What I did last summer

Some students flipped burgers. Others interned on Wall Street. Still others traveled near and far to  build houses, take pictures or  mentor young children. Last week, we posted a message inviting all students to pen a few lines about how they spent their summer vacation. Here are the replies. Please log in (at upper right) to post your own summer-vacation story.

Also: Click here to find out how your favorite professors spent those long ago (or, in some cases, more recent) undergraduate summers.

 

Charles Quigg ’09

imageSabrina Dorman '09 works in Sierra Leone through the Seirra Leone Plymouth Partnership. Photo by Charlie Quigg '09. For more photos from this trip, visit Quigg's gallery. Along with Sam Grausz ’09, Sabrina Dorman ’09 and Josh Nathan ’10, I had a fantastic and enlightening summer working in three remote Sierra Leonean villages for the Sierra Leone Plymouth Partnership (SLPP), a small NGO started by Jeff Hall ’86 and a partner of the CCE’s Citizen Summer Program.  During our seven weeks in the villages, we worked to solidify SLPP’s recently started microloan program, expand access to clean water supplies, manage the construction of 150 new latrines and assist in providing excellent educational opportunities to village children, including an SLPP-sponsored summer school program.  

 

Jessica Mestre ’10

Thanks to a Fellowship for Action from the CCE, I spent 10 formative weeks on a public service internship in Montevideo, Uruguay. I worked with an NGO called Un Techo para mi Pais (A Roof for my Country), a youth-run organization, present in 12 countries in Central and South America, that is dedicated to eradicating poverty in Latin America and creating a social conscience among its youth. The group builds emergency housing and implements social development programs in marginalized settlements.

I was there in the middle of their winter campaign, working with the communications department. As a photographer, I coordinated and contributed to a photography installation in cooperation with a local photo club, created to denounce the realities of life in the settlements. Another significant project was the 8-page informational supplement about the organization, which was included in the national newspaper and distributed around the country.

While my time in the office was enjoyable, the most significant part of the experience for me was in the settlements themselves at the construction sites. Each crew consists of 5 or 6 crewmembers (who are typically university students), the crew captain (also a student), and the family members themselves. As you build the house, you also build deep connections with your crewmates and the people who will be living in the house. It is an empowering process for everyone involved. I will never forget sitting on top of the roof as I worked with Aldo to finish his home, or the kind words of appreciation that his wife, Veronica, shared at the ribbon cutting ceremony. I am immensely grateful for the opportunity.

View a gallery of Mestre's photos

Abby Murray ’11

I worked as a National Park Ranger. Yes, I wore the hat. Not to mention the gray and green, itchy, unflattering, soul-smothering uniform. I was sworn into the service of the Department of the Interior on June 22, and felt the enormity of my responsibilities settle onto my shoulders as I repeated my oath, and promised to protect the United States “...from all enemies foreign and domestic....” The oath, the uniform, my badge and special keys—these all made me feel very important.

I soon came to appreciate the subtle differences between rangers from different regions. Though I wore the same hat and took the same oath as rangers in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, I happened to be working in urban Cambridge, Mass. The Longfellow National Historic Site, although certainly a national treasure, was in no danger of forest fires, and its visitors needed no warnings not to feed the wild animals. My job was completely different from that of a ranger working in an outdoor park: I gave 45-minute tours about the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the house’s service as George Washington’s headquarters for nice months during the American Revolution.


At the end of the summer, I knew more about Longfellow than I ever thought I would want to know. Sometimes I got sick of him, I’ll admit. But it was a great job, and I’m considering it for next summer as well. My ranger hat, which sits on a lonely shelf in my closet, is calling to me.

 

Tim Butterfield ’12

After high school graduation, I spent the first week of summer in Northern California with three friends. We stayed at a cabin on Lake Tahoe and spent a few days in San Francisco and Sacramento. As a first-time tourist in San Francisco, I rode the cable cars, toured Alcatraz and visited the Golden GateBridge.



After California, I returned home to St. Louis, where I worked as a counselor and lifeguard at a local day camp. I worked every afternoon, playing with kids between the ages of 3 and 9 and enjoying swim time with them! I ran regularly throughout the summer as well, since that is my greatest passion. It was fun to explore new trails and roads in St. Louis as I trained for an upcoming marathon. I am continuing to run and explore here at Amherst.

 

Destry Sibley ’09

With the support of a CCE Fellowship for Action, I spent two months this summer in Bangladesh as a research intern for Building Resources Across Communities (BRAC), one of the world’s largest development organizations. I worked in the NGO’s economic development department, with a program that targets the poorest demographic in the country, called the “ultra poor.” I used the first four weeks of my visit to interview ultra poor women in rural areas and to construct their narratives into case studies. I wrote the program’s biannual progress report during the next four weeks. So I spent the first month conducting field-based qualitative research and the second half compiling quantitative research in the organization’s central office in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city. 

 

Nicol Zhou ’10

In July, I interned in the corporate/finance department at Rodyk and Davidson in Singapore. That job introduced me to the basics of corporate legal work and gave me a chance to do hands-on work with a number of lawyers at the firm. I attended client meetings, proofread and corrected contracts and studied the business of a corporate lawyer.

After my internship ended, I worked with the Singapore World Schools Debate Team—the team that is representing the country at the Washington, D.C., World Schools Tournament. The World Schools Tournament is the largest international debate competition at the high school level, with 35 to 40 nations represented every year. (In 2007, I served as a judge in the tournament, at the Seoul Worlds.) I trained with the Singapore national team extensively, debating against them in both closed training and public debates, and I was in charge of a few training sessions. 

 

Claire Jen ’10

I hopped on a quick and easy 18-hour flight to Johannesburg, South Africa, where I’m studying abroad this semester at the University of the Witwatersrand. As a participant in the International Human Rights Exchange program (IHRE), I’ve gone to the ApartheidMuseum and to Soweto, one of the most politically inflamed townships in South Africa. We traveled to KrugerNational Park, spent a few nights at a rural Venda village in Hamakuya and went hiking along the LimpopoRiver.

I’ve also had the great chance to fly to Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in the world, in between Zambia and Zimbabwe. In neighboring Botswana, we saw African Wild Dogs and lions on our sunrise safari trip and ended in the evening by watching elephants cross the Zambezi river with the sun setting behind them.

The program also finds a human rights-related internship, and I’ve been fortunate enough to work at the Street Law Project and at ProBono.org. At Street Law, I teach civic education at a high school and conflict resolution at the Johannesburg Prison. At ProBono.org, I work with an attorney picking which cases to take, and while it is tough to judge the merits of each case, it’s rewarding to see the effort and care that goes into each case, both from the ProBono attorney and from the clients.

Coming to South Africa is something I won’t forget in my lifetime—the people, food and culture are all so warm, and I feel quite grateful I’m here. Most striking, there is a sense of general optimism here—there’s a lot of participation and debate in politics, from the student council to the African National Congress, and in the face of some big obstacles South Africa still has to face, its a growing place, and it’s amazing to be here, studying rights in a place that governs itself by a constitution with the most inclusive, broad-reaching equality clause in the world. I can’t wait to (hopefully) come back for the Soccer World Cup in 2010!

 

Surya Kundu ’09

I spent the summer working with SEED Kolkata, an NGO based in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, to bring education and sustainable change into the lives of children living in the streets, railway platforms and slums of Kolkata.

It was quite an incredible experience, full of bizarre juxtapositions and interesting contrasts. For the majority of my stay, I lived in a flat with some college friends of my father’s. Owning multiple apartments around the city and several cars, each with its own driver, my hosts, who run a very successful shipbuilding business, fell firmly into the category of India’s rising upper-middle class. But every day I’d leave the comfort of their home for the world I was working in. The work with SEED was like a crash course in human life in extreme poverty.

SEED maintains both day protection and night protection shelters for the many lost, abandoned or run-away children living on railway platforms in the city. For the children who can recall where their homes are, SEED attempts to reunite them with their families. For those who are homeless, SEED runs homes where the children are fed, sent to school and nurtured. Additionally, SEED runs community health clinics; trains community health workers; builds wells; and runs adult vocational training schools, nursery schools, tutoring centers, literacy centers and two formal schools near large slum areas.

At the shelter at Howrah Station, for the children living on the platforms, I met 14-year-old girls who had already gotten married and given birth several times, each marriage being a way to get off the platforms for a short time. Other children were addicted to sniffing glue fumes; some had open sores from falling while trying to jump onto trains. It was one of the most heartbreaking places I had ever seen.

I spent a portion of my time visiting the young residents of one of SEED’s boys’ homes. These boys were once the children of the platforms but were now well into their rehab and reintegration into normal society. They were bright, loving and eager to show me their paintings, dance moves and skills at soccer. Most of the boys excelled in their academics and consistently ranked at the top of their class at school.

I ended up creating SEED’s annual report to their donors outlining their projects and introducing their goals for the future. I completely redesigned the layout of the publication, visited each project site, took photos and wrote the entire text of the report. See some of the photos here. In my time off, I explored the city of Kolkata and visited family members in the area. 

 

Nathaniel Hopkin ’10

I spent my summer working and traveling in Uganda. I was working for Educate!, a U.S.- based nonprofit founded by Eric Glustrom ’07 that operates in Uganda. My job involved a lot of the ground work required for an ambitious set of programs that will start next February. The programs center on the observation that the schooling system in Uganda does not do a sufficient job educating students. Everything there focuses on memorization for standardized testing; creativity, initiative and leadership are stifled.

As a much-needed supplement to secondary school education in Uganda, Educate! is partnering with 20 schools throughout the country and offering a course in Socially Responsible Leadership, to be taught by an Educate! mentor. The mentors are Educate! staffers, independent of the schools in which they are placed. All are recent graduates from universities in Uganda, and all will undergo an intensive three-month induction in which they will live together at the Educate! headquarters, learn the curriculum and receive training. The goal is for the mentors to develop close relationships with the students, to act as role models and to provide moral support, encouragement and advice. In addition, each partner school will have an extracurricular club focused on using social entrepreneurship to creatively solve problems in the community. The club, open to all students at each school, will also be moderated by the mentors.

In Uganda, I lived in the Educate! headquarters in a suburban area outside the country’s capitol city, Kampala. My ultimate goal was to find four schools from diverse religious and socioeconomic backgrounds for Educate! to partner with. In addition, I helped review applications for the mentor jobs.

A highlight of the trip was a visit to the refugee camp in which Educate! got its start. We spent a week living there with one of the students whom Educate! sponsors. It was inspiring to see how well people adapted to their displacement, and to see people from a diverse array of cultures and nationalities, all undergoing hardship and stress, living near each other in such harmony. Equally amazing was the hard work and optimism that was almost universal among the refugees. 

Close to Home

By Katherine Duke ’05

One of the many reasons I chose to attend Amherst College was that it was far away. Or, far enough away.  My parents could do the three-hour drive fairly easily when I wanted them to—but only when I wanted them to. The other serious contender, Vassar, was only an hour from my hometown. I cringed when I realized it got the same radio stations. I have nothing against my family or my high school, but I wanted my college experience to feel separate from them. So Amherst it was.But there are a few members of the Amherst Class of ’12 whose drive up to Orientation this week will take only minutes. When Letha Gayle-Brissett, assistant director of Alumni & Parent Programs, counted nearly a dozen first-years from the Amherst area (Worcester to Pittsfield, Mass.), she was amazed. She contacted Brent Alderman Sterste ’00 and Owen Freeman-Daniels ’01 of the Pioneer Valley Alumni Association, and together they arranged a welcome reception for these newcomers.

As a Campus Buzz reporter and member of the Association, I attended the reception on Sunday, Aug. 10. Over soft drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the Alumni House, some local ’12s and their families mingled with graduates who have settled nearby—many, including me, to work at the college.

image


I spoke first with Freeman-Daniels, the new leader of the Association. He grew up in Northampton and lives and works there today. While a student at Amherst, he was teased for being a local. But he loved the school and chose it because he knew how much the surrounding community and other nearby colleges had to offer. He wanted to assure these students that home for them is “as close as you want to make it. You can go into ‘The Amherst Bubble’ for four months and then emerge. Or you can be out and about.”

“I really like the area,” Freeman-Daniels said, “and I’ve come to like it more than I did in college and certainly than I did in high school.” I agreed: As a student, I remained largely oblivious to the businesses and events beyond the campus, but the longer I live and work in the Pioneer Valley, the more I appreciate its geography, wildlife and cultural opportunities.

Roy Jung ’12 started his Amherst College career while still a senior at Amherst Regional High School, taking a discrete math course with Professor David Cox and playing violin in the college orchestra. He plans to continue pursuing these interests, and many more, now that he’s officially an undergrad here.

For Todd Volkman ’12, of Pittsfield, as for most of the other local students, Amherst’s proximity was one of the few things that worked against it. “I wanted something a little bit farther away from home,” he said. “But it’s just such a fantastic school that spoke so much to what I’m looking to get out of my college experience that I was thrilled to come here.” It showed: throughout the reception, I never once saw the smile leave Volkman’s face. His father, Karl Volkman, graduated in 1980 and was likewise thrilled that his son would also be an Amherst man.

T.J. Keyes ’12, of Shutesbury, represents the youngest of multiple generations of an Amherst College family. Keyes’s great-uncle was the beloved Robert “Gramps” Keyes, who worked with the Campus Police for decades and then as a Dining Services checker until his death in 2004. Today, both of Keyes’s parents, Cindy and Ted Keyes, and several other relatives are employees of the college. “The deciding factor was the quality [of the education],” he told me. “Them working here and it being so close to home was really the only con.” His mom and dad, standing nearby, didn’t seem to take offense.

“Amherst is just a little bit too close for me,” agreed Luke Menard ’12, who lives in Belchertown and whose siblings attended UMass. “But I’m hoping, since it’s such a small school, I’ll have better relationships with my peers, and I won’t have to go back home every weekend. I’m sure it won’t be a big deal.” Though she understands her son’s need for independence, Johanne Menard is “real happy he’ll be close.”

“You’re worried about ‘the pop-in’ and everything,” Freeman-Daniels tells the first-years later in the evening, “and believe me, it’s not easy to duck your parents.” But he assures them they’ve made a good choice. At Amherst, they’ll be surrounded by other outstanding students from around the world, and everyone will help educate and inspire one another.

Before I go, I chat with my friend Gillian Woldorf ’01, who has brought along the youngest potential local Amherst student: Her daughter’s nametag reads Tovah Woldorf 2030? Tovah has spent all four months of her life in South Hadley. No pressure, kid, but your mom’s college friends would all love to see you, 18 years from now, back at the Alumni House, being welcomed at a reception like this.

If you are an Amherst College graduate living in the Pioneer Valley, and you would like to get involved with the Pioneer Valley Alumni Association, contact Owen Freeman-Daniels '01 at owenfreemandaniels@gmail.com.

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The Almost Olympian

Shauneen Garrahan ’07, a standout runner during her four years at Amherst, took first place in the steeplechase at the Canadian Olympic trials in July. But it was a bittersweet ending for Garrahan. After capping her collegiate career with wins in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter runs at the 2007 Division III National Championships and being named the Outstanding Female Athlete of the competition, she had set her sights on competing at the U.S. Olympic trials and narrowly missed the cut. Though she performed impressively at Windsor, because she is not a Canadian citizen, she could not go on to the Olympics. John D’Angelo ’10 interviewed her shortly after the Beijing Games began.


JD: Congratulations on your victory in the steeplechase at the Canadian trials. But I am a little confused: how did you end up racing there, considering you aren’t Canadian?

SG: I had been training the past year for the U.S. trials, and I had run the provisional time, but they pick the participants from a rankings list. I got injured this spring, which hurt my ranking, and I ended up barely missing the cut for the U.S. trials. I was disappointed, but I soon found out that I had been invited to the Canadian trials. They invite some international athletes to increase the competitiveness of the field.

JD: How does running in an international meet  compare to running in college?

SG: Running at the Canadian trials was an incredible experience. I’ve always enjoyed the “performance” aspect of competing, so I enjoyed feeding off the exciting atmosphere. With the conditions extremely hot, the race started very slowly and tactically. I used this to my advantage and made a surge early in the race. By taking a gamble by trusting in my fitness/preparations, I was able to put distance on my opponents. As each lap went on, I kept expecting the Canadians to catch up to me (especially since the crowd/announcer kept encouraging them!). But I finished strong!

Winning the trials was such a triumph after the months of hard work, preparation, setbacks and the disappointment of just missing the U.S. trials. Besides making the U.S. Olympic team, I couldn’t have asked for a better end to my season.

JD: Would you say this was the most satisfying victory of your career?

SG: Although winning the Canadian trials was probably my “biggest” accomplishment, I’m still the most proud of winning the 10K, steeplechase and 5K at the NCAA Nationals my senior year. That’s because it helped Amherst place fourth  as a team [the first time Amherst has placed as a team in outdoor track] and running for my team/Amherst enabled me to win the “triple” that everyone except my coach had thought was impossible.

Garrahan, Shauneen
Shauneen Garrahan '07 in 2006.


JD: Did you watch the finals of the steeplechase at the Olympics on Sunday?

SG: I was disappointed that NBC didn’t show the women’s steeplechase in prime time. I’m probably biased, but I think that the steeple is the most exciting track event after the drama in the 100m dash. And it was the first time there was the women’s steeplechase in the Olympics. But I was glad to watch the race online—it was incredible watching such a fast race and seeing the world and American records get broken. It’s amazing how the women’s steeplechase has really taken off these past few years. It made me realize how the top athletes in the world are at such a higher level than me, but at the same time inspired me to train hard in hopes of one day reaching their level. 

JD: I think a lot of people are surprised that someone from Division III could compete at such a high level. Were you intimidated at all by the level of competition?

SG: Running against the top steeplers in the country has been both humbling and inspiring. Coming from a Division III background, especially the one at Amherst, has actually helped me a lot. The whole philosophy of being well-rounded and having a balanced life makes running more enjoyable. I’ve always noticed that the more well-rounded I am, the better I am. It helps to have something other than running. I don’t worry as much about injuries or other setbacks because there are other things going on in my life. It gives me a reality check.
 
JD: Even though you were a very successful runner at Amherst, what made you realize that competing internationally was a possibility?

SG: At the end of last year I was trying to decide what I wanted to do. I talked to Ned [Amherst running coach Erik Nedeau] a lot about it and I realized that my success at the Division III level could translate to the next level. I thought it was a great opportunity and if I didn’t do it now, it would not present itself at any other time in my life.

JD: With such an involved training regimen were you even able to do anything else?

SG: Not all my time was occupied by running. I had a great experience working at Amherst for the Committee for the American Founding during this period. I am the type of person who needs variety in life. Without other activities I over-think running. I think I would have gone crazy if I had been concentrating on running all the time. A lot of running is letting go of the mental or intellectual aspect and running with your pure spirit. It really helped to have a job that required a lot of analysis and thinking because I could do that and then running still felt like fun and pleasure. Combined with the opportunity to work with Professor Hadley Arkes, [the Edward Ney Professor in American Institutions,] everything seemed to fit together perfectly.

JD: Will you continue to compete?

SG: I’m at a crossroads right now, trying to decide what I’m going to do next year. After the Canadian trials, I was intending to have some downtime visiting my sister and some Amherst friends in New York. I did a big 10K road race in Central Park and—this is kind of a crazy story—I ended up winning the  race. The prize was a trip to Italy next year to run in another race in Naples. So I will be running in that, but I’m not sure what else I will be doing.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

Submitted by Caroline J. Hanna

It is 1:45 p.m. one muggy July afternoon at the Amherst Survival Center, 15 minutes before its doors are supposed to close for the day, and there’s a line about 20 long stretching into an un-air conditioned back room. Among its many other services, the agency has a food pantry that provides a month’s worth of nutritional staples to families who meet certain income criteria, and the people here are queuing up for fresh vegetables, bread and canned goods.

One of the Amherst students I’m here to see, intern Roman Guatam ’11, is chattily—if sweatily—helping pack and distribute boxes of food. The other, Will Mateo ’11, is out collecting donations from local restaurants, grocers and other charities. “We pretty much do whatever needs to be done here,” Guatam tells me cheerfully after he and fellow ASC staffers have finished tending to all in the line (well after 2 p.m.), noting with pride that he and Mateo recently organized and coordinated a community food drive with a nearby supermarket. “I love it—meeting and helping people in the community in this way gives you a real sense of worth.”

Guatam, a native of Katmandu, Nepal, and Mateo, of Truth Or Consequences, N.M., came to the ASC thanks to the Citizen Summer program, a Center for Community Engagement project that, in its first year, is subsidizing nearly 200 Amherst student interns at various local, regional, national and international non-profits and non-governmental organizations this summer. Through three Citizen Summer initiatives (the Pioneer Valley Partnership, Partnership and Fellowships for Action program) interested undergraduates applied to work with groups already identified by the CCE or researched and secured their own public service jobs. Participating students received a modest stipend from the college for their work, while the participating groups—which, in addition to the ASC, include the National Peace Corps Association in Washington, D.C.; the Pakistan Foundation Fighting Blindness in Punjab, Pakistan; East River Legal Services in Sioux Fall, S.D.; and Amherst Regional Public Schools, among many others—receive an energetic and willing volunteer or two (or three or four).

“We wanted to provide experiences that could make the biggest impact on students, and summer internships in particular can really change a student’s life,” explains Molly Mead, director of the CCE, of the thinking behind Citizen Summer. “They enable students to be somewhere full-time for a significant period of time and do real work that can be incredibly valuable to an organization. They also enable students to meet so many different people and make some amazing personal and career connections… Our hope is that, through these opportunities, students will also be able to make links to coursework they’ve completed, and continue to make links to coursework in the future.”

Survival Center
Roman Guatam '11 (left) and Will Matteo '11 (right) prepare lunch at
the Amherst Survival Center.

The CCE makes those links to coursework and the “real world” more explicit for participants by asking them to think and reflect on their experiences. Students such as Guatam and Mateo in the regionally focused Pioneer Valley Partnership Program work at their organizations Monday through Thursday and then gather on Fridays for further training and discussion with CCE staffers. (Such activities have involved everything from lectures by experts in various fields to field trips to other non-profits around the Pioneer Valley to conversations on how to be effective advocates.) Those interning at non-profits or NGOs outside of Western Massachusetts, on the other hand, put in a full week of work and submit regular written reflections on their internship experiences. “Students are telling me they feel they’re learning a lot, being mentored, appreciated and making connections for future careers,” says Mead. “But more than anything, I think it’s helping them see the bigger picture, which is really wonderful.”

Take Jessica Mestre ’10, an intern with Un Techo para mi Pais (or One Roof for my Country), who has been helping create a communications campaign for social intervention programs fighting extreme poverty in Latin America, taking photos and constructing “emergency houses” in Montevideo, Uruguay, since June. “My time in Uruguay has been humbling,” she writes me in an e-mail. “Not only have I met a group of brilliant, dedicated youth that run the entire organization, but I have also been confronted with an extreme poverty that I never knew before this summer. It is difficult to believe that an 18-square-meter, one-room wooden box with no bathroom is an improvement for these families, but it is a harsh reality. I hope to bring the efforts of Un Techo to Amherst upon my return.”

Partner organizations are likewise thrilled with the help. “The Amherst interns have been great,” says Ben Guest ’97, program manager with the Mississippi Teacher Corps (MTC), which has four Citizen Summer interns this summer. He says his students have been assisting with the MTC Summer School for at-risk youth, working with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation to create lesson plans and resources for integrating the history of the Civil Rights Movement into coursework and working at the MTC office interviewing administers and helping plan fall recruiting, among other things.

“Like most Amherst students, [the CCE interns] are intelligent and inquisitive, and have a highly developed sense of community service,” he says. (Learn more about Guest’s students, Elise Tropiano ’09, Latisha Wilson ’09, Amanda McGinn ’10 and Christine Lyons ’11 here.) Of whether he would work with Amherst undergraduates again, Guest replies: “In a heartbeat.”

Back at the ASC, a similarly enthusiastic Tracy Levy, Guatam and Mateo’s supervisor and the agency’s program director and volunteer coordinator, tells me that she has been struck by how quickly the young men have made an impact. “The ideas, energy and feedback from them have just been amazing—I don’t know what we’re going to do when they leave,” she says, adding that Guatam and Mateo’s “youthful perspective and reliability added a lot to the team… I hope our partnership with the CCE continues to build and we work with more students like them.”

Such comments are music to the ears of Mead, who has already made up her mind about the future of Citizen Summer. While she and her team plan to gather more comments—both negative and positive—from partner organizations and students in the fall, “those things won’t tell us whether or not to do this again,” she says. “They will help us refine and improve the program for the coming years. Based on all that we’re hearing, it’s absolutely clear that we will, can and should offer Citizen Summer again.”

Journalist Turned Physicist

Submitted by Marjan Hajibandeh

This summer, Campus Buzz writer Marjan Hajibandeh ‘09E will sit down with each of the seven Amherst professors who’ve just earned tenure. First up: Jonathan Friedman, associate professor of physics.

There’s no way around it; Jonathan Friedman looks exactly like what I imagined a physicist to look like. He has tousled curly hair and wire-rimmed glasses. When (in an early draft of this article) I described them to be circular, he corrected me and said that they were more stadium-shaped. If he were any more empirical, I would have guessed that he lived in the lab. And, boy, was he eager to chat about his research. But I wouldn’t let him—at least not right away.“Weren’t you a journalist at one point?” I inquired, noticing he asked more questions than he answered.

He confirmed my suspicions and even commented that he used to carry a notepad like the one I was busy scribbling on.

All of a sudden I wished I’d brought a tape recorder.

Luckily, that’s when the stories started to pour out. Though Friedman loved physics and majored in it while at Vassar College, his hobby began to take over his life. He was an editor of one of his college newspapers and thrived on the “immediate feedback” he received from his stories. After college he spent time editing a newsletter for a national supercomputer center before landing his first “real” reporting job writing for a weekly newspaper in central New Jersey.
While there, he helped oust a police chief for embezzlement and even got a mayor to pull out of a re-election campaign. This was sounding like a dream job to me, but Friedman burst my bubble with his next comment.

“It was enjoyable because I felt like my job had relevance,” he said, “but at the same time, we were grossly underpaid. We were paid for 40 hours a week but obviously worked much more than that. And it was a lot of grunt work, much of which I didn’t care about.”

I hoped he didn’t assume that I thought of our interview that way. I was actually having a lot of fun. “So what finally made you want to leave?” I asked.

“I think I write well,” he elaborated, “but I was never really efficient at it. Especially compared to some of the other guys I was working with.” When you have to write 10 stories a week, the prose often gets formulaic, he explained.
Friedman


After realizing that the life of a journalist was not for him, Friedman tried to find a teaching position. But with no license or credentials, he couldn’t land a job. About that time, a visit to a friend in Chicago planted the idea that he could get some teaching experience by becoming a graduate teaching assistant. Two weeks before the semester started, Friedman applied for a teaching assistantship at the City University of New York, where he stayed to get his Ph.D.

Now that I felt he’d earned it, I let him tell me about his research.  

Even if you don’t have a background in physics, you need only be familiar with Schrödinger’s cat to appreciate the quantum measurement problem, the physics that underlies Friedman’s research. Say you’ve got a cat trapped in a box, and also in that box are a flask of poison and some Rube-Goldberg apparatus that can be triggered to break the flask when a radioactive decay is detected. A small amount of radioactive material is placed in the box and after some time there is a certain probability that a nucleus will decay and, thus, release the poison. However, until you open that box, you do not know the fate of the cat; thus, the cat is in a “superposition” of both “alive” and “dead.” If the laws of quantum mechanics are taken literally, this superposition exists until you make a direct observation.

“If you open the box,” Friedman explained, “and find the cat dead, did you kill the cat?”

And, thus, we reopened the same conundrum that has plagued physicists since Schrödinger's 1935 thought experiment: why do quantum properties break down at the classical level? Some of Friedman’s research involves a slightly different animal: a SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device), which essentially functions at an energy scale between the microscopic and macroscopic. In these superconducting rings, electrons condense to form a single entity – a macroscopic quantum object. According to classical laws, the current should flow in a single direction, clockwise or counterclockwise. Nevertheless, Friedman’s research in 2000 demonstrated a macroscopic superposition, where the current flowed in both directions simultaneously.

To get a sense of what’s going on, imagine  a big curvy “W”—two wells separated by a barrier—with a small ball sitting in one of the wells. For fun, we’ll call one well “clockwise” and the other “counterclockwise.” The ball is compelled to stay in its well unless some burst of energy bumps it over the barrier and into the other well. In the SQUID, however, the current is able to “tunnel” from one well to the other to create a superposition of both directions.

The research has potential applications to the burgeoning field of quantum computing. Think of binary code in which information is processed in series of 0s and 1s. Quantum computing takes advantage of superposition states to do “quantum parallel processing.”  If the input to your computer is not one number, but instead the superposition of, say, two different numbers, then the output will be the superposition of  two different outputs; the computer essentially does twice as much processing in the same amount of time as a classical computer. For certain problems, it turns out that quantum computing is more efficient than classical computing. Quantum algorithms are much more effective than their classical counterparts in decrypting some codes, including the ones that secure our Internet transactions. And a quantum algorithm can significantly speed up search processes, like those we do daily on the Web.

I thought of Google and my bank account, and I decided that, while it isn’t quite like exposing crooks in office, Friedman’s work is actually quite relevant to my life. Maybe physics isn’t so different from journalism after all.

Docents Enlightening the World

Submitted by Katherine D. Duke

“You see these little rolls of fat?” Jessica Ball ’09 points to the plump figures in an oil painting on the wall. “That’s Rubens!”

Ball is lecturing to a group of visitors to the Mead Art Museum. Her topic is Charity Enlightening the World, by 17th-century Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, who is indeed known for showing the beauty of excess flesh (ask any of us who have ever been described as “Rubinesque”). The painting, Ball explains, was commissioned by Isabella, Archduchess of Brussels, in 1627; owned for a time by Rococo painter François Boucher; and finally purchased by the Mead in 1961. It depicts a personification of the idea of charity: a round, nurturing mother figure of “magnetic appeal,” with three well-fed babies clamoring for her attention. She holds high a lit torch, shedding light on a globe. (Terras irradient, Charity!)

Ball is one of the student docents at the Mead—each of whom, during lunch hours throughout spring semester, delivered a 10-minute gallery talk on a painting of his or her choice. Though an English major, Ball takes a lot of art classes, and Charity Enlightening the World caught her attention because of its diminutive size. “I actually found that this image was just as striking as the two huge paintings around it,” she says. Also intriguing was the fact that the painting was never meant to be displayed in a gallery—it was merely a preliminary sketch; the image was woven into part of a tapestry of numerous Christian virtues, and the tapestry hung in a convent in Madrid. Rough and unfinished, Charity gives insights into Rubens’ process that are not visible in a finalized work. Notice the lack of detail in the background, Ball says, and how the paint is so much thinner in the dark areas, almost revealing the wood underneath.         

After Ball’s talk, I speak with Lizzie Barker, who’s in her first year as director of the Mead. The “Ten Minutes with a Masterpiece” lecture series is just one of several new projects she’s instituted with the docents this year. She wanted them to have as much experience as possible “doing their own thinking about original works of art.” Other initiatives have included a collaboration with The Amherst Student, in which the newspaper featured an article about a different Mead artwork every week, and a “Spring Into Art” party to celebrate the launch of the museum’s new downloadable podcast audio and video tours. Barker is most excited, though, about plans to hire a full-time educator to work with docents and visitors.

The 10-minute docent talks will resume next year, should you wish to spend your lunch break being enlightened.

Ben Bishop ’09 Answers: What Is Jeopardy!?

Interview by Katherine Duke '05

Since its first, black-and-white incarnation, created by Merv Griffin in the early 1960s, Jeopardy! has built a reputation as the thinking person’s game show. Amherst has helped prepare many trivia geeks to do battle with the big blue board: As a senior, Gwyneth Connell ’00 represented the Jeffs in the 2000 College Championship. Novelist and attorney Scott Turow ’70 towered over the competition in Celebrity Jeopardy! in 2006. And even though I ultimately came in a distant third, I consider my own Jeopardy! game, which aired in April 2008, among the luckiest and most fascinating experiences of my life.

When Ben Bishop ’09, an economics major and co-captain of the Amherst squash team, found out that he had been chosen for the show, he dropped by my office to get tips from a veteran. I lent him Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs by 74-time Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings. After Bishop’s tapings in October 2008, he came by again. “How did it go?” I asked. Sworn to secrecy about the outcome, he said only, “It was fun.”

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In early December, millions of viewers found out exactly how it went: The 21-year-old Seattle native competed on five episodes and won four of them. His $115,800 total is the highest earned by any contestant so far this year, which means that he’s headed to Las Vegas in January 2009 for the Tournament of Champions, where he’ll try for another $250,000. “Fun,” indeed.

I sat down with Bishop to learn more about his rise to game show stardom. I did not require him to phrase each answer in the form of a question. Here is what he had to say:

Campus buzzing

“For four or five days before I was on the show, I was reading the almanac. I was reading stuff that I knew that I knew, but I just wanted to make sure that I had the names correct, and things where I knew a couple different people that I wanted to separate my mind, [such as] the difference between Cezanne and Gauguin. My roommates helped out a lot. Garrett [Snedeker ‘09] put together a summary of 1960s-through-1980s sitcoms—something that I know nothing about. I borrowed a buzzer from the Amherst Quiz Bowl team to practice ringing in.”

Behind the scenes

“Everyone [on the Jeopardy! crew] was really nice; that helped. [The contestant coordinators] deal with new, nervous contestants every week, so they’re good at lightening the mood. The other contestants are just as happy to be there as you are. There’s a three- or four-hour orientation in the morning, so everyone gets to be nice and friendly—and then they try to beat each other up, onstage.

“I was impressed at how good [host Alex Trebek] is at his job. He does make a few errors, reading the clues, which they go back and re-record. But he’s very good with the interviews, and during the commercials, he entertains the crowd. You get the idea that he’s pretty smart and that he’s genuinely interested in the material. He seems like he’s not just doing it to make the money.”

On the board

“On my first show, one of the first questions was about [the trade of] cotton, and that’s one of my big academic interests; I did a Special Topics [course] on it. It was sort of a running joke, before the show, that I would get a question about cotton. And it was, like, the third question, so that really helped settle me down. The other running joke was that I would get geography categories, and then, in the first show, in Double Jeopardy, I got two geography categories. Once those came out, I was pretty sure that I had a good chance of winning.

“It’s funny: I took Astronomy 11 last semester, and there was a category about stars, and for the $1,000 or $2,000 clue, the answer was nebula, and I remembered [Professor of Astronomy George Greenstein] showing us pictures and talking about them in class. There was a [Final Jeopardy] question straight out of Brainiac. [The clue was: “The first and middle names of this breakfast cereal ‘spokesman’ are Horatio Magellan.” See the answer at the end of this article.]

“The things that I ought to be good at, I probably am not: pop culture and movies and TV. All my friends from home made fun of me for getting an Angelina Jolie question wrong. I missed a couple of sports questions early in my first episode.”

The competition

“I felt sort of bad; I think [the other contestants] were intimidated by me, and it was weird for me to be inspiring such fear. After my first two shows, we went and ate lunch, and they were all giving me this stare from afar. But they were all pretty nice people.”

On the money

“The money isn’t real to me yet. First of all, they won’t pay me until 120 days after the show airs. And when you’re playing the game, you don’t really think of it like money—it’s just points. I wagered pretty aggressively throughout the show. Obviously, if somebody said, “Hey, I’ve got a question for you about the names of countries. Would you be willing to bet $20,000 that you know the right answer?” No, I probably wouldn’t. But that’s not how I think about it—it’s just points to help me win the game. I haven’t really thought about how to spend the money yet.”

[The answer to the clue above: Who is Cap’n Crunch?]

Prom Night

Submitted by Emily G. Boutilier

It’s prom night, and once again, I don’t have a date. This time, it’s because my husband is home with our 3-year-old, who is, I hope, in bed. Usually my Fridays end around 9 p.m., when I fall asleep on the couch while watching TV, but tonight is different: it’s nearly 10, and I’m not even in my jammies. I’m going to the Pratt Prom, a dance that Katherine Black ’10 and her fellow RCs have put together for the Class of ’11. It will take place in Charles Pratt Dormitory. There will be a band, a DJ, a dozen cakes and sparkling cider for a midnight toast.

I won’t reveal the year of my high-school prom (which I skipped), but I will say this: there was a Bush in the White House and a Clinton on the campaign trail. So really, except for the absence of shoulder pads and big hair, tonight’s prom should be just like my own. Inside the dorm, I find a handful of people milling about. The band is playing, but no one’s on the dance floor. Black isn’t worried. She doesn’t expect a crowd until 11 or 11:30.

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Dressed in a short, sparkly silver dress, Black matches the “Winter Wonderland” décor. She says the RCs bought out the silver-ribbon section at the local craft store. “I said, ‘I want it sparkling.’” Her hands gesture to the silver snowflakes that hang from the ceiling. “’I want winter. I want people to remember this.’” Black got the idea for the prom in August, when she set eyes on the sweeping staircase in the newly renovated first-year dorm. “I said, ‘You guys, this is made for prom photos.’” Her plan was to bring the Class of ’11 together in one place. “Following freshman orientation,” she says, “there are no opportunities for a class to gather as a whole until senior year.”

I’m not the only one here without a date. In fact, on the staircase, official prom photographer Jessica Mestre ’10 spends most of her time shooting groups of friends, not couples. The women are dressed in everything from little black dresses to full-on prom gowns. One is wearing a yellow sundress with knee-high boots. Many of the guys are in darks suits and ties, but some have opted for jeans and sneakers, and one looks ready to go to the gym. But that’s okay; the dress code is loose. “You don’t need a date,” Black says. “You don’t need a corsage. We used the word prom for alliteration only.”

I introduce myself to Ester Johansson-Lebron ’11 and Scarlett Johnson ’11, who live on the third floor of the building. Johnson says it was easy to decide what to wear: she’d brought only two dresses with her to Amherst. The women say they’re going to dance—“even,” insists Johansson-Lebron, “if no one else does.”

At 11 p.m., as Black predicted, the lobby is filling up. That’s when I decide to call it a night. Later, I get an e-mail from Black, who says the rest of the party was even better than she could have hoped. Her e-mail reads like an Oscar-night acceptance speech: “In addition to Dean Haynes, Dean Moore, Dean Lieber, Dean Hart, Program Board and Social Council, I want to make sure that I thank both the freshman RCs as well as the upper-class RCs that helped make Pratt Prom such an amazing, special night. Also a special thanks to Jessica Mestre for photographing the event and to the Blue Nomads and DJ Lenore Bell ’08 for amazing music. I am especially grateful for my wonderful co-RCs in Charles Pratt: Sara Nelson ’08, Carrie Dulaney ’10, Ryan Shields ’08 and Josh Nathan ’10.”  

The RCs are happy; the first-years are happy—not bad for a Friday night.

Look for more on the Pratt Prom in the Spring ’08 issue of Amherst magazine.

Emily Gold Boutilier is editor of Amherst.

Tasting Victory

Submitted by Katherine D. Duke

Welcome to Kitchen Stadium, usually known as the upper terrace of Valentine Dining Hall.  Tonight, student chefs in white hats and aprons stand behind tables, armed with knives, skillets and spices, ready to do battle. This is Iron Chef Valentine.

Students organized an Iron Chef match several years ago, but this is the first time Dining Services has officially sponsored the competition, complete with prizes for all. Charlie Thompson, director of Dining Services, promises that “everybody goes away a winner tonight”—not least the judges who get to sample the food.

The four teams of four (coincidentally all women) have been chosen at random from the many who applied to compete.

“We’re prepared—we’ve been training all week,” reports Hallie Schwab ’11 of Team One, “having fun with the stir-fry [station in Valentine], some good, some bad.”

Some students are already… um… seasoned culinary veterans. “I work at restaurants at home, and my dad’s a chef,” says Kristina Doyle ’11 of Team Two, who likes to make desserts and Greek food.

At the appointed time, Chef Manager Howie Morrison lays down the rules. In one hour, each team will create a salad, an entree and a dessert and present it to the panel of five judges, who will sample and rate each dish on flavor, appearance, consistency, presentation and originality. The overall scores will determine which team wins the grand prize. Finally, Morrison uncovers the secret basket of ingredients: chicken breast, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, brown sugar and fresh pears. The chefs must use every one of these ; beyond that, they have their choice of any ingredients in the Valentine servery. Let the cooking begin!

While the competitors are busy measuring, chopping and sautéing, I talk to the five appointed judges. Judie Teraspulsky brings the most discerning and authoritative palate. She points out that presentation can always be improved with practice, “but taste and texture have to do with how somebody cooks something. You can improve on that, but that’s what I’m always looking for.” And she should know: She began at age 10, baking for the concession stand at the Aspen Music Festival (where her father was principal cellist), studied home economics at Indiana University, worked at the Lord Jeffery Inn as a baker and is now the owner of a restaurant in town so popular that she has recently had to expand it. Yes, she’s that Judie. “It’s those early years of cooking that capture you,” she says.

Samuel Morse, professor of art and art history and Asian languages and civilizations, is, as one might expect, a connoisseur of Asian cuisine. He learned Japanese cooking while living in Japan, and he taught himself various Chinese styles out of cookbooks. He’s also a fan of the original Japanese Iron Chef program “with the really tacky dubbing”; he has used the show in a first-year seminar on the Japanese aesthetic.


Director of Athletics and Physical Education Suzanne Coffey has one very important qualification to be a judge: “I’m an expert eater.”

Does Dean of Students Ben Lieber feel up to the task of judging? “Let’s put it this way…” he says, “Given my experience with the culinary world, I’m amazed that anyone would’ve thought to select me. I just show up where people tell me to.”

The fifth judge, Betsy Cannon Smith ’84, alumni secretary and executive director of Alumni and Parent Programs, has brought along her young son Donovan, who will serve as busboy for the judges’ table.

Time’s up. In considering what I might have cooked for this contest, I’ve thought only as far as Maybe chicken marinated in… something… on a bed of… something… and pears in both the salad and the dessert. But the actual creations blow me away. The sunflower seeds are toasted! The pears are “deconstructed”! The sauce is “tea-infused”!

Each team presents and describes its meal. The judges dig in, discuss and write down their ratings. Donovan works up a sweat, running from the table to the servery and back with plates, bowls, silverware and water.

When the ratings are tallied, Professor Morse stands to declare the results. It’s a close competition, with a mere 30 points separating the top chefs from the bottom.

  • Fourth Prize ($50 in movie passes) goes to Team Two (Kristina Doyle ’11, Alison Flint ’11, Sarah Lapidus ’11 and Katie Kervick ’11), who’d made crepes out of the waffle batter from the waffle-iron bar.
  • Third Prize (a $75 gift certificate to Applebee’s) goes to Team Three (Liz Dalton ’09, Zandra Walton ’09, Christina Wong ’11 and Mercedes Taylor ’11) for their Italian-style meal, featuring bruschetta.

  • Second Prize ($100 to Chili’s) goes to Team Four (Haley Douds ’10, Julie Hansell ’10, Amanda McGinn ’10 and Cait Patterson ’10) for their gorgeous presentation, feta cheese salad and use of orange slices.

  • Grand Prize ($150 to Judie’s) is awarded to Team One (Hallie Schwab ’11, Melissa Pritchard ’11, Catherine Knuff ’10 and Katie Moravec ’08). “We were particularly impressed with their variation on the Thai-Malaysian theme of satay, with the peanut sauce and the curried banana,” says Morse. “The use of the cucumber in the salad reminded us a lot of Southeast Asian dishes that some of us had eaten before.” 

Donovan earns a $1 tip and an offer of a future job on the wait staff at Judie’s.

Later, Dining Services will host a dinner in Lewis-Sebring for the chefs and judges. They could do worse than to borrow some recipes from the guests of honor.

Manners: Do You Mind?

Submitted by Katherine D. Duke

Welcome to Campus Buzz! This is the newest place to read, see and hear what some of us at Amherst are up to. As Green Dean at the Office of Public Affairs, I’m pleased to bring you the inaugural bit of buzz.

My job on Sunday, Jan. 21, was to have dinner. Actually, it was to learn to partake of a meal the proper way by joining more than 60 students and alumni for Amherst’s first Gracious Dining seminar.

Gracious Dining? To be honest, I was ambivalent about my fitness for this particular assignment, and not just because it would be the first Campus Buzz article and my first real attempt at investigative journalism. Normally, I’d be all over the dining part—restaurant meals are among my favorite of life’s pleasures—but just that Friday I’d had four wisdom teeth wrenched from my jaw; my only hope was that the dinner’s four courses would include soup and a soft dessert.

And the gracious part? Well, as conscientiously as I try to say “please” and “thank you” and “excuse me,” I’m sure I regularly break every other etiquette rule ever calligraphed onto a cream-colored note card. I find small talk with strangers excruciating, and physically I’m an incurable klutz. (I’ve considered buying one of those T-shirts that read AWKWARD, but it would be stating the obvious.) And like everyone who spends years at Amherst, I’ve grown accustomed to relaxed meals with friends at Valentine Dining Hall, where we wear our hats at the table, engage in loud and contentious intellectual discussions and turn the fortune-cookie messages into crude innuendo. A night of minding my manners was an intimidating prospect.

But duty called. I slurped my lunch in front of my computer (canned macaroni-and-bean soup straight out of the pot I’d cooked it in), changed out of my pajamas and headed to campus.

The Lewis-Sebring Dining Commons are in the same building as Valentine, but this evening they seemed worlds away, as the smartly dressed guests filed in. We were instructed to don nametags and mingle in the sitting area. I mingled, to the extent that it can be called “mingling” when one person is asking the other to speak into a tape recorder.

First, I spoke with Rosalind Hoffa, director of the Career Center and associate dean of students. (The Gracious Dining seminar was part of a three-day Career Center program called “Career Choices: Chance, Challenge, Change.”) Hoffa said that students regularly seek her advice on how to handle face-to-face interviews and lunches with potential employers. “Increasingly,” she said, “interviewing and connecting and networking are done in social situations. Quite honestly, an interview can live or die on how you interact professionally with someone.” Yikes!

I had always thought of formal rules as adding anxiety to what otherwise could be an easy, relaxed interaction. But maybe, I realized then, etiquette instruction is really about learning to manage a high-stakes situation with less anxiety, with more style and confidence.

I learned that a few students already had such confidence, thanks to etiquette-conscious upbringings. Eunice Ko ’09 said her mother used to take her out to fancy restaurants as practice. “She’d tell me, ‘Oh, this fork is for this. You should wait for people to pull out your chair.’”

John Barbieri ’09, however, told me he has always disliked formality. “I think it’s silly and unnecessary,” he said, “and who decides what ‘formal’ is? Like, what if ‘formal’ is wearing a T-shirt and jeans? Why can’t that be formal?” He had a point: the rules can seem nit-picky and arbitrary. But why, then, was he attending the seminar? “I figured that I can’t change the whole world and make it not formal,” he said. “I might as well join them, because I can’t beat them. It’ll probably be useful in most job settings.”

Jeff Simon ’08 summed up what seemed to be the attitude of most of the dinner guests: “For better or worse, people are judged on their manners, and mine would benefit from instruction.”

Jodi R.R. Smith, our etiquette instructor for the evening, uttered the same truth. Once we had taken seats at candlelit tables in the dining room, she told us, “People generalize competence based on behavior.” Well-mannered people are perceived as smarter, kinder and more skilled.

When Smith was a young adult working in human resources, she noticed bright, competent people being passed over for promotions because they lacked social skills. She drew on her degrees in motivational psychology and industrial and labor relations to teach her colleagues how to get along with others. In 1996 she founded her own etiquette consulting firm, Mannersmith, which runs Gracious Dining seminars and other workshops for corporations, non-profit groups, medical and legal practices, young children and, increasingly, college students.

As Smith walked around the room, she used jokes, anecdotes and mnemonic devices to guide us through our salad, soup, roll, entree and dessert. She invited questions, suggesting they be prefaced with the words, “A friend of mine was wondering…” When someone asked what “her friend” should do with bits of unwanted food, Smith declared, “We’re not allowed to use our bread and butter plate as a Siberia.” Instead of banishing the food, she advised, just push it very discreetly to the edge of the main plate.

Some rules were tricky and strangely specific. (I had no idea that the exact angles at which the knife and fork rest on the plate indicate to wait staff whether one is finished eating.) But Smith explained how, far from being arbitrary, most rules are based on broader underlying principles. Some reflect the aesthetic principle of “symmetry of dining,” meaning that everyone’s place settings should look the same, and that everyone should order the same number of courses so no one is ever the only one eating. Other rules honor cultural traditions and beliefs. In parts of Latin America, for example, the salt shaker is never passed directly from hand to hand, because salt was once believed to absorb and pass on ill humors. Smith emphasized the most important principle: to make sure everyone feels respected and has a pleasant experience. She knows that, inaccurately and unfortunately, the word etiquette often conjures up images of snobbery and finger-wagging. “When people use etiquette as a sword to stab one another, it breaks my heart,” she said.

Between reporting and greeting and making small talk and learning the rules, I must say, I’ve never found a meal so exhausting. But the experience was also wonderfully informative and not nearly as embarrassing as I’d feared. (Okay, so my American fork revolted against being held Continental-style and spent half the night on the floor. Only the kid next to me noticed.) The seminar closed with a brief lesson on writing thank-you notes, and mine, to Ms. Smith, was sincere.

Here’s what I figured out at dinner that night: The process of learning formal etiquette causes temporary stress and awkwardness. But once etiquette becomes second-nature—once formal is fun—it could save us (and those around us) a lot of stress and awkwardness in the long run. And who knows what opportunities it might open up?

For now, I’m relieved to be back to spending most evenings in my pajamas with my pot of soup. But maybe some nights I’ll practice sitting up straight, spooning the soup away from me and lifting it to my mouth, carefully, like Smith recommends.

Gracious Dining Tips from Jodi R.R. Smith, President and Founder of Mannersmith:

  • If you have any dietary restrictions, it is your responsibility to inform the host in advance or to check the restaurant’s menu ahead of time.
  • Show up at least 10 minutes early, but do not sit down and order or begin eating until everyone arrives.
  • “Be an anthropologist.” Etiquette always depends on the specific culture and situation, so observe and follow what the people around you are doing.
  • “First names are like vampires.” Just as a vampire can never enter a house without permission, you should not call people by their first names until they let you know that you may.
  • Order neither the most expensive nor the least expensive item on the menu, unless your host instructs you to.
  • In most cultures, business is not discussed right at the beginning of a meal. Be prepared to chat about current events, entertainment, hobbies and such.
  • Two forbidden conversation topics: “How much did you pay for that?” and “Oh, my aching [body part]!”
  • Bring the food to your face, not your face to the food. Don’t slouch!
  • “Just because you can fit something in your mouth doesn’t make it bite-sized.”
  • Your napkin is not to be used as a tissue, ever. If you have a real tissue, dabbing your nose at the table is fine; blowing your nose is yucky.
  • Generally, the person who has arranged the meeting pays for the meal.

Don’t buzz off yet. Buzz back! Did you attend the Gracious Dining seminar? Do you think it’s worth learning formal etiquette rules? Have you ever committed any horrendous faux pas? Leave a comment.

Wednesday Night Shakespeare

Submitted by Katherine D. Duke

A Wednesday eve to Webster did we come—
Ten students, a professor and myself—
To gather ‘round a table laid with tea
And carrot cake. What play was it this week?
They’d done MacBeth, and Romeo they chose
For Valentine’s. So which tonight? Pray tell!
The cake displayed our title in sweet script:

The Merry Wives of Windsor. Comedy!
(It’s one I’ve never read, and, so we learn,
The only one that Shakespeare ever set
In modern England—his own time and place.)

The others were old hands at this, it seemed:
They’d brought their own texts with them. But not I,
And so the fellow next to me would share.
Fair leader, Meghan Kemp-Gee ('07), cast the parts.
My role was tiny; I was there to watch.
And watch I did, and listen, as they read,
Becoming Rugby, Falstaff, Ford and Page
And 16 others—many double-cast,
Their voices switched, and accents, as required.
How strange to listen to the reader who,
In one scene, acted opposite himself!

Much merriment ensued: we laughed and groaned
At one another’s acting and the tale
That did unfold, of woo and trickery.
But best of all: the fellowship I saw
Among these Shakespeare geeks. Semesters three
Have passed since first Kemp-Gee began this rite,
This weekly meeting (not so oft, now that
Her thesis on The Tempest needs her time).
Some regulars have come, week after week,
And bonded over cake, tea and the Bard.
And this, a lovely Wednesday evening makes.

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Casting Call

Submitted by Katherine D. Duke

The sweaty palms. The thumping heart. I’m not even trying out for The Illusion—I’m just sitting outside Webster Studio 2 among the actors hoping to be cast in the play. But the quiet, nervous anticipation is contagious. When the director, William Cranch ’08, approaches me, I am reticent, flustered just trying to explain why I’m there.

Cranch, a theater and dance major, is directing The Illusion as his senior project. (For their own senior projects, Brendan Horton ’08 will design the sets, and Chris Gillyard ’08 is already slated to play the lead.)The Illusion is Tony Kushner’s 1988 adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s 17th-century comedy L’Illusion Comique, involving a sorcerer whose spells and trickery “blur the line between fact and fantasy,” according to the announcement of the try-outs. Cranch is laid-back about the audition process (“Hopefully they’ll have brought a monologue, but if not, it’s not a problem”). He gives me a job: to guard the door and remind actors to fill out the required form.

Soon, Cranch is ready to begin. A woman from Smith College says she’ll perform a song in lieu of a monologue. I’d like to watch, but I don’t follow her in. She doesn’t need another set of eyes on her, someone else taking notes on her every move.

A few minutes later, the Smith woman emerges with a male actor. They have five minutes to rehearse a scene together before going back in to the audition room. These sides are cold—that’s theater-talk for these lines of dialogue are completely new to them—so they struggle through Kushner’s ornate language—phrases like “presumptuous homuncula.”

“Wow—that is weird,” says the woman, once they’ve made it through the lines. “It’s fun, though.” Then she asks, “Do you get nervous for this kind of thing?”

“Yes,” the man admits.

“Really?” She’s surprised. “But you’re so good!”

Tucker DeVoe is crouched on the floor outside the studio, waiting his turn. He is a double major in theater and English at UMass (and, I can’t help thinking, he already has the name of a soap opera star). He’s prepared a monologue from Our Town. “I do a lot of floor-work, a lot of stretches and a lot of breathing exercises, just to calm my nerves,” he tells me. So I leave him to it, but he just puts on his headphones and listens to his MP3 player in quiet concentration. That works, too, I suppose.

Down the stairs in Webster Studio 3 the next evening, Michael Birtwistle, the Stanley King ’03 Professor of Dramatic Arts, Emeritus, is holding auditions for Lacuna Park. He is directing the play, which Jonah Shepp ’08 wrote as his senior project.

One actor—a student at Hampshire College—waits outside the studio. She is in a fiction writing class with Shepp at Amherst, and she’s curious about his play. She has already tried out for The Illusion.

“My nerves often get the best of me,” she says. “And by the time I’m fully warmed up and confident, it’s like, half the audition is over. [But] I just kind of fling myself into it. I think about how badly I want the part.”

I remember that wanting. I also remember the ensuing slap to the ego when I didn’t get the role—and, once in a while, the thrill when I saw my name on the cast list. I’m relieved not to be the one flinging myself in this time around. But also a little sad.

Mystery Date

Submitted by Katherine D. Duke

The lobby of Converse Hall looks different tonight. The area near the elevator has been roped off as an “archeological dig site.” Fliers on the walls and columns feature slogans such as Aliens are People, Too and Human? Alien? Questioning? Fine by me. Students are eating pizza and mingling with, among others, a sad clown in a rainbow wig. I’m not yet sure what all this means. What I do know is that Converse will soon become the scene of a deadly crime.

I’m at the annual Mr. Gad’s House of Improv murder-mystery show. This year, it’s titled “Till Death Do Us Part,” and it combines the fun of homicide with the horrors of searching for true love. The audience has been invited to participate in an evening of speed-dating with the characters, each played by a member of the troupe. The host characters, a blue-collar Southern couple named Clevus and Harley Busch (Ben Schweizer ’09 and Bree Barton ’07), are founders of the matchmaking Website eCompromise.com.

As I wander around the lobby and watch everyone schmooze, I feel shy and out-of-place, just as I would in a real social situation. And then I wonder: Is this a “real social situation”? I suppose this uncertainty is what Gad’s intends: to blur the line between reality and fiction, improv and script, audience and performers. I go with it. I begin thinking of myself as a character—a reporter, covering the date night for the local news.

I strike up a conversation with a tall, long-haired, bearded fellow in raggedy clothes—none other than Sasquatch (Andy Tew ’07). Through his halting, broken English, I notice his Canadian accent; he tells me he’s from the wilderness of Sasquatchewan (and the humans always get the name of the place wrong). Sasquatch hosts a radio program about Scientology. He has dated beavers, and he was once in love with a dog, but he’s ready to try courting a human.

“Have you met anyone special tonight?” I ask.

He grins. “I’ve met you.”

I blush and marvel at the fact that my job actually requires me to flirt with mythical woodland creatures.

 
Gad's Murder Mystery
Which one of these people is about to die? Which one belongs in prison? And which one would you like to take out to dinner? 

Soon, Clevus and Harley call everyone into Cole Assembly Room (better known as the "Red Room" or, tonight, "redruM"). They show video clips that the “Premium Members” of eCompromise.com have made to introduce themselves to potential mates. In addition to Sasquatch, the Premium Members include:

  • Nixie Van Wheelen (Sarah Sligar ’10), the second-most-famous newspaper crossword puzzle creator in the Northeast. Heaven help you if you mention the most famous one, Will Shortz, in her presence.

  • Darius “Funnyface” Johnson (Floyd Oliver ’11), a down-on-his-luck clown and writer. His stories have been rejected by Nixie’s newspaper, and his previous girlfriend left him for a mime.

  • Jean (Adam Alfandary ’10), a French jazz musician.

  • Gwen Pivold (Bessie Young ’11), an aging socialite who’s bitterly divorced from Jean.

  • Bobby Richter (Justin Redfearn ’09), an archeologist in search of the lost city of Atlantis. He enjoys “contemporary fossilization”—the killing and burying of animals so that their fossils can be discovered soon after.

  • Clack (Matt Johnson ’09), a rapper who takes his name from the click-clack sound a gun makes when it’s cocked.

  • Damien (Adam Barton ’11), the Antichrist. He’s a preppy young demon, educated at Williams College.

  • Art Zorbax (Brian Lewis ’08), who believes he was abducted by aliens and returned to Earth to form Project AHAB (“Alien Helper and Brother”). He’s in possession of a notebook full of alien writings, and he’s been distributing a fact sheet that points out the rampant misrepresentations of extraterrestrials in the media.

  • Casteel Stephanie (Zach Cherry ’10), a shy lad raised in complete isolation by his scientist parents on a remote island. He remains in constant contact with his mother via a wireless headset. The highest compliment he can think to bestow upon a date is, “You remind me of my mom.”

  • Polar Reagan-Thatcher (Dan Cluchey ’08), lovechild of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and adventurous host of the T.V. survival series Person vs. Wilderness. His dog used to accompany him on his travels, but no longer.

After the video introductions, we head back out to the lobby for another round of speed-dates, so the Premium Members can officially choose dates to take out on the town. They mostly choose one another. When we return to the Red Room, they are blindfolded and handcuffed together in couples, as per the rules of date night.

But wait! Someone is missing… Jean takes off his blindfold to find that his date, Nixie Van Wheelen, is gone—only her severed hand remains in the cuff.

Suddenly, every character is a murder suspect.

 

 

Clevus declares that the evening must go on. We watch the survivors act out their dates, at an Italian restaurant, a shopping mall and a miniature-golf course. And some startling facts are revealed: It turns out, for example, that Gwen and Jean had a son together, many years ago, but gave him up for adoption. Also, Art’s notebook did not come from outer space at all; Sasquatch recognizes the chicken-scratch as his own—he had been attempting to write poetry and a memoir in the book when it went missing.

When the dates conclude, we all flood back to the lobby. This time, we have serious work to do: talking to the suspects, piecing together the clues, solving the crime. A childhood spent devouring the Encyclopedia Brown books has done me no good—I’m a lousy detective, following all the wrong leads. What if Casteel is actually the long-lost son of Jean and Gwen, and one of them has been speaking through his headset, ordering him to kill? No—Casteel reports that he looks just like his dad, on the island. Could Nixie have been abducted by aliens? Art can’t tell me much about that possibility—he’s too distraught by the realization that maybe he was never even abducted himself. Did Harley’s pet beaver gnaw through Nixie’s wrist? No—Harley keeps the beaver’s teeth dull.

Eventually, I find Sasquatch sitting alone, looking upset and holding Nixie’s hand (just the hand). Could Sasquatch—such a gentleman to me earlier—have eaten the rest of her? He denies it, insisting, “My favorite food is dirt.” Besides, he really liked Nixie; she had been helping him finish his memoir, which, he explains, was to be about a tragedy from his past. He gets choked up and won’t tell me anything more.

I’m stumped. But those audience members who do think they’ve solved the crime are invited to write down and hand in their ideas. Whoever has the most accurate or most creative explanation will win a prize.

Back in the Red Room, Bobby Richter gives an anguished confession: he murdered Nixie to stop her from publishing Sasquatch’s memoir. It would have revealed that Bobby had killed Sasquatch’s one true love—who also happened to be Polar Reagan-Thatcher’s world-famous dog—so that he could bury the dog for “contemporary fossilization.”    

Okay. I suppose that makes as much sense as anything has tonight. The only audience member who succeeded in cracking the case was my coworker Sam Masinter ’04. I think he had an advantage, though: he is a former member of Gad’s and a veteran of these murder-mystery nights. He wins a toy gun.

I leave knowing two things for sure: First, I’m not cut out for detective work. Second, if I ever try an evening of real speed-dating, it won’t be nearly as interesting as this.

Photo: Samuel Masinter '04 

Talking Shop

Submitted by Katherine D. Duke

The student/faculty machine shop is nothing like the typical Amherst classroom, nor like the science labs all around it in Merrill. With its massive, dusty, cast-iron drill presses and grinders and its walls plastered with safety reminders, it looks, feels, smells and sounds like an arena of sweaty manual labor. For the three weeks of Interterm, though, it has become a classroom. In “Introduction to the Machine Shop,” students are learning the basics of measuring, lathing, milling, grinding and soldering under the instruction of Robert Cann.

The course reveals the shop to be a brainy place—a room where an amazing range of disciplines unite. Originally located in the basement of Fayerweather, near the blacksmith shop, the machine shop was founded more than 80 years ago by Amherst’s physics professors, who needed a place to make their own custom equipment for experiments. Most who sign up for the class every year are physics majors (prospective or declared) who want to become certified to use the shop in case their own research requires it. But this year, there’s also an art and art history major, concentrating in sculpture, who was introduced to machining during a summer at the Rhode Island School of Design.

It turns out that Cann himself was a sculpture student, and then an industrial design student, at RISD; he also has a graduate degree in business. “But my true love is still just making stuff,” he says. So, after teaching a similar course at Hampshire, he’s taken over the title of head of the machine shop from Dan Krause. Krause has a doctorate in physics.

image
Robert Cann, head of the machine shop, introduces
students to the lathe.

Just minutes into the first class meeting, other fields of study start coming into play as well. Neuroscience comes up first, in reference to a machinist who had to have an arm reattached after it was severed by a lathe. (Don’t be scared, though! Cann explains that, surprisingly, metal shops are actually far safer than wood shops. He shows us his one and only injury, “where I kinda sliced my thumb on a table saw.”) 

Arithmetic and geometry are involved, of course. As they produce their first projects—large, threaded aluminum shoulder bolts—the students have to position the lathe parts at the proper angles and convert measurements between fractional inches, decimal inches and, perhaps, metric units.

Cann makes mention of economics (how globalization has led to cheaper manufacturing, which has, in turn, dramatically reduced the prices of precision measuring tools) and history (how certain innovations came about to spark and further the Industrial Revolution). We even delve a bit into the territory of women’s and gender studies: When I point out the almost comical degree of sexism in the 1950s manual from the South Bend Lathe Co., which presumes the maleness of everyone who has ever used, or will ever use, one of its lathes, Cann is inspired to do some research at home. The next day, he tells us how a Shaker woman from New York invented the circular saw and a French woman designed the band in the first band saw. (It remains true, however, that the men in the class vastly outnumber the women.)

By the middle of the second class, once they’ve taken the tour and gotten the hang of the measuring devices, the students are ready to don their safety goggles, step up to their lathes and engage in some work of mind and machine.

Body Language

Submitted by Katherine D. Duke

The students in Webster Studio 1 are learning to talk and walk. That is, we’re learning to talk about how we move, and then to walk in new and unaccustomed ways. As Missy Vineyard teaches us in her Interterm course on the Alexander Technique, this is trickier than it sounds. It challenges everything we think we know about the connections between mind and body, words and actions, old habits and new awareness.

As we sit in a circle during the first class, Vineyard tells us about Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955), a Shakespearean orator from Australia who kept losing his voice. After numerous unsuccessful treatments, Alexander had the brilliantly simple idea of observing himself in mirrors. He realized that every time he spoke—every time he even thought about speaking—he would scrunch his neck and shoulders in a way that put strain on his vocal chords. So he developed conscious ways to break this unconscious habit, and the Alexander Technique was born. Vineyard was introduced to it as a dance student in 1972, became certified to teach it soon thereafter and now teaches from her home in Amherst as founder and director of The Alexander Technique Center New England and a member of The American Society for the Alexander Technique. Though the technique is still best known among actors, dancers and musicians, Vineyard believes it can help anyone who owns and operates a human body.

image
Missy Vineyard uses a model skeleton as a visual aid.

Vineyard asks us if we suffer from any aches and pains, and sure enough, we all do: bad knees, sore backs, stiff necks. She asks me if I mind talking about my disability. I don’t mind—I’m generally glad to inform people about my cerebral palsy and my electric scooter and wheelchair—but I am surprised: I’ve long suspected that many people are curious about it, but relatively few dare to ask. I recognize, in Vineyard, someone who is especially comfortable talking about bodies.

That comfort level doesn’t come nearly as easily to the rest of us. She has us observe one another as we stand up, sit down and walk across the room, and then asks us to describe what we see. We—smarty-pants college students and graduates, some of us bilingual, I a professional writer—find ourselves tongue-tied, unable to accurately name certain parts, resorting to demonstrating positions and movements in our own bodies because it’s a struggle to put them into words.

“His head was tilted forward,” one student says of another.

Vineyard asks, “What do we mean by head?”

“Umm… his head?”

 

After furthering questioning, we figure out that when we say “his head was tilted forward,” we actually mean that his neck was bent backward in relation to the rest of his body; we’d never thought about it that way. This posture was just a quirk of his particular way of standing up—neurologically ingrained in him, perhaps, since he first learned to stand. It’s such habits, says Vineyard, that can run contrary to how the human body has evolved to move and can put unnecessary stress and strain on our joints, bones and muscles.

Vineyard approaches other students, one by one, and guides them through a more efficient way to walk. She places her hands on the backs of their necks and does something—she won’t and, indeed, can’t explain to us precisely what—to alter the signals being sent back and forth between their brains and muscles. She is essentially re-programming them. As teacher and student move across the studio together, she reminds them not to tell themselves to walk; their musculoskeletal responses to the idea, to the word walk, are too strong and too specific and will interfere with the process. They should just go with the new signals. The students are amazed at how much lighter and faster this new walk feels; one young man, at least momentarily, stands half an inch taller.

Our interest is piqued. One student asks how long it takes to master the Alexander Technique. Vineyard says it can be studied for a lifetime. Is there any way to speed up the learning process—to fit more into the five days of this class? Unfortunately, no. These are, quite literally, just the first steps.

“How many of you have studied the Alexander Technique?” Felice Wolfzahn asks the group in Studio 1 the following week. There are a lot of the same student bodies present for this class on contact improvisation. Wolfzahn is also a dancer and teacher (trained at Juilliard and bringing more than 20 years of experience in various forms of dance and theater), and she will also guide us to greater awareness and more graceful movement.

But where Alexander focuses on efficiency of motion, contact improv is about expression and transformation. Our bodies become maypoles, bags of sand, bottles of seltzer, sacks of potatoes. As we explore “the full sphere” of human motion, we end up devolving and evolving: lying on our backs like dead cockroaches, clinging like starfish, walking like monkeys.

And for all this simile and metaphor, there is relatively little spoken language. Everything is demonstrated and visualized—poetry in motion. When Wolfzahn reminds us to “listen to our partners,” we know that she doesn’t mean listening to instructions and interjections. We listen for breath and weight and movement; we listen through our skin and muscles and “bony structures.” Comfort with one another’s bodies comes not just through talking about them, but through touching, leaning, carrying. Support. Contact.

So, enough of my words. I think these action shots say more.