Thank you to all who entered the Summer 2021 Contest, in which we asked readers to make the case, in up to 300 words, for their most valuable Amherst course. As selected by the editor in chief, assistant editor and senior writer, the winner is Joni Hirsch ’12. The runners-up are Jonathan Cole ’67 and Miranda Dershimer ’15E. Read the three winning entries below.
By Joni Hirsch ’12
Talk about living “in a bubble”: I grew up in Williamstown, Mass., and traveled an hour east for college. My awareness of the world beyond Western Massachusetts college towns was, well, limited. I had my first encounter with the criminal justice system in the Hampshire County Jail. I was taking Barry O’Connell’s English course “Literary and Historical Perspectives on the Criminal Justice System.” Organized through the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, the course included 12 students from Amherst or Hampshire College and 12 who were incarcerated. (Coincidentally, when I brought my course packet to my brother’s soccer game, a Williams professor seated beside me asked what I was reading. He later brought Inside-Out to Williams.)
Each week, we read about the penal system and, more memorably, sat in an interspersed circle—“inside” students next to “outside” students—informally connecting and sharing reflections. I often sat beside Jason. Our conversations were captivating, thought-provoking and often uncomfortable; this discomfort pushed us to examine our own perspectives more critically. I discovered that the most effective way to learn is from people with different perspectives from my own. I’ve subsequently learned that this is also one of the most powerful tools for effecting social change.
This course redirected my career trajectory, leading me to Berkeley for a master’s in city planning, then to work as a community builder in Washington, D.C.’s public housing communities, and now to the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which aims to eradicate the devastating financial punishments in the justice system. I frequently think about the importance of relationship-building across lines of difference, and how today’s segregated spaces offer few such opportunities. While I don’t even know Jason’s last name, I still feel my bond with the upbeat barber from Boston, and wish he knew how much he continues to inspire me.
By Jonathan Cole ’67
In the fall of 1964, I took the first semester of American studies with Professor John William Ward. My first assignment was returned with an F grade. The pages were filled with comments that indicated that he and I had suffered a grand miscommunication, caused by an unanticipated ambiguity in my vocabulary. My midterm grade was based entirely on that paper.
After an afternoon of great distress, I began handwriting text on the paper that discussed the differences between what I had written and what he had read. For example, the word sentence has two contexts, grammatical and judicial. I had used it in the judicial context, and he had read it in the grammatical context. Later, we sat together during his office hours and discussed the differences. He took my paper back and regraded it to a B.
I majored in physics, where the world is less ambiguous (ignoring quantum mechanics). This was my first experience with the consequence of ambiguity, admittedly of my own creation. It also, unexpectedly, taught me the validity of what became a mantra of my generation: Question authority.
By Miranda Dershimer ’15E
We were sitting on poofs one December evening in the Rotherwas Room at the Mead Art Museum, having a class conversation about love. We were talking of love as Rainer Maria Rilke and Thomas Merton wrote about it, where love is one lover standing guard over another’s solitude. And there I realized something frightening. I felt, with horror, what our professors were trying to convey to us: that in order to allow another human to stand guard over your solitude, you can no longer be in full guardianship of yourself.
This was my first-year seminar, “Erôs and Insight,” with Professors Joel Upton (of art and the history of art) and Arthur Zajonc (of physics), and it changed my life. It was a course where we practiced contemplation and reconciling contradictions, and brought erôs and insight together to think about love. In it I learned to live with unanswerable questions and express my thoughts about abstract concepts. It changed my outlook on education; I learned to be less obsessed over my grades and more interested in conversations I could have with others at Amherst about being human.
A decade later, I now have a day job, and live with my partner, and try, and most often fail, to use some of my remaining time to paint or make films. I wonder if I am living up to my potential, if a job I don’t much value, and a relationship that benefits myself and my partner but few others, is enough in my life. But I think back to my first-year seminar and am reminded that entering into and sustaining a relationship of love is as challenging as a career or a creative practice, and is also just as valuable and just as worthwhile of my time.