Posts Tagged 'Academics'

Go Find Your Lolita

Logan Rutherford

This semester I took “The Art of Vladimir Nabokov’ with Professor Sergei Davydov. First of all, Dr. Davydov is not only an inspired teacher, but he’s also one of the funniest professors on campus; if you get the chance, take a course with him. Of course, we read Nabokov’s most infamous novel, Lolita, during the course of our studies. So, I thought that seeing as it is the 50th anniversary of the novel being published in the United States, it might be appropriate to exhort people to (re) read Nabokov’s great work.

It seems that most literate people in the English-speaking world are familiar with the “story” of Lolita. My dictionary yields the following definition of a “Lolita:” ‘noun; a sexually precocious young girl.’ The notion of Lolita being nothing more than highbrow pornography is thus reinforced by the definition. However, any reader of the novel owes it to Nabokov to be more honest than that, and to give Lolita its due.

The frame for the story, which any review will more than likely present, is that Humbert Humbert, a European genius with a sexual penchant for “nymphets,” has come to America and houses with Charlotte Haze because, ostensibly, the rent is cheap and the neighborhood quiet. But the truth is that Humbert is primarily concerned with rakish ruminations involving Charlotte’s daughter, Lolita. Humbert marries Charlotte so as to be closer to Lolita. When Charlotte meets an unfortunate death, Humbert becomes Lolita’s sole guardian, or rather, she becomes his captive.

The book’s title is in a sense ironic because we never really get to know Lolita herself. Lolita the novel is really the story of Humbert Humbert, told through the prism of the character Lolita. There are only flashes of the real Lolita, as opposed to Humbert’s solipsized version. The real Lolita is discernible in her graceful tennis matches; one catches a glimpse in her joyful bicycle rides; her sorrow is painfully palpable when she reflectively discusses her battered childhood with Humbert. But this is one of the reasons why people continue to come back to the novel: we search for Lolita, but somehow she’s always out of reach. Lolita is in no way definitively delineated.

Another reason the novel has such staying power is because of the way Nabokov manipulates the reader. Comfort with the novel is never achieved because Humbert’s love is inextricably linked to the ghastly things he resorts to in order to consummate that love. Humbert is such a cunning narrator that it is easy to forget Lolita’s age. At times, particularly for the first time reader, Humbert is practically absolved of guilt because of his self-deprecation and hysterical use of language. A perfect example of Humbert’s humor dissolving his guilt is found when he describes how he had begun to pay Lolita for sex: “O Reader! Laugh not, as you imagine me, on the very rack of joy noisily emitting dimes and quarters, and great big silver dollars like some sonorous, jingly and wholly demented machine vomiting riches.” Of course, there is nothing funny about this situation, but Humbert makes it seem that way with his style as he is a master puppeteer.

The prose throughout Lolita is not only funny, at times it is wonderfully poetic: “Through the darkness and the tender trees we could see the arabesques of lighted windows which, touched up by the colored inks of sensitive memory, appear to me now like playing cards…” The image of a brush touching things up in mutable memory is both aesthetically inspired and philosophically suggestive: perhaps the most powerful artist of all is Mnemosyne herself. Poetical pearls abound in the novel. The prose poem that is the last paragraph of the novel is wonderful. It is humbling to think that English was not even Nabokov’s mother tongue.

I have now read Lolita six times, and it is always a pleasure. As I continue to evolve as a person, the novel subjectively evolves with me, and there is always something new to be discovered— some unexplored alcove where I find more laughter and even at times, alas, more confusion. Go read this one. Or if not Nabokov, give some other writer unfamiliar to you a fresh chance. In a college environment that leaves us with such little time for free reading, it’s a treat to take a break with an engaging novel. So go ahead and find one.

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Work Hard, Play Hard, Enjoy Neither

Si Rutherford

Apparently, for prospective students, Middlebury is presented as a ‘work hard, play hard’ institution. We know what this means: there is a near-overwhelming amount of reading assigned every week for the majority of classes, and if students are expected to maintain a hold on their studies, they must dedicate a significant amount of time to this pursuit. When the weekend hits, therefore, students let themselves ‘play’ in an equally intense fashion in the short space of time that they are allowed. From a personal perspective, striving for real conversation in an environment that is seemingly not conducive to such a thing has helped me start to develop an understanding of Middlebury College. I want to learn something new from everyone I meet, but most importantly, I want to know whether students here are genuinely happy at Middlebury College – especially with regards to the philosophy of “work hard, play hard.”

First of all, let me say this: Middlebury students are brilliant. They are talented, intelligent, healthy, and full of potential. Unfortunately, this potential is rarely achieved, and it could be argued that the ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality is to blame. A conversation I once had with a sharp-minded senior highlighted this issue. I was told how often she has heard students make incredibly insightful and remarkably intellectual comments in class, but then as soon as they leave the classroom environment they talk about lowest-common-denominator issues such as partying.

How many lunch-time conversations have been continuations of a discussion regarding the merits of existentialist philosophies, or environmental challenges? How many new friendships are forged because of stimulating dialogue about the possibilities of social change? The unfortunate fact is that there are few incentives for students to engage in extra-curricular intellectual activity; academic studies are made systematic, time-consuming and unrewarding, and students are pushed to the limit throughout the year. If a Midd Kid has 200 pages of literature coupled with two chapters of biochemistry reading to do for the next morning, it is unsurprising that little intellectual satisfaction is achieved from overcoming such a menacing obstacle. Finishing at 3:30 am only brings relief at the eventual promise of sleep, rather than deep reflections on the previously undiscovered viewpoints that the individual has absorbed. We should be able to enjoy the things we study; we should be appreciating and recognizing the things we are learning.

Middlebury College has some astonishingly sharp minds leading its faculty, so surely this valuable resource should be harnessed for all of its worth. Ultimately, my argument comes down to this: There needs to be more time for free intellectual development – for the sake of the sanity and general humanity of the young adults attending this institution. Perhaps this is just my personal opinion, but I do not think a liberal arts college, or university, or any academic institution should merely be a vehicle for turning each student into a machine.

In actual fact, Middlebury College life in general is very systematic, not only in the educational sphere, but in the social sphere as well. We party like machines when the weekend comes, maximizing the precious time we have by getting as far away from the intense work-oriented week as possible, and we do this the way we are told is best – through alcohol. Whether one supports the party scene or not, it is not difficult to understand it. Nevertheless, it is a dangerous game to be playing, sometimes involving frightening amounts of alcohol use and behavior that could not even be conceived of outside of a college campus. A Middlebury student disappeared – and if the rumors are true, drinking played a hand in the events surrounding it. But has it burst the bubble? Apparently not. We are all safe little creatures that wake and read and nap and eat and consume and forget and do it all over again.

The mechanical nature of on-campus activities can be witnessed in hobbies and interests that lie in between the realms of academic work and partying. This is most obvious within sports, but also seen in other activities such as music groups, theatre, dance, etc. It is difficult to truly enjoy the activities we have chosen to participate in when most conversations will sooner or later involve the phrase “I have so much work to do.” Every night is a consideration of what can be achieved in the hour between the gym and dinner, or before we have to begin the paper that will take us to the early hours of the morning.

Extending the arguments further, it is worth considering the ongoing discussion (largely criticism) of the dating scene on campus, and how the consensus is that it is effectively just a hook-up scene. One could argue that this is just another product of the Midd machine. In between juggling an enormous amount of reading, going to dance rehearsals, attending guest lectures, and finally making it to the Tavern party, how can we possibly fit in time for dating? So we don’t. Dating becomes just another systematized part of the social life; because Midd kids have no time to get to know one another and form the foundations for a meaningful relationship, they hook up when they are drunk on a Friday or Saturday night. Even the sex here is systematic.

Undoubtedly, this is a quintessentially American phenomenon, driven by the ideals of individualism and efficiency. These sentiments inevitably have consequences for the activities that go on within the confines of Middlebury and how the people here experience them. What is clear is that there is an obvious cause and effect on display: work hard = play hard. Of course, this is not a new revelation, but for Middlebury students it has important implications. For these talented, intelligent students, it is a virtually inescapable pattern, and one that cannot lead to a truly fulfilled college experience. It is important to understand, however, that all aspects of campus life are inexorably intertwined. We cannot criticize and wish to change the limited social scene without addressing the demanding realities of academic work. Studying has ceased to be a source of personal development, and is instead a means of achieving the ends (whether that is an A grade or a good career). Time socializing on the weekends is focused more on breaking free of the mechanical schedule, rather than embracing a meaningful and fulfilling interaction with peers. Ironically, getting drunk on a Friday night is in fact just as much part of the machinery of a Midd student as the homework, and this fact bluntly presents an issue worth taking note of: when even the partying is systematic, there is something fundamentally disturbing going on.

So we return to the initial concern: are students at Middlebury College genuinely happy? Obviously, this is not a question easily answered. I just hope that we are not merely undertaking a four year exercise in time management, and that we will emerge at the end as more than mere machines that will fit perfectly into society. We are creative, intellectual beings, and should have more time and space to develop as such. The sooner that Middlebury recognizes this fact, the sooner the College can provide future students with a more desirable and fulfilling college experience.

Living in the Internship Era

Daniel Roberts

The task of finding a summer job rolls around every year, usually by March or April, and it is a burden that weighs heavily on the minds of American college students. Some teens find a job that involves only light work—scoop ice cream down the street from the family beach house, maybe babysit here and there to make pocket cash. Others challenge themselves with a more demanding post, perhaps working construction every day or waiting tables at a fancy restaurant. Still others give up completely and spend the three months watching TV on the couch, lying out at the beach or pool, and generally sponging off Mommy and Daddy for money.

Yet everyone, it seems, shares a general knowledge that at some point down the road, we will have to “get serious,” which, according to general consensus, is code for “find an internship.” Somehow, this was ingrained in us years ago. We have also been trained to understand that the point at which this “getting serious” needs to occur is right around, oh, the summer after junior year.

My summer preference has been, for the past five years, to work as a camp counselor. As far as I can tell, this position affords the best of all worlds. I get to work with kids, spend all day out on the tennis courts (which keeps me fit and tan), live away from home, and still feel like I’m working hard and earning my keep. Of course, as soon as last summer ended I knew the fun was over: my junior year was about to begin, and with it my plans of doing anything enjoyable over the summer would die.

Why the need for an internship? To get a job, of course. An internship is to getting a first job what high school community service hours were to getting into college. You need to get some under your belt in order to nab the prize you actually care about. Companies have bought into this system like never before, prompting many social commentators to call this the “Internship Era” for today’s unlucky college students, and indeed, “unlucky” is exactly what we are to find ourselves in this environment. The competition for internships has never been more grueling, and the percentage of college kids who will complete at least one before graduating has never been higher (that percentage is 78). Clearly, we have all been convinced to participate in this system. We have no choice. But the system is flawed. No, forget “flawed,” it’s downright ridiculous.

First of all, as Peter Vogt has written, “Internships are no longer optional, they’re required.” This fundamentally favors the rich. Think about it this way: let’s agree that an internship is not a “job.” An internship is an “opportunity” that forces a college kid to work his or her ass off, cooped up in some office all summer, scrambling to make photocopies and hoping to God that the adults are impressed and ultimately wooed. The vast majority of these positions are unpaid or offensively low-paying, which is laughable when one considers how hard the interns often work.

By expecting college kids to do summer internships if they have any hope of nabbing a full-time job, companies have established a standard that punishes any students who normally need to make money during the summer. Those who come from wealthy families are fine, because either their spending money during the academic year comes from their parents, or the parents promise to pay them some sort of stipend as a reward for taking an unpaid internship.

Meanwhile, those kids who rely on a legitimate summer job to provide their spending money during the year are forced to either take an unpaid internship and puzzle over how to afford their books in September, or opt out of the internship craze, knowing that it may screw them down the road when they are scrambling for a post-college job.

In addition to favoring the private-schooled, non-financial aid, privileged few, the internship system also undermines some of the most basic tenets of job hunting. It used to be that when a person applied for a job, there would be an interview during which he or she could flex their charm and demonstrate what makes them tick. Whatever it is that makes you want this job— and makes you so sure you deserve it— would come out in a face-to-face sit-down with your potential employer. Now, as soon as those scrutinizing eyes scroll down your resumé and see only one or, god forbid, zero internships listed, they write you off completely.

Where, then, is the drive to learn? To take what you’ve been given from education, to gather up your book smarts and your street smarts and apply them to something, hoping to rise to your potential? What happens if the new system relies solely on a scramble for summer internships, piling them up so as to cash them in later like chips at a casino window?

Something about this system has to change soon, or else investment banks, magazines, publishing houses, fashion design offices, and law firms everywhere are going to be filled only with recent college grads whose daddies were connected enough to get them internships back in college. Meanwhile, businesses will miss out on the overlooked, better-qualified candidates.

What is the Value of Diversity?

Mike Waters

What good is Middlebury’s pursuit of a more diverse campus? Sure, we can all agree on the various merits of diversity both in life and in the academic experience. Diversity enriches us, with its multiplicity of opinion and experience. In addition, its direct pursuit brings people together that otherwise would never have met. These are good things, and by all means, diversity is something we all should look to foster in our lives, but as for the question of what diversity contributes to Middlebury, can we all be so sure that it is valuable? How does diversity translate into a payoff on the investment we all make when we go here?

Now, I’m no economist – and quite frankly, I think that people who measure everything in dollars and cents are the cause of many of our problems these days – but to play devil’s advocate: the encouragement of diversity at Middlebury is a bad economic decision for both the college and its students, for a variety of reasons.

Let’s assume, like an economist (wrongly) that everyone’s goal in life is to make as much money as possible. Middlebury, in that sense, is an investment – one that will reap rewards via more opportunities, better jobs, and ultimately, more money. Clearly the goal of being here, then, is to secure for us that extra advantage, that leg up that will get us the corner office and the big salary. Middlebury’s name alone assures some level of success, but there is more that contributes to our future economic well-being besides the look on prospective employers’ faces when they see where we went to school.

Middlebury is all about connections. We have a terrific alumni network, and our alums have gone on to do a host of interesting things. Many are remarkably successful. They achieved success in the usual ways – intelligence, hard work, etc. – but clearly many of them also benefited from the connections they made at Middlebury. So while “Middlebury” printed in bold at the top of a resume might help in landing a job, it’s even more effective when the person across the desk went here, too. Which brings me back to diversity.

The stated goal of increasing diversity is to bring together more individuals of different social, economic, and racial backgrounds. So while we still maintain a good number of students from our core demographic – rich, white, sweet laxers – we also throw in students who are considerably less privileged. Maybe they’re poor, maybe they’re the first in their family to go to college, or maybe they’re from another country, but what we can be sure of is that none of their parents are the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

Clearly this degrades the value of our education. Who is to help us get our foot in the door after graduation if we are suddenly starved for the wealthy, well-educated elites that we have attracted for years?

To this I propose a solution – a new set of recommendations to make sure that we all get the highest return on our $200,000 after graduation (because that, after all, is what it’s all about). Fuck diversity. Who needs it? I may be boring, ignorant, and spoiled, but inside the walls of my McMansion I am all that is Man. Perhaps I’ve never heard an opposing viewpoint or befriended someone of a different skin color (besides Jose, our gardener, or Fabricia, our maid) or discovered that there is something out there besides my stock portfolio and my trophy wife, but damn am I rich. I’ve won. We have won. We went to Middlebury, and it was worth it. My parents might have bought me a Toyota instead of a Mercedes to save money for college, but look at me now: who needs cars when you can just pay people to carry you around?

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Well, all this and more can be ours – all we have to do is give up this tired “diversity” experiment, and go back to doing what we do best. Lets increase our recruiting in Greenwich and the rest of the tri-state area. For a little variety, let’s make sure we take a couple from just outside Boston.

The blonde lacrosse player? She’s in.
The tall, handsome prep-schooler? Give him a slot.
The son of an investment banker? He’s in, as long as he brings an extra pair of madras shorts – I lost mine.

Think of the dividends they’ll pay! Money for that Proctor renovation? Got it. Wall Street internships for all our econ majors? A done deal. Paying off the debt for the new logo that the college abandoned? It’s in the bag. And of course, the value of a Middlebury education continues to grow. With connections like these, who needs school in the first place?

In conclusion, a quick message to our friends in the admissions office: let diversity go. Let’s pursue that rosy reality I just described. No one needs the stimulation (read: challenge) of diversity. We’d be much happier if we were all the same. And Diversity never got anyone that cushy job or that house in the right neighborhood, but you can bet your hot secretary that Connections did. Diversity might be nice, in theory, but the bottom line is my bottom line. After all, as far as most Midd students are concerned, if it can’t be measured in dollars, then it doesn’t make cents.

Middle School Gym Class Can Be Brutal

Simone Weisman

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So we didn’t have to wear itchy uniforms like those our parents had to put on. Nevertheless, middle school gym classes never lost their brutality. In the locker room that smelled like pickles, I would suffer teasing and dodge gossip. While I always managed to pull myself together in time for class, other girls would arrive late, or dressed in jeans. Sometimes they didn’t come to gym at all.

I realize today that middle school gym was geared towards discovering our weaknesses. Instead of building confidence in us, it created long lasting insecurities. We all dreaded particular units, knowing we wouldn’t get picked for teams. Most of my gym teachers ignored exclusive and reckless behavior, perhaps considering it healthy competition. Conventional gym class was no way to turn the rowdy boys into young men, nor the timid children into team MVPs.

Why not teach children the benefits of sports and exercise instead of simply forcing certain activities upon them? They are not animals to be trained, but human beings with the capacity to reason. First, whether it’s discussion in the classroom or drills in the gym, every child should have the opportunity to be a leader. Moreover, leadership experience boosts confidence and courage. Second, physical educators should teach a ropes course to implement the virtues of teamwork and responsibility.

I believe that many cases of bad sportsmanship, sexist attitudes, and issues with body image can be traced back to middle school gym classes. If physical educators find ways to integrate sports with the virtues of teamwork and fairness, they could help make the transition from childhood to adolescence a happier and healthier experience.

Shut the Hell Up and Do Your Work, You Spoiled Nincompoops

Tristan Axelrod

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I have a problem with you, the Middlebury student body. Far too many of you are insufferable whiners with no integrity, and I am sick of listening to your crap while you devalue my college experience and belittle the opportunities offered by this amazing institution.

First off, stop asking for extensions on every assignment. There are only four reasons why extensions should be granted: the professor didn’t grant enough time, or didn’t explain the assignment properly, or the student had an illness, or a family emergency occurred. There are no other valid reasons: if you have two weeks to write a paper and are suddenly too hung over to write the paper on Sunday afternoon 12 hours before it’s due, it is your own damn fault. The same goes for tests: when the time limit is up, you’re done. You shouldn’t get to sit for an extra 15 minutes that weren’t granted to you. And why not? Because there’s something called a grading system: it’s a sort of ranking/appraisal thingy that theoretically rewards people who complete their work according to the established guidelines. When some people actually follow the guidelines, they should be rewarded, and when other people don’t, they should be punished, all according to the system, because that’s why it exists.

It’s like government: I’m not advocating a totalitarian university dominated by professors, but rather the compassionately meritocratic oligarchy that Middlebury claims to be. If you would like to take part in such a society, then you should have the integrity to accept the consequences put forth by professors if you can’t handle the workload you’ve taken upon yourself. Or maybe you prefer to be coddled: it’s your choice, but at least be honest about it, and don’t pretend you have a right to be excepted from the rules. You chose your courses, clubs, sports, and God knows, your drinking habits, so if you just can’t do it all and get all A’s, you have to accept it.

Speaking of drinking habits, if you aren’t 21 years old, drinking alcohol is illegal. As in, you have no right to do it. Is that unjust? Probably, yes. So what do you do if a law is unjust? You protest, speak out, and attempt to enlighten and engage the political community in any way possible. If you don’t care enough to stand up and do what’s right, you have to deal with the reality of the law. I shouldn’t have to remind you that most communities are not as insulated as Middlebury College; only a very fragile and nonsensical tradition of non-interference stands between us and open patrols by the Middlebury Police Department. The same goes for marijuana—take a look at the average prison sentence for marijuana possession and distribution for minorities vs. whites, and check out the economic distribution as well. We live in a veritable Bacchanalian paradise of legal immunity, so stop whining about the liquor inspector.

On a related note, there would be hardly any problems with MCPS, MPD, or the liquor inspector if people didn’t find it necessary to get ridiculously drunk in order to have a good time. Here’s a tip: if you like the people around you, alcohol is never necessary. If you need to get trashed so that you can feel confident dancing, talking, or having sex, it’s a sign of deep-seated emotional problems. And do you really think things will ever get better by continuing to abuse your body this way? My biggest point is this: if you destroy property or damage people physically or emotionally while inebriated, you are a piece of garbage.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to need or request an extension, complain about the liquor inspector, or drink heavily. There are obviously appropriate times and places for each. The issue here is integrity: people need to take responsibility for their actions and accept the consequences. Relative to the ‘real world’ outside of our waspy, upper class, ivory tower communities and backgrounds, this is a pretty much unparalleled utopia— a bastion of intellectual and legal leniency, liberalism, and instant gratification. For some reason, you as a Middlebury student have been given these four years here, and will be further rewarded by the institution with political and economic connections and opportunities throughout your life. All I’m saying is, stop acting like you were born deserving it, and at least pretend that you’re worth it.

Alleviating the Pain of Finals Week

Logan Rutherford

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Finals week. It is a necessary evil. None of us looks forward to it, but we all know that we have to take our medicine. We all know that, no matter what we might want to believe, an evaluation at the end of the term is a logical conclusion to a semester.

However, as the situation now stands, the powers that be get to tell us from “on high” when we have to take our exams. This seems asinine, and only an added agony to finals week, so I motion for changing Middlebury’s final exam format to entirely self-scheduled final exams. It solves problems, while causing none.

Self-scheduled exams reward the student who has stayed on task all semester. The student who has kept up on their assignments, who has actually read Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Post-Script, has the option of front-loading his finals week. He can get the more difficult exams out of the way first thing if he wants to do so. If not, that’s still his prerogative. I like the idea of having options during my finals week— being the master of my academic destiny.

Inevitably, people have conflicts during exam week. They have multiple exams scheduled on the same day, or they have two scheduled at the same time. This would never happen with self-scheduled exams. Students could create their own timetable and decide what works best for them. In the current status quo, professors have to give alternate times for exams anyway. Why not just make the not-so-difficult leap to having only “alternate” times—in other words, self-scheduled exams.

Self-scheduled exams would also give professors a more manageable task in regards to grading finals. Surely, only a few kids would elect to take any one final on a given day. The professor could then grade just those few exams the next day. As it stands now, the professor gets flooded with a bunch of exams all at one time. If every one takes their exams at a different time, the professor is left with the more manageable task of grading small bundles of exams at a time instead of reams of them.

Another issue I’ve always had with our system is that some people have a longer vacation than others (as an extreme example, my freshman year I had my only two finals on the first Tuesday of exams; this year, I have my last one on the second Tuesday of exams— I get a full week less of vacation time). This seems preposterous in the highest degree. Why should the Fates decide who gets the long break?

Some professors might object that this will lead to mass chaos and people cheating on exams by giving their friends a wink and a nod and telling them “what to concentrate on in their studying.” Well, we have an honor code for a reason. It is supposed to foster trust between the students and professors. If we can’t trust students to keep mum on the contents of final exams, why would we trust them to write their own papers or do their own problem sets? I think the students of Middlebury College can conduct themselves ethically.

So the next time finals roll along, just think to yourself: “This wouldn’t be such a veritable pain in the rear end if I could have chosen my finals schedule.”