Category Archives: Academics

Academic Atmosphere at Middlebury

FINALS WEEK— where the most wonderful time of the year turns into the most stressful time of the year. A time where students across the country are up to their ears in work and sleep and sanity are at all time lows. While Middlebury is certainly no exception to this rule, it has been my experience that although stress is high during this time, that there is something about the collective culture here that makes everything a little more bearable. Here are some reasons I’ve come up with to explain what that has meant to me:
  1.  Students are not competitive with each other: Contrary to the experience I had in high school, when everyone was competing for the same goal of getting into college, I truly find that while Middlebury students are quite competitive with themselves, we are not competitive with each other. None of my friends or classmates would ever ask me what my GPA was because they genuinely would not care. If someone did ask me about a specific grade, it would probably be because they wanted to see if I did something differently to receive a better or worse grade and not because they wanted to compete with me. I think a lot of this stems from the fact that unlike high school, college students choose a wider variety of paths. I think this is further strengthened  at Middlebury because it is a Liberal Arts school where students are much more likely to be taking different types of classes, have different majors, and different aspirations than they would be if you went to a larger university where you were enrolled in a specific school or program.
  2. Collective Atmosphere: Since there isn’t much competition between students I find that the academic atmosphere is more collective. When you have a lot of work the chances are that others have a lot of work as well, which certainly fosters the “all in this together” atmosphere. This is only strengthened during finals when, due to Middlebury’s physical size, everyone studies in the same places.
  3.  Supportive environment: Being with everyone is in the library with a lot of work strengthens the feeling of our collective identity as Midd kids. This collective identity, coupled with the fact that we aren’t trying to compete with each other, fosters a very supportive environment amongst students. It is very common in times like these to hear exchanges between students where they both talk about their long to do lists and then provide words of encouragement. When you have three papers to write in two days, hearing that someone else has three papers and an exam to complete in the same amount of time is comforting, because, in a strange way, you feel less alone.

Not Competitive–>Collective Atmosphere —> Supportive Environment.

I am certainly not trying to say there isn’t high stress at Middlebury, or, that we all sit around in a circle giving each other back massages and smiling during finals week. I think we all need to try to put less pressure on ourselves as individuals, to try harder to  remember the bigger picture, why we are here and why we want to learn in the first place. What I am trying to say, is that in times of high academic stress it has been my experience that the students seem to really come together and support each other. As I go into my seventh finals period as a Middlebury student, I think I have finally realized how positively this supportive environment has effected my academic experience.

Exploration, Discovery, and Inspiration

Every once in a while, you’ll find that professor who gives you free range on essays. I have always found that Middlebury professors want you to be inspired by your work, that they encourage you to be innovative and creative in your research and papers, but that often still comes with prompts and structure. Every so often, though, you will walk into a class that is all about exploration. I am currently enrolled in two classes in which the professor provides structure for essays but also makes it very clear that she does not want to tell us what to explore. Every essay comes with a “your choice” prompt. Pedagogically, she wants us to find something that means a great deal to us in the hopes that we will use this topic to really let us grow and develop as students and people. Giving us free range allows us to be the best possible versions of ourselves, because we want to learn as much as we can about a subject for reasons that are not purely rooted in obtaining a good grade.

While it may seem obvious that writing about something you are interested in is more rewarding than writing about something about which you care little, but it has really come into focus for me this semester. I am currently working on an essay about various works of the children’s author Kate DiCamillo, and I am not writing about her because she was assigned reading, but instead because I happened to pick up Because of Winn-Dixie on a plane and fell in love. I immediately wanted to read everything she had written, and more than that, I wanted to bring all of this reading together in an academic way that would then become part of my Middlebury learning experience. I actually wanted to write an essay on this author. Just reading her work wasn’t enough; I needed to pull apart her novels, see how they fit together and where they find their place in the literary canon. Because I was given free range over what to write my essay about, I was free to find my own inspiration, and this has led to writing a really fun essay that I can honestly say I am proud of.

As an English major, I have written many an essay in my time at Middlebury. I have been given a lot of freedom in my writing, and I have also been put under a lot of constraints. Each essay has led to new discoveries and a deeper understanding of not only the material, but also who I am as a student. Not essay assignment, though, has really exemplified the Middlebury ideals of exploration, discovery, and inspiration in the way this essay has. Every once in a while, you’ll find that professor who gives you free range on essays, and every once in a while your whole perspective will change.

Monet, Middlebury, and the Musée d’Orsay

Over spring break, I made a quick hop across the Atlantic on a vacation to Paris with my parents and two of my siblings. It was a great trip — we ate plenty of fantastic food and saw all there is to see of the City of Lights. It was also nice to catch up with my siblings and parents. In addition to walking the Seine and the Champs-Élysées, the trip was an opportunity to wander the halls of some of the world’s most renowned galleries of art.

While visiting the Lourve, the Musée d’Orsay, the museum/garden housing the sculptures of Auguste Rodin, and the national museum of Picasso, I was struck by how what I had learned in art history at Middlebury all came rushing back to me. I took a course called Monuments and Ideas in Western Art my sophomore year, which was taught in the History of Art and Architecture department. I had never taken an art history course before, and knew very little about art outside of being able to recognize the big-name artists that occupy places of honor in galleries like the Lourve.

However, while taking the course I was completely enthralled. In many ways, the course was both a broad and deep introduction to what a person needs to know to be an educated consumer of art, even art as varied as sculpture, painting, and architecture. We began our exploration in antiquity, examining depictions of Caeser Augustus and various Greek gods in sculpture, and ended with the perplexing and thought-provoking postwar work of Picasso on canvas.

"Poppy Field," 1873, by Claude Monet is in the Musée d'Orsay and was one of my favorite pieces that I saw there during my recent visit.

“Poppy Field,” 1873, by Claude Monet is in the Musée d’Orsay and was one of my favorite pieces that I saw there during my recent visit.

While visiting the museums of Paris, I was surprised at my ability to take what I had learned several semesters ago and apply it to the art in front of me. It is a testament to the dedication and skill of Middlebury professors, like my professor of Art History. Faculty at Middlebury work tirelessly when teaching a course so that students from a variety of academic backgrounds or interests find the material highly informative, memorable, and rewarding for a lifetime of learning.

Of course, the credit also goes to the liberal arts philosophy of Middlebury. The College has a commitment to broad learning across many different disciplines through the distribution requirements, such as the Art requirement, that cause students (myself included) to explore new and important areas of the curriculum that they might not encounter on their own. You never know where knowledge you pick up at Middlebury is going to serve you well, whether in the museums of France or another locale far across the globe.

Choosing Your Advisor

It might seem strange that a senior, well into her major by now, is writing about the advisor-choosing process.  And it should, because that process took place quite a long time ago for me.  However, I find myself frequently telling the story of how I chose my advisor freshman year, because it continues to amaze me how incredibly lucky I was.

On the first day of my second semester, I walked into a class for which I was not registered. I hesitantly walked up to the professor and simply said, “Hi, I’m Stevie. May I please add this class, and I know this probably seems strange, but will you be my advisor?” I had never met this professor, nor had I ever taken a class in the department in which I was declaring my major. I just had a feeling. In response, this professor—who didn’t know anything about me save my first name—said, “Sure!” I knew the second she walked into the room that this professor would be someone from whom I was going to learn a great deal, someone to whom I could go for advice, someone who would make a large impact on my Middlebury years. It turns out, I was right. Almost four years later, this professor continues to be my advisor, serves as my thesis advisor, and also teaches two of the classes in which I am currently enrolled.

When I was touring colleges, many students told me they had close relationships with their professors. Every time I heard this, I thought it sounded important and wonderful, but I couldn’t image that I would have the confidence to foster a strong relationship with a professor outside of the classroom. What I have found, however, is that becoming close to my advisor at Middlebury didn’t take effort or overwhelming confidence. Instead, it took a shared interest in her academic field and a desire to learn from each other.

In a good advisor, you find someone who is demanding of that which is difficult and is compassionate about that which is most difficult. Your advisor should be someone to whom you go for advice not only on academics, but really about anything. Being at Middlebury can sometimes come with its fair share of stresses, and your advisor is there to help you navigate the rougher waters. He or she knows you are capable of greatness, but also understands that you are human. An advisor’s ability to balance your perspectives can be a lifesaver.

When I look back on my Middlebury years, I know I will remember my teammates, my housemates, and my friends; I’ll remember that incredible class that changed my life and that class that seemed like it might destroy me. There will be books I cherish and lessons I’ll carry with me forever. And at the head of all of this will stand the incredible influence that has been my advisor.

Never Stop Exploring

The North Face company got it right: never stop exploring.  But it doesn’t always have to involve the wilderness, which in Vermont can get pretty aggressive around this wintery time of year.  No, the exploring I’m talking about happens in the Middlebury classroom.  We are constantly being encouraged to take classes that force us to work outside of our comfort zones.  Our advisors tell us to do this, our friends tell us to do this, our professors tell us to do this, even our graduation requirements tell us to do this (and we definitely want to listen to those), but what we really need is to actually do it.  In order to receive my diploma at the end of my four years, I know I need to fulfill seven of our eight distribution requirements and all four of our cultural requirements, and I have done so.  I took Germany in the 19th Century because I needed a history class, I took Funerary Arts of East Asia as my AAL (Asia, Africa, Latin America), and I took Epic Greek and Roman Poetry to fulfill my philosophy requirement, but did that all just kind of defeat the point?  Sure, I know I feel as though I am a more well-rounded student for having taken those classes, and I learned a lot about other cultures I never could have learned in my majors or minor, but was I truly pushing myself outside of my comfort zone if I was being told I had to fulfill these requirements?  Maybe.  But maybe not.

I am grateful Middlebury has asked me to fulfill a myriad of courses outside of my typical schedule, but what I was missing, what Middlebury could not provide for me, was a class I took entirely by my own coercion.  In my first three years, I never took a class about which I had to fight with myself.  This semester, that changed, however.  I took a class that did not fulfill any major or minor, distribution, or cultural requirements.  No one told me to take this class; I just took it.  The class is called Writing for Children, and, I will admit, it is taught by my advisor, who is one of my favorite professors on campus.  Doesn’t sound too scary, right?  What am I talking about going outside of my comfort zone?  This is a 100 level course in my department of study taught by someone with whom I have a close relationship.  Well, it’s not all quite so easy.  The catch: this is a creative writing course.  While I am passionate about the subject of this course–which is familiar to me–I am absolutely terrified of expressing creativity, especially creativity in the form of the written word.  The idea of crafting a piece with my mind and my heart only to have it put on display and torn apart by my peers is not something I find enjoyable.  The ideas of the class: totally up my alley.  The application of the material: heavens no!

What I have found is that, even though each time I write a piece for workshop my chest closes up a bit in sheer horror, I also get really excited.  This is new.  This is unfamiliar.  This is really fun.  I had always been too afraid of the criticism to take a creative writing class at Middlebury, but as a student in this class I have grown to appreciate others’ opinions not as judgement but as helpful suggestions and a mutual appreciation of the difficulty of this process.  The workshop environment is one in which I have never found myself, and it is one I always assumed I would loathe.  It turns out, there is a great deal I can learn when I force myself to do something terrifying.  This class has proven to be one of the most enjoyable and self-realizing classes I have had the pleasure to take at Middlebury.  Doing something that seems emotionally impossible is in every way beneficial.

You might think senior year is the year in which you finally get to just relax in your major, but I’ve found it’s exactly the right time to never stop exploring.

Time for a Thesis

Last week, all seniors received an email from the library staff encouraging students to sign up for a senior thesis carrel.  A thesis carrel is a small desk on the upper or lower levels of the library which senior thesis writers can reserve for the semester.

This sign-up email made me realize that I was about to embark on an academic project I had been anticipating almost since the start of my time at Middlebury.  During this fall semester and Winter Term, I will be writing a History thesis.  For some reason, as I read through this email, it struck me how near I am to finishing my majors (History and Political Science), and how much academic work I’ve progressed through at Middlebury.  At Middlebury, some majors require a thesis, some majors require it only if a student wants to receive departmental honors, but almost all departments require some form of senior work or capstone project.

There is a typical life cycle to a thesis carrel throughout the year.  Invariably, while writing a thesis, students acquire a stack of books and papers that pile on the carrel.  Printed out rough drafts with edits marked in pen cover the desk.  Post-it notes with encouraging messages from friends appear on the carrel’s upper shelf.  Empty coffee mugs dot the rows of carrels.

I took a course designed to prepare History majors for the thesis during the fall of my junior year, when I wrote a 30-page research paper on 1890s Malawi.  This junior thesis was a great way to get experience in finding primary sources.  It also introduced me to the fantastic staff in our library and the College Archives.  The librarians can help you find information on seemingly every topic under the sun.  Even History topics that seem very far removed from Vermont and the United States (like Malawi or the Ottoman Empire) are accessible thanks to the help of the library staff.

Getting to claim a carrel for my senior thesis makes it feel like I am graduating from an introductory thesis to the real deal. As a History and Political Science double major, I have been thinking about how I can craft a thesis that has a focus on an international relations or political institutions theme.  I returned relatively recently from Turkey, where I spent the spring semester of my junior year abroad in Istanbul.  The courses I took at a university there have influenced my thinking on a thesis topic, and as I write this I hope to research a topic that has to do with the 19th-century Ottoman Empire.

It is an extraordinary thing to be an undergraduate and have the opportunity to work closely with a professor to do original research on a topic.  I am grateful for my adviser’s assistance and will no doubt rely on his expertise in historical inquiry as I begin the marathon that is a senior thesis.

A typical History thesis is between 60-70 pages, and the scale of the project can seem daunting.  But when I think ahead to the books and research, I am not so much nervous as I am excited.  I can’t wait to get started.

Last Semester Blues

When you come visit us in the Middlebury Admissions office, we play a short video profiling a few Middlebury students to set the tone for the information session and tour to follow. While most of the movie is upbeat and sunny, in the last few moments a senior reflects on how sad she will be to graduate and leave Middlebury. It’s kind of a somber moment but it perfectly encapsulates our love for this place.

Normally, I sit in and watch the video before I start my information session, tapping my feet in time to the music and quoting the lines with the professors on screen. I know this video by heart now; I even dream it sometimes. When the video ends, I transition from the reflective last line to my silly description of a Texas girl buying snowshoes for the first time with a cheerful “And on THAT note!”

But that was last semester, fall semester, when the senior in ‘Senior Fellow’ felt more like a fancy title than an actual state of being. This state of being has an expiration date, and that date seems significantly closer on this side of j-term.

Today was our last first day of classes at Middlebury. There was the usual first-day jumble of adding or dropping classes, decoding the building acronyms on our schedules, and tumbling into the last chair in class with only a few minutes. But the “lastness” of it really hit me when I was rushing to fill up my tea thermos between classes and I overheard two brand new febs talking near the coffee pot. As I wiggled between them to grab some hot water, I heard one of the febs ask the other where the forks were in the dining hall. The other laughed and pointed to the enormous and fairly obvious island of utensils right behind her. For some reason, this small and silly interaction made me suddenly sad and nostalgic. Here these two new febs were discovering the utensil island for the first time and I’d been grabbing forks nonchalantly from that area for three and a half years now! I suddenly felt extremely old.

So now as I sit here on my last first day of classes, I’m vowing to walk into my information session after the video finishes playing. I’m doing this for all of you, future visitors, so that you don’t have to spend the first ten minutes of your first visit to Middlebury comforting a bawling senior fellow. Don’t get me wrong, I am so excited for all of you to come visit this spring and I can’t wait to talk to you as you start your journey here. But I am also insanely jealous that you have these next four years ahead of you.

As for me, time to start savoring the last four months.

Writing Adventure

This j-term I decided to get really out of my comfort zone by taking a class called ‘Adventure Writing and Digital Storytelling’, an awesome class that involved doing a host of things I never have before: cold calling strangers to take me bobcat hunting (that one didn’t work out unfortunately), making short documentary videos, writing a 15+ page non-fiction creative writing piece, dog sledding, cross country skiing, and skating on river ice. I even helped film an event called the ‘Primitive Biathlon’ – it’s a great sport involving black powder rifles and old-fashioned snowshoes. (If you haven’t googled this event yet do so now… it just might become your newest obsession).

That’s what I love about j-term – not only is it a time to relax from the usual semester routine but it’s also a time to put yourself out there in new and unexpected ways. One year I was so determined to get out of my comfort zone I took Introduction to Studio Art – a big leap for artistically challenged me!

There’s also a general buzz of, well, adventure everywhere you go on campus. People are piling into cars to go to the Snow Bowl or Sugarbush or Mad River in one parking lot, putting on snowshoes and hiking around the golf course in another, and on their way to a swing dance or standing back-flip workshop in yet another. It’s easy to put yourself out there and try new activities when everyone around you is eager to do the same thing. And that right there is the magic of j-term: having the time and the drive to start the year off with something (or somethings) completely new and unexpected.

If you need proof, check out the video I made of one of my adventures this month: https://vimeo.com/85370826

Bye bye January – we miss you already!

Classes Classes Classes Galore!

November 13th had been on my calendar for about 2 weeks. My alarm was set for 6:55 am. The night of the 12th, I put my laptop next to my bed and stuck a post it to it with all my desired classes and their numbers so I could register at 7am. November 13th was my last registration of college.

Registration is the process by which students choose their classes for the next semester. The week before you’ll hear the dining hall buzzing with “are you taking this class” or “I really want to take that class but I bet its going to fill up with seniors” or “that professor is supposed to be awesome!” and for the first time I was in the first batch to register. Registration goes according to class year, so as the oldest in the school, we get first pick!

As I started looking through the course catalog and started writing down classes I wanted to pick, it occurred to me that I could only take four! I remember sophomore year, thinking that as a senior I would take three classes, have a fun last semester, and now that the time has come I wanted to take 8!!! I finally decided to take cartographic design, modern architecture, economic history and thought, and the global economy.

As I submitted my classes, I realized that was it. I would never again have to look at classes for future semesters and decide what to take, and I smiled because I’m going to enjoy my new classes to the fullest!

 

 

Not Your Average Saturday

Last Saturday, instead of digging into my homework in the library or (as is more likely) avoiding the day’s chill in my sweatpants and LL Bean moccasins (guilty as charged, Nathan LaBarba), I was lucky enough to attend a lecture series here on campus called TEDx. An offshoot of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) organization, TEDx events are individually, locally organized events in the TED tradition of promoting ‘ideas worth spreading’. The event combined a sprinkling of TED videos with live speakers discussing their experience in a wide range of fascinating topics, from the revitalization of Central Park to the study of empathy and doctors’ bedside manners. There was even a student speaker, a current senior chosen by the TEDx committee to reflect on the college experience from the perspective of both an introvert and an extrovert.

Needless to say, it was a fascinating day. When the session broke for lunch, my friends and I crowded around a table with our Noonies sandwiches and soups, discussing the overlaps between each talk. I have to admit, this is one of my favorite parts about academics here at Middlebury, too. If you take the time to reflect on each of your courses year after year, it is incredible to see the overlaps, the continuities, the meaningful discrepancies.

The best part of the day, though, was not the insightful speakers or even the food (though the apple cider doughnuts were pretty hard to beat), but it was the vast swath of the Middlebury student body present at the talks. There are a million different ways to spend a Saturday at Middlebury, most of them much less intellectually overwhelming than TEDx. But on Saturday I ran into  friends from all walks of Middlebury life (and several Senior Fellows!), each as excited as the next as they alluded to the forum’s themes, “Research, Rethink, Rebuild”.

Middlebury is many things, and if you’ve ever attended one of our information sessions on campus I’m sure we’ve made that evident. Focused as my sessions are on the internal growth that comes with the Middlebury experience, I often forget to state that ultimately, Middlebury is a great big incubator for new ideas worth spreading. Sitting in the CFA concert hall, full to bursting with locally-sourced cider doughnuts, I was reminded of the diversity of new ideas being developed, spread, and implemented here on campus. And as I chatted with my friends at the forum, many of us seniors attending TEDxMiddlebury while we still can, I couldn’t help but wonder what bright ideas students like us will spread when we leave for the wider world.