though obstacles still exist to growing regional markets, a way ahead seems clear. In Vermont and beyond, we can eat and live well and deliberately at the same time, as these students’ and alumni efforts attest.

Felix Against the Barbarians

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

felixI. K&R Man
This story is not about—not just about—the kidnapping and probable murder of our classmate, Felix Batista ’77. But to know his full story, we must start here.

On December 10, 2008, Felix was having an early dinner in Saltillo, capital of the Mexican state of Coahuila, about three hours south of the Texas border. Americans know Saltillo best for the traditional clay tiles it exports to high-end kitchen designers and interior decorators; but the biggest employers, General Motors and Chrysler, operate a pair of automobile assembly plants. They have made the region relatively prosperous, fostering the growth of an upper-middle class, stirring patronage in the better eating establishments, and creating a boom in another industry: hostage taking.

One of the town’s best restaurants, El Mesón Principal del Norte, specializes in spit-roasted meat. Felix had ordered the goat. An American citizen born in Cuba and based in Miami, he was a consultant whose work took him to Mexico at least 20 times a year. He was dining with three associates, speaking fluent Spanish—the sort of scene our world-friendly college likes to imagine—when one of his two cell phones rang. The call came from a friend named Pilar Valdez, head of security for the Saltillo Industrial Group. He was being held by Los Zetas, the most vicious drug cartel in a nation dominated by cartels.

While the Zetas and other Mexican gangs have grown rich from smuggling narcotics and marijuana into the United States, in the past decade or so, kidnapping has provided a growing alternative revenue stream. Almost half of all Mexicans say they have been affected by kidnapping—having been taken themselves, having had a relative or friend abducted, or having received scam calls saying a loved one is being held. Relatives of victims often receive a finger or an ear to hurry negotiations along. The kidnappers go where the money is, focusing on the nation’s business class.

Which is why Felix was in Mexico. A security expert, he had given a pair of lectures to local businessmen, telling them how to respond in the event of a kidnapping. Keep calm, he told them. Don’t offer too much money. Felix knew what he was talking about; he had been instrumental in the release of some 100 hostages, according to the Houston-based firm he worked with, ASI Global. A “response consultant” with more than two decades’ experience, Felix was at the top of a growing profession called K&R, kidnapping and ransom.

Soon after Pilar Valdez called him, the man’s son came into the restaurant and sat at another table. Felix talked to the young man, then left the restaurant briefly and returned looking shaken. After a visit to the bathroom to splash cold water on his face, Felix rejoined his dinner companions. He handed over his laptop, shoulder bag, and a cell phone—the one he used to call his family. “If I’m not back soon,” he said, “call these numbers.” He left a card with the contact information for ASI and for his wife, Lourdes. Then he stood out on the curb for half an hour.

Shortly after seven o’clock, two vehicles drove up. Pilar Valdez sat in one of them, a white Jeep Cherokee. He had been badly beaten. One of the men inside the SUV came out and put his arm around Felix. They talked briefly, and Felix got into the car. An hour later, Valdez was dropped off with a few pesos for transportation. Felix has not been seen since.

There is more to Felix’s story, entailing the usual corrupt officials, American diplomats, the FBI, the toxic outward flow of drugs to the States and the reverse flow of guns; Felix’s wife; their five grown children; his music and friendship and the scholarship in his name that reflects the best of the College.

But as you shall see, Felix himself provided the moral of the story. He once wrote to friends that his work in kidnapping and ransom was to fight “barbarism.” At a time when the purpose of the liberal arts is under challenge, Felix gives us an answer: a liberal education should nurture civilized souls like Felix Batista who can cross boundaries and carry a light into a barbarous world.

The New Storytellers: The Digital Revolution

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

tablet_Final_01I can easily explain the current nature of digital storytelling in the first paragraph of this essay. And if I do that, it will already be outdated and replaced by a newer style of digital storytelling by the time I get to the second paragraph.

I’ve been working as a journalist for the last 15 years, originally in documentary film and then in radio. In between, I went to graduate school with the notion that I wanted to be able to tell stories across media: print, video, or radio, depending on the story. I figured that the more ways I had to tell stories, the better my chances of making a living. I never thought technology, journalism, storytelling, and the Internet would converge to create such breakneck change.

When I started at the New York Times five years ago, I was charged with innovating on the Web. One of my first assignments was to record the sounds of toilets flushing at a children’s museum. Now we’re deep in digital storytelling, weaving text, audio, video, graphics, and photos, as we try to push the boundaries of storytelling.

At its core, digital storytelling hinges on a narrative; yet it’s often nonlinear, interactive, and invites audience participation. The last element is the most interesting to me. I recently returned from four days at the South by Southwest (SXSW) interactive festival in Austin, where I was speaking on a panel, “Sustainable Stories from Disposable Content,” about two Web series I produced over the past couple of years at the Times: One in 8 Million and Coming Out. Both of those projects built a community as the stories accumulated, and those audiences, in turn, helped to shape the projects.

On the panel, we explored how storytellers know who their community is and how to bring the community into the work. It’s important to identify who you’re telling stories to and for, which seems obvious but is essential. With the ability to collaborate and share online, a part of the storytelling process is about feedback, dialogue, and creating conversation. A sense of joint authorship exists. For this to be successful, it’s the journalist’s role to create the narrative framework so people will want to participate and will understand what contributions are meaningful.

As we push further with digital storytelling, whether it’s interactive documentaries, data visualization, gaming, or otherwise, this is a key question to answer: How can we invite participatory storytelling and keep the narrative clear, especially as we have more ways to tell stories?

Some people I met at SXSW are developing new interactive storytelling platforms; others, programs that allow newsrooms to add maps, graphics, audio, and video to an online story with ease. Programs such as these are answering to demands of journalism and the news—a fast-food version of what newsrooms like the Times spend months to execute, such as “Snow Fall,” a beautiful innovative multimedia story.

It is a bold and exciting future: one where we can explore new ways to tell stories, experiment with how to involve communities in that process, and work to connect individuals around the world through digital narratives. Now I must get back to work and figure out how it has all changed since I started typing here…

Sarah Kramer ’96 is a journalist and multimedia storyteller  at the New York Times.  Before working at the Times, Sarah was a founding member of the public radio project StoryCorps. She can be found on Twitter @sarahk11 and online at www.skramer.me

The New Storytellers: Meet the (New) Press

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

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America’s media diet is rapidly changing. Online news sites like the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed are ascendant, drawing millions of readers each month, while circulation at the Washington Post was down almost 9 percent in 2012. Printed magazines are still launching in record numbers, but venerable titles such as Newsweek go digital-only. ¶ Navigating this landscape in Washington, D.C., is a troupe of young, working journalists. Each has one foot in the traditional realm of their predecessors and the other foot . . . where, exactly? Recently, this cohort (featured at right) sat down with writer  Kevin Charles Redmon ’09, to discuss the modern media landscape, the technologies that shape it, and the changing role of reporters and editors.

Jaime Fuller I glanced at the channels on a small-town newspaper website the other day, and there were the usual departments, News, Politics, Opinion. And at the end it said, “Cars”—but what I read was, “Cats.” And I thought, That’s the difference between old media, which makes no money, and new media. We used to sell car ads. Now we sell cats.

Kevin Redmon Cat photos and Ryan Gosling memes seem to be the secrets to success for online news sites like Huffington Post and BuzzFeed. It’s a little scary. Will our kids grow up in a world without the New York Times?

Ryan Kellett Please. The news of Old Media’s death has been greatly exaggerated . . . by the media.

Brian Fung To its credit, one thing BuzzFeed does really well—which no one had done before—is think about news in terms of the “nugget,” as opposed to the “article.” The idea that you take from a traditional article a quote or an interesting statistic and make that the thing you sell. You’re not selling the article. You’re selling the thing that people will remember and spread around.

Redmon Keeping it shorter, like a quick burst of trivia?

Fung Right. In a print article, you might have five bits of interesting information. Well, BuzzFeed turns that into five different posts, which each get individual attention.

Redmon That kills me. I don’t want to write Web “nuggets.” I want to write long, thoughtful magazine stories. I realize how callow that sounds.

Kellett Keep writing those long pieces. Don’t be surprised when that reporting gets repurposed into nuggets. It’s my job to think about the person who has five minutes waiting in line at the supermarket and how they can get something out of the three months of reporting you did on your story. Some are not ever going to read 3,000 words in a single setting. But can I serve them an interactive graphic or video that tells the same story differently? You bet.

Lois Parshley One of the best pieces of advice I got, starting out, was from my editor at the Atlantic. He said, “You know, it’s great that you want to do long-form stuff. You might be able to do that for part of your job. But we don’t live in an era when anyone gets to do that full time. If you can’t be happy in a middle place—writing some daily Web assignments—then you’re not going to like journalism.” That really struck me.

Redmon Brian, I know one thing you appreciate about the Atlantic is its cult of curiosity. For instance, most Web articles are born at the morning staff meeting, when an editor says, “Why is it that NASA doesn’t take photos of government black sites?” Then someone spends a couple hours researching that question and writing a post about it.

Fung The culture there is very much one of shared discovery. Most news organizations, especially traditional ones, take the stance, “Here’s what you need to know.” With the the Atlantic, it’s very much, “I was wondering about this, and you might be wondering too, so I called up this dude, and here’s what he said, and isn’t it awesome that we were able to find out all this stuff?” I think readers really value the respect that the Atlantic gives to its audience. Another great thing about working there was that everyone had a unique role to play. Everyone had different strengths and weaknesses, a different “game to play,” and the senior editors were great at cultivating those specific talents.

Angela Evancie Did they literally talk about it that way? Your editor would come to you with a story idea and say, “Brian, this is your game”?

Fung Yeah, literally.

Evancie When I started at a small-town newspaper in New Hampshire last year, I really struggled at first. The paper came out twice a week, and I had a five-town beat that I needed to cover in every possible way: local elections, education, crime. I had a hard time producing work that I felt comfortable with. I sometimes cranked out stories in less than a half an hour. I sat down with my editor and told her how I was feeling. She said, “Eventually you learn that only a few stories can be your babies.” You have to give yourself permission to produce work you deem lower quality. That’s as true at a small paper as it is on the Web.

Fung I totally identify with that. I’m not a fast writer, and I spend a lot of time editing as I go. I’ve learned that it’s okay to be not satisfied with the final product. At some point, you’ve just got to let it go.

Fuller The first print piece I wrote for American Prospect was a very daunting thing. I sat down at my computer thinking, Oh my gosh, this is going to be in print. It needs to be the most perfect, timeless writing ever. I turned in my first draft and my editor said, “You need to rewrite this and think way less about it. Pretend that you’re writing a Web piece.” It was a nice reality check. I stopped approaching it like it was War and Peace. I’ve learned that it’s important to stick to your personal voice.

Fung Do you feel like you’ve developed a strong voice?

Fuller I’d say I’m still cooking. But I try.

Fung Voice is something I struggle with every day. I’m doing a lot of policy reporting, which, by nature, is not that exciting. So a lot of translation has to come through in the voice. But to what extent is that a conscious process, honing your style?

Redmon I sometimes pretend I’m writing a radio script—I love NPR’s pull-up-a-chair approach to storytelling.

Evancie That’s exactly what radio writing is meant to be. Editors always tell you, just close your eyes and pretend that you’re sitting across a café table from your best friend, telling them a really interesting story. That needs to come through in your writing and in your delivery.

Fuller No William Faulkner on NPR.

Evancie Right. Ernest Hemingway would be a great radio writer, because he’s all short sentences. In radio it’s “show, don’t tell.” And you get the added bonus of being able to convey emotion with your tone. So you don’t need to say “a solemn ceremony,” because you can just say the word “ceremony” solemnly. You can cut out all your descriptors.

Redmon Speaking of short sentences, let’s talk about Twitter.

Fung Becoming a reporter at National Journal has really altered the extent to which I’m tapped into the national conversation. I’m actually much less hooked on social media than before. A lot of my reporter friends say, “Oh that’s a great thing. You’re spending time contributing to society, instead of making bland cat jokes or sending animated GIFs around.” And that’s true, I suppose. But as a Web journalist, many of the stories I wrote in the past were leads that came from Twitter! I feel like I’m missing out.

Evancie There’s a healthy neo-Luddite streak running through parts of journalism, because there’s something to be said for having a beat and getting to know the people on your beat—your sources, your subjects. I don’t see that happening on the Web. Instead, I see a lot of one-off stories. You don’t ever hear the words “shoe leather” and “blogger” in the same sentence. But those Luddites are battling against a new school that says, “Twitter is absolutely important. This is not only how we’re going to develop better stories, but it’s how everyone’s going to get their news.”  To what extent can we use Twitter effectively, but not be totally broken down by it? Or distracted to a point of paralysis?

Kellett There absolutely is such a thing as a Twitter beat. I call it a social media constellation: the digital connections you have with sources, other journalists, and increasingly readers themselves. Reporters must know that the only way to grow this digital beat is by participating in it, not just listening.

Redmon I think about the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, and how Twitter “covered” that story. Journalists were publishing their articles as works-in-progress; some were rife with rumors and bad facts. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Kellett I’m of the mind that you report the news as it happens with the same high journalistic standards as before. Just be transparent about how you report the story. Readers are smarter than journalists give them credit for.

Parshley There’s some really amazing technological innovation going on, too. Foreign Policy did a couple of e-books this past year, which we dressed up with slide shows and maps. You’re able to take the power of a digital platform—audio recordings, video, multimedia, embedded cartography, infographics—and invest the time and resources you’d put into a magazine piece. I think, I hope, that that’s where long-form is headed.

Redmon I hope so, too. But market forces seem to be working in the opposite direction. You had an experience the other day that I think, sadly, has become typical for freelancers. It was after Raúl Castro announced that he wasn’t going to run for a second term as president.

Parshley Yeah, the Atlantic’s international editor wanted me to do a quick Web hit about it—I’d written about Cuba before, and I’ve been there twice. It was Sunday night, but I wrote back and said, “Sure, I’ll have you a draft by mid-morning tomorrow.” New editor, someone I hadn’t worked with, but I’m comfortable with the subject matter. She responded right away to say, “Oh, and by the way, we can’t pay you.” And I had to write back, “Oh, and by the way, I can’t work for free.”

Redmon A lot of news sites assume that most writers are so excited about having their work published that they’ll give it away for free.

Fuller Most people are unwilling to pay for quality. It breaks my heart.

Parshley So you have to find people who have other jobs that pay the rent—academics or think-tank fellows—who are willing to take the clip instead of payment. Or, you have to find naïve young writers who will do it for free.

Redmon As the model changes, I guess the challenge is to change with it, gracefully. And, you know, still pay rent.

Fung Even if I lost my job tomorrow, I would stay in journalism. Not because I’m enamored with the idea of writing, or because I dream of being the next Seymour Hersh, but because I get a kick out of explaining things to people. I want to help them understand the world better.

The New Storytellers: My Story

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Microphone_Final_0243:10 Typically, the interviews last about an hour and once they are recorded they are transcribed and time-stamped, so we know precisely where everything is on the “tape.” It’s all digital, of course, so there is no actual tape.

47:24 This technique makes moving snippets of the conversation around pretty easy.  An hour interview has to be pared down to a five- or six-minute story. And that is not easy.


02:04 My name is Sue Halpern and I’m a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and the director of the Fellowships in Narrative Journalism or, as it’s popularly known, the “How Did You Get Here?” (HDYGH) project.


10:15 I was at a College dinner about six years ago, and everyone was going around the table saying where they were from. “Tel Aviv. Berea. Kabul. Amman. Spokane. Kathmandu.” As they spoke, I found myself asking the same question over and over.

12:07 It was some variant of “How did you end up at this small college in rural Vermont?”

12:59 Three months later, I was talking with Matt Jennings, the editor of Middlebury Magazine, and he was saying that the magazine wanted to do more Web-based multimedia. As he was talking, I thought, “Why don’t we train students to make short audio portraits of their classmates that answer one simple question: How did you get here?”

15:37 I proposed “How Did You Get Here?” and Matt was game.


Check out the 2013 “How Did You Get Here?” stories

48:42 I’d never done any audio before this. I am a writer and magazine journalist. But I know how to get a story and how to tell a story, and I know that this is something that can be taught.

52:05 I dislike grades. I’ve seen how grades, not learning, can become the goal, and I’ve also seen how sometimes students try to see how much they can get away with not doing. Because I knew that HDYGH was going to be a tremendous amount of work, I only wanted students who were passionate and fully committed.

39:00 Matt and I called it the Narrative Journalism Fellowship, and we put out a call for applications.

55:32 Experience was not necessary but strong writing skills were.

7:19 You get a very good sense of the range and diversity and uniqueness of the students who attend Middlebury from our pieces and from the journeys students take to get here.

11:14 I don’t have a favorite profile since I honestly believe all the stories are incredible. There’s a young woman who was smuggled out of Tibet in a box;  a competitive goat roper; someone who went to a secret school for girls in Kabul during the Taliban; I could go on. You should listen.

20:16 One of the most gratifying parts of the program, aside from the opportunity to tell these amazing stories, is to have created a cadre of very accomplished journalists and storytellers. The skills and competence they acquire in the program serve them well, whatever they do.

62:19 In May of the first year, the fellows mounted an exhibit in the Davis Family Library and provided iPods with a soundtrack of all their stories. Hundreds of people came to the opening; there were not enough iPods. Finally, with the blessing of the library staff, one of the pieces was broadcast over a set of speakers. Students who had been studying stopped what they were doing, got up from their chairs, and lined the balcony. Everywhere I looked, people were standing stock-still, just listening. And when the piece ended, they clapped and asked for more.

(music to fade)

Sue Halpern is a journalist, an author, and a Middlebury scholar in residence.

The New Storytellers: Evolution of a Storyteller

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Typewriter_Final_01What is a story?  How do we experience stories in a world of increasing interconnectivity where traditional narrative lines are blurred, even nonexistent or redrawn according to a new set of rules that don’t yet make sense to us?

Stories have ancient roots. We’ve relied on this comforting fact. But if we look at the story’s transformation from Homer to Borges and Cortázar to Deena Larsen, Lev Manovich, and Peter Horvath we experience a monumental socio-cultural-technical shift that moves from the oral to the digital where we’re unsure what counts anymore.

We require new ways of making sense. “If we are entering a new world,” says David Weinberger in Small Pieces Loosely Joined, “then we are also becoming new people.”

New storytellers are engaged in remixing and translating, with great speed and compression, experiencing the story more as a gesture rather than a thick narrative with fully drawn characters navigating a linear plot line.  New storytellers appropriate from one another—and from the past and from other forms: painting, music, film, traditional texts, Web sites; they’re challenging boundaries and disciplines.

New storytellers are drawn to the freshness, the inventiveness that comes with “entering a new world” comprised of multiple selves—the public and the private, the digital and the physical, the psychological, emotional, and spiritual. The new storyteller is the translator of our complex—and subtle—novelty, working to obliterate distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, and our sense of space.

In 2011, half of Japan’s top ten best-selling novels were originally cell phone novels, typically love stories written in short, text message format.  Cell phone novels are the preferred medium of new age authors not out of preference, but out of necessity.

The new storyteller, like an apprentice, is always learning, morphing, adjusting to unstable conditions; this requires an extraordinary sense of audience, inviting the storyteller to sometimes incorporate the reader into the narrative—like receiving a short novel on your cell phone, a serial piece on Twitter, and a drama about how our brains work on RadioLab. All mediums count all the time, like instruments in a symphony orchestra.

In 2012, Margaret Atwood, who has written 13 novels, including The Handmaid’s Tale, went on Byliner, a web site that’s billed as a new platform for writers, and began a serial novel, Positron, where, for a few dollars, readers collaborated with her, commenting on scenes and episodes, and determining the direction of the narrative. Atwood compared her experience to improv comedy, to creating a story live before an audience.

In 1997, Janet Murray, in Hamlet on the Holodeck, predicted the coming of participatory television, the holodeck we, the audience, help create. I think we’ve arrived. Remember the science in Minority Report? Well, John Underkoffler is combining traditional tabular data with 3D and geospatial information manipulated through space, not via a keyboard. It’s here. Now.

We’ve changed.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, himself once a new storyteller, asks, “Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe?” New storytellers are responding to Emerson, carrying on his legacy.  “The sun shines to-day also…There are new lands, new men, new thoughts,” he says. “Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.”

In 1974, the Specification of Internet Transmission Control Program, a different sort of story written by three different kinds of storytellers, Vinton Cerf,  Yogen Dalal, and Carl Sunshine, used the term internet as shorthand for internetworking and our new storytellers were born. And here we are, moving, becoming something else by as early as tomorrow.

Hector Vila is an assistant professor of writing at Middlebury.

It All Adds Up

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Mathematics Professor John Schmitt and student Aden Forrow in Warner HallNearly 60 seconds of silence had elapsed since I mentioned to John Schmitt that he must be inordinately proud of the young man sitting to my left. The awkwardness for me began around the, oh, 20-second mark, so my discomfort surely must have been palpable at this point. Schmitt had seemed ready to answer a few times, but each time he stopped. Finally, he said, “Aden’s intellect isn’t my doing. His work ethic isn’t my doing. His thoughtful approach to problem solving isn’t my doing. I’m delighted that he has these opportunities [after graduation], but pride is not something I can claim. Delighted. That’s what I feel.” I exhaled. My fear that I had misspoken was replaced by the revelation that this mathematician wanted to make sure he was precisely understood.

Let’s back up a moment. I was in Schmitt’s Warner Hall office, chatting with him and the aforementioned Aden, full name being Aden Forrow ’13, an exceedingly quiet, very pleasant young man from the Boston area. In a recent talk, Schmitt had referred to Aden as likely “the most mathematically gifted student I have ever taught.” For the past year or so, the two have been investigating a problem within the area of mathematics known as combinatorics. Schmitt explained that in combinatorics “we are given a finite set of objects and a set of rules placed upon the objects, and our two most basic questions are 1) does there exist an arrangement of the objects that satisfies the rules, and 2) if so, how many?” A Sudoku puzzle is a trivial combinatorial problem, Schmitt said. “But what is more interesting,” he added “is discerning the minimum number of clues that can be given while still providing for a valid puzzle.” The conjecture is 17, and recently an Irish mathematician designed a procedure to prove that no 16-clue puzzle could exist. Tricky thing is, it would take a standard desktop computer 300,000 years to complete the computation.

So Schmitt and Aden are trying to solve the problem using a tool known as the Combinatorial Nullstellensatz . . . and that’s pretty much all I will say about this tool. I asked Schmitt to explain it to me, and another silence arose. Aden quietly chuckled. Then, as polite as he could be, Schmitt attempted to tell me about the Combinatorial Nullstellensatz. Let’s just say that we subsequently both agreed that C. N. is not meant to be understood by a general audience. And, frankly, it’s beside the point.

The point, really, of our discussion was not how Aden and Schmitt were attempting to solve this problem, nor was it about whether they would actually solve it at all. (“One never knows how long it will take to solve a math problem, if you can solve it in the first place,” Schmitt would later say.) No, the reason we were talking that afternoon was because it was so unlikely to be having this discussion in the first place.

Before he met Aden, Schmitt had never found the need to provide a student in an enrolled course with his or her own set of problems, problems that were not a part of the course syllabus. But just one or two days into Aden’s participation in Math 247, Graph Theory, Schmitt knew he had to do something different. “He wasn’t challenged by the class. He picked up on subtleties, special cases that I’ve never seen an undergraduate recognize. There have been times when I’ve noticed disparities between talented students and the whole of a class, but this generally happens in introductory courses. Aden was on an entirely different level.”

So Schmitt decided he would seek out a problem for which he and Aden could apply the Combinatorial Nullstellensatz technique. (Using Sudoku came to him at breakfast one morning while he was having his granola.) “And we have been having an ongoing mathematical conversation that each of us has wanted to have. These conversations have been entirely outside of any syllabus; Aden receives no course credit.”

I asked Aden if this matched his recollection.

He thought for about five seconds and then said, “More or less.”

“Aden is very understated,” Schmitt added.

Aden smiled. “One of the things I like about Middlebury is the amount of attention professors give to their teaching and to their students,” he said. Schmitt mentioned that I could very easily be writing a story about Aden’s collaboration with Noah Graham, in the physics department, “but then you would have missed out on capturing my good looks.”

At this, Aden let out a loud, sustained laugh. It was startling, given how quiet he had been. It was a laugh one shares with a peer.

Aden Forrow ’13 will enroll in the mathematics graduate program at MIT next year. If he has an idea for the Sudoku project, he knows who he will call first.