The Poet and the Puppeteer

Submitted on Thursday, 8/22/2013, at 10:55 AM

Article by Katherine Duke ’05

Photos by Michael Bauman

On a warm July evening, on the grassy lawn of the Wilder Observatory, six actors and a musician from the Mettawee River Theatre Company gathered in front of an audience of all ages and used puppets and poetry to bring a medieval Welsh tale to life. Taliesin—which blends mythology and real historical figures—tells of a boy magically reborn as a sorcerer-poet and adopted by a fisherman and his wife, who uses his extraordinary gifts to shake things up in the king’s court. The performance was the result of a joint effort between two theater professionals who first collaborated at Amherst College more than 55 years ago.

Actors and puppets gathered around a cauldron
Actors and puppets from the Mettawee River Theatre Company, during a production of Taliesin on the Wilder Observatory lawn

Robert Bagg ’57 and Ralph Lee ’57 lived together in Phi Alpha Psi, which Lee describes as a fraternity full of “freethinkers” and “people who were into music and fine arts.” Lee had grown up in Vermont, putting on puppet shows, designing masks for the local Halloween parade and performing at Middlebury College, where his mother taught modern dance. Bagg was a fledgling poet and scholar of Greek, learning from such Amherst professors as James Merrill ’47 and Robert Frost. Senior year, Bagg translated Euripides’ satyr play The Cyclops; Lee directed the production and created masks for all the characters. According to Bagg, Lee then encouraged him to write a play based on The Odyssey, and together they dramatized its Nausicaa episode.

“That undergrad exposure to Greek drama set me off on a lifelong career vector, translating the Athenian playwrights into contemporary speech,” Bagg writes in his Amherst Alumni Directory profile. To date, Bagg’s translations of eight plays by Euripides and Sophocles have been the basis of nearly 70 productions around the world. His Oedipus the King and Antigone are included in The Norton Anthology of World Literature, and his Antigone in the forthcoming second edition of The Norton Anthology of Drama. Bagg also taught at UMass for many years and has published numerous collections of original poetry. His current major project is a critical biography of poet and Amherst lecturer Richard Wilbur ’42 (an excerpt from which appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of Amherst magazine).

Bard, King and Queen puppets

Lee’s path after Amherst led him on a Fulbright Scholarship to study mime and modern dance in Paris, followed by a year at the London Academy of Dramatic Art. Then he found employment as an actor, mask-maker and designer in New York City, creating props and puppets for Shari Lewis’ TV show and the “Land Shark” for the iconic Saturday Night Live sketch, as well as working with numerous theater and dance companies. While teaching at Bennington College in the mid-1970s, Lee staged a theatrical event with giant puppets all over the campus and realized that “they took on a very vibrant life when they were outdoors.” This inspired him to found and direct the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade, for which he won an Obie Award in 1975, and to sign on as artistic director of the Mettawee in 1976.

Based in Salem, N.Y., and Manhattan, the Mettawee specializes in shows with “large puppets and visual effects that are especially arranged for the out-of-doors. And a lot of the plays are based on myths and legends from one culture or another, which all really have a lot to do with the forces of nature,” Lee says. “To be out there in nature, and perhaps have … an incredible moon come out toward the end of your show, or a blue heron fly out of the swamp that’s in the area behind where you’re performing—little surprise events like that just tend to contribute something marvelous.”

Actors hold branches with figures of moon and stars against the night sky

Early this year, Lee sought someone to script the Mettawee’s planned Taliesin show. “I was really looking for a poet, because it’s all about poetry and inspiration,” he says. “That’s why I called Bob.” Bagg was at work on the Wilbur biography, but he decided he owed a favor to the friend who had led him into the world of Greek drama. So Lee and his wife, costume designer and founding Mettawee member Casey Compton, wrote up a scenario, which Bagg fleshed out with dialogue and lyrics, based on existing translations of the Welsh folklore and the writings of at least one real medieval poet who went by the name Taliesin. For several months, they collaborated mainly by phone and computer—Bagg sending drafts from his home in Worthington, Mass., and Lee giving feedback from New York, where he was rehearsing with the actors, creating masks and puppets out of papier-mâché,cardboard and a variety of other materials

In July and August, the Mettawee took the show on the road, performing on lawns and in parks throughout New York, Vermont and Massachusetts. The Wilder Observatory show was part of the Kō Festival of Performance, which takes place every summer on the Amherst campus; the Mettawee has been involved with the festival for some 20 years. Lee appreciates the many features of the Observatory lawn that make it a great venue for a play: it’s tucked away from the noises of the street, the surrounding trees enhance the acoustics, and the ground slopes gently, giving the audience a better view.

“And occasionally,” he adds, “there are still some old friends of mine from my Amherst days that will show up, which is really wonderful.”

This time, it was Bagg who showed up, not just as a name credited in the program but as a viewer in the crowd as well. He declared the show “just about perfect.”

Bagg and Lee with arms around each other's shoulders  
Robert Bagg '57 (left) and Ralph Lee '57 at a production of Taliesin in Shelburne Falls, Mass.

The Mettawee River Theatre Company’s summer season will culminate in September with several performances of Taliesin at Manhattan’s Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, where Ralph Lee ’57 is a longtime artist-in-residence.

 

The Alchemy of a Successful Internship

Submitted on Tuesday, 8/6/2013, at 11:48 AM

Julia Alexander, the Center for Community Engagement’s public service internship coordinator, is bringing reflection and social justice to the heart of the CCE’s internship programs. Story by Jenny Morgan, photo by Eugene Lee '16.

As 127 students are immersed in internships across 15 states and 13 countries, public service internship coordinator Julia Alexander is eagerly waiting to learn how these internships might shape their future work or lead to unexpected discoveries. This summer—her first in the position—Alexander is coordinating two internship programs: the Civic Engagement Scholars and Pioneer Valley Citizen Summer.

Alexander knows firsthand that internships can lead to unexpected discoveries.

In the summer of 2007, Alexander traveled to Stellenbosch, South Africa, as part of an undergraduate service-learning program. She lived and studied in the city and worked as an afterschool volunteer in Kayamandi, a nearby township. “Just seeing the contrast in wealth distribution and the racial segregation was profound for me,” she says. “As a young white woman having grown up with a lot of privilege, I often questioned inequality in America. In South Africa, I was able to see this weirdly parallel racial history. It took me stepping outside of my community to fully understand it. When I returned, I had this whole other lens with which to view race, society and myself.”

Alexander credits this program with transforming the trajectory of her career—and that’s exactly the kind of experience she hopes interns are having now. “I think my role is to challenge students to be critically engaged with the process,” she says. “I don’t want students to just go and do something. I want them to think about how it relates to their academics, their passions or their professions.”

Part of this critical engagement means asking students to reflect along the way. As part of the Pioneer Valley Citizen Summer, Alexander facilitates a Friday seminar with the 19 interns, who are living together at Amherst. Interns share their experiences, write reflections and engage with community members through lunches and panels.

Alexander is also zooming in on how interns engage with the idea of social justice—regardless of the internship’s focus. “Social justice asks us to be reflective of who we are and where we are and how our position in society affects our relationships,” she says. “When you are talking about a program that is asking students to engage with people they might not necessarily have contact with before, [understanding] social justice is the key to a successful internship.” As a trained facilitator in intergroup dialogue, Alexander has already facilitated some student-initiated dialogues at Amherst on gender and socioeconomic class. “It’s about being open and listening,” she says. “There’s a demand that students are making to have their identities and experiences heard and valued.”

Alexander looks forward to guiding students through reflections after the summer draws to an end. She plans to ask them: “What changes have happened? Who are you now, who were you before?” Much learning takes place “in the process of reflection after the experience has taken place,” she says. With Alexander at the helm, this year’s interns are in good hands every step of the way.

The Medical School Doctor is In

Submitted on Monday, 7/22/2013, at 4:33 PM

Summer days at Amherst College are among the busiest of the year for Dr. Richard Aronson ’69, a physician who spends his days reviewing medical school applications, writing letters of recommendations, mentoring students and alumni and doing anything else needed to help prepare Amherst graduates for careers in health.

Dean Aronson, the health professions adviser at Amherst’s Career Center, says he might be one of only a handful of physicians in the country working as an undergraduate career adviser and mentor in higher education.

He believes – and his colleagues agree – that his professional background as a clinical pediatrician for 10 years, and as a public health official in Vermont, Wisconsin and Maine provides Amherst students a rare opportunity to gain perspective from someone who’s been through what they aspire to achieve.

Richard Aronson, M.D. '69 advises a student about medical school.

The soft-spoken and unassuming Aronson is a passionate mentor to his students, and he tirelessly reaches out to anyone who can help students achieve their personal and professional goals. Working from his College Hall office but willing to venture wherever he’s needed, Aronson estimates he’s had more than 500 meetings or encounters with students and alumni in the past six months alone.

Aronson, who also has a master’s in public health, recently took a break from his busy summer to discuss his important job with Peter Rooney, Amherst College’s Director of Public Affairs. An edited transcript follows below. 

Q: Compared to when you were at Amherst, are more or fewer students interested in becoming doctors?

A: I don’t think [the number] has changed. Every year we have approximately 50 to 60 applicants for medical school, but these days, that number spans several graduating classes. So this summer we’re working with 50  applicants for medical school, along with one dental school applicant, from the classes of 2014 to 2009.

Another thing that has changed in a significant way is that most students don’t go right to medical school from Amherst. Most students who go onto med school take one or two or even three years between college and starting medical school.

In a broader sense, the number of students interested in public health and global health has skyrocketed.  While some of these students incorporate this interest into medicine, an increasing number discover ways to integrate public health into a wide variety of other health professions careers.

Q: Why are students taking that extra time before medical school?

A: Students want to get more experience and to do something concrete in the world before going into another intensive period of study.

Taking time after Amherst also makes them a stronger candidate, because they have that much more experience and maturity to balance out their application.

Q: How is your advice to students informed by your experience as a physician?

A: I feel very strongly that it’s important [for students] to really explore why they want to pursue the health professions, to be sure that it’s their passion and they love it.

I also emphasize that having a low grade in one class isn’t the end of world. There are many paths to medical school, and if medical school doesn’t fit, there are many other professions in health. I’ve had the opportunity to work with all sorts of health care professionals, not just many kinds of physicians, but also nurse practitioners, physician’s assistants, social workers, dentists, mental health professionals and public health professionals.

The other thing that being a doctor helps with is that I’m able to connect with the alums in the health professions to create some amazing mentoring opportunities.

But perhaps most important is that I try to convey from my experience the central importance of learning how to honor and respect the dignity of patients, to listen intently and humanely to their unique stories. This is a lifelong journey, and students can start to develop and value this approach while  at Amherst.  There’s a relatively new field of medicine called Narrative Medicine, and Amherst is a natural match for exploring it - the nuance and sensitivity of honoring the stories of illness and healing.

Q: Your own major was religion. Other distinguished alumni in medicine, such as Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus ’61, studied English. These aren’t typical “pre-med” majors. How common are they at Amherst?

A: Amherst has a tradition of turning out humane doctors who have a broad exposure to the liberal arts. We have a substantial number of students who go on to medical school from here who major in non-sciences, probably roughly 1/3. This year, for example, we have students applying to medical school who majored in music, English, history, anthropology, sociology, political science, black studies, psychology,  Spanish, French, and Asian languages/civilizations.

It does require planning and time management and we provide a lot of that support throughout the year from this office in the Career Center and from Professor of Physics William Loinaz, who chairs the health professions committee. We strongly encourage students with even a slight interest in health professions to come and meet with us early on in their Amherst careers so we can get to know them and provide resources for them – connecting them with alumni through the Pathways Mentoring Program who are of great help, dynamic student organizations on campus, the Center for Community Engagement, and many community partners. And for students majoring in science, we strongly encourage them to take a wide variety of courses in the humanities and social sciences.

 

Q: Why is summer your busiest time?

A: Summer is when students apply to medical school, to dental school and to other health profession schools. They apply in the summer a year before they matriculate at medical school. This summer, our office is working intensely with this year’s cohort of applicants as they write applications. We provide support, advice and guidance as they try to figure out and navigate this very complex and often daunting and competitive process. Also, we work with the large number of professors, coaches, deans, and other staff who spend countless hours writing detailed individual recommendation letters, and to whom we’re always grateful.

Q: How does your office help these students distinguish themselves?

In the summer, in addition to advising students as they apply to medical school, I write what’s called a committee letter. The committee letter is an in-depth portrait, in a sense, a mini-biography, of each applicant in which we tell their unique story – academic, extracurricular, and personal - in a way that’s going to be the most compelling for their candidacy.

We do this in partnership with the health professions committee that consists of four faculty members and is chaired by Professor Loinaz.  I work very closely with Professor Loinaz throughout the entire year.

 The committee letter is a summary of a student’s presentation as a candidate for medical school. It’s drawn from the individual recommendations letters, transcript, resume, personal statement, questionnaire, and my personal knowledge of the applicant gained over the years I’ve worked with them. The personal statement – where the student writes in essence why they want to be a doctor – is a key part of the process. The Writing Center is a key partner in this.  This committee letter takes a lot of work to produce. It has to go through the health professions committee for review and approval. This whole system was created by Professor Stephen George 20 years ago, and fine-tuned over the years by (associate dean of students) Carolyn Bassett. I’m grateful to them for setting it up. Our office is an integral part of the Career Center. In fact, under the direction of Ursula Olender, the Career Center is moving to build on the model of the health professions program and apply it to other fields such as education and the arts.

Q: Has the system been successful?

A: Yes, very. The key is that students apply when they are competitive and ready. We probably average in any given year a roughly 75 to 80 percent acceptance rate. Many students who don’t get in will reapply, and the combination of applying once and then reapplying takes our acceptance up to more than 90 percent.

We pride ourselves at Amherst in not being a cutthroat pre-med environment. We don’t have a pre-med track or major. The students here are collaborative with each other. We’re proud of that.

Our job at Amherst is to provide optimal support so our students will do as well as possible. We have a great group of candidates for medical school. [They represent]the kind of doctor we will need in the future, someone who is  not just a technician and expert in the science of disease but also a healer who is able to combine the science of medicine with the art of medicine. That’s a unique and important contribution. We feel that Amherst is great at turning out that kind of doctor. The same applies to those who end up working in other health professions fields, as an increasing number of students are doing.

Q: Are the common reasons for going to medical school the same as they were a generation ago?

A: Compared to when I was a student, more and more students are interested in medical school as a path to addressing deeper issues that concern them, [such as] unequal access to healthcare, health disparities, and public health issues such as  obesity and diabetes. There also are many students who have a passionate interest in the science of human health and disease and already have done incredible work in biomedical research.

Q: Does today’s U.S. healthcare system discourage or encourage interest in health care and medicine?

A: I think students are wisely exploring health care in the U.S. today and becoming aware about the immense challenges we face. They come out of Amherst wanting to make health care more accessible, more affordable and more humane.

Q: One hears about parents wanting their kids to be doctors, and pushing them on that path. Do you see much of that at Amherst?

A: Yes, we do have students whose aspirations when they arrive here have been shaped in large part by their parents. One of our responsibilities is to work with them and help them clarify what they themselves want to do with their lives, and help them answer what they really want to do to make them feel fulfilled, productive and happy in their professional life, and not what somebody else will feel is best for them.

Q: How concerned are students about the working conditions and the loans they’ll have to take on if they go to medical school?

A: The students  I work with are overwhelmingly motivated by service, by a desire to alleviate suffering and be involved in a profession that’s fundamentally about healing and helping people in need.

Students are very concerned about the financial aspects of medical school, though. One thing that is fortunate is that Amherst provides need-based support for its students. That means that [our] students are typically not going into medical school with as much debt as students from other colleges.

Even so, the cost of medical school is a huge issue that’s not easily solvable. In spite of that, students who are passionate about medicine as career are going ahead with it.  

 

Memory and Movies

July 26, 2012

By Angelina Gomez ’14

My parents recently went on a vacation to Hawaii. While talking to my mom about the trip, I heard about the colors of the flowers they saw on a hike, how she felt about taking time off work, how she had arranged for someone to take care of their cat while they were away, the flavors of the fish they ate and more. My dad’s report of the week: “We hiked. We swam at bit. The hotel was nice. It was fun!”

I’m sure others have noticed a general difference between the stories told by males and females. When you ask a woman how her weekend went, you had better be ready to hear all of the details, including explanations of emotions, relationship dynamics and relevant previous events. Conversely, men are more likely to stick to factual accounts of what happened, where and with whom. This observable difference is more than just a stereotype: Studies show that men and women have different abilities to remember events in their lives. In the field of psychology, this is known as autobiographical memory, and most research has found that women are much better at it than men.

2012_07_25_AngelinaGomez_Selects_RM_400x267_001

The author, in front of an oft-quoted film (at right)

But are women actually better at recalling events in our lives, or are we simply more loquacious storytellers? The “factual bias” that men display could deter them from telling the rich, detailed stories that women tend to tell. The basic idea is that, when men are told, “Tell me about an event from your past,” they interpret that to mean, “Tell me all the facts from an event,” while women hear, “Tell me about an event and provide insight into how and why it happened.

This summer, Matthew Schulkind, associate professor of psychology, is testing whether this factual bias extends to other areas of memory, using subjects’ ability to recall movie quotes as a measure. He has noticed that only males seem to have internal caches of movie lines that they can spontaneously produce and quote at one another. Could he turn this anecdotal evidence into scientific evidence? Throughout last semester, he asked students to recall movie quotes and dumped the data into a massive Excel spreadsheet that would make Hollywood proud.

And this is where I come in. My task this summer is to sift through that spreadsheet and code the accuracy of all 635 quotes. This means that I get paid to search the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), watch YouTube clips, download entire movie scripts and generally comb the Internet to find movie quotes. Needless to say, I love this job.

Let me give you an example of a typical day’s labor. Subject Number 6’s seventh quote was “Lunch will be canceled today due to a lack of hustle,” supposedly said by Tony Perkins in the movie Heavyweights. Eleven words. The actual quote, according to IMDb, is, “Lunch has been canceled today due to lack of hustle.” Ten words. Therefore, the subject got eight words, the character and the movie correct. So I go to my spreadsheet and enter a code that states all this. I am proud to say that I just finished coding all the quotes, ending with a sassy quip from Clueless.

 
Questionnaire
A portion of the survey from subsequent phase of the
study. How many can you recognize? (Answers are below.)

I’ve found commonalities in the subjects’ selection of quote-worthy movies. To sum it up: my generation likes oddball humor, chick flicks and Harry Potter. There are also a lot of quotes from animated movies (Finding Nemo and Shrek were the favorites) and other movies from childhood (The Princess Bridecleaned up, with 12 quotes). I have a theory that these movies hold a special place in undergraduate hearts, as we are letting go of our early years, and thus we recall the trials of Princess Buttercup and her Westley with ease and fondness

However, what I refer to as the “ridiculous movie” category was by far the most popular. In first place, with a whopping 38 quotes, was Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the source of such salient lines as, “I’m in a glass box of emotion!”; “I love lamp”; and, of course, “You pooped in the refrigerator? And you ate the whole wheel of cheese? Heck, I’m not even mad; that’s amazing,” spoken to a semi-communicative dog. The next most-quoted movie was Step Brothers, another Will Ferrell flick, with 19 quotes. In fact, I’m going to simplify my earlier summary: Young adults today remember, word-for-word, what Will Ferrell says in movies better than we remember our grandmothers’ birthdays.

The point of this study, however, is not to comment on the movie preferences of undergraduates (that’s just fun) but rather to see how accurately people can remember quotes. As the statistical analyses are forthcoming, I can make only general observations: Some subjects were better at technical accuracy, and others wrote quotes that, while identifiable, were only vaguely correct—a trend Schulkind was hoping to see in the data, as it indicates a factual bias. I wasn’t given the subjects’ genders, so I can’t make any preemptive conclusions, but I am excited to see how the study pans out.

I am just one of many students doing research with various professors this summer. I have one friend who, for an LJST project, has to watch hours of footage from executions; another who is using GIS (geographic information system) software to analyze deforestation in Mexico; and a third who excitedly told me that her bacterial cells have finally matured and now she can infuse them with estrogen. It is hugely exciting to take part in the process of bringing more information into the world. And we aren’t even grad students! So what may seem like another depressing day of hangings or another fun day of Star Wars quotes is ultimately one of the many benefits of being an Amherst College student.

Answers: 1) Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), A Streetcar Named Desire; 2) Brody (Roy Scheider), Jaws; 3) Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger); The Terminator 4) Captain (Strother Martin), Cool Hand Luke; 5) James Bond, any James Bond movie 6) Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), Titanic

Select Dinners Bring a New Kind of Party to Campus

Submitted on Monday, 4/29/2013, at 3:33 PM

By Emily Gold Boutilier

While studying abroad in England, Jeehae Kim Goddard ’13 took part in regular formal dinners with professors and fellow students. She enjoyed these dinners so much that she decided to bring the concept back to Amherst.

Thus were born the Select Dinners, sophisticated meals held this spring for Amherst students of legal drinking age. With orchestrated guest lists and seating charts, the Select Dinners aimed to spark discussion among students who were not already close friends, while allowing them to learn from professors and one another in a social setting.

The third of five meals in the series took place on March 29 in Alumni House. At 7 p.m., some 55 students found their seats at seven round tables decorated with gerbera daisies, wine glasses and more forks than many people would know what to do with. The men were dressed in jackets and ties, the women in dresses and heels.

Hansol Park ’13, saying she’d always wished for “opportunities like this outside the classroom,” introduced the guest speaker, Professor of Political Science Javier Corrales, who gave a 15-minute talk on U.S.-China relations. (“Don’t be nervous,” Corrales insisted. “The 21st century is going to be the American century.”)

The students got to know their tablemates as the waitstaff poured pinot grigio and served a first course of oysters and scallops. Later came an asparagus salad, fish with morels and more wine. At one table, the discussion moved effortlessly from Corrales’ research on Venezuela, to language study (one woman spoke five languages), to plans for the future. A pre-med student described her lifelong desire to be an ophthalmologist—to experience the satisfaction of helping people see.

As the evening wrapped up, Jeremy Roush, executive chef at Dining Services, gave brief remarks on the food and wine pairings. He said such meals allow his staff to shine.

The meal allowed students to shine, as well—to dress up, to make conversation, to practice dining etiquette and social drinking. “This is kind of taking us out of our comfort zone,” said Nicholas Koh ’14. “It adds some formality to the college experience.”

Amherst Explorations: a Glimpse of Current Research

Submitted on Monday, 4/29/2013, at 2:09 PM

Part poster session, part film festival, part concert, Amherst Explorations was a medley of scholarship and performance.

The April 5 celebration of student research and creative work filled the Friendly Periodicals Reading Room with a dizzying array of disciplines. While individual departments and classes often conduct poster sessions and the like for students to show off their work, organizers say that this event is a fairly exceptional opportunity for students (particularly first-year students)—and the whole community—to get glimpse at the variety of topics studied on campus.

The event grew out of the glow that organizers felt last year following a successful research symposium held by students in Chemistry 330, with the help of Patricia B. O’Hara, the Amanda and Lisa Cross Professor of Chemistry, and Health Professions Advisor Dr. Richard A. Aronson ’69.

“It was such an awesome event that we thought it would be great to make another happen,” said Sarah Barr, director of academic engagement programs.

A woodwind quintet performs selections from Six Bagatelles by György Ligeti

Barr took the idea for a campus-wide selection of researchers to Missy Roser ’94, head of research and instruction at Frost Library, and they contacted academic department coordinators, and Amherst Explorations took off from there. The Offices of the President and the Dean of the Faculty, Information Technology and the Writing Center joined the Center for Community Engagement and the Library in sponsoring the event, which saw more than 40 students make presentations over five hours.  “I think it's a really cool opportunity … it's fun to see what people are working on,” said Nica Siegel ’14. “There’s such a diversity of different kinds of research. I’m always glad to see opportunities given for humanities research to evolve.”

Siegel was a member of a Mellon Tutorial panel reporting on a research project that looks at film portrayals of capital punishment. “Scenes of Execution: Spectatorship, Political Responsibility and State Killing in American Film” applied the Lacanian film theory (which studies the viewer as a participant) in the context of dramas that show executions.

“A lot of the existing scholarship focuses on narratives of guilt or innocence, but none on the relationship between the viewer and the scene,” she said. Film theorists debate whether the viewer is a participant, but in this case it’s arguable that Americans who view executions play a role in approving the practice.

Alongside Siegel’s poster with stills from The Green Mile, observers could get a glimpse of Wrenford Thaffe ’13’s kinetic sculptures mimicking animal life, made from discarded electronics.

From there, visitors could speak with Zach Bleemer ’13 about aesthetic terms used in the King James Bible and learn from Christopher Gerry ’14 about his study of small molecules, tied to possible advances in antibiotic treatments.

Gerry said his involvement in Amherst Explorations provided an interesting challenge: distilling his chemistry research down to its essentials for a general audience.

“I’m usually talking to other science majors or professors or primary researchers, my thesis advisors,” he said. “Here, most of the questions I've been getting are more big-picture, on how does this relate to something that is not in the really fine details. It helps give me perspective, to take a step back.”

Christopher Gerry ’14 explains his project

Panels included a peek into the little-seen contents of the Library’s Samuel French Collection, extensive theatrical archives dating back to the mid-1800s, which students explored for Assistant Professor of English Christopher Grobe’s Mellon Tutorial “American Performance Culture Circa 1900.” Digging through this obscure archive, Hannah Greenwald ’14 uncovered details about the long-forgotten scandal of Olga Nethersole (1867–1951), who was charged with criminal indecency for her onstage kissing style. With other material from the archive, Jordan Hugh Sam ’14, looked at the developing depiction of Asians on the American stage: his presentation included the performance of three now-obscure tunes.

Arts and Humanities Librarian Sara L. Smith, who advised the students working in the Samuel French Collection, said this forum was very characteristic of the college, namely for its mingling of disciplines.

“There are no restrictions on people participating,” she said. “There is a dialogue.”

Students Increase Entrepreneurship on Campus

Submitted on Wednesday, 4/24/2013, at 10:02 AM

By Daniel Diner '14

While still in high school, Samson Tan ’14 founded a nonprofit that introduces lacrosse to underprivileged youth, an initiative that would later win him a Global Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. Malcolm McClain ’13 took a gap year to work at a startup, helped his team place second in the UMass Amherst Entrepreneurship Initiative's 2011 Executive Summary Competition and even experimented with starting his own business on campus during his sophomore year.

Henrry Rivera '15 (second from left) won the first Amherst College Business Plan Compettion on April 7 for his business idea, StyleStream. He's pictured with (from left)  Malcolm McClain '13, Samson Tan '14 and Justin Ramos '13.

Now the pair has a new venture: the Amherst College Entrepreneurs' Society. They’ve reinvigorated the group and kick-started its efforts to encourage students to look beyond traditional professions and “see the world through the lens of a problem-solver.”

A victorious Rivera hugs a competitor and classmate.

To those ends, the group recently launched two initiatives: a speaker series and a round of competitions. They helped bring to campus Shaukut Aziz, former prime minister of Pakistan. Other speakers have included a former NFL contract negotiator, a green social media marketing group CEO and an NFL contract negotiator turned nightclub owner.

McClain (right) with former prime minister of Pakistan Shaukut Aziz.

In conjunction with the Social Entrepreneurship Leadership Team, the club also hosted the Entrepreneurial Pitch Competition last December. Participants gave elevator pitches—90-second business idea propositions—in hopes of winning a $300 prize. Then, on April 7, the groups hosted the similar Business Plan Competition, which offered a total of $3,200 to the top participants.

Students network at an Entrepreneur's Society event.

The objective behind these competitions, says Tan, is to encourage people to “think critically [so as to] open their minds and to encourage them to become problem-solvers. We want to take people away from the idea that entrepreneurship is just the process of starting a particular business.”

The pair hopes that the newly active club will become a fixture on campus. “I think it’s very representative of the liberal arts,” says McClain. “You’re drawing on a variety of disciplines, and students from a liberal arts background can do very well as entrepreneurs.” What’s more, entrepreneurship is not limited to any particular field or profession.

Matt Tower '15 at the business plan competition. His team received an honorable mention for their business idea, called The Option. 

“We definitely learn some business, but at the end of the day it’s more figuring out how to solve problems,” says Tan. “Especially when you’re doing a startup, you can’t specialize in any one thing. You have to know something about marketing, finance, the industry in question, and you have to be very broad and capable in many different areas. And I think that fits very well into the skill set of a liberal arts student.”

Rachel Maddow Comes to Campus

Submitted on Wednesday, 4/3/2013, at 2:32 PM

By Emily Gold Boutilier

Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC host, is not only a cable news celebrity but also a local kid who made good. She got her start at two radio stations in Western Massachusetts—WRNX in Holyoke and WRSI in Northampton. Now she splits her time between the Pioneer Valley and New York City, where she hosts The Rachel Maddow Show.

On Sat., March 30, she arrived in Johnson Chapel to deliver a talk that centered on warfare. But first, several a cappella groups warmed up the crowd; President Biddy Martin and Association of Amherst Students President Tania Dias '13 gave short introductions; and the Zumbyes led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” to Maddow, who turned 40 on April 1.

Watch video of the talk.

In front a full house, Maddow referred often to her recent book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power.  Her talk touched on U.S. nuclear bombs: “Our current arsenal of nukes is about 5,000”—far higher than necessary, she argued. She also tackled the subject of tax cuts during wartime: “Normal countries do not do this. But for us, war feels free.” And she argued against leaving Congress out of the decision to go to war.

Noting that fewer than 1 percent of the U.S. population fought in Afghanistan and in the current war in Iraq, Maddow maintained that one way to not have to convince the American people to go to war is to ask only a few citizens to fight it. She said veterans of those wars return home with the fear that their fellow citizens will pity and fear them. “We as civilians," she said, "are alienated from the people who have been fighting in our name."

Maddow gave detailed answers to the 11 questions she took from the audience. One woman asked about the idea of reinstating the draft. The draft is one way to connect many people to the sacrifice required in war, Maddow said, “but it’s not a magic bullet.” Other questions took up Republican support of gay marriage (the supporters are a vocal minority, she said, not the decision makers in the party) and whether MSNBC is to the Democratic Party what Fox News is to the Republican Party (No, she argued; “The guy who runs MSNBC—I don’t even think he votes.”)

Maddow's talk was sponsored by the Office of the President.

Watch video of the talk.

From Theory to Policy: A Look at at the Fed Challenge

By Daniel Diner '14

It’s not often that a professor devotes an entire course to a single, hands-on project. It’s even less often that a class revolves around an intercollegiate competition.  But last semester, eight students and an economics professor came together in this unusual way.

In the Special Topics course “Federal Reserve Challenge,” taught by Geoffrey Woglom, the Richard S. Volpert ’56 Professor of Economics, students spent the semester preparing for the annual Federal Reserve Challenge in Boston.

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The Fed Challenge requires teams of undergraduates from various schools to research the state of the current macroeconomy and produce a comprehensive proposal regarding federal monetary policy.  This policy proposal must be based on the team’s macroeconomic forecast and must take into account every possible factor and consequence, including biased statistics and unintended inflation. Teams have 15 minutes to present their recommendation to a panel of experts and another 15 minutes to answer questions. 

For the course, Woglom recruited top students from his “Money and Economic Activity” and “Advanced Macroeconomics” courses. “I was drawn to the class,” says George Tepe ’14, “because I loved Professor Woglom and central banking.”

The semester began with crash courses on central banking and monetary policy, with a focus on Fed operations. The students soon began to think about which economic statistics they needed to single out. They began meeting, with some guidance from Woglom, two or three times each week to discuss the current conditions of the macroeconomy. They used their research to come up with policy recommendations and, eventually, to construct a presentation.

Each student brought a different talent and perspective. March Fan ’15 says the intimate setting of the meetings accentuated their individual abilities. Alex Jiron ’15 was the “macro genius,” Fan says. Tepe became known as the resident “inflation hawk.” Duncan Morrissey ’14 had the kind of polished speaking voice that made him a natural for the smaller team that would present in front of the judges.

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Ultimately deciding that the economy required additional stimulus, the team settled on the following policy proposal: “If the unemployment rate remains above 7 percent and core inflation remains below 3 percent, the Committee will continue its purchases of agency mortgage-backed securities, undertake additional asset purchases and employ its other policy tools as it sees fit.”

Then the students’ focus turned from economics to performance. The smaller crew that would present in Boston rehearsed in front of and sought critiques from Amherst (and at one point, Smith) faculty. 

Special help came from Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance Ronald Bashford, who teaches a two-semester course called “The Craft of Speaking.” When Bashford heard the team’s presentation, he gave them advice that would rework their entire oral approach. “These guys were very good students of economics,” Woglom says, “but making a presentation involves a wholly separate set of skills. It was a little bit scary because basically he said, ‘Start over again. Here’s what you need to do.’ But the way the students improved their presentation was absolutely awe-inspiring. The way they learned how to make an effective oral presentation was a side effect I had not anticipated.”

In November the team headed to Boston for the presentation. They received near-perfect marks on their talk, but they were defeated in the first round by the defending national champions from Harvard, and so they never made it to the finals. Still, the professor and students have no regrets. The group “worked harder than students have in most of the other classes that I’ve taught,” Woglom says. “I brought in this diverse group—from student government, athletics and international backgrounds—and thought to myself, ‘How am I going to make a team out of [them]? But it was never an issue. They worked together and came together as a team.”

Chris Friend ’14, another student in the course, hopes  that Woglom will teach “Federal Reserve Challenge” in future years. “It was one of the best crash courses you could take in learning about the Federal Reserve and its inner workings,” he says.

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A Slice of Pi

On March 14, or 3.14, students celebrated National Pi day by waking up at 6 a.m. and burning through 15 sticks of sidewalk chalk. Here, digits of pi trail off in front of Fayerweather Hall on National Pi Day. 2,010 digits of pi stretched from Valentine Dining Hall to Merrill Science Center.