Author Archives: Zachary Mollengarden

Boom goes the dynamite

Intellectual fireworks often go off at Middlebury. Generally, they are of the metaphorical variety: Two students are finishing off a marathon dinner and the conversation turns to the seminar they just attended. There, one student, for perhaps the third time that week, thought about an issue in a way he or she had never considered before. The dining mate commiserates, and then they argue, and things go from there—personal growth ensues.
Last Thursday night, I experienced fireworks of a different variety. I had curled up with Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic for the evening (a surly bed partner if there ever was one), gradually becoming enmeshed in the work. Suddenly, Weber’s points were hitting me with palpable strength. The walls shook with every “however,” each “therefore” boomed across the room. Indeed, there was a hue to the words, now red, now blue, now glittering silver. I looked up from the book toward my window to find the Winter Carnival fireworks in full force. Take away point? Weber’s pretty good. Relationship to this blog? Middlebury makes him better.

Away for the Holidays

Sarah’s “Thanks and Snow” post touched briefly upon what life is like for those of us that cannot (or choose not) to make it home for Thanksgiving. My four Thanksgivings might offer a reasonable opportunity for expansion.
Freshman year: I was on the border between sticking around and buying a plane ticket home to Alabama (gratuitous link, I apologize; I just can’t help myself). On the one hand, I didn’t want to miss out on the first chance to compare college notes with my friends from home. I had some idea of the one-upsmanship that would be going on–“no, no, no, we study harder, and party harder, and have better burger nights than y’all ever do at XYZ University”–and didn’t want Middlebury to be entirely out of the mix. Things had been going well though, and I thought it might be nice to work on final papers (sleep), study ahead (sleep), and get some exercise (maybe eat something) at Middlebury. As luck would have it, one of my roommates offered to take an Alabaman refugee home with him for the holidays. I met his parents, his little sister, his grandparents, his “home friends,”–all of the context that we often miss here. I ate well, slept on a real bed, and got to feel clean carpet under my bare feet for the first time in months.
Sophomore year: Apparently not as enthralled by clean carpeting, I decided to stay in my room on campus. There were a number of other international/southern/western students around, but it was quiet. Too quiet?  For me, no. For many others, perhaps yes. I thought it was  interesting to see the contrast between Middlebury in and out of session. The sidewalks were filled with families from town usually scared away by the huddled masses. And the Thanksgiving meal? Weybridge, the all organic, generally vegetarian, eco-friendly, insert other adjective related to “crunchy” here, house had that well taken care of.
Junior year: While in England I enjoyed my first, and I imagine last, Thanksgiving meal in a tuxedo. The provost of my college invited the American students over to  his home, where he proceeded to ridicule the runaway colonies and pumpkin pie for the majority of the evening. All of the insults were, of course, just sarcastic enough to reveal that was how he truly felt. Regardless, the meal was wonderful, and I didn’t spill anything on the tux–success all around.
Senior year:  I once again seriously contemplated flying home. For the same reasons as Freshmen year (along with my being a frighteningly frugal young man), I decided to stick around. Yet once again, I found myself on Thanksgiving day surrounded by the family members of a close friend. I now proudly count Glastonbury, Connecticut; Oxford, England; and New Paltz, New York among my top four places to celebrate thanksgiving. I also recognize that while the holidays are indeed a time to be spent with family and friends, exploring something new with the latter can be a rewarding exercise. Do sweet potatoes really need marshmallows on top? Aren’t they already sweet potatoes? Or, somewhat more significantly, what does one say when the turkey prepared in England is far, far better than anything you have ever tasted in the US? All questions for another post, along with whether I’ve had thanksgiving in more than four places anyway.

The J-Term Game!

With Winter Term registration come and gone, now is an ideal time to play one of my favorite games. Below are ten Winter Term courses. Five are real. Five are fake.

I should preface this by noting that the J-Term Game (©)  should not be construed as a comment on the academic or other value of any of the real courses. Please direct all complaints to my colleague, Arthur Choo.  Answers below: T = True, F = Fake.

1)      “Modern Family” and the Modern Family

In this course, we explore the relationship between the ABC sitcom and the “real,” modern American family.  What can sitcom culture teach us about gender and familial roles in 21st century American life? What is the dialectic between the two?

2)      Experiential Anatomy & Yoga  

Experiential anatomy involves learning about the body through the body. In this anatomy and kinesiology course, we will study the skeletal system the neuro-muscular, endocrine, organ, and circulatory systems.

3)      Dancing in the Dark

An exploration of shadow, movement, and the human form, this course will ask its participants to play with all three concepts in a series of improvisational and “scripted” performances without the benefit of standard lighting.

4)      Arachnophobia, Arachnophilia

For many people arachnids trigger fear, from simple unease to clinical arachnophobia. For others, arachnids evoke admiration and inspiration. We will examine depictions of arachnids and why they elicit such divergent psychological responses.

5)      Giving Meaning to Ordinary Time: Exploring the Jewish Sacred Calendar

Beginning with an overview of the history and evolution of Jewish culture and religion, we will examine the holy days and holidays of Judaism. We will also examine contemporary issues of gender, emerging practices, and the portrayal of religious holidays in pop culture.

6)      Lipids and the Obesity “Epidemic”

The expanding, American waste-band poses a challenge to policy makers, sociologists, and economists alike. In this course, we look at the biological foundations of weight gain. What can science teach us about weight gain, and what implications could this knowledge have for policy makers?

7)      Persuasive Legal Writing

In this intensive reading and writing course, students will practice writing persuasive arguments while analyzing contemporary legal issues. We will acquire a basic understanding of the way disputes are resolved within the U.S. legal system.

8)      How to Win Friends and Influence People

Dale Carnegie’s iconic, self-help book suggests there is an identifiable formula for gaining friends and social authority. Is he right? In this course we adopt the social scientist’s analytical method to explore the validity of what has become a veritable Bible for the 20th century “social climber.”

9)      “Alternative” Music

The very existence of “alternative rock” suggests that we can identify a “conventional  rock.” Exploring the development of rock through the 1980s and 1990s, we will attempt to answer whether such a title makes musical sense. The course will include extended explorations of Nirvana, the Stone Temple Pilots, and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

10)   Journeys to the Edge: Mountain Exploration and Adventure

In this course, we will examine the history and culture of mountain exploration and adventure through literature, nonfiction narrative, film, and guest presentations.  Students will trace changing cultural attitudes toward risk, adventure, masculinity, and wildness.


Answers: (1) F (2) T (3) F (4) T (5) T (6) F (7) T (8) F (9) F (10) T.





Pumping (relatively small amounts of) Iron

       When I’m feeling a little too big for my britches, I go to the gym. Of course, that works in two senses. The first doesn’t require explaining here. The second merits a little more attention. At Middlebury, there is no such thing as a “varsity gym” (or its neglected twin, the “plebe gym”). One gym serves everyone, varsity athletes and the not-so varsity alike. This means that if I hit the gym at the right time, I can expect to follow the offensive line on the bench, the basketball team at the pull-up bar, and maybe a cross-country runner on the treadmill.
       At home, I go to a community center gym. I don’t know about anyone else’s community, but judging by the fitness center on most afternoons, mine is not terribly athletic. I follow the retired lawyer with a bad hip on the bench, last year’s softball MVP on the pull up bar, and a variety of power walkers on the treadmill.
       Yet I have found the feeling you get working out in each is strikingly similar. Perhaps that is because Middlebury’s athletic community is so difficult to distinguish from Middlebury at large.  Sure, they have a lot of swag. But aside from the t-shirts and warm ups, they look, act, and think just like anyone else here. So when I head to the gym, I have no reason to expect anything different than when I head to the community center. What’s more, I have no reason to expect anything different than when I head to the library.  Sure, I’m impressed when the line gets done hoisting their own body weight over their heads. But that impression isn’t all that different from the one I get when I see the same student carrying an equally impressive stack of books to his carrel in the library.
       We all work, and work pretty hard, whether at the gym, the library, or wherever else. More importantly, we appreciate all of that work—and my britches are nice and comfy wherever I go.

Round Tables/Long Tables

Say you head to the dining hall for lunch one afternoon with a group of friends. You grab your food, your drink, a few napkins (maybe you’re a messy eater–that’s OK), and then meet with your friends again to grab a table.

If you are at Middlebury, and you happen to be at either Ross or Proctor dining halls, you head to one of the long tables, and that is that. You sit across from your friends, and it doesn’t make much of a difference who might be in the general vicinity. Barring a neighbor smelling exceptionally funky, where you actually sit probably won’t matter.

If you go to Atwater dining hall, on the other hand, things are going to be trickier. Atwater only has round tables.

Let’s get back to our scenario. Say you go to lunch around mid-day, things are pretty crowded, and there isn’t a pristine, unoccupied table available. You and your friends are left with two options. If the weather is nice, you can head outside and find a place to sit down. If it’s not, it’s either take a seat on the floor or take the proverbial plunge.

In other words, the odds dictate that between the months of November and March, you are going to have to join a group of relative strangers for lunch. Better/Worse yet, due to the magical nature of circles, your most obvious conversation partner probably won’t be one of your friends.

Long preface, here’s the point: Middlebury is the kind of place where sitting at that table is not only OK but encouraged. Further, Middlebury is the kind of place where that table ends up sharing a conversation. It would be awkward, but doable, to sit down and not make eye contact with any of the strangers sitting nearby. It would be awkward, but doable, to speak to only your friends in hushed tones for the course of the meal.

Instead, the scene you will find at Atwater on any given afternoon is not unlike the one you might expect during freshmen orientation. Students are shaking hands, introducing themselves, and running through the standard introductory conversation. What’s your name? Where are you from? What are you studying? From there, the discussion can take any number of turns.

A common denominator at Middlebury is curiosity. Of course, intellectual curiosity, but social curiosity as well. I met Matt from Little Rock yesterday. He’s a sophomore and majoring in economics. He played club soccer throughout high school, so we spent most of lunch comparing notes on clubs we knew throughout the Southeast.

A situation unique to Middlebury? I certainly hope not. But the takeaway message here is fairly clear: round table or long table, you’re in for a pleasant lunch.

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.