History on the Wall

In the Octagon, an alumnus added new faces to a mural that has inspired many. 

by Emily Gold Boutilier

Octagon Mural

Kevin Soltau ’01 will not soon forget the week he slept in the Octagon. It was the summer before his senior year, and after months of research, he was painting a mural of black alumni who’d inspired him. On a ladder, brush in hand, he worked all day and into the night.

“Security would come by, and I’d say, ‘In a couple of hours I’ll be out of here,’” Soltau says, but when he got too tired, he simply rolled out a sleeping bag and closed his eyes.

This winter a new generation of students approached Soltau with an idea: Would he come back to the Octagon and add more faces?

“At first I was hesitant,” says Soltau, a lower-school art teacher in Atlanta, who majored in fine arts at Amherst. “My original idea was that it would continue to live on through other people.” In fact, it had: over the years, two artists, including Renata Robinson-Glenn ’04, had added eight new faces.

But students wanted to meet Soltau, and he was drawn to the symmetry of their request: In selecting people for the original mural, which fills one wall in the Octagon’s Gerald Penny ’77 Center, he’d spent time on the phone with African-American alumni, hearing their stories. He agreed to come back on the condition that current students pick the new faces.

Kevin Soltau '01

Students asked Soltau to come back and paint three more portraits.

“We wanted people we had personal connections with,” says Ajanae Bennett ’16, a member of the Black Student Union’s executive board.

Soltau arrived in February to add the images of Professor Rhonda Cobham-Sander, Dean Charri Boykin-East and the Rev. Timothy Jones ’05E—each of whom has inspired current BSU members. Jones—the Hermenia T. Gardner Bi-Semester Christian Worship Series Fellow at Amherst—was on vacation when he heard the news.

“I started screaming, ‘I’m on the wall! I’m on the wall!’” Jones says. “I can’t express how humbled I am.”

Bennett researched the many people in the mural for a Special Topics course on the Amherst black experience. “It means a lot,” she says, “to see black alumni who have done so much for their communities.”

She hopes to see herself there someday. “It’s beyond inspiring,” Bennett says of the artwork. “It makes me realize what I can do after Amherst and who I can become. It’s propelling me.”

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An Exploration of Faces, Language and Humanity with Author Chris Abani

Lola Fadulu '17 meeting author Chris Abani

Lolade Fadulu '17 in various modes of conversation with author Chris Abani during his visit to Amherst on Feb. 24

Through his writing and public speaking engagements, award-winning Nigerian author Chris Abani has become an internationally respected voice on topics related to humanitarianism and ethics. In his 2008 TED Talk, he referenced the South African philosophy of Ubuntu, which he explained as meaning, “The only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me.”

His most recent essay, The Face: Cartography of the Void, begins, “This essay is not just an exploration of my physical face; it is about the face we all identify with. It is about more than just what flesh covers my bone structure. It is about reflection too. What we see or want to see in the mirror.”

These sentiments on humanity and inward reflection served as the basis for his talk at Amherst on Feb. 24, titled, “My Face & Ours: Views of Today’s America.” From personal anecdotes about growing up with four brothers in the Igbo culture of West Africa to a chilling tale about an interaction with a police officer who pulled him over late one night in upstate New York, Abani’s talk investigated the various roles that race, culture and language play in fashioning our sense of self and our perceptions of others. 

Prior to his talk, Abani sat down for an interview (video below) touching on a variety of topics, including the power of language and crafting moral narratives; his process for writing The Face: Cartography of the Void; and the advice he gives to his students in his classes about literature and writing: 

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What Makes this Place Special? Relating Amherst's Past to its Present

April 17, 2016

Among the most well-known images in the Amherst College Archives is a photograph of Robert Frost and students reading and discussing poetry in the Rotherwas Room at the Mead.

robert frost and students photo

Image from Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

Frost’s age, and the fact that the students are all men and wearing suits, clearly broadcast that it’s the 1950s. However, the photo is famous in part because it is familiar—even in 2016. A close-knit learning community and small gatherings of students and faculty remain a hallmark of an Amherst education.

For Michael Harmon ’16, those long-ago Frost discussions sparked an idea for a six-part lecture series he created this spring.

The Faculty Discussion Series looks at Amherst’s history and defining characteristics. All talks are open to alumni and students. The intimate setting for the talks—an Amherst residence hall—calls back to Frost.  

For Harmon, organizing the lecture series was a chance to learn from long-tenured professors and alumni.  “At Amherst, we're not in a history-less vacuum but instead are rooted in a tradition of discussion, inquiry, and progress," he says. "I hope this series helps us better understand what continues to make Amherst so special."

 

Faculty Lecture Series

Watch videos from the events

 

Amherst from the Civil War to Civil Rights with Robert H. Romer ’52, professor emeritus of physics
February 25, 7:30-8:30 p.m.

Amherst before the 1960s Upheaval with Hugh Hawkins, the Anson D. Morse Professor of History and American Studies, Emeritus
March 2, 7:30-8:30 p.m.

Amherst Poets with David R. Sofield, the Samuel Williston Professor of English
March 8, 7:30-8:30 p.m.

The Pioneer Faculty Women with Elizabeth Aries, the Clarence Francis 1910 Professor in Social Sciences (Psychology), and Patricia O’Hara, the Amanda and Lisa Cross Professor of Chemistry
March 22, 7:30-8:30 p.m.

Memories of a Freshman with Professor William Pritchard ’53, the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus
Thursday, March 24, 4:30-5:30 p.m.

The Sixties: Amherst Activism Then and Now with Professor Kim Townsend, the Class of 1959 Professor of English, Emeritus, and Richard Aronson ’69, MD, MPH, Assistant Dean of Students
Tuesday, March 29, 7:30-8:30 p.m.

 

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Bigger and Better Questions: The Career Center's Innovation Trek

February 3, 2016
Emmanuel Osunlana '18

Innovation Trek_photo 1

When struggling with motion sickness, the best strategy is to sit completely still and look straight ahead. It has a grounding effect. I had to employ this tactic after my first experience driving through the snaking streets of San Francisco. My inaugural foray into the city marked the beginning of the Amherst Career Center’s Innovation Trek, and our first stop was the home of Kelly Close '90, founder of Close Concerns.

As I sat unmoving in Ms. Close’s beautiful home, I ruminated on the uncertainty of the future—I do this often. My thoughts led me to the question of what I want to do with my future. Although the trek did not lead to any concrete answers, it helped me ask more nuanced questions about the future.

The Innovation Trek is an opportunity for 12 Amherst College students to meet alumni working in various sectors of Silicon Valley (e.g. tech, venture capital, startup, and private equity). The program is in its second year and is open to students from all class years and majors. Students apply for one of 12 spots and the trip was financed through the Christine Noyer Seaver and Alexander Seaver President's Discretionary Fund, a permanently endowed fund established in 2013 that supports a variety of student and faculty projects each year.

Over the course of a week, we met alumni during networking events, site visits, receptions and roundtable discussions. Alumni shared how their career paths led them from the East to the West Coast, and we heard firsthand accounts of how they leveraged a liberal arts background to succeed in tech fields. Despite divergent career paths, alumni echoed the same message: know yourself in the context of your career goals.

On the third day of the Trek, Gib Biddle ’84, a product advisor to start-ups, provided a framework to help us analyze our strengths. He asked us if we were starters, builders or maintainers. Starters challenge the status quo with new ideas, builders scale a small idea into a big proven concept, and maintainers keeps the company running smoothly. The most successful ‘unicorns,’ startup companies with a market cap above $1 billion, have teams composed of starters, builders and maintainers. No specific skill class is better.

While I listened to Mr. Biddle speak, I thought back to the question of my future and what I hoped it would look like. Naturally, I jumped to the idea of being a starter—who doesn’t want to be the next Zuckerberg? But I quickly realized there is no specific idea that I am willing to make my life’s mission, and that my current skill class is more of a builder. Through guided self-analysis I was better able to think about my current skills.

The following day, Mark Perry '65, former general partner at the venture capital firm NEA, added another layer to help us think about our skill profiles. He encouraged us to ask: does this job uniquely play to my strengths? Suppose an individual has two skills, one with excellent competency and the other with average. If this individual takes a job that caters to that greatest strength, he or she will flourish. However, if the job requires the lesser skill, this individual will likely stagnate. The key is making sure that the job not only fits one’s strengths, but that it uniquely does so. By being able to evaluate how my strengths coincide with potential work opportunities, I felt better prepared in next deciding where to start my career.

Innovation Trek_photo 2

Jason Spero ’94, vice president of performance media at Google, framed the question of where to begin most clearly. He asked us to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of joining a young, small company or an established, big company. Young companies are fighting to succeed so there is an expectation of immense responsibility and autonomy from the get-go. The stakes are higher; failure could swallow one whole at any moment. However, high risk may result in high reward. On the other hand, established companies provide valuable training programs and resources to facilitate learning and growth, albeit at a slower pace. Also, big companies have superb training programs that provide an excellent platform to dive into more uncertain waters later. Whether joining a big or small company, the decision must balance skill with job responsibilities and future growth.

Throughout the trek we met with nearly a dozen alumni. Self-evaluation was a constant theme. Alumni challenged us with new perspectives and questions. Each time I tried to honestly assess of my skills, experience and goals. It strikes me that the strategy for struggling with motion sickness also works for the equally nausea-inducing transition from college student to independent adult. By sitting still and looking straight ahead, I am not only thinking about the future; I am also thinking about the future in relation to where I currently am.

On that first evening of the Innovation Trek, Ms. Close gave me a glass of sparkling water and checked on me until my motion sickness had passed. At the risk of abusing my metaphor, I will add that her compassion for an individual she had just met is similar to the support that alumni can provide to a student who is sitting still and staring straight ahead (i.e. thoughtfully analyzing the future). Introspection need not be done alone when we have amazing alumni who are willing and qualified to offer advice and help us navigate the path ahead.  


 

Students: Visit the Career Center in College Hall to learn more about how to participate in a career trek. 

Alumni: The Career Center organizes 3-4 treks each year. Interested in meeting students at a trek in your city? Please contact Emily Griffen, at egriffen@amherst.edu or (413) 542-2265. For information on how to support future treks, please contact the Advancement Office at (413) 542-5900.

             

This is How a Superhero Sounds

April 12, 2016

By Rachael Hanley 

From the time she watched her first XMen movie, Ashley “Monty” Montgomery has been, as she admits, obsessed with superheroes.

The Amherst senior traces this obsession to her dad who, when she was younger, let Montgomery and her brother indulge in weekends of Star Wars and Star Trek.

By the time she left for college, superhero movies were Montgomery’s cure for homesickness; they were how she wanted to spend those rare chunks of free time. They were also what inspired her to sign up for a class, that would lead to a paper, an independent study, a radio show, and some intriguing discoveries about the treatment of genders.

On Saturday, Montgomery played the culmination of her work, an audio documentary called “What does a Superhero Sound Like? An Audio Analysis of Gender, Media, and Technology,” during her evening show on WAMH 89.3 FM. The full broadcast is also available on her blog: superherosounds.wordpress.com

Ashley Montgomery

Montgomery said recently that the documentary—an independent research project funded by the English department and the James Charlton Knox Prize—was inspired by both a love of broadcast journalism and her experience in the class “Rhetorics of New Media” with visiting professor Matt Tierney.

For her final essay in that class, Montgomery wrote 15 pages on the feminist patterns in Captain America: Winter Soldier, and said it was “the most enjoyable paper I’ve ever written.”

After the class was over, Montgomery created “The Superhero” show on WAMH, which gave her a platform through which to ask questions about gender and media of a larger audience.

“I’d go to people and ask them to name as many female superheroes as they could in 30 seconds and as many male superheroes as they could in 30 seconds,” Montgomery said. Most people could name a dozen men, but only one or two women, she said.

During the course of her research, Montgomery said she came to a startling discovery: not only were males in the superhero genre not as adaptable as they seemed to be, but the females were always in the process of saving their counterparts—while also getting less of the glory.

“Women have the power to be the star,” she said. “They’re not actually powerless, they’re just pretending to be.”

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Finding a Mascot

The first job of the new student-alumni mascot committee is to create a process that’s transparent, that maximizes participation and that builds community.

April 14, 2016

By Emily Gold Boutilier

How will Amherst choose a new mascot? This spring a committee of students and alumni is beginning to answer that question.

The Mascot Committee held its first meeting on April 1. Its next meetings will be on April 15 and April 29. Most of its 17 members (whose ranks may grow) are drawn from two existing groups—the Student Traditions Committee and the Alumni Executive Committee’s Mascot Task Force. 

“Our job is to create a process that’s transparent and that allows our various constituencies—alumni, students, faculty and staff—to express their opinions,” says Alumni Executive Committee Chair Annette Sanderson ’82, who serves on the new group. “It’s our goal to listen, and to be inclusive.”

fans at a game

A new mascot should be something "we can all rally around," said the Board of Trustees statement. 

So far, the group has endorsed a set of guiding principles. These state that the decision-making process must ensure transparency, build community, maximize participation and create connections among students and alumni.

The other alumni members are Joe McDonald ’58 (chair), Tania de Sousa Dias ’13, Aimee Carroll Flynn ’99, Steve Gang ’72, Mike Mulligan ’68, Ace Roesch ’08 and Tom Sullivan ’78.

Student members are Brianna Cook ’16, Harrison Haigood ’18, Virginia Hassell ’16, Sam Keaser ’17E, Olivia Pinney ’17, Siraj Sindhu ’17, Micayla Tatum ’16 and Association of Amherst Students President Tomi Williams ’16.

College Archivist Michael Kelly is also a member.

“We don’t want it to be top-down,” says Keaser. “We’re all very committed to the College, to finding a new mascot and a process that works—one that’s democratic and open.”

The committee will propose to President Biddy Martin later this year its recommended process for engaging the community in the choice of a new mascot.

The committee came to be following the January Board of Trustees statement, which noted the importance of convening a group that would involve as many people as possible in finding  “something—something organically associated with Amherst, reflecting our collective history—that we can all rally around.”

For updates and background, go to amherst.edu/alumni/mascot. Contact the committee at feedback@amherst.edu

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Amherst Explorations: Student Research Celebrated

 Each spring, the Friendly Periodicals Reading Room at Frost Library becomes a microcosm of what’s bubbling in Amherst brains, as students share projects along the full spectrum of disciplines.

 The fourth annual Amherst Explorations, held April 1 this year, showcased individual and collaborative projects in panel discussions, lightning talks, poster presentations and performances

 “Amherst Explorations celebrates everything that we hold most dear,” said Catherine Epstein, dean of the faculty. “Student research is at the core of what we hope to instill in our students. Independent inquiry is absolutely at the heart of liberal arts education: it’s about teaching and learning to ask questions; it’s about discerning what’s important, what must be known. It’s about thinking broadly and deeply and making connections that would not otherwise be made.”

poster session

Individual departments and classes often conduct poster sessions and the like for students to show off their work, but Amherst Explorations offers an opportunity for students (particularly first-year students) and the whole community to get a glimpse at the variety of topics studied on campus. The event is sponsored by the Office of the President, the Office of the Dean of the Faculty, the Office of Student Life, the Library, the Center for Community Engagement, the Writing Center and Information Technology.

 In a daylong series of lighting talks, students gave encapsulated overviews of their research.

 “While ambrosia and nectar are in your reach, I beseech you do not become companions with swine on the dunghill,” said Sylvia Hickman ’16, quoting Amherst’s third president, Edward Hitchcock, an early advocate for healthy eating. Her project, “More Than Sustenance: Health, Morality, Authority and the History of College Dining at Amherst, Smith and Mount Holyoke, 1821–1941,” drew from archival materials of the three colleges. The women’s colleges had dining services from the time of their founding, but Amherst did not. Until about the 20th century, Amherst students dined with local families, at boarding houses and in their fraternity houses. Hickman showed some menus from the former Hitchcock Dining Hall (located on the site where Converse Hall now stands): “Mostly meat and potatoes. Also, you’ll notice in the ‘extras’ that you could buy off the main menu was a list of vegetables. It is six different ways to prepare potatoes,” she said.

Panels

 Student panels reported on projects completed through fellowships and other programs.

Digital Scholarship interns discussed how they spent the summer reexamining the life and legacy of President Hitchcock, who was a geologist and minister. Seanna McCall ’17 explored Hitchcock’s obsession with reconciling the Bible with science. Darya Bor ’18 concentrated on the design and construction of the Octagon, one of the campus buildings erected during Hitchcock’s tenure, still in use today. Daniel Rivera ’17E examined Hitchcock’s financial records, translating them into a searchable database.

 A panel of Folger Fellows discussed their research projects conducted at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.  Students presented on how 20th-century Shakespeare scholarship in China restored a new kind humanism during a tumultuous time; how Othello has been interpreted and performed in utterly different fashions throughout its history; how period dress in drama has been interpreted over time; and explorations of sickness and the human body in Shakespeare’s time.

 Students on Lane Fellowships discussed their projects in the arts, for which they delve into historical and rare source materials from the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections. Other students discussed findings from the collaborative “Being Human in STEM” course, which looks specifically at diversity within STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—at Amherst College and beyond.

Elena Marione ’16 showed a clip of Twine: After Troy, the performance piece she wrote and directed, in which four women struggle for a new life following the fall of their ancient city.

 Observers were also treated to a performance by the Amherst College Alphorn Club, who played on versions of the massive alpine horns that they have crafted out of PVC pipe.

 Ashley Montgomery ’16 presented an audio piece, “What Does A Superhero Sound Like?: On New Media and Heroines,” which examines the roles of women in the superhero genre. “It’s his story. It’s time for hers,” she said. “It’s past time for hers.”

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Taking Wing: Learning Turbine Flight

Feb. 5, 2016

Turbine Flight Class

Whether with an eye towards an eventual career in flight, or simply out of curiosity about airline travel, 10 Amherst students spent part of their interterm taking the controls of a virtual Boeing 737.

Henry Parker Hirschel, retired instructor for the Steamship Authority in Woods Hole, Mass., has been teaching this course for the past nine winter breaks at Amherst. He considers this his "fun" course, paired with a more grueling course he teaches on celestial navigation, which studies the history, theory and techniques used to navigate the globe.

Not to say that the course on turbine flight is something to sleepwalk through. His students quickly find that attendance and attention to the 361-page Boeing manual are necessary to avoid mishap in the air.

Virtual air, that is: Hirschel, who flew sub-sonic fixed-wing multi-engine jet aircraft in the U.S. Air Force and was a beta tester for Sublogic’s “Air Transport Pilot,” teaches with the professional-grade Flight Simulator program.

This winter, students were in for a particular treat: taking the controls of the 737 simulator with a prototype Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. With their field of vision completely encased in the VR headset, the would-be pilots were able to step into a virtual cockpit and “fly” over a virtual Connecticut Valley on its approach to Bradley International Airport.

Operating the Oculus Rift

"I've been fascinated by aviation for many years, so having the chance to study the principles and procedures of jet-powered flight for a week was an opportunity I couldn't pass up," said Ian McClaugherty '19. "I hope to become a professional pilot after college."

The class reviewed basic principles of flight and jet-propulsion, focusing specifically on  the Boeing 737.

"The engine that powers the 737, the 26,000-pound thrust General Electric CFM 56 turbofan, is the most successful in history," said Hirschel.

They examined the aerodynamic design and the history of turbojet and fanjet propulsion.

The course included a field trip to Bradley. At the virtual controls, participants assumed in-flight duties of captain and first officer, flying from Providence’s T.F. Green Airport and then landing in restricted visibility at Bradley. The course culminated in landing the Boeing over mountain terrain in the Virgin Islands on a stormy summer evening.

Nathanael Lane '18 said he signed up just for fun.

"I had heard good reviews from people who have taken it in past years," he said. "I feel that courses such as this one play deeply into the concept of liberal arts—exposure to a wide and diverse range of knowledge and experiences."

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Making Pitches For Education

The "shark tank"

The Amherst Careers in Education Professions Program offered an Interterm course that participants compared to a kind of Amazing Race meets Shark Tank, were they to take on 21st century education issues.

Mid-January, ten students —mostly Amherst students, with some students from the Five Colleges and beyond— visited schools in Amherst, Greenfield, Holyoke and Springfield, meeting about 40 educators: teachers, administrators, counselors, community leaders and leaders of after-school programs.

“We split them into teams, gave them access to some of the most experienced and thoughtful education leaders in the Pioneer Valley, and asked them to create a concept for a school that serves its community in unique ways,” said Robert A. Siudzinski, director of Amherst Careers in Education Professions.

The goal was to address problems that get in the way of the level playing field for all students.

“We need to get all our students to that starting line,” said Dennis Quinn, Associate Director & Director of Mentoring Programs for Reader to Reader, one of the designers of the interterm course, "Experiential Education Studies: Integrating liberal arts as a platform for innovative thought in education policy."

Over a week in January, students were taken on surprise trips to mini-workshops on experiential education, design thinking, discussion leadership, and group dynamics.

Teams of Amherst and Five College students worked to create “solution pitches” for a new full-service community school model that was presented to an audience of superintendents, educators and community members.

Students came up with plans that included visions for a public charter school and full-service community schools.

Their ideas included a free choice period for teachers, changing the standard physical education class to a fitness class, and creating more opportunities to bring families into the schools.

“Everybody has something special to bring,” said George Long '17.

asking questions

One team put a little more theater into their presentation. As one team member stood silently, representing a new student in the primary school system, her teammate applied sticky notes to her, representing all the labels a child may be burdened with over time.

Educators liked what they saw.

“There is so much here that we know is critical,” said Greenfield Public Schools Superintendent Jordana Harper. “It doesn’t necessarily look like the schools you saw, but it reflects a vision. This is encouraging.”

"You certainly pulled together some impressive educators," said Bob Kuklis ’61, a retired educator who served on the expert panel. "The students asked insightful questions that generated important observations and ideas … [the] work in opening them to future involvement in education gives promise to the future."

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