Tag Archives: Winter 2013

The Mother Tongue

navajo2_webLanguage is culture. The Navajo language is Navajo culture. When one changes, so does the other. Many ceremonies and cultural activities peculiar to and associated with the language that my grandparents spoke are now gone.

I will never experience the Navajo associated with that worldview. It is gone forever. But language is alive. When it diminishes in one area, it expands in another. In Navajo, we adopt new words to articulate contemporary concepts and objects like neuro-immunology and computers. We strive to maintain the integrity of tradition while accommodating an ever-changing world.

Although cultures may evolve and languages may change with the times, certain linguistic and cultural associations function as inalienable, immutable forces that keep us Navajos. One such force is the notion of k’e—relationship building that is linguistically and culturally Navajo. Within our clanship system, a 96-year-old grandmother may call me “Daddy.” On Navajo, when I talk about all my children, everyone understands. Off Navajo, I am often asked how many children I have and it is demanded of me to explain how one of my children can be 46 years older than me. I used to try, but now I don’t even bother. My reality in Navajo needs no explanation in English to a non-Navajo worldview.

This peculiar relationship allows our elders to be childlike again. It allows them to be goofy without being ridiculed. They use this opportunity to ask of me as their father things that I cannot provide them. Through these interactions, they teach me how to be a caring and loving father to my own children, passing on lifelong lessons of parenting. At the same time, they would tease my children as brothers and sisters, establishing lasting and valuable relationships. These elders and my children bond together for life, respecting and loving one another as siblings.

In Navajo, we call our biological nieces “mothers.” From birth they are our mothers; our kinship demands that we respect them as matriarchs. Our interactions with them must help them become mothers and leaders of the family. Knowing this, I do my part, misbehaving and allowing them to chastise me for being foolish. In so doing, we begin to train them to become matriarchs.

Video: Rex Lee Jim, on his interest in langauge

They learn quickly. On her first day at school as a kindergartener, my youngest niece was running around when her teacher asked her to stop. When she refused, her teacher said, “I am going to tell your uncle, the school board president.”

“What uncle?” she responded.


“He’s not my uncle; he’s my son. I tell him what to do!”

The Navajo teacher realized what was going on. “Well, I will tell your ‘mother’ Janice (the ‘aunt’) at the high school.” My niece settled down right away.

The Navajo language allows us to develop intimate and unique relationships, which is the foundation of strong, healthy communities. When we no longer speak the language, what makes us distinct and unique will be gone. We will be speakers of English with brown skins. The Navajo community will no longer be.

Vignette: Around the Clock

middlebury libraryFive bright bands of light blaze from an otherwise dark wall as one approaches the Davis Family Library from the south. It is well past ten on this December Sunday night, and with the beginning of exam period, the library has gone on the 24/7 schedule. Snow is said to be on the way, but there are 39 bicycles and one scooter propped outside the main door.

Past the caffeine-brimmed Wilson Café, past cell-phone talkers and a student smiling into a Skype screen on her laptop, through the heavy doors into the atrium, beyond circulation and help desks, to the edge of the most public space in the library: a senior crouches over sheaves of graded papers and photocopied book chapters.

He makes notes in a spiral notebook, but doesn’t appear to be in a concentration groove yet. Sights and sounds: entering and exiting, rendezvous and regroupings, passing bodies, eddies of conversations from beyond shelves, a greater hubbub audible from the outside of the main doors. Here in the ringing gateway to the halls of quiet study there is a parade of distractions, and he looks up frequently. His feet take the place of papers on a low table. He produces a laptop and taps. A friend appears and there is a consultation about take-home exams as well as driving-home plans. Five minutes later, he has removed to other circumstances.

On the eastern end of the main floor, inside the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research, a white board proclaims “Tutoring During Exams!” and lists review sessions for economics, chemistry, and math. Peer writing tutors are on call from early evening until midnight, whether at the center or at various Commons. Nearby, a sign in the Wilson Media Development Lab instructs on technological-software aid: “Turn on. Log in. Get Smart. Lynda.com. Tutor available 24/7.”

Up the long curve of the staircase to the second floor, tight focus is the norm in the Quiet Study Area. Faces gleam with reflected light from laptops, elbows flanked by little ramparts of stacked books with pads and pens at the ready, and students silently build arguments, buttress theories, review a semester’s stock of ideas, groping for the perfect handle to carry them all. One is hard-pressed to hear any whispers.

In an unobtrusive, 20-minute stroll past desks, study tables, carrels, darting quick glances at individual screens, not a glimmer of social media can be seen—not one Facebook or Flickr or Renren or LAGbook or LinkedIn—and not one Wikipedia page. Satisfied, relieved, even hopeful, one determines never to take such a poll again in such a place. Better not to spoil the fleeting impression.

At last heading out into the night, with one observer’s exit, the overall age average at Davis Family Library plummets.

Bright and slanting daylight, a smattering of snow on the ground, and the Davis façade of local marble, granite, and limestone is a screen upon which shadows of surrounding winter trees are projected. Behind every window of the Wilson Café is a garland of Tibetan prayer flags, sending up hopes with each tiny flutter from the warm, coffee-scented updrafts of booth tables.

In the gusty vestibule, display cases commemorate the visit of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in 1984—posters, programs, candids from the indefatigable Middlebury photographer Erik Borg.

Farther into the building are similar displays from the Dalai Lama’s appearance in 1990. There are many people in the world who would venerate the sidewalk, the flagstones, the Davis threshold, the slate and carpeted floors, because nine weeks earlier, October 12–13, His Holiness came to Middlebury again to “cultivate hope, wisdom, and compassion” with two addresses in Nelson Arena and a visit to the library to view sacred Tibetan manuscripts and a Tibetan contemporary art exhibition.

Outside Davis, the air scented by bundles of incense, the Dalai Lama blessed a newly planted Burr oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and tied a white fringed prayer shawl around a slender trunk that one day, perhaps in a hundred years, will be as many feet tall and three or even four feet in diameter, the surrounding ground crunchy with acorns.

Inside on the second floor, in his red and saffron robes, His Holiness blessed the work, and those present of five Tibetan artists in the Contemporary Jewels fellowship show presented by the Vermont Studio Center of Johnson, Vermont, and lingered appreciatively before each work.

He smiled before the playful collage of Tenzing Rigdol, born 1982, Excuse Me Sir, Which Way is to My Home? with its central Buddha image and colorful background, entirely constructed from Tibetan brocade cloths, glossy magazine ads, and U.S. maps. He praised the artists for transforming their artistic traditions and techniques to relate to the contemporary world.

Today, in that bright exhibition corner, the 10 paintings giving off their own light, finals-preparing students in their parkas and Midd sweatshirts and watch caps bustle past the art and across the carpet on which the Dalai Lama peacefully stood.

In a study area surrounding the basement’s American literature section, next to a Spiderman backpack, a female student sits on the floor, props her back against shelves of poetry. She is unmindful of an abandoned pillow in a white slip some inches away on the floor.

At the end of the row, a shelf of fiction criticism ending with these three titles: Imagining Los Angeles, Los Angeles in Fiction, and Gillette Foamy, a travel container of shaving soap.

Wednesday, close to cold-December midnight, from the west passing the candle-lit windows of Old Chapel; Davis Library looks like a Spielbergian Mother Ship, with the star-studded, blue-black Vermont sky overhead. Though not one of them is visible passing the moon, 41 bikes attend the main doors.

Sounds from the atrium: Footfalls of winter-weight boots on slate flagstones, buzz of a motorized hole punch, metallic sword sound of a paper cutter, the emphatic punctuation of a stapler, the rolling wheels of a heavily laden book cart fluttering with pink-colored slips.

Downstairs in the lower level, a late-night murmur from a little knot of people in a circle of easy chairs—behind them stands a rough, monumental slab of rock. Muffled but animated words leak from one of the group-study rooms ringing the area.

A female sophomore perches yards away at a table covered by a laptop, graded short stories, a fiction textbook, a water bottle, and a package of Pepperidge Farm cookies. Two male political science students at a nearby table intent on their scrolling laptops are backdropped by periodical shelves displaying recent issues of Die Zeit, La Stampa, Le Monde, and the Rutland Herald.

Recycling bins overflow. Oh, the hidden words!

Two floors above, the study carrels are still well populated at the stroke of midnight. A literature major, surrounded by towering stacks of thesis resources, looks up to blink bleary eyes and refocus. She takes a swig of tea from a thermos and extracts trail mix from a brown bag, shakes her head to realign her thoughts back below the surface of a poem, and is perhaps surprised there is no apparent rattling sound.

Back in the basement behind the display window of Special Collections, the chair, the writing lapboard, the moth-eaten cardigan, and the marble busts of Robert Frost may emanate a sympathetic vibration upward toward the weary young poet above.

Outside cold night air: smokestacker first-years stomp on slate.

Rows and phalanxes of books on their shelves and art and artifacts on the walls. On the second floor, it is of the bold-handed and pigment-generous watercolorist Arthur K. D. Healy (1902–1978), some five large modernist landscape watercolors and an oil portrait; he served on the faculty from 1943–1968.

He was a hotel interiors architect before moving to Vermont as the first artist in residence at Middlebury,” a faculty member once commented while pausing before one of the landscapes, then hanging elsewhere. “One might expect to see these paintings in a 1940s hotel room, as a matter of fact, but he trained many successful artists here and did much to support the Sheldon Museum.”

More historical Vermont images line the walls and populate display cases near Special Collections downstairs—Rutland Railroad artifacts, enlargements of vintage Middlebury postcards, and framed, finely inked maps of the village of Middlebury and its surrounding town, from the F. W. Beers Atlas of Addison County, Vermont, 1871.

Students—perhaps even history majors—walk heedlessly past the little bygone world behind glass on the wall, where the three buildings of Middlebury College—Painter, Starr, and Old
Chapel—stand figuratively on the snow-white hillside.

Behind the glass, the Rutland Railroad tracks downtown pass the Addison County Fairgrounds, crossing Otter Creek past the Battell Building, Stewart Block, the Sash & Door Mill, the cotton factory, while above the west bank of the creek, along Weybridge Street, rise the professorial edifices of President Kitchel, the Reverend Steele, Professor Brainerd, and Professor R. D. C.
Robbins—scholar of Socrates, the books of Moses, the Christian epistles, who would have thoroughly enjoyed meeting His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama.

The population of a table upstairs in the Davis Family Library’s Quiet Study Area, judging by an unscientific poll of textbooks and scrawls on yellow pads and spiral notebooks, seems to be running neck and neck between budding biologists and early economists, although the outcome is skewed by the presence of a patient philosopher.

Several yards away is one of two high-tech soundproofed cell-phone booths installed on opposite ends of the Quiet Study Area, northeast to southwest corners, a response in 2010 to widespread complaints about cell-phone use. The tall black tube with sliding glass door would accommodate a superhero’s costume change. But at this early Thursday-morning hour, no peril looms but the ticking of a clock and the reality of finals and deadlines, and these quiet students of Middlebury College are on their own, and what’s more, they will survive.


Old Chapel: Language History

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

How did this legacy begin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whither Courtly Love

CourtlyLove-webWhen I was an English major at Middlebury back in the eighties, courtly love was my cod liver oil: dosages were the mandatory price I paid for the lovely beef stew of Middlemarch and the meringue of Pride and Prejudice. It was key to Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale, in which two suitors duke it out to win the love of fair Emily, and Spenser’s deadly boring Faerie Queene, and even in Shakespeare, my bugaboo was unavoidable: the romantic fealty of courtly love is captured in Sonnet 18 (Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…), and its vanilla rituals mocked in Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It. Even when it was the subject of satire, courtly love spawned my biggest, baddest internal eye roll. Once I had my diploma in my 22-year-old hand, I was sure that with respect to the canoodling of knights and ladies, I’d never look back.

But then I wound up writing an entire book about the social and cultural history of heartbreak, and no matter how sturdy my decades-long resistance to courtly love was, ignoring it in my book would have been downright negligent. After all, at least in the beginning stages of the courtly romance formula, heartbreak was codified: a knight attempts to attract a married noble lady’s attention via stolen glances; then he circles said lady like a shark, perhaps by attending court just a little too often; then he declares “I love you,” perhaps from behind a curtain or in a dark corner; the lady replies, “No, no, no! I’m so very married and so very devout!” and focuses on her needlepoint; the knight says he just might die if his lady doesn’t return his love; then the knight moons around court bemoaning how the lady doesn’t love him back.

Only when the knight takes a dramatic risk is the spell of unrequitedness broken: he might get his hot little hands on a ribbon from the lady, tie it to his lance, and proceed to win a jousting tournament (with bonus points for any injuries sustained). Only then might she give in and reward him with kisses and/or sex, and from there they might sneak about for a little clandestine codpiece ’n’ corset action. The nobility of courtly love, of the heartbreak, was in the attenuated longing, and consummation between the lovelorn knight and his lady was theoretically verboten. If the relationship was consummated, the thrill of the chase was replaced by the thrill of evading detection.

No doubt part of the reason why I found courtly love so irksome lay in the fact that it was so at odds with what I was experiencing as a young woman at Middlebury in the eighties—or thought I was experiencing. Among my peers/friends, romance and its close associate, eroticism, were certainly not celebrated. (The terms I recall for sexual encounters were “hooking up,” “muckling,” and most memorably, if repeated encounters were the case, “dealing.”) In my own personal experience, the only thing that sex and romance at Middlebury had in common with courtly love was that it was furtive: the closest thing I had to a relationship in college was a guy I’d hook up with—FOR THREE YEARS!—but we couldn’t hack breakfast together in Proctor, much less meet up to see a Hitchcock movie at Dana Auditorium. It makes sense then that my muckling self, sitting there in the second row of a classroom in Munroe, Faerie Queen open, was perplexed by the idea of an entire subculture devoted to mooning around for love.

But then, nearly 25 years later, I found myself fascinated by the academic debates that have, for decades now, framed discussions about courtly love. What was it exactly? A real phenomenon, a literary device, or a little of both? Among those who believe that knights really did hotly pursue married women, the phenomenon is thought to have been more or less natural adaptation: in a milieu where marriages among the upper classes were arranged and loveless, courtly love was a neat ruse that covered, justified, or perhaps even celebrated adultery. Some who have studied it have gone so far as to suggest that the spread of courtly love across Europe from the 12th century onward marked a sexual revolution in which women radically turned the tables on men. Others are quick to point out that there is really no evidence whatsoever that courtly love existed anywhere but on paper and in song: no legal cases, no chronicles, no correspondence. It has even been suggested that many depictions of courtly love in medieval literature were more or less ironic jokes, just as they were in Shakespeare several hundred years later.

Initially, as I absorbed the fact that courtly love has no smoking gun, I felt vindicated: my 20-year-old self was wise beyond her years. She knew courtly love was bogus. It was as absurd as, in today’s world, a midlevel manager professing undying love for the CEO’s wife, sailing into tough meetings with her Hermes scarf wrapped around his arm, and then crying to the crowd around the water cooler about how she doesn’t love him back.

But the nagging questions about it also got me thinking about love at Middlebury in the eighties—about what was, what wasn’t, and what might have been. Naturally this line of thinking got me rummaging around in what I think of as my Middlebury closet, pushing past my cynicism to the painful box of regrets/box of pain, but it also got me going drawing comparisons between the upper echelons of the medieval world and, yes, Middlebury. Think about it: like a royal court, Middlebury is elite, packed with smart and attractive people; like a court, it is physically isolated from the rest of the world; and like a court, it has its cliques and pecking orders. It is a castle on a hill.

And, like any court, and any small school, Middlebury also had its own culture. What strikes me now is that a key component of that culture was this: love wasn’t cool. “Hooking up” was cool, walks of shame were cool, but unabashed love, as in shouting to the hills that are his also, that you were madly in love? Not so much. Sure, there were the rare couples who were in love and wore their hearts on their Patagonia sleeves, but those were the exception, not the rule. The way I see it, never in the history of man has there been a group of 18–21-year-olds quite so determined to not be in love.

I’m sure this had something to do with the fact that for four years, we were in essence at an endless banquet: you could pick and choose among countless smart, attractive, and more-or-less like-minded individuals to spend your time with. Indeed, you could have a crush in every dining hall to keep you entertained. The rock climber who ate with his friends in the SDUs; the lacrosse player in Proctor who you hooked up with freshman year; the moody poet in Lower Proctor. I also think the collective resistance to love originated in naiveté: little did we know just how precious that time in the castle on the hill was, and weak was our understanding that never again would we share such intimate space with so many interesting people the same age. So the saying goes, youth is wasted on the young.

But I’ve talked to a few close friends from Middlebury about this, and we all agree that there was more to it than that. At Middlebury then, and perhaps now, tribalism was fierce. Perhaps the lack of love at Middlebury also had something to do with fear of crossing social boundaries, of being associated with someone who, even within the coziness of Middlebury, was “other.” Love wasn’t in the air, but following the rules was. And foremost in that pack of rules was this: “Thou shalt not profess undying love.”

I’m in my mid-forties now, and perhaps unduly preoccupied in my research on love by what was, what wasn’t, and what might have been. I regret that I didn’t have the confidence and steeliness to tell the boys I loved—and yes, there were a few—how I felt, and I regret dismissing the ones who were bold, and yes! wise enough to at least hint that they loved me. Love wasn’t in the air, and yet it was all around us. The flickers deserved to be fed.

And as for courtly love, the trappings of adoration, confession, and persistence, and my now-ancient distaste for them? Now I know that the line between scorn and envy is a thin one. Love isn’t just loving, it’s letting oneself be loved.

Meghan Laslocky ’89 is the author of The Little Book of Heartbreak: Love Gone Wrong through the Ages, Plume/Penguin 2013.

Teaching the American Negro Spiritual

CO70-5-07-clemmons-011Twilight Artist in Residence François Clemmons teaches a January term class called the History of the American Negro Spiritual and Its Influence on Western Civilization. He has found that teaching this subject to young people with little connection to the lives of America’s slaves takes special understanding and some creative techniques. Clemmons describes the class and some of the resources he uses, below.

Watch Clemmons  perform “I’ve been in the storm so long.”


Writing about American Negro spirituals is my passion. I’ve been singing these glorious songs since my earliest conception in my mother’s womb. This legacy was passed down to me by my mother, my grandmother, Minnie Green, and my great-grandmother, Laura Mae Sanders. I sang these songs at home and in church when other children were singing “Mary Had Little Lamb” or “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” and other typical nursery rhymes.


The index provides a systematic listing of Negro spirituals

In putting together the collection of The Index to African American Spirituals, Kathleen Abromeit and I wanted to make available to all young singers, professionals, and teachers information as to what was available and, in some cases, where one can still purchase these arrangements. We focused on solo arrangements, but just as much is becoming available for all levels of choral groups. Much of it unfortunately is out of print. But we do know libraries, private and public, where copies can be had with a little research. Schomberg Public Library in New York City, Oberlin College, Fisk University, Spellman University, Morehouse University, Jackson State University, Morgan State University, Harvard, Howard, and Yale Universities, just to name a few.

I use this publication and several others that I am familiar with in my January term class at Middlebury College on Slavery and the American Negro Spirituals. Some excellent resources are The Book of American Negro Spirituals arr. by the Johnson Brothers, The Music of Black Americans by Irene Southern, Songs for Today, Arr. Clemmons, Songs of Zion—United Methodist Church, and Wade in the Water by Arthur Jones. In addition, there are several notable publishers who are making an effort to republish collections made famous by tenor Roland Hayes; bass, Paul Robeson; and alto, Marian Anderson. Arrangers such as Hall Johnson, H. T. Burleigh, John W. Work, Nathaniel Dett, Eva Jessye, Roland Hayes, Jester Hairston, the Johnson Brothers, Florence Price, and Margaret Bonds are featured.

These publications are augmented in my class by recordings, DVDs and CDs by classical singers, pop artists, jazz musicians, vocalists, and instrumentalists, as well as live performances by me, along with members of the community and faculty. With the help of local artists, I have been able to form the core of a chorus to sing these songs and occasionally to perform a solo here and there. However, the hardest part of passing on the legacy of these songs has been developing a fuller understanding of the secrets to unlocking the unique impact of this repertoire. Spirituals appear quite simple and naïve in print. Most of the “authentic” arrangements I’ve seen can be sung by amateurs as well as young beginning singers. The simple texts and pervasive repetition are highly deceptive. Rare is the student who brings his life experiences to this work, which demands it.

So in order to really teach this work, I must discuss with the class and in small seminar groups the life of slaves and their unique struggle in their 17th- and 18th-century world. Some of the students come prepared for the intellectual stimulation and comparisons, but on the whole, most have almost no true perception into the humanity, or lack thereof, of this humiliating experience. In all fairness, much in our society produces this condition in students and encourages them to see only the ultimate outcome or the topical aspects of this repulsive situation: American Slavery.

The path toward teaching the inner life of these songs is lined with patience, encouragement, and understanding. Our society has wrapped many unpleasant experiences in pageantry and superficial holiday recognition. It often takes much determination and creativity to read the signs of the reality of peoples who have been slaves in this environment. Most of the students have no idea that many if not all of the songs have a double meaning: one applicable to the Bible and its spiritual strengths and another that plans for insurrection and flights to freedom.

The slaves were overtly taught, by the official churches and parsons and priests who visited the plantations, a submissive theology based loosely on several biblical texts referring to “slaves, obey your master” (Ephesians 6 chapter 5-9 verses; Colossians 3 chapter 22 verse; and 1Peter 2 chapter 18 verse) and “render under to Caesar those things which are Caesar’s and unto God those things which are God’s” (Mark 12 chapter 17 verse, and Matthew 22 chapter 20-22 verses).

Many of the students today do not know the inner voices, relationships, and intricate weavings of the theology of the Bible and don’t really relate to its profound world impact along with its acknowledged philosophy, poetry, and inspiration. I begin with Old Testament legends such as David, Saul, Solomon, Ruth, Daniel, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, and Ezekiel. Then I add the life of the Christ, Paul, Mathew, Mark, Luke, Judas, John, and Mary and Joseph.

Because of the nearly unlimited variety of the biblical texts of the spirituals, we are only able to touch on the core stories and events that are important to the slaves. My next role is to wed together an understanding that for over 250 years this country was built on the free sweat of human beings with the students’ grasp of modern economic development (which may be in conflict with moral perspective) and  the principle of personal empowerment. We would not be the nation we are today if it were not for this forced, free labor; in most cases the students’ parents would not have the expected prosperity many of them take for granted, and our standing in the rest of the world would have a very different impact.

The next step requires that I build bridges to the hearts of the students. My experience has taught me that the easiest, quickest, and most permanent way to do this is to have the students share with me who they are—the special characteristics of their families, their chores and hobbies, whether or not they have pets, why they chose to come to this college, and why they chose to take this course. None of these answers in and of themselves are that terribly important. What is important is the powerful atmosphere it builds to establish community and a visible, tangible relationship with every member of the class. We begin to form a shared, academic family. One that feels and shares with each other and does not just know things intellectually.

Almost imperceptively and immediately the tone of the classroom lessons and the singing choices change. In nearly every aspect we become an organic, fully functioning ensemble with one united goal in mind, to dislodge the secrets and inner codes of the American Negro spiritual and its creators. At this point it is obvious to me that we have collectively absorbed and moved on beyond the beauty and surface appeal of this great music. The syncopated rhythms, the traditional hymn-like melodies, and the acknowledged variety of these simple biblical stories and melodies were the facts that initially drew many of the students to the repertoire, its practice, and history. Now they operate from “within” this experience on a completely different level.  This level includes all of the previously mentioned requisite aspects to understanding this experience but now also engages the much deeper sense of empathy and spirituality.

From this perspective the students and class in general begin to know themselves and the slaves as a connected people, and they value the practical experiences that they can now relate to. A joyful song is not just a joyful, ecstatic shout or a foot-stomping, clap-worthy, sometimes hypnotic self-indulgence. In like manner, a sad song is not just mournful and painful and longing for death. These songs begin to express the deeper soul longing to be free and to know the human dignity that is understood by all of humanity. The slaves who created this repertoire are no longer just over there or back there in history. Their lives and stories live today and are worthy of knowing and sharing.