A People’s History, Documented and Taught
Around 10 p.m. on January 22, the third Wednesday of winter term, Hanna Mahon ’13.5 and Kristina Johansson ’14 finally drew an end to their long day and waved good-bye to each other. In fewer than 12 hours, they’d be seeing each other again.
But unlike other students around campus, who were following similar winter term routines, Mahon and Johansson’s relationship was different—they were co-teachers for a student-led course called A People’s History of Middlebury College.
Different from the other course offerings during winter term, A People’s History was conceived, created, and instructed entirely by the two students. And while student-led winter term courses date back to 1970— a year when Alan Agle ’70 and Barry Sullivan ’70 offered courses on computer systems and on Rousseau, respectively—they are not annual occurrences because they require a skill set and level of organization that not every student has or wants to employ.
Take that busy Wednesday, for instance. That day, the two instructors had arranged for a pair of guest speakers, Steve Early ’71 and Torie Osborn ’72, to offer an oral history of student protests at Middlebury in the ’60s and ’70s. Right after class, the eight students, their peer instructors, and the guest speakers headed to the Grille for a continued lunch discussion on activism. After a two-hour break, they reconvened at Wonnacott House for dinner with the course’s faculty adviser, Jonathan Miller-Lane, other alumni, and professors. A heated discussion at the dinner table was followed by a panel discussion, titled Middlebury in the 1960s: Student Resistance and Social Change, held in Dana Auditorium.
“This is a complicated, moving-parts course they’ve organized—guest speakers, the archives, this panel,” said Miller-Lane. “They are taking it very seriously and are deeply committed to it. I’ve been really grateful to see that happening, to see the quality of their thinking and the quality of their work.”
And while the schedule that Wednesday wasn’t exactly typical for the class—most days did not require five-plus-hours of attendance—the content of the day was representative of a class that “centered on marginalized voices and on periods of struggle” at Middlebury. It was, in the words of its creators, about the stories of buried or forgotten resistance and struggles of the students, faculty, and staff of the College during the past two centuries of its existence, episodes that contributed to Middlebury as it is today.
Mahon and Johansson started researching protest movements at Middlebury after returning from Occupy Wall Street in New York City in 2012. Mahon says that it was the first time she had thought about her place within a legacy of people who had tried to make changes at Middlebury. In the summer of 2013, she and Johansson applied for funding from the Center for Careers & Internships (CCI), stayed on campus to research and construct a history of struggles and resistance at Middlebury, and created an interactive Web museum with the findings. Soon after their project started, they believed that their endeavor was worthy of further investigation with a larger group of peers.
As an independent scholar with a focus on peace and justice studies and an educational studies minor, Mahon had heard about student-led classes and suggested to Johansson that they design a course. With the guidance of Miller-Lane they did just that, submitting an application in September 2013; two months later, the faculty curriculum committee approved their proposal and A People’s History of Middlebury College, STLD1006, was scheduled for winter term 2014.
According to Miller-Lane, teaching the class as an instructor constituted the praxis part of Mahon’s senior project, where theory and practice come together. “The course enables her to extend herself,” Miller-Lane said. “To take the study she’s done and organize the course around this idea is different from producing a product like a thesis. It requires effort to bring those pieces together.”
“Very often the professors’ courses will be on big-lens, broad-view social movements,” Miller-Lane added. “The course is unique in that it’s very specific to this institution. There are occasionally courses like that, but I don’t think this is filling a gap that is only fillable by student-led courses.”
Although alumni and professors with more experience teaching may instruct the same content as well as, if not better than, Mahon and Johansson, the democratic and dispersed power dynamic in the classroom has been appreciated by enrolled students.
“There is a more relaxed atmosphere in class,” said Kate McCreary ’15. “It seems that people are more likely to speak up about what they’re thinking without a professor in the room, particularly in a class that can be rather critical of Middlebury.”
Rebekah Moon ’15 agreed. “I think people have a tendency to be more candid about personal experiences that relate to the material or their honest opinion about a particular ideology or event if there isn’t an official authoritative figure around, which is really nice.”
Admittedly, Mahon and Johansson feared that their identity as students would compromise their student-teacher relationships, giving their peers an excuse not to take them seriously, but they found the opposite to be true. Because students and instructors were naturally around each other outside the classroom, they found that conversations from class spilled over to lunch tables and everyday life. Further, they discovered that their identity as peers made members of the course feel more, rather than less, accountable.
“Since this is my last semester here, I have a lot of social things going on in my life,” said Gregg Butler ’13.5. “If I had taken another class, I think I would have done a lot less work. Because they’ve created this communal feel to the class, I want to throw myself into these things and I don’t want to disappoint them.”
On January 29, the last Wednesday of the term, the class presented their work to the public in conjunction with an exhibit in the Davis Family Library. (The exhibit opened a week before the presentation.) Among the topics discussed: the treatment of racial and religious minority students by fraternities in the ’40s and ’50s; a LGBTQ group organizing on campus during the ’90s and the first decade of this century; the ways in which Middlebury students have “passed” as members of different identity groups throughout the ages; and the campus political climate during the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
“If a protest, by definition, is an expression of objection or disapproval, I think some of the students’ projects represented their ‘objections’ or ‘protest’ to the official history of Middlebury,” Rebekah Irwin, director of Collections, Archives & Digital Scholarship, commented after the presentation. “The College’s written history is incomplete, and the students very actively (and exhaustively) worked to make additions and corrections to the College’s historical record.”
Sara Bachman ’13.5 agreed with Irwin and added, “I think the student-led class is a little bit of an active protest saying that we’re going take charge, we can do this too.”
Besides the panel on student protests in the ’60s and ’70s mentioned at the beginning, and the Web museum on the resistance and struggles in our community that students are continuously adding to, Special Collections also mounted an exhibit drawn from the College Archives—A People’s History of Middlebury College: Student Resistance and Social Change, based on the course.