There is only one word to describe the Upright Citizens Brigade: hilarious. This touring improv group based out of New York City, also known as UCB, is sidesplittingly funny. Lately, they have performed at Conn each year. UCB begins by interviewing a student about life here at Conn, and this year it was a first-year student named Carson (as seen in the photo above). This interview provides the material for their set, so the show includes our college's inside jokes. And, to add to the fun, our student improv groups, Scuds and N20, opened for UCB, making it a great night of comedy.
It's 1 a.m. and I'm sitting on my bed listening to Taylor Swift, eating enough espresso beans to fill 17 shots of regular espresso. They're fair trade espresso beans, though, so that compensates for some of my concerns regarding gluttony and sleep deprivation.
What is fair trade? It basically means that everyone involved in the process of creating the item and transporting it is treated fairly. For example, everyone gets paid a reasonable wage. This program also helps to promote sustainability (something that's very important at Conn, as well) and empower producers in lower socio-economic groups.
I bought my fair trade chocolate at Fiddleheads, a local, non-profit co-op in New London that offers natural, fresh foods (plus a hodgepodge of other thing-a-ma-bobs) and promotes fair trade products. I also just learned that Fiddleheads visits campus every week, and they'll alert you when fresh products come in.
I'd never heard of the store before my friend Emma mentioned that a local artisan fair was being held there. So, I went with her, got some chocolate and socks, and learned a lot about the store. To be honest, before I went I had no idea what a co-op was, nor did I know what fair trade was or what the difference between "non-profit" and "not for profit" was. (Feel free to Google if you need to.)
To put it in a nutshell, all of those programs are meant to help make businesses more conscious of the ways in which they negatively affect other parts of the world, and then businesses work to counteract these negative effects.
After exploring Fiddleheads, my friends Emma and Michelle and I decided to go to another local fair trade store, Flavours of Life. There, I bought some decorations for my room and some cozy winter gloves. The two stores were in walking distance, and I'm sure there are many other businesses in New London with similar missions. We're fortunate to have a number of businesses nearby that care about their products and the people who make them — but also have really good chocolate.
It’s funny, but I'm not much of a summer beach person. The sweat, the sunscreen and sand that somehow manages to get everywhere — I’ve never found it appealing. Visiting the beach in the fall, however, is one of my absolute favorite things in the world. And lucky for me, I’ve discovered Harkness Park. It’s just 15 minutes away in Waterford and has become my go-to, I-must-escape-from-studying location. The beach is beautiful. Before winter break, my friends and I braved the 25-degree weather to watch the sunset. Bundling up in hats, scarves, mittens and down jackets, we swung by Bean and Leaf, a local coffee shop, for chai lattes and hot chocolate. Once properly prepared for the cold, we took to the sand and watched the sky change from yellow to orange to pink. Somehow nature always manages to take my breath away.
The College's Roth Writing Center offers free peer tutoring on papers and drafts for all students on campus. One becomes a tutor after being recommended to Professor Steven Shoemaker, the director of the center, after which there is an interview, a callback and a class offered in the Fall called "The Teaching of Writing." It's a 300-level English seminar. I was recommended last year by two professors, and went for my interview. (I wore my brightest paisley shirt, in an effort to be memorable.) Since English is not my first language, I want to help other non-native English speakers feel empowered through writing. I'm taking the seminar now, and as the semester winds down, the writing center is in need for more tutors. So the week before Thanksgiving, I had my first appointment. I was to tutor for the first time, finally, after the long, long process. I walked into the center five minutes early, set up my folder, took out my pen, and waited.
My first student was a first-year student who needed help with his first-year seminar. The center works this way: We ask the students to read their paper or draft out loud. If the student isn't comfortable reading aloud, we'll read it for them. The motto is to make sure the student is in the driver's seat; the tutor is a road guide, a map to the destination that the student must find themselves. I took notes as he read.
Collaborating with the tutee, working on problems, is a huge part of the job. The goal is to nudge, to prod students in a direction where their own thinking gets expanded, and to give them ideas, not to impose. This is hard for me; I love imposing myself on people most of the time. I have a specific way in which I do things, and this makes me a bit stubborn sometimes. I had to reign that in super hard when I was tutoring, and the results were a clear indication that this was the right philosophy. The student left with a better understanding of the paper, his assignment and what he might do better.
I left with an understanding of my own role in this, which is — and should be — minimal. I left with a better understanding of how my professors must feel when students don't understand what they're trying to do. Their job is hard. A teacher doesn't teach knowledge, I discovered. They teach the process of knowledge. The knowledge must be acquired oneself. I left knowing that our jobs as students are also hard: We have to come to conclusions ourselves, with the road map of learning in front of us. The destination is ours to conquer. This is a responsibility I felt heavy on my shoulders as I walked out, but it gave me more incentive to learn vicariously. If I'm being trusted as a student to make my own contribution, the responsibility also gave me agency. And students need agency to learn creatively. Most of all, I left with a giant amount of respect for this learning environment. If one doesn't take responsibility for one's own learning, everything falls apart. You can flourish or you can fail. The decision is in your hands, and that's kind of liberating. It means you're taken seriously. That's the path to adulthood, not regurging knowledge. It felt good to know.
What better thing to do on a Friday ... than visit the United Nations?
Recently, I, along with around 30 other gender and women's studies and public policy students and professors, spent Friday morning with a tour of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Walking through the headquarters — listening in on multilingual meetings, traipsing through grand conference rooms and photographing famous artwork — felt like a dream.
After the tour, we attended a debriefing session with representatives from UN Women, during which we discussed the organization's recent feminist movements and iniatives (including Emma Watson's recently-launched HeForShe campaign).
The trip was an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And certainly not a bad way to spend my Friday.
The Sophomore Research Seminar I'm taking this semester has been rife with interactive learning. Titled "Visioning the Invisible," the course focuses on secrecy, power and privilege as it relates to studio art and art history. It's funded by the Mellon Mays foundation and two professors, Denise Pelletier from Studio Art and Chris Steiner from Art History, teach it together. Already this semester, we've had a magician in our class and a professor from UConn talking about surveillance and pornography. We've also been working on small projects that will add up to a larger research paper/studio art project that we submit at the end of the semester. The best part of the seminar was, no doubt, a trip to New York City to look at "invisible" or "secret" art; I've been excited for this trip for a while.
We gathered outside Cummings Art Center at 8 a.m. on a Saturday to catch a bus to the city; our first stop was the Museum of Sex, curated by Sarah Forbes, who happens to be a Connecticut College graduate. The many exhibitions on display included one about non-heterosexual behavior amongst animals, chastity devices from the 19th century, and a critical look at Linda Lovelace (the first mainstream pornstar) and her involvement in the anti-pornography movement.
The most interesting exhibition, to me, was an interactive one, where spectators had to walk inside a mirror maze and climb a wall, where instead of rocks, one had to grab various human body parts (made of foam, of course). After we were finished at the museum, we went for lunch (generously paid for by the Mellon Mays foundation) in Chinatown, where we met "Inspector Collector" artist Harley Spiller, who collects and exhibits take-out menus, coins and plastic spoons, finding the beauty in the ordinary. We talked to him about the history of Chinatown and visited what was once a place where rival Chinese gangs used to fight each other in the early 20th century.
We also visited the Mmmuseumm, which is a museum built in an abandoned elevator in Chinatown; the museum itself is kind of secretive and only known to those told about it. It houses a collection of forgotten art objects: soil from Auschwitz, plastic spoons from the '70s, kitsch art objects that were not remembered. I spoke with the person there; everybody volunteers to work there, and has other jobs. It's a collection of fairly young college graduates who hope to make seen the unseen.
We ended with a trip to the art supply store and various bookstores, where both Denise Pelletier, my professor, and I gushed over art supplies. We got back to campus around 10 p.m., exhausted, but filled with knowledge. Not only was this great for my class, it gave me a chance to get to know my professors a little better, go to secret places I would never have discovered otherwise, and explore, in life, art. One can't truly study art without being in its presence, and I'm glad to have taken a class that understands and reinforces that. It was a pretty fantastic experiences.
On Aug. 21, 2014, the names of my fellow classmates were meaningless to me. They were just different arrangements of letters floating around in different combinations on the Class of 2018's Facebook page. I had no way of knowing which of these names would come to develop meaning for me. I had even less of an idea what type of meaning, and to what degree, these names would take on.
5 letters: Julia. She made a Facebook post about majoring in biology and watching movies, and now we sit together for almost every meal.
4 letters: Emma. She commented on a post about music. Now we have matching star earrings in matching piercings.
Of course, there are many more names I've come to know, and lots belonging to upperclassman, making it more unlikely that I would've been able to guess which names would soon become a significant part of my life.
With the new year starting, I look at these names differently. All of these names are connected to all of these faces that I'm used to seeing every day. Right now, I sit at home during winter break and I'm not seeing these people every day anymore. I'm with my family and my friends are scattered across the country — in fact, some even extend past the U.S. borders. I was perfectly content here before college, but now I find I'm missing something. I've had all of these experiences in college with all of these new, wonderful people and now they aren't with me.
I find myself pointing out camels on everything I see and texting pictures to my new friends — even if the camels are just plastered onto cigarette advertisements at gas stations. When I see signs for Connecticut marked as "Conn," I feel like I have a special knowledge shared only between the ethereal, camel sign-maker (who must indeed be behind the creation of the sign) and myself. They pose as a reminder of the connection that I now have to this other facet of life.
At this point, it seems strange imagining what my life would have been like had I picked a different school, or even had I taken different classes or lived in a different dorm. Often, my friendships with people come down to being in the right place at the right time. Other times, they come from taking a risk: auditioning for something, or attending a club meeting that you're not even a part of. All of these seemingly random decisions I've made over the years have led me to this college and these friends and now, after a few weeks of winter break crossed off the calendar, I can very much say that I'm missing both of those things right now.
I'm an art and history double major, and as I entered my sophomore year, I realized that I hadn't taken many classes in either. I told myself that I was going to make my requirements a priority, take classes I needed to, and expedite the process. No extra classes, no outstanding interests.
It didn't work out that way.
Last year, my friends took a class called "Narrative Non Fiction" with Professor Blanche Boyd; it's a creative writing class. Although I've been writing since middle school, I'd never taken an English class at Conn. I really couldn't envision myself writing stories; primarily because I'd seen some friends in high school do a much better job than me and I was scared. Plus, I kept telling myself, writing wasn't sustainable for me. Ironic, since I'm an art major, but we all delude ourselves sometimes. Through some weird twist of fate, however, the class I was planning to take filled up before I registered, and it was in the exact time slot as Blanche's short story writing class. I scrambled to send her an email, since a writing sample is a requirement for this class. A day before pre-registration, I got the email that I'd been accepted into the short-story writing class.
I had no idea what I was signing up for.
The class is more of a conference, with a lot of writing, critique and support. It's a very organic way of learning, where your brain begins to comprehend it's own problems. In many ways, it's more challenging than being told what to do, or what you're doing wrong. You have to realize it yourself. Blanche is always there to help you, and will nudge you, but she herself claims that you can't learn writing through someone else's efforts. It's different from information being disseminated, it comes from within. That's hard to confront, but it's so, so rewarding.
The one event we had to attend on the very minimal syllabus was the Klagsbrun symposium, which is an event Blanche has been organizing for a while. We've had great writers come to campus as part of the symposium, from Jhumpa Lahiri to Michael Cunningham, and Art Spiegelman to David Sedaris. This year, we got an extra; we had two writers join us. Conn alumna and professor Jessica Soffer '07 and her writing mentor, Colum McCann, spoke about their work and we had dinner together. Afterward, there was still half the symposium left, and I was sitting on a bus with my friends on my way to watch the premiere of Mockingjay Part 1.
I couldn't go. I thrust my ticket into my friend's hand, walked off the bus and went back into the symposium.
Colum McCann reads like a god. His reading is theatrical, interspersed with slight Irish brogue, emotions coming through like waves as he stresses and de-stresses some words, changing their meaning. One of the excerpts he read was a piece about a dancer in the '80s, and he wrote 40 pages without a full stop. Seeing that made my brain explode. Here we were, not knowing how to write with given structure, and this man sat casually on a stool, decimating every rule with absolute panache. Soffer's reading was more subdued; her clear, quiet intonation reflecting the tightness of her sentences, the sheer structure of her words. Everything counted. Emotions resonated from the words themselves, as she read everything at the same pace. In it's own way, it was as immersive as McCann's.
I left the symposium with nothing; no signed books, no selfies, no ticket stub, no name tag. But in my mind, a tiny dent was filled with possibilities, with ideas and with futures. I wrote well into midnight that night, and signed up for Blanche's non-fiction class the next day.