Monthly Archives: October 2011

Thesis Proposal Season

The beginning of senior year at Middlebury might be the only time in our entire college careers when all of the Class of 2012 has the same assignment: write your thesis proposal. While theses are not required in every department, almost all seniors either complete a thesis or take part in a high-level project as part of the senior seminar class in their major. “So what are you writing about?” or “how much d’you think I can ask for from the Senior Research Fund?” are common questions at dinner, and my friends seem suddenly much busier than usual as they meet with their thesis advisors to revise their proposals. And the proposal is only the tip of the iceberg!

My thesis is a little unorthodox by Middlebury standards. I don’t have a thesis carrel in the library. I’m not preparing myself for a Jterm of constant writing. Instead of making scientific discoveries about the floor of Lake Champlain, researching an era in art history, or analyzing the historiography of Japanese-Chinese relations in a 100-page paper, I’m starting the process of making Art. (Yeah, it’s not intimidating at all.)

Each year, Dance majors at Middlebury contribute their work to an evening-length senior thesis concert, one that showcases the pieces we’ve been working on all year—which in turn showcase everything we’ve learned in our academic and artistic careers at Middlebury. We’ve all choreographed work before, but this is a bigger deal—we have much more freedom to direct our own artistic visions, and many more resources with which to do so. We get first pick of the student dancers who come to auditions. We get priority for rehearsal space. We have a budget with which to buy costumes, props, sets—anything we can dream up and justify artistically. (No really, anything—this semester one senior is working with a trapeze. Like the kind you’d find in a circus.) We meet with the lighting designer once a week to discuss the technical production of our concert, and meet with our thesis advisors regularly to check up on our dancers’ progress and the development of our choreographic ideas.

Yeah, it’s a little scary—“I thought I was a student! Suddenly I’m a real artist? When did that happen?”—but really… it’s kind of… fun. My academic work is my passion is making dances, and I get tons of time and support with which to do it. What more could I ask for from my senior year? (I think it’s certainly better than sitting in a thesis carrel and writing for the next eight months!)

Dining at Midd

Middlebury has the perfect campus meal plan…none at all.

The three dining halls at Middlebury operate on the honor system. Students walk in at any time they’re open (typically 7AM-2PM and 4PM-8PM) without swiping a meal card or being asked to show a Middlebury ID. There is no limit to the number of meals that students are allowed to go to in a day or a week, and it’s not uncommon to head to Proctor for a snack after lab gets out at 4:15 before going to dinner at Ross at 6:30. A lot of students use dining halls as a spot to study with a little bit of a different feel from the library. Easy access to coffee and an endless stream of homemade cookies and locally produced Wilcox ice cream provide the perfect motivation for finishing a problem set or working through a long paper.

While students love the open nature of the dining halls at Midd, the food is the real star of the cafeteria scene. The food services office buys a lot of food locally; the farms that produce milk and eggs to feed hungry MiddKids are just a quick bike ride away, and some of the fruits and vegetables served are grown by students at the college’s Organic Farm. The chefs at Ross, Proctor and Atwater prepare fresh meals to suit all tastes, and gluten-free or vegetarian options are always available. Deciding where to eat dinner is as simple as checking the menus for each dining hall by searching go/menu from anywhere on campus.

How Zach got his groove back

Coming back from a full year abroad, I pictured my first few weeks at Middlebury as a disheartening series of handshakes and reintroductions–something along the lines of “Hi, I’m Zach, I used to be your friend before I went away for a year.” What I had forgotten was that I was not the only one with such fears. With over 60% of the class studying abroad for at least a semester, my worries were shared by just about everyone, even the students that had chosen to stay on campus.

I walked into the dining hall the first night with nightmares taken directly from every bad Molly Ringwald movie. She’s holding a lunch tray, she looks around the cafeteria, sees no friendly faces, hears murmuring that may or may not refer to how awkward she looks, just standing there; she breaks down, runs screaming–it’s terrifying.

My experience was a little different. First, Middlebury no longer has lunch trays (promotes more reasonable portions, less waste, fewer chances for students to hurt themselves riding makeshift sleds during the winter). Second, the first thing I saw in the cafeteria were old friends bounding toward me, attempting to give me awkward hugs that didn’t ruin their shirts with tomato sauce. That scene has repeated itself for most of the past two weeks. As more and more students made their way to campus, I found everything fitting into place, almost effortlessly.

The same goes for the academic experience. Studying in England was, I’m sure, not like studying in another language. Yet the tutorial system at Oxford is a distinct approach with distinct practices and expectations. Once again, I found myself making my way back into the coursework at Middlebury with surprising comfort. It was almost as if I had once gone to school here.

It is now clear that the most difficult part of the experience, at least in my case, will have little to do with social or academic reintegration. Far more trying, and perhaps far more significant in the long run, will be avoiding a total reintegration and the excessive comfort that entails. That is, failing to apply the lessons and experience gained abroad to my life here. It’s shockingly easy to get back into the same habits, to do the same things as before. But if studying abroad has any lasting value (and I think most students you find here would argue, rather passionately, that it does), then something should change. This may require a more deliberate approach than I anticipated. It may require asking myself, when thinking about preparing an essay for example: “How did I do this in England, and how might that improve my work here?”

If you have an image of me sitting at my desk talking to himself while looking back at old essays, then you’re spot on. I have had little trouble finding my groove again. The main goal now is finding that balance between comfort and complacency. Somewhere in the middle is the sweet spot. I’ll be sure to let you know when I find it.

Home got bigger, but so did I…

Coming back to Middlebury is always surreal, but after having been abroad for a semester it feels even more so. It feels different, but also exactly the same—like a place to grow but also like home. Or maybe it is me that is different this time… I am the same person I was when I left the country in January, but I’ve come back with new experiences, new perspectives… even fluency in a new language!

I find myself amazed this fall by how big Middlebury feels. Living in a Brazilian city for six months, I started out often Middsick for the cozy community here. As I got used to—and fell in love with—the city and Brazil, though, I started worrying a little about moving back to Vermont. I had such an incredible experience abroad that I didn’t want to leave Brazil. Words like “cozy” suddenly sounded like “confining;” “small community” seemed more like “claustrophobic.” Though I was looking forward to seeing my friends again, coming back to Vermont at the end of the summer (or Brazilian winter) seemed like I’d be closing myself tight into a little Middlebury box.

What I’d forgotten, though, is how expansive Middlebury is—in every sense of the word. The skies are big, framed by mountains. The buildings don’t crowd each other close but sit spread out across campus, so long walks outside, with the time and space to breathe, become a leisurely necessity. Adirondack sunsets and Green Mountain sunrises are huge—they take over not just a corner of the sky but the whole landscape, turning fall trees to flame and grey stone buildings to rosy shadows against a darkening azure sky. Looking up at night gives a sense of nothing but space—there are more stars than I’ve ever seen in one place. The scope of one’s outlook here, too, becomes expansive with such a diverse student body… and especially given that over 60% of my class is coming back from a semester or a year abroad, my friends and classmates are returning with widened minds and new perspectives. The people also seem to have multiplied: though the community does feel small and cozy here after the bustle and crazy of Florianópolis, I find I’m still meeting people every day—whether it be that kid with purple pants who’s always studying in Proctor or someone who turns out to also be a senior but whom I’ve never seen before.

Despite my trepidations, I’m finding it’s a nice feeling, this homecoming; the cozy, spacious feeling of snuggling myself into an enormous patchwork quilt.

ES Senior Seminar

Every fall I get more excited to come back to Middlebury. Walking across campus during the first week of the semester means running into old friends and never knowing when to expect the next bear hug, and the summer weather sticks around long enough that I can squeeze in a few bike rides with my teammates from Middlebury Cycling before the weather gets cold. While I love summer, I always look forward to getting back to school, and even though starting to think of what I’ll be doing next year is a little bit scary, being a senior means greater academic freedom.

I’m an environmental chemistry major, and the environmental studies program requires all seniors to participate in a project-based Senior Seminar that looks at an environmental problem in the local community from scientific, political and human interest angles. My seminar has sixteen students in it, and while each of us has completed the same general coursework to become an ES major, our focus areas range from geology, chemistry and biology to geography, human ecology and environmental nonfiction writing. Together we’re looking at the development of small hydroelectric projects in Vermont and exploring both the benefits of adding a new source to the state’s renewable energy portfolio as well as the potential costs to the local environment and economy. Although we’re guided by a Middlebury professor, most of our time is spent working with local environmental companies and doing our own research, so it feels like we’re working as consultants in a large firm.

Last week we took a field trip to an existing hydroelectric dam in Weybridge, Vermont to talk with some of the engineers who work on the project and to gain a better practical understanding of small hydroelectric projects. Watching the water from the tranquil reservoir above come crashing over the dam and into the creek below gave me a greater appreciation for just how much power even a small project involves. I’m looking forward to working more on my seminar’s project throughout the semester and presenting my group’s findings at the Environmental Studies Woodin Colloquium on December 8th.

Good To Be Back

I vividly remember a few months ago running with my friend from Middlebury through the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina on a cold, rainy Sunday. We were a bit lost and quickly running further and further into an unfamiliar neighborhood.  We were looking around us at the run-down buildings, not catching even a glimpse of sun and pounding our tired feet on hard pavement. We were keeping fairly quiet and just running, hoping to soon see a landmark that would orient us in the city. We were speeding up and both pretty antsy, and I looked to her and said, “Just imagine, in a few weeks, we will be back at Middlebury, in the hot summer, running on the Trail Around Middlebury through the plush, green woods, breathing in cows and grass and proctor granola, knowing exactly where we are.” The thought of being back at Middlebury and running together from our senior year housing was unbearably exciting and felt like an unimaginable dream. Ironically, a few weeks before leaving for abroad, I am sure that we had a similar conversation about how excited we were to soon be in a huge city, speaking solely our beloved second language of Spanish and being far from the words organic and snow.  Sure enough, leaving Middlebury and seeing the world from a completely different angle was unbelievably necessary and rewarding. I absolutely loved being abroad in a place that was essentially the opposite of Middlebury for a semester, and I was extraordinarily happy during my semester abroad.  However, I would say that the greatest part of being abroad was coming back to Middlebury. Towards the end of abroad, it didn’t seem real that I was not only coming back to live in the United States again, but that I had one more year to spend at Middlebury College. Before leaving, I took for granted that I was constantly surrounded by my best friends along with a couple thousand remarkable peers all of whom were eager to talk, eat, run, walk, play or simply hang out at most hours of the day. Being abroad gave me a lot of independent, alone time, as well as daily opportunities to reach out and meet new people from a distinct culture.  While I have yet to speak with one friend that has spent time abroad and been disappointed or unhappy with it, I can pretty fairly say that everyone is unbelievably grateful and energized to be back at Middlebury for one last year and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.  While leaving and heading powerfully to a new, foreign city is quite stimulating, being able to come back to having delicious meals prepared for you daily, having running courses mapped out through clearly marked trails, living next door to all of your best friends, watching the leaves slowly turn bright colors, taking classes in the language that comes most naturally to you in subjects that most interest you and feeling pretty comfortable pretty much always is the craziest, most thrilling opportunity of all.

Gettin’ Down and Dirty at the Bike Shop

At Middlebury, having a bike is like having Cheez-its in your room.  Not really necessary, but extremely convenient.  The operative difference here is that it is not necessary to grease the bearings of your Cheez-its.

The solution for this is the campus bike shop.   The student-run, college-owned Bike Shop is located in the basement of Adirondack House.  When the shop is open (Wednesday through Saturday evenings), anyone can bounce in with their bicycle-related woes and find all the equipment and help they could possibly need.  Students who know their way around bikes hang around, making sure that everyone’s needs are being addressed.  There are enough spare parts sitting around that you could (and many do) bring in an old frame, scavenge the remaining parts, and build a bike from scratch.  For free.  Pretty sweet.

Thursday sessions are spiced up by the Fencing club, which holds its practice directly above us in the Coltrane Lounge.  This ensures that you work quickly, given that it sounds like the ceiling could collapse at any moment.  Adirondack House is one of the oldest buildings on campus.

My involvement in the Bike Shop started when I took the J-term Bike Maintenance workshop.  In four two-hour sessions, we learned all the basics of bike maintenance – changing tires, replacing cables, greasing axles, adjusting shifters, etc.  Since then, I’ve been in and out, sometimes to fix real problems, and sometimes to create imaginary problems so I can then repair them.

Sometimes, when you are a student, you need to work with your hands.  That’s why the Bike Shop is such a great place.