April 3, 2020

Dear Amherst Faculty, Students, Staff, Alumni, and Families,

I am writing to provide you with some reflections at the end of our second week of remote learning. But, first, I want to extend my best wishes to each and every one of you. I hope that you and your loved ones are well and safe and that you are finding workable and even meaningful ways to spend this difficult period of social distancing.

As you know, close colloquy between faculty and students is Amherst’s signature. We are feeling the loss of one another’s presence and we will continue to feel it for some time to come. Nonetheless, our faculty, staff, and students have made a remarkable shift from on-campus to remote education. Students reported relief on the first day of classes after spring break at seeing and interacting with their professors and friends. Faculty members have developed engaging ways of teaching and supporting student learning for the second half of this spring semester, aided by a remarkable staff in Information Technology, the Center for Teaching and Learning, and many other offices. We know the shift has been difficult in a variety of ways, but the short survey we sent to faculty at the end of week one suggests that the technology is working well and that faculty, staff, and students have been resilient, creative, and intrepid. I have no doubt that we will learn from this unbidden experience, both about the uses of online tools and about why residential education and our physical presence to one another matter.

We are living through an extraordinarily difficult and frightening time. In addition to the ravages of the illness itself and the intolerable number of people it is taking, we are faced with other losses: the freedom to move about in the world; to study, work, and play in close proximity to one another; to share space with one another without anxiety. There is a sense of loss in the realization that as a country we were so ill-prepared for a pandemic and so at odds about our individual and collective responsibility to help stem its spread. It is important to acknowledge these and other losses and shocks, to find time and healthy ways to mourn them, and to draw good conclusions from them, even as we continue doing what’s necessary to get to a better place.

Looking reality in the eye at a time like this, acknowledging and working through feelings, and thinking can be painfully hard and often exhausting. It is important in the midst of this crisis to look away, to get absorbed in things we enjoy, to make a priority of staying in touch, and even at times to indulge our capacities for forgetting. But recognizing, affirming, and thinking through our feelings is essential to our own welfare and to avoiding the destructive and worrisome tendency among some to channel fear and frustration into prejudice and hate.

The problem of anti-Asian bias has taken hold as the pandemic has spread. Asian and Asian American members of our community and of many other communities across the nation have been taunted and verbally harassed; in far too many places they have also been physically attacked in racist incidents that rend the already tattered fabric of our national and global communities. Racism is a scourge that we need to fight with all the tools at our disposal—including scientific knowledge about how viruses emerge and spread, and the fact that their search for hosts does not discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity and spares no group. We can make a difference in the fight against racism of all kinds. All of us stand against it; we can intervene when we witness racist behaviors or hear racist remarks. We can seek help for those who are targeted, if intervening is not possible. We can proactively offer support. We can educate ourselves about the history and current structures of race, ethnicity, and racism in the United States. And we can all make the time and muster the courage to acknowledge our own vulnerability in the face of this virus, to feel compassion for self and for others, and to stand against the racism and hate that is still too available in the culture as a way to misdirect anxiety.

We are vulnerable and also incredibly strong. The smooth transition to remote learning and the creativity with which our community has risen to a challenge that none of us signed up for give reason for hope, admiration, and even celebration. Our students are finding ways to preserve social interaction: we have heard reports of remote Netflix-watching gatherings; a first-year student on campus, Haoran Tong ’23, has launched an online poetry seminar for his peers; current students are engaging by group chat and email with admitted students to answer questions about Amherst.

Let me share a few more reasons for hope, admiration, and celebration. I begin with recent news about awards won by students and young alumni:

  • Jea Adams ’21 is among the newest recipients of a Goldwater Scholarship—considered the preeminent U.S. undergraduate award in mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics leading to an eventual career as a professor. Her scholarly interest is in characterizing and detecting exoplanets and the stars they orbit.
  • Ryan McMillan ’20, a 2019 Goldwater scholar, has won a National Science Foundation graduate fellowship to aid his work in molecular genetics. “This is extremely rare for an undergraduate,” says physics professor Kannan Jagannathan. Ryan has conducted his physics thesis research in Professor Ashley Carter’s lab and is slated to attend Harvard for graduate school.
  • Jonathan Che ’18, Anne Kou ’13, Bailey Plaman ’18, and Karen Smith ’18 have also been awarded National Science Foundation fellowships for graduate work in the sciences.
  • Enoch Shin ’21, a history and statistics double major, has won a 2020 Beinecke Scholarship, which honors students in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. He plans to use this scholarship to pursue a Ph.D. in history. His long-term goal: to become a scholar who can “guide wider audiences towards topics that are uncomfortable and challenging.”
  • Dakota Foster ’18 has been awarded a Knight Hennessy Scholarship to pursue a J.D. at Stanford Law School. Dakota is currently finishing an M.A. in history at Oxford as a Marshall Scholar. She plans a career in public service specializing in the interface between national security and information technology/artificial intelligence.

I know you’ll be interested in what our faculty members are doing to adapt coursework to new realities. Here are only a few examples:

  • For Geology 112, Associate Professor David Jones is making use of online resources, including the Science Education Resource Center, which offers virtual lab experiments, and GigaPan, whose panoramas allow viewers to zoom in on a single blade of grass and zoom out to appreciate the wider landscape. And, like many faculty members, he’s finding silver linings. He reports that the current situation offers an opportunity to develop accessible alternatives to geology field trips for students with mobility challenges. “I’m thinking of a student who may use a wheelchair and can’t easily hike to see a particular rock outcrop,” he says. “We can use these methods to bring that experience back to the student in an educationally meaningful way.”
  • Our performing arts faculty are similarly rising to the challenge. Arianne Abela, choral director and lecturer, has her students interviewing composers whose work they were to premiere this month; they are also writing texts about the current situation that Abela may set to music. At the same time, Abela is setting up a virtual choir, conducting with a piano, and creating a recording that students will listen to while singing their own parts. A sound engineer will collate the individual videos and synchronize the parts. I look forward to hearing this virtual ensemble performance.
  • Noting that “the arts are all about creative problem solving,” Professor of Dance Wendy Woodson is applying remote teaching and learning strategies to an art form that usually depends upon bodies being present in a space together, providing mutual inspiration and feedback. Each student in her “Solo Performance” course has been working on an individual final project. Those projects will continue, perhaps on video, says Woodson, who in the past has incorporated video into some of her own performance pieces.
  • In Benigno Sánchez-Eppler’s “Letter Writing and Epistolarity,” long-distance communication, now the teaching method, has always been the central topic. He and his students look back in history before the advent of social media and “try to understand what it was about letter writing that was connective and important,” he says. “The ironic thing is that the needs for writing letters get intensified by our present condition.” For their capstone project, two students will study correspondence gathered during these critical months away from campus, documenting “the intentional reactivation of letter writing as a conduit and as an active medium of intellectual work and personal, spiritual, friendly connection, one of the most important things that the College provides that we’re losing.”
  • In “Native Futures: Understanding Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Sovereignty,” the students’ final project is the creation of a ArcGIS story map, which uses mapping technology to create presentations integrating images, archival documents, and original text. The experience of “navigating virtual worlds as we work on that project will probably be useful,” says Assistant Professor of American Studies Kiara Vigil. “As much as this is an ending, it is also a beginning of new things that we might do and build together.”
  • Lee Spector, visiting professor of computer science, notes that online code-sharing and other remote work is common in his field, but it’s something typically practiced outside of the classroom, in the workforce.  He expects that, by the end of the semester, his students will have learned skills that directly relate to careers in software—skills “they wouldn’t have learned if we had finished the course in the normal way.”

We are thinking about the wellbeing of our Amherst College community members, and also of those in our broader local community. Thanks to the efforts of a number of faculty and staff members, the College has donated high-demand COVID-19 prevention supplies to the Town of Amherst Fire Department, Cooley Dickinson Hospital, Baystate Medical Center, and Whately Fire Department. As of March 30, we have donated 358 boxes of gloves, 320 masks, 30 pairs of heavy-duty goggles, 40 disposable gowns, and 10 Tyvek suits to these partners.

If, during this difficult time, you are feeling nostalgic for Amherst, we have created a page for you to bring a little bit of the College to wherever you are. Pick a campus photo or a Mammoth as your Zoom virtual background or computer wallpaper.

We had an unexpected visitor last week in the form of a moose. This is the second time during my presidency that a moose has jumped the fence in the back of the president’s house and taken a stroll around campus. One part of the animal’s tour took it directly in front of Converse Hall, as you can see in a video captured by Amherst College Police Sergeant Jeffrey Edwards and Officer Jessica Kirby.

In an address she gave in Germany long before the pandemic upturned our world, writer Zadie Smith remarked:

If novelists know anything it’s that individual citizens are internally plural: they have within them the full range of behavioral possibilities. They are like complex musical scores from which certain melodies can be teased out and others ignored or suppressed, depending, at least in part, on who is doing the conducting.

Smith lamented the number of mean and banal melodies on offer and closed by saying that “those of us who remember, too, a finer music must try now to play it, and encourage others, if we can, to sing along.”

Please play and sing a finer music and encourage others to sing along.


Biddy Martin