By Grant Olcott
CSE fellow Sarah James gave a fascinating exposition of her study of poetry. Through eloquent exchanges with Melissa Hamerly, Sarah expressed the personal meaning she’s found in books. She identified connection, whether between friends or poems, as a significant theme in her life. To Sarah, discovering connection — this fifth dimension — represents the true essence of learning. Indeed, this talk shows how ideas studied in the classroom extend far beyond the final exam. A liberal arts education allows students to connect personally with their coursework by intermixing the material with their personalities.
Words, what she occupies herself with everyday, were a core part of her reflection. Language tries to capture all parts of life. However, some elusive ideas escape such confines. One of Sarah’s professors illustrated this mysterious fact by explaining the word “like.” If one thing is like another, it is similar but also different. This sometimes overlooked implication ties well into Sarah’s discussion of connection. Everything is connected, but yet separated by some unmeasurable distance.
The word “humanities” expresses the significance of connection. Linguistically, it refers to the study of the works of humans. By studying literature, one can indeed learn precious life lessons gleaned from all kinds of experiences. Grounding beliefs in literature provides greater depth and allows one to express those ideas that live outside the reach of language. Sarah’s thoughts on life seemed to have page references; she illustrated her opinions on campus issues by quoting the ideas of Wordsworth and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
In order to be a successful changemaker, one must read. Sarah shows how reading plugs one into the power grid of emotional energy captured by the brightest minds. Admiring the beauty of ideas in poetry allows Sarah to stay emotionally on task and understand the complex situations people in the world experience. As the only CSE fellow majoring in the humanities, Sarah represents the benefit literature can offer innovation in a world of interconnectedness.
April 22, 2016
By Grant Olcott
In his talk, Debanjan quoted poet Marianne Williamson who said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.” Indeed, Debanjan focused on access: people need support in order to overcome their fear of being unstoppable. They need guidance to find their light. As a teacher and activist, Debanjan hopes to help keep education open and accessible. Personally, he wants to achieve this task, while being remembered for his light, laughter, and fire.
Debanjan believes everyone has his or her own place and path in the world. Finding the specific way that one fits into the jigsaw puzzle of life is why education is so important. Perhaps recognizing that one has the power to decide which part of that puzzle to contribute to invokes a certain fear. Individuals can overcome it, and Debanjan wants to dedicate his life to helping them do so.
While working with Chicago teens, Debanjan witnessed the incredible difference that lending support to talented children can bring. This experience bridged the ideas of individual power and the importance of access. By working with teens, he gave them the confidence to access their rap skills and set them on their path to success and self-discovery. He saw how important access to mentorship was. As a teacher and activist, he hopes to always support the light of others at the times they need it the most.
Mentoring teens is one way Debanjan hopes to apply Williamson’s words to his life work. What will always matter to him is making sure doors are open. As long as he ensures it, people will find what they love and life’s puzzle will become less terrifying. They will become unstoppable.
Blogpost Reflection Friday April 8, 2016
When Professor Nadia Horning finds out she’s on the CSE blog, she might feel embarrassed. To post her reflection Friday — which criticized productivity and achievement — is rather ironic. Although this blog inherently promotes Nadia by publishing her thoughts, it also achieves what she identified as her goal: “to enable young minds to find their purpose and to think and rethink the world they live in.”
What matters to Nadia is serving others. She left Madagascar to receive an education so that she could help change her country and continent. During her time abroad, she found a new home in academia and realized teaching was the most effective way to help Africa. Her reflections focused on college: the vehicle by which she makes change. Her ideas on student life and accomplishment constantly point to the CSE’s mantra “what matters to you and why”
Nadia introduced the topic of college life by talking about students’ big goals and the rigor they put themselves through to achieve them. Society’s flawed measurements of self-worth (the accumulation of awards and material things) detract from the experience of learning. They trick people into worshiping productivity. They blind good intentioned and disciplined students into believing that the more they do, the better they are. They make college a means to end.
Oftentimes, students end up sacrificing what’s important to them to “play the game.” They rack up handfuls of extracurriculars and achievements not for themselves, but their Linkedin Profiles. This conflict of quality versus quantity transforms into its cousin dilemma, appearance versus reality. Students stuff their resumes fuller and fuller, while they feel emptier and emptier inside.
Nadia doesn’t see all of this as purely negative. She also saw her education as a means to achieving her goals for Africa. However, in order to put a positive spin on this monotonous grind, a student needs to be three things: keen, prepared, and ready.
Keenness comes naturally to many students. They want to do the best with the opportunities they have. They want to get out and make a change, therefore they need to go through the process of preparing themselves. However, they also must realize when they are ready to focus on the one thing that matters to them most.
One of Nadia’s goals as a professor is to help students find that drive. She encourages debates and broad, self-aware thinking. She designs each lecture as a spark for a debate to blow up, leave the classroom, and resettle at Proctor.
The way society sets up life as a race makes finding meaning more of a challenge. Thus, the question Nadia poses to the Middlebury community is, what do you propose to do to change that?
Reflection Friday 3/18
During the semester’s second Reflection Friday, CSE Fellow Gabby Fuentes ’16, led the community on a genuine and intimate tour of the thoughts she ponders daily. “What matters to me and why? Me,” she responded.
In allowing herself to toy with the narcissism taboo, she emphasized the importance of the self, to the individual and also to the community. Through her explorations and abstractions, important moments and dreams, she gave the community three powerful principles to reflect on.
- Compartmentalization. Working on obligation-to-obligation requires one to repress various emotional, spiritual, and personal aspects of the self. While this requires a great amount of drive and selflessness to sustain, it is a learned behavior. One must not overlook the hidden cost: personal health and wellbeing. She quoted the saying, “You can’t give others a drink if your cup is empty” to highlight this point.
Rather than focusing on this idea as something to fix and change, she merely urged everyone to be aware of it. In what spaces is there this pressure to compartmentalize a side of oneself? She believes community reflection should start with this question. Whether it is a student who can’t make a faculty member’s office hours due to problems at home, or one who feels out of place in the social scene, this question can help create a more understanding community. The self does not exist in a vacuum.
- Difference. Acknowledging and respecting the external and internal differences between people and the sides of the self leads to a more respectful community. Being okay with difference is the goal. To understand internal difference, one should not label difference sides of oneself as fake. Different people and places give off different energy.
- Inclusivity. This principle brings the other two together. Inclusivity means acknowledging other people for who they are. In an inclusive community, one does not ask people who are different to compartmentalize and repress parts of themselves. Inclusivity is achieved when the community recognizes compartmentalization and appreciates difference.
Gaby painted a personal picture of her experience coming to Middlebury as a Posse Scholar. By verbalizing all her ideas, she highlighted several of the dilemmas college communities face today. Although she apologized in a self-aware way for making too many abstractions, all her thoughts provide a clear solution to fostering an inclusive community: develop awareness for compartmentalization of the self and difference.
Reflection Friday March 4
By Grant Olcott
Elizabeth Ready spoke with Daniel Adamek ’18 at the CSE’s spring semester’s first Reflection Friday. The conversation covered some of her experiences in the Vermont State Senate and John Graham Housing Services Center, but focused more on philosophy. To the question, “What matters to you and why?” Elizabeth said justice. In her ideal world, everyone belongs to a place or community. This hope connects to some of the main tenets of Buddhism, which inspires her outlook on life and passion for service. The CSE lists the four steps of the changemaking process as reflect, connect, analyze, and engage. Elizabeth focused on the first.
Reflecting on personal awareness can bring change to the world. From one conversation, Elizabeth realized the size of the ego inherent in any opinion. After she told a friend about an Iranian family she helped in the shelter, the friend opposed it. He had grown up on a Kibbutz, and he didn’t want anyone coming to the country whom he associated with any anti-israeli feelings. The topic of the conversation changed as they talked more and more about the nature of opinions. Any opinion is merely an extension of the opinion bearer, they determined.
When one becomes an activist in any context, one should reflect and become aware of personal reasons for why that cause is important. Embracing this awareness helps throughout the changemaking process. When it comes time to act, the first impulse is just one impulse. Other thoughts and opinions are just as valid. By removing the self from reflection, one improves judgment and reduces selfishness.
The story also reveals insight into unlocking the power of fear and anger. Beneath one’s fears is a place of vulnerability. The friend truly wishes for peace everywhere and the health of all refugees, once the painful memories are stripped away. Becoming a changemaker involves allowing oneself to live in that space.
Elizabeth’s Reflection Friday talk was more spiritual than most. While justice is her cause, she values the concept of understanding the most. Understanding means seeing people as people. Despite the somewhat revolving door at the homeless shelter — she often gets the homeless into homes only to see them return a few weeks later — she understands them as people in need of help. Giving up on the problem would deny individuals that help. To illustrate this point she used the refugee crisis as an example. To those who think it is a bottomless pit: is a child washed up on the beach, a child in need or a bottomless pit?
To Elizabeth, an ideal world is one where everyone asks: what serves here? People reflect on their values and strengths and discover how they can best serve each other. They appreciate the interconnectedness of humanity, and use it to create beneficial and supportive places. They come to an understanding.
Please see our Speaker Series Archive below: