This page hosts links to articles that have been written on a variety of topics, ranging from exceptional students and their achievements, to new faculty publications, to humanities labs. Please check them out to learn more about the Humanities at Colby.


Baratunde Thurston: Using Comedy to Speak Truth to Power

May 5th, 2021

The Center for the Arts and Humanities was overjoyed to welcome Emmy-nominated host, writer, and comedian Baratunde Thurston as the Keynote Speaker for this year’s theme, Boundaries and Margins. Thurston is the author of New York Times bestseller How to Be Black, and has advised the Obama White House, worked for The Onion, and produced for The Daily Show. He’s the executive producer and host of How To Citizen with Baratunde, which Apple named one of its favorite podcasts of 2020, and which received the Social Impact Award at the 2021 iHeartRadio Podcast Awards. His 2019 TED talk, “How to deconstruct racism, one headline at a time”, was described by MSNBC’s Brian Williams as “one of the greatest TED talks of all time.” Thurston is known for his ability to combine comedy with themes of race, culture, and politics in order to highlight the issues which plague the United States, and the tools which we can use to address them.

Thurston gave his keynote address on Thursday April 8th at 7 pm to a group of more than two hundred Colby students, faculty, and staff. He was introduced by Center Director and Professor of Classics Kerill O’Neill and by Colby Class of 2013 alumni and Director of the Maine Film Center Mike Perreault. The discussion and Q&A were led by Colby senior and leader of the Center Student Advisory Board Carissa Yang.

Baratunde Thurston began by humorously reminiscing about the time before the pandemic, “four hundred or five hundred years ago, when time was meaningful because we moved to other places and saw others faces.” He remembered the first day things changed for him—Friday the 13th of March 2020. He went into a Whole Foods, “to do his civic duty by further enriching Jeff Bezos and buy kale”… and the kale had run out. “That was an apocalyptic sign that something was wrong in the universe”, he joked. “I know there’s been unrest, rallies, but nothing rivals the rage I saw from white women in yoga pants that day.” And from there, things only got “weirder and worse”.

“They almost sold Covid to us,” he said. “They told us it would bring us all together and treat us all the same.” Thurston argued that Covid was supposed to be a great uniter, because disease doesn’t discriminate. However, our system does. Those hardest hit by the pandemic, in terms of illness, death, and economic cost, were those “with more melanin and less money”, who had to work in service jobs and the healthcare industry, and didn’t have the option of working from home. Black people had the cops called on them for wearing masks in stores and “looking suspicious”, but also for not wearing masks during a pandemic. “Covid pulled back the veil on social injustice,” said Thurston. “There’s no right way to be black in a pandemic, because there’s no right way to be black in America.”

Thurston went on to mention an incident on May 25th 2020, when Christian Cooper, an African American birdwatcher in New York City’s Central Park, asked a white woman, Amy Cooper, to put a leash on her dog. The woman became incensed and called the police on Christian Cooper, while he filmed her. “Any call to the cops on a black person is a potential execution”, said Thurston. This confrontation happened the same day that George Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis.

These racist events, among many others, triggered protests across the country and across the world. “We need to acknowledge the past,” said Thurston. “Truth is freedom. If you’re living a lie, you can’t be free. We have to wean ourselves off the lies and face the truth.” Referencing the Center’s annual theme, Boundaries and Margins, he encouraged the audience to push boundaries, confronting the truth of the past and of our own prejudices, an act that admittedly can be uncomfortable and even frightening. However, Baratunde Thurston believes that “discomfort is growth. You know what’s uncomfortable? The vaccine. That means it’s working.” He argued that once we’ve faced our issues, we emerge on the other side with a sense of relief and freedom, having grown and changed for the better.

Thurston then discussed the inclusion of token individuals in structures of power. He described people in power who would include a single scholarship student or woman and think that they’d done their civic duty. This single act does nothing to change the dominant structure, and is, in Thurston’s opinion, “a real sad place to stop on the journey of trying to move forward.” Instead of asking that scholarship recipient or woman to feel lucky to be included at the table, Thurston wants them to know that that table is lucky to have them. “We’re in a narrative of our own making, and we can change it”, he stated.

At this point, Carissa Yang began to ask Baratunde Thurston questions from students. The first question came from Carissa herself: “How do you navigate the boundaries of world selection in comedy when you’re intertwining all your interests and identity?” Thurston responded that he simply had a lot of practice. He described words as “spells”, “bridges”, and “portals”, emphasizing the myriad of different meanings a single word can have depending on the context of its use. As an example, he mentioned how the word “policing” can have very different significance to different communities. Thurston went on to discuss his endeavor to reclaim words that he, as an African American, had never felt ownership of—words like “America” and terms like “liberty and justice for all.” Finally, he described how he had learned from watching others use words as weapons. “Choosing words isn’t just making a statement, it’s committing an act. Writing is conveying ideas, and it’s a powerful thing to do.”

The next question was “If you could teach a class at Colby, what materials would you use?” Thurston answered that his curriculum would include books by Dick Gregory and Mark Twain, because “those are both voices who were very aware of the power of comedy to speak words of truth to power.” Next, Carissa asked about Thurston’s book How to Be Black, which was published in 2012, inquiring what had changed since he first wrote it. Thurston joked that he might write a sequel: How to Be Blacker. He went on to say that he had written the book in the context of an Obama presidency, when “we were in this euphoric moment imagining a post racial America—that’s obviously not happening.” The book strove to “re-complicate blackness”, to make it more than a “binary on/off switch. You can be black and a lot of other stuff as well.” Now, he feels that he has less patience for the obstacles to racial equality which his book addressed.

The final two questions were both about how to educate others about racial issues. One student asked “How do we reframe stories about racism to people who don’t want to listen?” Thurston replied that we should tell the stories in a way that people might want to hear, or find people who they might listen to who do want to hear those stories. We shouldn’t open by hitting people over the head with facts, and should use phrases like “have you heard”, rather than “listen to me.” And most of all, we should have sympathy and patience. “We’re all at a different point in our journey—you don’t expect a toddler to have read Marx,” Baratunde Thurston joked. “Don’t open with ‘America is a lie’—work up to that.”

The last question, from a student athlete of color named Devan Williams, was about the role of people of color in educating others about racism. Thurston responded that “It is unfortunately often the case that the oppressed must even consider the feelings of the oppressor as a priority in order to maximize our own chances of survival. However, it’s not incumbent on a tired black person to find the most resistant old timey white person to convert. Personally, I feel done—I wrote a book. And other people have done infinitely more.” The truth is out there, he said. White people should be allies and step in to educate themselves and others instead of expecting people of color to do it for them. “Be an ally and explain, let black people sleep. Let Devan be an athlete, not an assistant professor,” said Thurston. He ended by reminding us that growth is a process. “We need to be patient with the inevitable stumbles of anybody pushing themselves into the uncomfortable realms of trying to grow,” he said. “You can’t learn without making mistakes. Communities have to be there to build each other up.

Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator, Center for the Arts and Humanities


Boundaries and Margins: A Theme in Review

May 5th, 2021

This year’s theme looked at Boundaries as relational sites where meaning, value, and belonging are made, reworked, and contested. If boundaries are seen in a continuum rather than an endpoint, we asked, how might they become sites of uncertainty and possibility. Likewise, Margins have historically been spaces for subversive, often oppressed, knowledges and  life ways to take shape, to persist, to resist, and to imagine and enact alternative histories and futures. All semester long, our guest speakers strove to help us rethink boundaries and margins as active, ongoing processes, while encouraging us to re-configure dominant taxonomies and valuations of what is the center and what is the margin.  

Given the palpable political stakes of 2020-2021, the speakers series took an intentionally community-oriented and justice focused approach, focusing on supporting the work of regional untenured scholars, artists, and activists of color in Maine and then situating these local debates within larger national and transnational conversations. We also attempted to craft more accessible and applicable formats including conversations, performative lectures, performance workshops, readings, and interviews. The Zoom platform opened up the scope of programming to reach audiences from across the United States and internationally and bring multifaceted voices and perspectives to our campus community. Speakers included:

Séan Alonzo Harris (artist) & Elizabeth Jabar (Colby Lawry Family Director of Civic Engagement and Community Partnerships) speaking on socially engaged arts practices in Maine and beyond.

Annie Hikido (assistant professor of Sociology, Colby) talking about the politics of township tourism in South Africa.

A conversation between Myron Beasley (associate professor of American Studies, Bates) and Daniel Minter (artist) about creative reimaginations of Black history in Maine.

A dance workshop exploring transnational circulations of winin’ by Adanna K. Jones (assistant professor of Dance, Bowdoin).

A poetic, performative lecture about the sonic politics of migration by artist Anthony Romero (School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Tufts University).

A presentation on disability aesthetics and design by influential dancer Alice Sheppard and designer Michael Maag of Kinetic Light Dance company.

An experimental opera about the colonization of outer space by Malik Gaines (associate professor of Performance Studies, NYU) and Alexandro Segade (assistant professor, Cornell University) founding members of performance group My Barbarian.

A presentation by Ian Khara Ellasante (assistant professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Bates) about the limits of discourses of authenticity in social justice movements.

A reading by South African author Julie Nxadi and a conversation with assistant professor of English Mo Shabangu (Colby) about post-Apartheid literature and the limitations of genre categorizations.

And a roundtable conversation about migration and activism with Oak Institute for Human Rights fellow Nasim Lomani, assistant professor of global studies Nadia El-Shaarawi (Colby) and associate professor of global studies and film maker Maple Rasza (Colby).  

Written by theme co-sponsors Associate Professor of French Audrey Brunetaux and Assistant Professor of Theater and Dance A.B. Brown.


Megan Fossa: Assistant Director of the Center for the Arts and Humanities

February 18th, 2020

Every person has a heart, every machine has an engine, and every organization has its center. The driving force behind the Center for the Arts and Humanities at Colby has always been the ingenuity, tireless work, and confident management of Megan Fossa. Today we recognize her much deserved promotion from Program Coordinator to Assistant Director. The Center would not be what it is today without Megan, and we would like to take this opportunity to thank her for everything she has accomplished. 

Megan first started out at Colby in 2011, serving as Administrative Secretary to the Goldfarb Center. While working, she simultaneously completed her Master’s degree in Business Administration at Thomas College. “It’s such a huge, wonderful benefit that Colby offers to get your degree for free,” Megan told us. As just one example of her incredible work ethic, Megan finished up her degree, applied for, and received her position as Program Coordinator at the Center all while nine months pregnant. 

The Center had existed for three years before Megan joined it in 2014, but it was run entirely by Director Kerill O’Neill and the Executive Committee, meaning that there was a surplus of ideas but no staff to execute them. Megan quickly became the master of logistics, flawlessly executing annual themes and countless events. Coming into the position, Megan had a strong knowledge of the ins and outs of Colby– but, coming from a social sciences background, knew little about the humanities. “Kerill was a fountain of knowledge,” she told us, “offering me guidance while also giving me the reins.” Today, Megan has worked at the Center for seven years, and has witnessed how it has changed over time. 

“The Center has changed dramatically in terms of reach,” said Megan. “We’ve become much bigger in the humanities realm, and are now recognized by colleges across the nation.” The Center has worked extensively with the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes (CHCI), and will soon become central to the running of the New England Humanities Consortium (NEHC) (stay tuned for more updates!) 

Broadly speaking, the Center’s role at Colby is to provide an annual theme, which brings together and inspires humanities scholars across campus; to curate a series of events around that theme; and to bring in a Keynote Speaker who embodies that theme. These themes and speakers are not pulled from thin air, but are taken from the ideas and suggestions of Colby faculty and students. “It’s great that each year everything changes,” said Megan. “One year we focus on climate, the next on how we learn from the past or repeat the same mistakes. The change makes you step up your game and keeps things from becoming mundane.” Megan believes that the current year’s theme, Boundaries and Margins, was unfortunately shortchanged by the necessary restrictions accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic. However, she believes that the theme and events were adapted well to a virtual format. “And how relevant is the theme to what we’re going through right now?” she pointed out.

Megan feels that the most fulfilling aspect of her job has always been taking the ideas of students and faculty and bringing them to life. She sees the Center as a support system, which plays a pivotal role in helping the goals of the Colby community come to fruition. She particularly enjoys working with students. “Working with the Student Advisory Board and helping to give a voice to students has been a true pleasure,” Megan told us. “How they see things is completely different from how I see things, and it’s given me a new perspective which has helped me grow in both my personal and my professional life.” 

The 2019 Presence of the Past Keynote Speaker, author Dr. Roxanne Gay, is an example of a speaker suggested by the Center’s Student Advisory Board. Board members had been deeply moved by her books, were members of the #metoo movement, and wanted to hear more of what Dr. Gay had to say. “Students thought it wouldn’t happen, it was such a long shot,” said Megan. “To see their faces when they got to have one on one time with her was amazing.”

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Megan’s job, she told us, is the opportunity to work with the keynote speakers. These individuals are always world renowned for their unique perspectives, persuasive arguments, and brilliant minds. Megan’s first event at the Center was hosting keynote speaker Sir Salman Rushdie, and she described the experience as surreal. After meeting Winona LaDuke, the first Distinguished Fellow in the Environmental Humanities, Megan said she was “on cloud nine. She rocked my foundation.” Megan continued, “I’m from central Maine, from Winslow. If I was ever told that I would have conversations with these people, I would have laughed at you. I never would have had these opportunities if I hadn’t been at Colby. To have had direct contact with these artists, activists, authors, and poets, has been such a wonderful gift.” 

In her new position as Assistant Director, Megan will continue to work tirelessly as the dynamo at the core of the Center, bringing in exciting new speakers and giving life to the ideas of students and faculty alike. “I love the Center, and I love Colby,” said Megan. “It’s truly inspiring to be part of an ever changing community that’s always striving to do better in new ways.” 

Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator, Center for the Arts and Humanities     


Danila Cannamela and the Quite Avant-garde

February 18th, 2020

The strength of the humanities at Colby is a direct result of our talented faculty, each of whom brings a unique perspective and treasure trove of knowledge on an extensive variety of topics. Today we highlight the work of one of our newer faculty members, Assistant Professor of Italian Studies Danila Cannamela (pictured left), who joined Colby in 2019. In this article, we would like to introduce you to Cannamela’s first book, The Quiet Avant-garde: Crepuscular Poetry and the Twilight of Modern Humanism, which was published in March 2019 by the University of Toronto Press. This intricate, eloquent book explores the crepuscular poetry movement in Italy. 

So who were the crepusculars? Cannamela explains in her book that they were a group of very young Italian poets who lived during the early twentieth century. The two most prominent figures of the movement, Sergio Corazzini and Guido Gozzano, died when they were 21 and 32 respectively, as they suffered from tuberculosis. Perhaps due to their illness, the crepusculars sabotaged the Italian tradition of singing of glorious historical victories, of beauty and stylistic perfection, and instead sang about everyday boredom. “Poets of the quarantine”, Cannamela calls them, who wrote about everyday objects and frustrations. Confined to their homes, they described their shrinking worlds and the minor details of which they were made. 

The term “crepuscular” is an adjective for twilight, coming from the Latin word for twilight “crepusculum”, yet it can also refer to the light of dawn. This group of poets did not name themselves, but received the name from Giuseppe Antonio Borgese, a literary critic. It was a dismissive title, given because Borgese considered their poetry an embodiment of the decay of the high ideals of 19th century Italian literature. 

In The Quiet Avant-garde, Cannamela argues that the crepusculars served not just as the twilight of traditional 19th century Italian literature, but as the dawn of the futurist avant-garde that radically reshaped 20th century Italian literature and culture. They are the bridge connecting two opposing literary traditions. As a relatively minor poetic movement, the crepusculars are often left out of the study of Italian literature, especially in North America, but Cannamela believes that the transition from traditional poetry to the avant-garde cannot be fully understood without first understanding the crepusculars and their linchpin role as connectors and saboteurs.  This is the primary goal of the book– to illustrate and place in historical context the crepuscular movement, in relation to the 19th century poetic tradition and the futurist avant-garde. 

Another goal of the book is to provide a contemporary reading of crepuscular poetry. In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, Cannamela believes that the crepusculars’ focus on confinement and the mundanity of everyday life are more relevant now than ever. In the book, which was written before the pandemic, she argues that the crepusculars were precursors to the fascination with material life that we see in posthuman theory. “It’s interesting to see how these poets were already exploring these ideas, considering objects as agents or co-agents in a very particular way.”, Cannamela told us. “These poets were already seeing things that scholars would explore more than a century later.” 

Cannamela has been studying the crepuscular poets for more than fifteen years, writing about them for her undergraduate thesis, master’s dissertation, and PhD dissertation. While studying in Milan, Cannamela met other scholars studying the crepusculars, but when she moved to the United States, she discovered that these poets were virtually unknown. Only a few of their poems had been translated, and US scholars of Italian literature didn’t study them at all. The Quiet Avant Garde is therefore not only the result of fifteen long years of passionate study, but the first English language book to explore the crepuscular poetry tradition. If you’re interested in learning more about this unique piece of Italian literary history, you can purchase the book here. 

Currently, Cannamela is working on two new books. The first is an edited volume titled Italian TransGeographies, which creates an alternative map of the Italian peninsula and Italian American diaspora using the stories of Italians and Italian Americans who broadly identify as transgender. Cannamela and her co-editors translate these narratives, which range from memoirs, to poems, to movies, to songs, and provide a history and geographic context for the Italian transgender movement. The book starts in southern Italy, moving to central and northern Italy before migrating to the US and focusing on New York City and other cities with prominent Italian American populations. The book explores how transgender people have found ways to work together two identities– their gender, and their ethnicity– which at first seem to clash.  

The second book which Cannamela is composing, tentatively titled Sour Beauty, focuses on ecocriticism and the pastoral. Pastoral landscapes were once a major feature of environmental literature, but are now considered old fashioned and are no longer investigated. Instead of the pastoral, we discuss dystopia; instead of beautiful landscapes, degraded ones. In this book, Cannamela imagines the pastoral as a recipe featuring four staple ingredients: cheese, roots, meat, and honey. “The book is a peculiar cookbook,” she explained. “I go back to what makes the pastoral, and for each ingredient, I tell a story about how the pastoral made sense back in the days of classical literature, and how it’s still inspiring new narratives. The pastoral has a sour beauty– beauty with a bitter aftertaste. It was the comfort food of the old days.”  However, this is a new project, and Cannamela anticipates that she will have many years of research and writing ahead of her before this book is complete. 

In her time at Colby, Cannamela has worked extensively with the Center for the Arts and Humanities to develop exciting new courses. Last fall, she taught a humanities lab inspired by her work on Italian TransGeographies, “IT346: Geographies of R/existence: ’70s Liberation Movements in Italy”. Center funding enabled her to bring in many exciting guest speakers, including transgender activist Porpora Marcasciano, filmmaker Simone Cangelosi, director Teresa Rossano, and photographer Lina Pallotta. One student was so taken by Pallotta’s photographic portrait of Porpora Marcasciano that she is now completing an independent research project on Pallota’s work. 

Danila Cannamela is an invaluable asset to the Colby community, and we at the Center for the Arts and Humanities feel fortunate to have been able to learn more about her work. We look forward to reading her upcoming books, and seeing where her research takes her next.  

Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator, Center for the Arts and Humanities     


Staging Discomfort with Bretton White

February 18th, 2020

Cuba: a country with a rich culture and a history of political turmoil. How do Cuban artists express themselves in the face of government censorship and isolation from the rest of the world? In her recent publication Staging Discomfort: Performance and Queerness in Contemporary Cuba, Assistant Professor of Spanish Bretton White (pictured left) explores the little-known realm of contemporary Cuban theater. This book explores queer Cuban plays and their political implications within an oppressive regime. The product of a decade spent in the theaters of Havana, this book addresses the ways in which discomfort can bring unity, and how art can express the fluidity of sexuality in a country which idealizes heterosexual masculinity. 

White first became interested in contemporary Cuban theater back when she was working as a high school teacher and attended the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, where she took a course on 20th century Latin American theater. She went on to complete her PhD dissertation on Cuban theater, visiting Cuba more than a dozen times and attending between 50 and 80 plays, some multiple times. White was particularly interested in Cuba because of its history of rich cultural production in spite of continued government censorship and the travel and trade restrictions that complicate Cubans’ lives. Because of Cuba’s isolation, very little critical work has been done on contemporary Cuban theater, and White wanted to fill that gap in knowledge. Her book works to do just that, with each chapter focusing on a different theater group, playwright, or play, and introducing these little known artists and their works to the world. 

Staging Discomfort is not a general review of contemporary Cuban theater, but a study of specific queer plays and playwrights. Sexuality is a charged topic in Cuba, a country whose government has a strong idea of the ideal citizen– white, male, and heterosexual. While in Cuba, White befriended members of the LGBTQ community and learned more about the discrimination they experienced every day. In the 60s, queer Cubans were sent to work camps. In the 90s, Cubans with HIV were forced into sanatoriums, and not allowed to see their families. When she first started studying in Cuba in 2006, White’s friends told her that the police patrolled the areas where queer people tended to gather, and arrested and jailed anyone without their identification. Restrictions are less severe now, but “it’s not as good as the state claims,” said White. 

Her examination of queer Cuban theater emphasizes the role of the spectator– how they are emotionally affected by the performance, and how they can become participants. “By bringing people together to watch these theatrical representations of queer sexuality, audiences feel different affects such as fear, longing, or frustration,” White told us. “Experienced in this collective realm, they bring a sense of unity– not a unity based on sameness, but on alternative identities.” There is also an aesthetic of fluidity in these works, which not only collapse traditional gender roles, but also the roles of spectator and performer. This often makes the spectator uncomfortable, requiring a lot of engagement, but such discomfort allows them to experience the performance more deeply. The body itself always plays a central role. “I look at these works and think that if we have Cuban bodies coming together in queer ways, we can get away from the Cuban ideal,” said White, “and multiply the ways in which Cuban citizenship can be envisioned.” 

Las relaciones de Clara, Teatro El Público, Photo courtesy of Norge Espinosa Mendoza

Artists of all genders and sexualities are strictly censored in Cuba. Even in the present day, artists whose work is seen to criticize the Cuban government are regularly jailed. Decree 349, published in 2018, put into place a law that requires artists to go through government controlled art schools in order to be recognized as artists, while also requiring them to register their works in advance of any displays or performances. Artists who haven’t gone through this process aren’t allowed to practice their art, and can be detained for attempting to do so. This decree resulted in a protest of several hundred people, but is still in place. Tourists rarely visit Cuban theaters, so the government isn’t as concerned about censoring plays. However, any sort of public performances, such as street theater and performance art, are very strictly censored. For instance, in December 2014 well-known performance artist Tania Bruguera was arrested, jailed, and put under house arrest for eight months, all for a performance that simply consisted of placing a microphone in the Place de Revolución and inviting people to speak. White plans to continue exploring contentious art in her next book, which will focus on performance artists and activists who defy censorship, colonialism and racism in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic. 

Pájaros de la playa, El Ciervo Encantado, Photo courtesy of the Cuban Theater Digital Archive

In her time at Colby, White has taught two courses inspired by Staging Discomfort. In 2016, she taught the humanities lab course After the Revolutions: Masculinities and Uncertainties in Mexico and Cuba, a class which explored performance, photography, and short stories, and ended with a group performance by the students. In Spring 2019, she taught 20th Century Latin American Theater, a class which also ended with a performance by students. The Center for the Arts and Humanities provided White with funding to bring in performance artist Guillermo Gómez Peña and his collaborator Balitrónica, who conducted a five hour workshop with students. Many students were nervous at first, but ended up telling White that the workshop had been the most important experience of the semester. 

White’s research on contemporary queer Cuban theater is ground-breaking, insightful, and fascinating, and we strongly recommend that you purchase her book here. We are grateful that such a dedicated scholar is part of the Colby community, and we eagerly await her next book. 

Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator, Center for the Arts and Humanities     


Naomi Klein: Narratives for the Future

November 17th, 2020

The Center for the Arts and Humanities welcomed world-renowned climate activist, best-selling author, and filmmaker Naomi Klein for a virtual visit to Colby on October 6th and 7th.  Klein served as the Keynote Speaker for the Center’s annual theme, Boundaries and Margins, and as the 2020 Mellon Distinguished Fellow in the Environmental Humanities. To learn more about Klein’s accomplishments, please click here.

Klein virtually visited four classes: EN283 Environmental Humanities: Stories of Crisis and Resilience, taught by Assistant Professor of English Chris Walker,  AY256 Land, Food, Culture and Power, taught by Professor and Chair of Anthropology Mary Beth Mills, SP135 Introduction to Critical Analysis: Eco-Fiction and Eco-Thought, taught by Charles A. Dana Professor of Spanish Luis Millones, and AY365 Space, Place and Belonging, taught by Associate Professor of Anthropology Winifred Tate.

On October 6th, Naomi Klein also gave her keynote address in the form of a webinar. She was introduced by Provost Margaret McFadden, who applauded Klein’s “uncanny ability to pinpoint emerging issues, and offer impassioned arguments for making a better world”. This was followed by a screening of Klein’s new short film A Message from the Future II: The Years of Repair. Next, Klein discussed her work and contemporary environmental issues with Assistant Professor of Anthropology Britt Halvorson. Finally, Naomi Klein answered questions from Colby students. More than 400 people watched the webinar, not only in the United States but in Canada, Australia, Italy, Singapore, Nigeria, and Turkey.

Naomi Klein is famous for finding the threads tying together our past with our present, and for imagining possible futures. Colby was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to share in Klein’s insights on a wide variety of topics which Klein shared with us.

The Great Chain of Being

The idea of “The Great Chain of Being” can be traced back to Greece in the middle of the fourth century BCE, when Aristotle theorized on what set humans apart from the other animals. Rather than viewing life as a web, with every life form playing a role (as is common in indigenous cosmologies), Aristotle viewed life as a dominance-based. He established a ranking system of living beings, with humans at the top, as they alone possessed the power of reason. This idea later merged with Christianity to become a pyramid with God at the top, then the angels, then man, then woman, then animals.

Naomi Klein argues that this ranking of life, and obsession with hierarchy, is at the root of all racial violence, gender violence, and violence against the natural world. By viewing a race, a gender, or a species as lesser, an individual can justify stealing from, killing, or otherwise harming that other. This rationale was used to justify the North American settlers’ stealing the land of the Indigenous peoples that they had inhabited for millennia. In the present day, the same hierarchy is used to justify the “sacrifice” of essential workers, who are forced to work throughout a deadly pandemic while still receiving little pay or benefits.

Klein argued that for approximately the last 400 years, humanity has believed that it can dominate the earth, that it can extract whatever it needs without any consequences. The earth and its animal and plant inhabitants are lesser, and are treated purely as resources. However, we are beginning to see the consequences of this treatment of the earth. Climate change and environmental degradation are resulting in uncontrollable wildfires, disastrous storms, polluted water, and collapsing fisheries. Naomi Klein believes that we need to return to the Indigenous view of life as a web and to enter into a two-way relationship with nature, rather than simply viewing every relationship as consisting of a dominant and a submissive. 

Motivating the Middle

In nearly every class that Naomi Klein visited, students had the same question: How do we convince people to care about climate change? Often, they referred specifically to changing the minds of climate change deniers. To this question, Klein always had the same answer: “Don’t start with the hardest people to change first and ignore the people in the middle. They’re who you should be targeting. Those in the middle aren’t hardcore climate change deniers, they simply haven’t been paying attention, or don’t care, or feel hopeless about the situation and don’t see any way out.”  According to Klein, most Americans believe climate change is happening, but only a small percentage believe we can do anything about it, or that we can have a strong economy and still take action against climate change. Many of them don’t even bother to vote. Their sense of doom is even more of a hurdle than climate change denial. Naomi Klein believes that we have to convince these people in the middle not with abstract ideas but through green jobs, through supporting local agriculture and businesses: through positive changes they can see in their own lives. Klein brought up the example of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed more than three million young men, planted 3.5 billion trees, and created 800 national parks; and FDR’s strategy of placing those jobs in districts where he’d lost during his first term, convincing them to vote for him in his second term. Klein argues that the success of the Civilian Conservation Corps suggests that enacting policies to provide green jobs would be the most effective way of convincing people to vote for environmentalist leaders. 

Narratives for the Future

Naomi Klein believes that we need to liberate peoples’ imaginations. “We’ve been told that there’s no alternative to capitalism, except maybe Soviet gulags,” she said. “But that’s not true.” The most lasting legacy of neoliberalism is a war on the imagination, the story that tells us there is no other way. When artists and writers imagine the future, it’s almost always a dystopia, often a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It’s commonly thought that to make good art, the future has to be bleak. To present a hopeful vision of the future is considered propaganda, and bad art. But Klein disagrees. She thinks that we have to work to imagine new futures, alternative paths that don’t end in destruction but rather in equity and sustainability. As Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says in Klein’s first Message From the Future short film, “we can’t be what we can’t see.” A vision of the future is more than a list of demands: it’s a story. This is the work Klein has been doing with Message From the Future I and II—creating narratives of possible just futures. Envisioning these positive futures is political work, and a key component of climate justice. If we can tell a story about how we might find our way out of our current predicament to a brighter future, then we have a path to follow.

As Professor of Spanish Luis Millones wrote after Klein visited his class, “Naomi Klein recalls the power of telling stories. The one we need to hear condemns climate and social injustices rooted in a narrative of a brighter future. Not a utopia, but a world created through choices and actions available to each one of us today.”    

The Role of Young People

A number of Colby students asked Naomi Klein what she thought they could do to help bring about positive change. Klein responded that “As young people, you have a really powerful moral voice… Your futures are being put in jeopardy. You have the right to a future that won’t be spent running from one crisis to the next. This is a failure by the people who have a duty to protect your future…None of this is abstract. When I say your right to a future is being betrayed, that’s real. That’s your life.”

 Klein discussed the huge generational shift she’d seen in the last couple of years, during which youth voices have become increasingly prominent in the environmental movement. She expressed her amazement at young peoples’ hunger to go deep, to do the unpopular work of connecting climate change and environmental destruction with capitalism and white supremacy. She told us how she’d spent much of her career fighting her own side, people who internalized the values of the opposition, tried to make environmentalism palatable to them, and therefore lost track of their own values. Klein argues that these difficult issues can’t be ignored any longer—that suppressing them is like suppressing a fire. But sometimes fire is needed to clear away the debris, to make room for transformation and growth.  We need to grieve, to deal with our issues, in order to start knitting a real community where people engage in the labor of mutual aid and care. And young people are the key to building this environmentally and socially just future.

 Finding Hope

When asked what gives her hope in the long fight, Naomi said that she was energized and inspired by the rapid generational shift she was seeing. “Young people have already changed so much. You’re the heart and soul of the climate movement”, she told students. “I’m really glad that you’re doing this work at Colby—that gives me hope.”

Then Naomi Klein turned to the root of all her striving: her passion for the environment. “I take a lot of solace from the beauty of the natural world, the gift that is a walk in the forest or on a rocky beach,” she told us. “Nothing makes me happier than hanging out with my amazing 8-year-old son (who is a die-hard composter!), and seeing the wonder of nature through his eyes. Make sure you get out there and enjoy nature. That’s what will sustain you, root you in love. Environmentalism isn’t a campaign, it’s a life’s work. We need to find ways to be in this struggle sustainably. We have to remind ourselves of the gift of living with the nonhuman world. If I wasn’t being fed by what it is I’m fighting for, I’d still be writing with clenched fists. We should feel rage, at the vandals who want to torch all this beauty, and wonder, at the powerful people who treat life with disdain, but rage isn’t enough. We need to temper that rage with our love for nature. We need to find a way to hold onto both, to remember what we’re fighting for and take care of each other.”

Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator, Center for the Arts and Humanities     


Center Executive Committee Welcomes Natalie Zelensky

November 17th, 2020

Fall 2020 has seen the addition of a new member to the Center for the Arts and Humanities Executive Committee: Associate Professor of Music Natalie Zelensky. Professor Zelensky first came to Colby in 2012 and has been an invaluable addition to campus. Her research centers on ethnomusicology, a unique interdisciplinary field which consists of the study of music in its social and cultural contexts. When completing her PhD in Music Studies at Northwestern University, Professor Zelensky studied the music of 1920s Russian émigrés in New York City, and how this music made its way into American culture and politics. Last year, she completed her monograph Performing Tsarist Russia in New York: Music, Émigrés, and the American Imagination, which you can buy here.

The book explores the Russian Vogue of the 1920s, which was based on stereotypes of Russian exiles, as well as the presence of Russian music in Hollywood films and sheet music, and the role that Russian émigrés played in US anti-communist Cold War propaganda. She also studied the way in which new generations descended from these Russian émigrés have used stylized versions of folk music and dances to hang on to an idealized, mythical homeland, thereby creating a new identity for themselves as Russian-Americans. “Average people within diasporas,” she said, “use music to shape their sense of self.”

This semester, Professor Zelensky is teaching two classes: an introductory course in Ethnomusicology and another in World Music. Her World Music course applies the techniques of ethnomusicology to diverse cultures across the globe. Students learn about the cultural practice of music in Cuba, Brazil, South India, Bulgaria, Russia, and other countries. The class recently finished a segment on music in Zimbabwe and South Africa which focused on the practice of traditional Shona music, its importance to anti-colonial rebellions, and its introduction into modern pop music practices.

In the spring of 2014, Professor Zelensky received a grant from the Center to develop a humanities lab, “Maine’s Musical Soundscapes: Ethnography of Maine”. When she first came to Colby, Professor Zelensky worked to make sense of this new cultural landscape. In developing this class, she was able to connect with local musical cultures and forge a bond with her new home. In her lab, which was held a second time in 2015 and a third time in 2018, students interviewed Franco-Americans—that is, French Canadians and the descendants of Maine’s first French settlers, the Acadians. There is a long history of discrimination against French people in Maine, and music served as a way for francophone communities to celebrate their heritage and reclaim their identities. With help from Visiting Instructor of Cinema Studies Erin Murphy, students made ethnographic films about their interviewees. This applied work outside the classroom, engaging with the local community, added a profound human dimension to the pedagogical work that the students were doing. This sort of work is usually only found at a graduate level, and Professor Zelensky is grateful that Center funding allowed students to experience it.

Center research grants have also enabled some of Professor Zelensky’s students to conduct their own ethnomusicological research. Last year, her student Dylan Therriault ’20, received a Center grant and conducted a research project titled Tradition, Inclusivity, and Participation in Maine’s Contemporary Contra Dance Culture: An Example of a Progressive Traditional Practice. The project was an all-encompassing ethnography of contemporary Maine contra dance as a traditional practice within the state, and it won the Lise Waxer Award for an Outstanding Undergraduate Paper from the Northeast Chapter of the Society for Ethnomusicology. To read more about Dylan’s project, please click here.

Professor Zelensky believes that the Center is “crucial in fostering and sustaining a vibrant intellectual atmosphere on campus.” She appreciates the unifying presence of the annual theme, and the robust programming that comes out of it. Professor Zelensky told us that the Center “fosters interdisciplinary, cross-campus collaborations and partnerships,” and helps to forge partnerships between faculty and students. She is looking forward to playing a role in the Center going forward as a member of the Executive Committee, and recognizes the importance of planning events that fit with the atmosphere on campus while connecting Colby to the outside world. Professor Zelensky concluded, “I think that through conversations, and through programming, the Center will play an important role in offering a steady path in these difficult times.”

 

Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator, Center for the Arts and Humanities     


Student Spotlight: Grace Neumiller and the Environmental Humanities Student Advisory Board

August 24th, 2020

The Environmental Humanities (EH) Student Advisory Board is a central component of the Center’s EH initiative. Student members work with the EH Program Coordinator Ayla Fudala to create editions of FAUNA, an EH literary and art magazine which showcases the work of talented student artists and writers. They also have the opportunity to meet with the EH Distinguished Fellow (in 2019, this was artist Mark Dion, and in the coming year, it will be author and activist Naomi Klein). Today we highlight Grace Neumiller ’21, who has been an active member of the EH Student Advisory Board since the spring 2019 semester. Grace is an Environmental Science major and English minor.

What encouraged you to first join the EH Student Advisory Board (SAB)?

I was very interested in EH. I first got interested at the end of my freshman year when I first took Assistant Professor of English Chris Walker’s “Environment and Society” course. I’d never thought about environmental issues from a humanities standpoint before. I talked to Chris and he encouraged me to join his “Intro to Environmental Humanities” course the fall of my sophomore year. Then Chris encouraged me to join the EH SAB.

What projects have you worked on as part of the SAB?

The project that sticks out to me the most was my sophomore year, when we first launched FAUNA. It was fun because we had a really engaged group of students. It was really cool getting the submissions from other students, and seeing how passionate they were about the same material. I loved the broad range of art and writing we received. It was really inspiring to see all the creative things people came up with.

I also had a lot of fun in my sophomore spring working on a semester long project in Chris Walker’s “Life in Times of Extinction” course. I was doing a project on black ash trees, on how they’re endangered by the emerald ash borer, and how Indigenous people use them to create these beautiful woven baskets. I wrote an article about it with Tommaso Wagner ‘19 and Keller Leet-Otley ‘19 for FAUNA. I was really proud when we put that in the magazine. We had such a cool platform for discussing these intersectional issues. Different versions of the black ash article were also published in local Maine newspapers. You can read one of these articles on “The County” website here.

How do you feel about the Environmental Humanities at Colby?

I love that Colby has such a large EH program. I talk to friends at other schools, and they’re intrigued by EH, but they don’t really know what it is, because their schools don’t offer it. I think it’s unique that we have dedicated EH faculty and staff. I’m super grateful that I’ve been exposed to this branch, this intersection of English and Environmental Science. It really rounds out my Environmental Studies education. I wish we had an EH major because I would definitely major in EH.

What are your plans for the future?

Ideally, I’d like to work for an environmental nonprofit, such as the Nature Conservancy or the Sierra Club—there are so many different organizations. I want to eventually go to grad school for ecology or ecosystem science. It would be cool to further explore the environmental humanities in grad school.

We are very grateful to all of the incredible work Grace has done as a member of the EH Student Advisory Board, and for her generosity in taking the time to share her experience. The SAB is still working to create new editions of FAUNA and enhance the Environmental Humanities at Colby. If you are interested in joining, please email EH Program Coordinator Ayla Fudala at ayla.fudala@colby.edu. We look forward to hearing from you!


Humanities Lab Spotlight: Chinese Food Culture and Changing Landscape

August 3rd, 2020

The Center for the Arts and Humanities is proud to provide grants to support the development of exciting new humanities labs, which give students the opportunity to approach the humanities through experiential learning. In this article, we highlight the humanities lab “Chinese Food Culture and Changing Landscape.” This advanced Chinese language course used cuisine as an entry point for exploring Chinese culture, history, and literature, and was created by Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies Andie Wang.

Professor Wang teaches several Chinese language courses, and wanted to find a unique way to engage students in her advanced course. So, she added food, which she believes to be an easy entry way into any new culture. Food culture is a very flexible topic, allowing for a wide variety of language skills. Her classes could be as simple as cooking classes, in which students had to learn the words for ingredients and instructions (pictured to the left and below), and as complex as the discussion of sociocultural issues surrounding food safety and policy in China. Chinese food culture is a rich topic to explore, with a long history and a wide array of regional and generational differences. The topic of food also allowed students to bring many of their own diverse perspectives and experiences to the course. They enjoyed discussing their own cultural cuisines, which included Jewish, Greek, Indonesian, Panamanian, and Mexican.

The lab was focused on four themes. The first was ‘food mapping’. Students were asked to create a digital food map related to themselves, including some of the most memorable foods they’d ever tried. The second theme was ‘food and humans’, which involved exploring personal stories relating to food. The third was ‘food and social life’, which encouraged students to become food anthropologists, observing the social interactions and discussions that happened during meals. The final theme was ‘immigration’. Students studied how Chinese immigrants worldwide brought dishes with them and impacted their new countries of residence.

A major component of the lab was hands-on experiential learning. Each month, pairs or groups of students took turns teaching the class how to cook different Chinese dishes which they had pre-selected. Through learning to cook these dishes and explaining their techniques and flavors in Chinese, students expanded their skills and their vocabularies. Professor Wang also assigned different students to be tea masters, bringing in a set of teacups and pots and allowing them to select which tea they would brew for the class, which they then served in a traditional Chinese manner.

The Center for the Arts and Humanities also provided Professor Wang with funding to take some of her students on a voluntary trip to Manhattan on September 21st to 22nd, where they attended a “Food and Ideas Festival” organized by the China Institute of America. They attended panel discussions and presentations on Chinese food, participated in a food tasting, visited a night market, and dined at a well-known Chinese restaurant. It was an intensive experience, and the students enjoyed themselves immensely. Another exciting event the students participated in was the Robert’s Dining Hall International Food Festival. A number of student groups prepared different international foods, which were tasted by hundreds of students and judged by a panel. The Chinese food which Professor Wang’s students prepared was so delicious that it won first place in the competition. The final event of the course was a banquet in the Pugh Center, for which students created their favorite Chinese dishes and teas, and then shared them with the Colby community (pictured above).

Professor Wang expressed her gratitude to the Center for inspiring her to design this lab and to explore connections within the Colby community. She appreciates being able to attend workshops and hear other professor’s approaches. “It’s inspirational to be involved in the Center”, she said, “which serves as a very supportive space so that we can have a teaching community.”

Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator, Center for the Arts and Humanities   


Faculty Research Spotlight: Professor Nikky Singh’s The First Sikh

August 3rd, 2020

Dr. Nikky-Guninder Kaur Singh, Crawford Family Professor of Religious Studies and Chair of the department, has been teaching at Colby for 34 years. She is an internationally renowned scholar of Sikhism, and has published several books, translations, and articles on the topic. She has also co-authored with some of her Colby students. She recently published The First Sikh: The Life and Legacy of Guru Nanak, which is a biography of Guru Nanak (1469-1539), the founder of Sikhism. Professor Singh’s book is unique for its focus on Guru Nanak’s poetry.

So what exactly is Sikhism? It is one of the five major world religions with over 28 million Sikhs living across the globe (the word Sikh means “disciple” or “seeker”). Since the late nineteenth century, Sikhs have been a vibrant presence in North America, and yet many people in the United States don’t know much about them. The religion originated in the

Punjab region of India in the late 15th century, and is based on the teachings of Guru Nanak and the nine Gurus who followed him. The tenth Guru ended the line of personal Gurus and endowed the scripture as the Guru forever. Professor Singh, who was raised in a Sikh home in India before coming to the United States, said that “Sikhism is about the oneness of the divine reality — which has to be existentially experienced. It is a monotheistic tradition expressing the divine literally as numeral One. No one is excluded from this all-inclusive singular reality. The timeless infinite is everywhere and everything and everyone—the sun, the moon, the plants, the ants, the rivers, and human beings of all complexions equally share in this one reality.” Sikhism is opposed to hierarchies, with no priests, no rituals, and no caste system. The sole holy object is the scripture, a large text which incorporates the poetry of the Sikh gurus, as well as Hindu and Muslim saints. In Sikh temples (Gurdwaras, or sacred spaces), people sit on the floor, listen to readings of the scripture, share vegetarian meals (langar), and listen to sacred music together.

Professor Singh has had a deep lifelong connection to Sikhism. Her father pioneered the field of the academic study of religion in India, publishing The Encyclopedia of Sikhism. He was a visiting professor at the Center for World Religions at Harvard and returned to India to chair the first department of Religious Studies at the Punjabi University in Patiala, which attracted scholars from all over the world. Many Americans visited their home, and Professor Singh learned about some girls’ high schools in the USA, so as a teenager she came to Virginia to attend a boarding school. She then went to college at Wellesley, where her senior thesis was on the Physics and Metaphysics of Sikh scripture. “How could metaphysical words flowing spontaneously and speedily shape into such physical symmetries, artistic designs, innovative similes, enchanting paradoxes, and brilliant metaphors? That initial question continues to intrigue me to date. I’d say it is the ground of my scholarship,” she said.

Photograph of the unveiling of The First Sikh in Chandigarh, India by the Bar Council of Punjab and Haryana. Published in Ajit Punjabi Newspaper.

The First Sikh began with the editor of Penguin Random House inviting Professor Singh to write a biography of the founding Sikh Guru. The factual documentation on Guru Nanak’s life is minimal, so Professor Singh focused on the primary source: his own poetic repertoire. Guru Nanak wrote 974 poetic hymns, which are recorded in the Sikh scripture, the Guru Granth Sahib. Professor Singh felt that the best way she could get to know Guru Nanak was by listening to his own voice. Most simply see him as a Guru and focus on his theology and doctrines, but Professor Singh wanted to explore Guru Nanak’s identity as a poet. “Poetry is universal,” she told us. “Poets are the prophets, the unacknowledged legislators of the future, as Shelley remarked.” She searched through the many genres of Guru Nanak’s poetic corpus to determine his views on topics such as philosophy, feminism, environmentalism, art, and music, all based on inclusive, egalitarian, and humanitarian values. He didn’t see any separation between the secular and the sacred realms, and urged people to live in the real world, by making good choices in their day to day lives. Guru Nanak is said to have travelled across Asia visiting various sacred places, dialoguing with people from different religious backgrounds and spreading the message of the oneness of the divine and of humanity. He created a community on the banks of a river in the Punjab, where people of all castes, religions, and genders, farmed and lived side by side — singing and celebrating the magnificence of the infinite One.

Professor Singh’s research on Sikhism has, and will continue to have, a feminist perspective. She is a pioneer in her feminist approach to the Sikh tradition and its literature, and has opened up the field to other academics. Her feminist translations of Sikh scripture are gender-inclusive. “Language does not simply mirror reality, language has the power to transform reality,” she said; and so Professor Singh stays close to the primary Punjabi Sikh text, and tries to translate its original sound and sense into English. Her translations avoid the words “God”, “Lord” and “soul”, which are found in most English translations of Sikh scripture. “These three tiny words impose a patriarchal and dualistic framework that misrepresent the language and philosophy of Sikh scripture. For me, its authors were feminist because they championed equality and justice for both men and women, just as they did for the elite and the untouchable, Hindu and Muslim. No one was to be treated any more nor any less than the other. For the scriptural authors, gender justice is an issue of human rights. It is entangled with broader historical, political, and economic circumstances. Their words need to be heard from their unique perspective and aesthetic taste.”

Currently, she is working on yet another book about Guru Nanak, this time with an emphasis on his aesthetics. “It’s capturing the sensuousness of his writing. I’m amazed by how tactile his language is,” she said. “This is something people dismiss in religion. If I say he’s a poet, people think I’m being sacrilegious.” She went on to say “Aesthetics is the opposite of anesthetic—it awakens us to the magic, the beauty of this world.” She believes that Guru Nanak’s vision “artistically expressed is radically progressive, and very relevant to our times. Each simple brief passage is so richly packed that it can be utilized to navigate any aspect of life at any stage. His timeless lyrics infiltrate precise historical moments and emotions to generate new values, new attitudes, new orientations, new social relationships of mutual harmony and unity that our dangerously divided and polarized world so desperately needs.”

Professor Singh told us that she was grateful for the role the Center for the Arts and Humanities plays for the Colby community. “It’s inspirational, a fabulous resource,” she said. “We get to hear wonderful speakers, engage with them, have meals with them.  The social and intellectual ambiance the Center creates for us all is so exciting. I’ll always be grateful to the Center for providing me memorable moments with my two icons—Salman Rushdie and Cornel West.”

Please consider purchasing Professor Singh’s vivid and complex biography of Guru Nanak here. You can also purchase her recently republished translation of Sikh poetry, Hymns of the Sikh Gurus, here.

Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator, Center for the Arts and Humanities   


Faculty Research Spotlight: Arisa White’s Biddy Mason Speaks Up

August 3rd, 2020

Assistant Professor of English Arisa White made an invaluable contribution to childhood education when she published Biddy Mason Speaks Up, an unflinching and empowering biography of African American civil rights activist and midwife Biddy Mason. The newest installment in the Fighting for Justice series from Heyday Books, Biddy Mason Speaks Up won the Maine Literary Book Award for Young People’s Literature, as well as the Nautilus Book Award Gold Medal. This book does the essential work of educating children about the tragic history of American slavery, while sharing a message of hope and strength. It is a collaborative work: Professor White took the lead on writing poems about Biddy Mason’s life, Laura Atkins took the lead on writing the historical sections, and Laura Freeman created the illustrations. We highly recommend that you purchase the book, as it is important reading for both children and adults.

Professor White was invited to be part of the book by Laura Atkins, who started the Fighting for Justice children’s book series with Stan Yogi. The series focuses on social justice activists who have used the United States legal system to further social justice, thereby introducing young readers to primary and legal documents. The first book in the series, Fred Korematsu Speaks Up, tells the story of Fred Korematsu, an American civil rights activist who fought against the Japanese American internment camps during World War II.

Professor White spent two years researching and writing the book before its publication in 2019.  “As a Black writer,” she told us, “it’s my responsibility to go back into the archives and find those necessary narratives that have been omitted or silenced and bring them to the surface. We need to learn about people who have effected change on both a personal and national level.”

The book begins with the story of Biddy Mason’s childhood growing up enslaved on a Georgia cotton plantation in the early 19th century. There were no records on Biddy’s early life, so Professor White constructed her story based on historical evidence and similar accounts. Professor White’s verses tell of a childhood spent learning about healing herbs and midwifery from an older woman whom she called Granny Ellen. As Indigenous people in Africa, the enslaved Africans that were brought to the United States knew how to use the land, and had a deep connection to it. Though at first displaced, they quickly adapted, making use of Indigenous technologies. The medicinal plants Biddy Mason learned about were particularly important to women and their reproductive health. This knowledge would end up being Biddy’s saving grace.

The story describes both the physical and sexual abuse which Biddy likely would have experienced. Professor White believes that sexual abuse is an essential part of the history of institutional slavery, which is often omitted from childhood education due to a misplaced desire to preserve innocence. However, by denying sexual abuse, important stories are silenced, and children are left vulnerable and ignorant. Knowledge is power, and Professor White believes that it is always best to tell children the truth. Sexual abuse, like racism, is an issue which affects young people today. By learning to recognize it in the stories of others, young people can call it out in their daily lives.

When she was 25 years old, Biddy Mason and her two young daughters were sold to a Mormon family and taken by wagon train to Salt Lake City. Biddy was torn from the only community she’d ever known and likely raped by her new master, for she soon gave birth to her third daughter. Eventually the family moved again, to California, which was technically a free state. For four years, Biddy and her daughters were held as slaves against the law. While in the burgeoning city of Los Angeles, Biddy befriended a group of free African Americans. When her master tried to move them to Texas, where slavery was legal, Biddy’s friends convinced the sheriff to stop him. After a long court case, at the age of 36, Biddy Mason and her daughters were finally freed.

Biddy went on to become a highly successful healer and midwife, working with a doctor in the local jail and hospital. She helped birth the children of many of the pioneer families in Los Angeles. As her wealth and renown grew, she bought properties, and helped to open the first African American Church in the city, as well as a school for children of all races. Biddy Mason built a network of care around her, sharing her resources and healing skills with anyone who needed them; and Professor White thinks that this sort of network is what we desperately need during these divisive times. Vulnerable communities can’t solely expect the government to provide for them—they need to provide and care for each other. When one person speaks up, they need to have a community to support them. People often feel disempowered by the belief that change comes from the top down, but in fact, the most impactful work is done from the ground up. “We should each ask ourselves,” said Professor White, “What are the networks of care I can participate in in my local community? In order to make deep rooted changes, we need to come together and think about the daily power we have to make change.”

The United States is rooted in slavery, the legacy of which still chokes our spirits. We need to untangle it, to participate in a collective discussion of healing. Professor White said that she has had educators tell her that they don’t want to teach about slavery because they don’t want the African American students to feel bad. Slavery is viewed as victimization, a history which may seem to cast modern day African Americans in the role of victims. However, Professor White believes that this is a failure of teaching. Learning about the history of slavery can teach students how resilient and creative African Americans are, despite the systems of oppression that still try to keep them down. Stories like that of Biddy Mason are stories of empowerment, providing roadmaps in difficult times.

Growing up, Professor White said she saw her Blackness as a constant state of victimization. It was only when she got older that she could fully comprehend the sheer power and beauty of her ancestor’s resilience, the strength she carried in her DNA. Researching Biddy Mason’s life led to her finding out about her mother’s informal education in herbalism and that her great great grandmother was a midwife. This connection to a long history of women who thrived off of—and healed from—the earth created a deep sense of belonging. “Doing this work was transformative,” she said. “Everything you need is here, you just need nurturing soil to let it all grow and bloom.”

Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator, Center for the Arts and Humanities   


Humanities Lab Spotlight: Museum Practicum—The L.C.Bates Museum

June 9th, 2020

Each semester, the Center for the Arts and Humanities gives grants to support the development of innovative new humanities labs. These labs provide a fresh and engaging way for students to explore the humanities through experiential learning. In this article, we highlight Professor of Art Véronique Plesch, and her Humanities Lab AR393 Museum Practicum—The L.C. Bates Museum: History and Collections. The L.C. Bates Museum (pictured below) is an early 20th-century natural history museum located in Hinckley, Maine. Professor Plesch’s lab provided an extraordinary service by creating an entire website for the museum, which you can access here. This polished and thorough website includes photographs of the museum, a timeline of its history, a video interview with Museum Director Deborah Staber, a compilation of educational programs and materials, and a virtual tour of the museum, among other things.

The website was created by just 11 students over the course of a semester, with teams of students assigned to different sections of the website. The students also completed insightful research papers on the museum, which can be found on the research tab of the website. This website will raise the museum’s profile, and enable people with mobility issues to see the museum’s exhibits.

The L.C. Bates Museum

Professor Plesch’s fascination with the L.C. Bates Museum began more than twenty years ago, when she discovered this little known treasure trove of taxidermied animals, fossils, and Maine history. From the moment she first visited it, she couldn’t stop coming back. She explained that the museum operates on a very tight budget, with only one full-time employee and the rest of its work done by volunteers. In one way, this turned out to be a good thing, because it froze the museum in time. It’s a “museum of museums” – a visitor to the L.C. Bates Museum is able to see what a museum would have looked like a century ago. However, budgetary restrictions are still a serious problem for the museum, and Professor Plesch wanted to find a way to help.

Spent, by Michael Branca ’96

So, she started a collaboration between Colby and the museum, finding two Colby art majors to curate the museum’s summer art exhibition. For the last decade, this opportunity has provided an invaluable real-world experience for students looking to enter the art world, and has brought publicity to the museum. Each summer, the Center sponsors a reception to launch the exhibition; unfortunately, due to the pandemic, this year’s opening had to be cancelled. However, rather than lose the opportunity to share this year’s art exhibition, titled Maine Waters and its Inhabitants, the two student curators—Lola Collins ’20 and Sabina Garibovic ’22, pictured below— created a virtual exhibition, which can be viewed here. The virtual exhibition is so effective that Professor Plesch hopes to make it a tradition for future years. The artists who contributed their work to this extraordinary collection include Colby alumni. Spent, a painting by Colby alumnus Michael Branca ‘96, can be seen to the right.

Sabina Garibovic ’22 and Lola Collins ’20

After years of organizing the museum’s summer show, Professor Plesch decided that she wanted to find new ways to contribute to the museum. It was then that she came up with the idea of creating a website for them. She first tested the idea of having a class create a website in the fall of 2016, when she taught another Center-funded Humanities Lab called Picasso’s Suite Vollard and its Contexts. In this lab, students created a website for a series of 100 Picasso prints, part of the Lunder collection, an incredible gift to the Colby Museum of Art. The Spring 2020 Museum Practicum lab, which created an entire website for the L.C. Bates Museum, was a natural extension of that idea. In addition, several of Professor Plesch’s students have held Center-funded internships at the L.C. Bates Museum over the years.

Professor Plesch’s humanities lab has been very beneficial to the students who participated in it, as well as to the museum and the public. In her final reflection on the course, one student wrote, “I learned lessons about myself, tips to improve my writing, how to create a website, understanding a new museum, and more.” Another praised the museum, writing, “I have experienced art museums, natural history museums, military and war museums, and more; however, I had never experienced anything like the L.C. Bates. It is definitely one of the most fascinating museums I have been to.” A third student wrote, “As someone who is hoping to pursue a career in history, more specifically in the museum field, this course has played a significant role in teaching me more about the profession.”

The Center for the Arts and Humanities is so grateful to Professor Plesch for all of her collaborative work with the L.C. Bates Museum. We strongly recommend that you check out the museum’s website, and that you visit the museum once the pandemic has subsided.

Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator


Professor Aaron Hanlon’s World of Disorderly Notions

June 9th, 2020

Assistant Professor of English Aaron Hanlon recently published A World of Disorderly Notions: Quixote and the Logic of Exceptionalism with the University of Virginia Press. The work of nearly a decade, this book explores the exceptionalism embodied by the character Don Quixote, along with the many fictional characters inspired by him. Hanlon then connects this fictional exceptionalism to the political exceptionalism which has been used to justify imperialism.

A World of Disorderly Notions begins with a question. Why was Don Quixote so popular, and so imitated? For more than two hundred years after the book’s translation from Spanish into English in 1612, the character of Don Quixote was copied over and over in English speaking countries. There were many variations on the character—the female Quixote, the spiritual Quixote, the infernal Quixote. Why was everyone so interested in this character?

Hanlon believed that the answer to this question was the attitude of exceptionalism embodied by the character of Don Quixote. Alonso Quixano is a deluded nobleman, who has read too many chivalric romances and has come to believe that he is a knight errant. He remakes the world around himself according to outdated stories, and makes himself a character in it, renaming himself Don Quixote.  However, he doesn’t do this just to entertain himself—he does it because he truly believes that the world is unjust, that there are many wrongs which need to be righted, and that he is the best person to fix them. He thinks that his mission is important, and he is special, and therefore he shouldn’t have to follow the same rules as everyone else. He considers himself to be better than the world, and to have the right to change it. Hanlon argues that the same exceptionalist justification is used in state and empire building. A country which firmly believes that it is more advanced and just than another country would see itself as having the right to control the second country.

Professor Hanlon believes that an exceptionalist mentality can work for good and for bad—but the bad outweighs the good. The logic of the mentality is such that the exceptionalist is no longer responsive to actual material conditions. It thrives on mythmaking, stories of personal specialness, and looks down upon the rest of the world. Once the exceptionalist is fully engaged in this belief system, he no longer responds to the feedback the world is giving them, and can no longer self-correct.

The novel Don Quixote, as well as many (but not all) of the novels inspired by it, ends with a moment of conversion, where the Quixote character realizes that he is not exceptional after all, and that he has been a fool. If a version ends with this conversion, it is a critique of exceptionalism, rather than an endorsement of it. However, if the story doesn’t end with a conversion, then the author may be saying that there is something redeeming in the character’s exceptionalism. Perhaps the Quixote character is right, and everyone else is wrong. Sometimes society is just as problematic and mad as the Quixotic figure.

If you’re interested in learning more about the complex and fascinating world of Don Quixote and exceptionalism, you can purchase a copy of Professor Hanlon’s book here. We highly recommend it!

Professor Hanlon expresses his gratitude to the Center for the Arts and Humanities for the course development grants he received, which has allowed him to teach the books he uses as sources in A World of Disorderly Notions. The feedback from his students helped him to formulate many of the ideas which he later used in his book. Professor Hanlon also lauds the Center for offering him the intellectual space, and relationships with colleagues of different disciplines, to consider the interdisciplinary problems he addresses in his book, combining literary studies with history, philosophy, and political theory.  Well, we are happy to help in any way we can!

 

Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator


The Center Student Advisory Board: Interview with Carissa Yang ’21

June 9th, 2020

Since its creation, the Center has made engaging students a primary part of our mission. How do we ensure our success? We rely on the passion, creativity, and informed perspective of our Student Advisory Board (SAB). This talented group of students helps us design, run, and publicize events. They serve as a bridge between students and faculty, helping the Center choose speakers and host events which fit the current climate on campus, and appeal to multiple audiences.

Carissa Yang has been a member of the Center SAB for two and a half years, since her second semester at Colby. A member of the Class of 2021, Carissa is majoring in Psychology, with a concentration in Neuroscience, and minoring in Chemistry. It might seem odd that a STEM student is so deeply invested in the arts and humanities, but Carissa believes that having a variety of perspectives is a strength. With limited time to explore her love for the humanities in her coursework, Carissa joined the SAB to become deeply involved in the humanities in a different ways—including personal interactions with world-famous guest speakers.

Carissa first heard about the SAB when she attended a number of Center events during the fall of her first year. She says that the Board gave her the chance to explore the humanities side of her scholarship, and that she has found great value in interdisciplinary work. She appreciates that the Center engages the local community as well as the Colby campus, and says that being part of the SAB has given her valuable real-world experiences. She has honed her leadership skills, expanded her perspective, and learned to think critically about her choices and how she approaches the world.

Carissa found her footing in the SAB through its many events and activities. Each year, for example, the SAB helps to choose a keynote speaker, often an author. Then the Board forms a book club, distributing copies of one of the guest speaker’s works to interested students, staff, and faculty in preparation for the speaker’s visit. Last year the Center’s keynote speaker was Roxane Gay, the renowned author, feminist, and social commentator. The book club read Hunger, a memoir that discusses Gay’s relationship to her own body in the wake of trauma. The book club is one of Carissa’s favorite aspects of the SAB because it gives her and the other SAB members the opportunity to interact with students, faculty, and staff from all walks of life across campus. She says that it’s also a great way to introduce students to professors they might never have otherwise met. Members of SAB were able to meet privately with Roxane Gay during her visit to campus, and Carissa greatly appreciated this opportunity. She also enjoys collaborating with different SABs across campus (the Center Board often collaborates with the Museum Board, the Goldfarb Center Board, and the Oak Institute Board).

Recently, due to her exemplary work and leadership in the SAB, Carissa was invited to be a panelist for an admissions event about the Center. She spoke to newly admitted students about how their choices will affect their experience at Colby, and how her own choice to join the Center SAB had shaped the last couple years of her life. Carissa encourages students from all different disciplines to attend Center events, take Humanities Labs or theme courses, and apply to join the Center SAB; not just for the sake of learning and pursuing their own passions, but for the benefit of the community. If you think that the Center SAB is the right choice for you, please email Megan Fossa at mefossa@colby.edu. We look forward to hearing from you!

Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator


Mark Dion Residency at Colby

March 19th, 2019

Colby’s Environmental Humanities Initiative was delighted to welcome award-winning conceptual artist Mark Dion, the 2019 Mellon Distinguished Fellow in the Environmental Humanities, for a residency from February 26 to March 1. Mark Dion is best known for his installations, which combine art with archaeology and natural history and often convey a strong environmental message. His work has been displayed in institutes of contemporary art, museums, and public spaces across the globe, and he has published several books, such as our favorite Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist. While at Colby, Mark visited seven classes, interacted with faculty and students over several lunches and dinners, and gave a public lecture.

The first class Mark visited was Associate Professor of Art Daniel Harkett’s “Intimate Things” seminar. Mark began the class with a presentation on the “cabinet of curiosities,” a collection of intriguing specimens and artifacts first developed in the 16th century, and the model upon which he bases many of his pieces. He described how every object in the collection was imbued with symbolic value, and how the collection was organized not by an external logical system, but by the collector’s own subjective associations and desires. Mark’s contemporary cabinets of curiosities, which he sometimes creates with the aid of students, asking them to gather objects from departments all over their universities (which he describes as microcosms for the universe) follow this same idiosyncratic approach. He intentionally challenges and frustrates the viewer, for instance by organizing one shelf by color and one by size. Mark described his process as similar to that of the archaeologist, and recounted the joy he feels at being the first person to touch an object in two centuries, and his bemusement at how an object can transform from trash to treasure just by his selection of it.

After Mark’s presentation, the class visited Miller Library’s Special Collections, where an array of wonders were laid out for us to peruse. There were photographs of Colby students in the 19th century, including a picture of Colby’s first female student (who, incidentally, placed first in her class). There was a “travelling library” containing dozens of tiny books. However, the most popular object by far, both with Mark and with the students, was the scrapbook of a young Colby student from the late 1800s. This well-worn volume contained mementos such as invitation to parties at fraternities, dance cards, candy wrappers, and photos. When examining the scrapbook, the whole class felt like they were part of the same archaeological and yet personal process which Mark had described, exploring the past through sensory examination of the flotsam and jetsam it left in its wake. Mark later said that examining the scrapbook was one of the most significant things he did at Colby, and that through the power of objects he had felt linked across time and space to the book’s creator.

Later that day, Mark attended the class “American Spirituality and the Environment” offered by Ryan Harper (Faculty Fellow in Religious Studies). Mark then joined a group of faculty and Museum curators, for a dinner hosted by the Lunder Institute.

The next day, Mark gave a lecture for the “Environment and Society” course, co-taught by Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Philip Nyhus, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Justin Becknell, and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Environmental Humanities Chris Walker. Mark discussed how growing up in the old whaling city of New Bedford, where fishermen and scientists are constantly at war, shaped his identity as an environmental artist. He focused on the importance of process, bemoaning the fact that all the apparatus that goes into creation vanishes once the product is complete. He discussed how some of his more performative pieces allow the audience to see the process by which art is made, and by which naturalists attempt to classify the natural world.

Mark described his work as existing between two bookends. It begins with that initial moment of enthusiasm felt by Europeans when discovering that the world was far more diverse than they had ever imagined, and ends with the current sense of mourning for all that lost biodiversity, eliminated by development, hunting, pollution, and climate change. In between these two bookends are two more big Cs—colonialism and capitalism. Certain works, such as his cabinets of curiosities, focus on the former state of excitement, while other works, such as his “Melancholy Marine Biologist,” focus on the sorrow currently felt by lovers of nature in general, and by scientists in particular.

Mark sees his role as being the emotional mouthpiece of his scientist friends, who are sorrowful over the state of the environment, and yet have no outlet within the hard boundaries of science to express that sense of tragedy. He confessed his own pessimism about the future of the environment, and described scientists as “fiddling while Rome burns.” However, he knows that art focusing only on melancholy isn’t likely to be engaging, and so he leavens that heaviness with humor. As Mark puts it, “humor is the sugar that makes the medicine go down.”

Many of his pieces have a hidden, surprising wit to them which can only be discovered through careful examination or interaction. One of Mark’s funniest pieces is “The Mobile Seagull Appreciation Unit.” Mark was tasked with creating a sculpture for the English seaside town of Folkestone and quickly learned that seagulls there have a deeply contentious relationship with the local populace. The seagulls had become so aggressive that they were stealing food right out of people’s hands. One seagull had even learned to use the electric door at the local Tesco, and visited whenever she pleased to steal bags of potato chips. So, Mark created a giant statue of a seagull, with a space inside in which his “evangelical seagull enthusiasts” could sit and try to convince local passerby how great seagulls were. The seagull was mounted on a trailer, so that it could be towed all over Folkestone. Mark even created an accompanying field guide, which strove to teach the reader how to speak seagull. He told us that he was surprised to learn how many positive stories Folkestonians had about interactions with seagulls as well, such as knowing them as individuals and raising them from chicks. “The Mobile Seagull Appreciation Unit” is only one example of how Mark tries to make urban wildlife visible, and remind people that unpopular creatures such as rats and pigeons are part of nature as well.

That afternoon, Mark attended Faculty Fellow in Art Amanda Lilleston’s “Printmaking IV” course, for which he had been generous enough to loan one of his print designs, “The Hunter’s Remorse.” Students were thrilled to make prints of Mark’s artwork alongside him, and to share their own artwork with him, receiving valuable feedback. Mark pledged that every student working on the project would receive a signed copy of the print, and they were overjoyed. The students had lots of questions about Mark’s career and process as an artist, and he told them how he’d gotten his start, initially going to school to become a dinosaur illustrator, then spending nearly a decade supporting himself with a 9 to 5 job while creating art on his own dime, until he’d finally established his reputation and people began coming to him. One of his superpowers, according to Mark, is eking out a living with nothing until things got better. He described how he’d felt “schizophrenic” as a youth, in that his interests were divided between art and theory on one hand, and outdoor adventuring and natural science on the other. Like so many others here at Colby, it was Mark’s discovery that he could unite his twin passions that led him to the environmental humanities.

Wednesday was a long day for Mark. After hours of printmaking, Mark attended a reception and dinner in his honor, which was attended by 78 faculty, staff, and students. Then came Mark’s big public lecture, which was attended by 220 people, and was a resounding success. The power of Mark’s wry sense of humor was on display as he peppered his thought-provoking presentation with joke after joke, sending the audience into gales of laughter. Many who hadn’t known about Mark’s art before the lecture went away with a very favorable impression of it, and a desire to see more.

Thursday morning dawned with a seminar-style discussion in Associate Professor of Philosophy Keith Peterson’s “Environmental Ethics” class. In response to one student’s question about why Mark’s work often contained trash, and yet depicted the natural world, Mark replied that he tries not to make paragons, but rather mirrors, reflecting the real state of the Anthropocene, in which the line between human and nature has blurred. He pondered the beginnings and possible ends of the modern sense of loss towards the environment, discussed his belief that the artist should resist nostalgia, and the crucial question of how to train environmental empathy—if such a thing is even possible. Mark argued that if we could unhinge the distinction between wilderness and nature we’d have a much healthier relationship with the natural world, returning to his previous point that animals which aren’t part of the “charismatic megafauna” category are just as natural and important. Mark explained how this message underlies not only his seagull sculpture, but also another installation in New York City called the “Madison Square Park Bird Observation Unit.” When asked about the role of animals in his work, Mark replied that each of his installations casts animals in a different light. Some show animals as anthropomorphic projections, some as symbols or totems, some as scientific specimens, and some as individuals with unique personalities.

Next, Mark had lunch with Chris Walker’s “Life in Times of Extinction” class, in which many of the students are members of the EH Student Advisory Board (seen below posing with Mark). The class discussed the difference between the comprehension of extinction on a geological timescale as compared to a human timescale, and Mark pointed out that ethical considerations define the differences between them. He described himself, in his role as an artist who depicts the natural world, as part of a lineage that goes back to paintings of animals on cave walls. Later came more printmaking, and a dinner with the Environmental Humanities Faculty Seminar.

Our final day with Mark was bittersweet. Mark attended Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Daniel Abraham’s “International Environmental Policy” course, and lectured about Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy and inventor of binomial nomenclature. He described an installation he did on the Swedish botanist, in which he tried to imagine a classification system outside of Linnaeus. He discussed the complex and often fraught relationship between science and society, explaining that for science to be of use to society, it has to go outside its bubble. But there’s a tendency in translation to simplify, sensationalize, and claim certainty, which of course can never be done in science, and which retroactively devalues the scientific work. Mark explains that he is like a science journalist in this sense, except that he openly admits to being an unreliable narrator, one who takes rational methodologies and creates irrational things with them.

There was one last lunch with Lindsey Cotter-Hayes of the Oak Institute for Human Rights, three members of the EH Student Advisory Board, and two environmental studies students. Mark’s final class was “American Art Since 1900” with Faculty Fellow in Art Juliet Sperling, in which he returned to his initial model of the cabinet of curiosities, and explained the part which surrealism plays in his art, through subconscious associations and decontextualized objects.

We said our goodbyes, and Mark left us with signed copies of his book, as well as a special copy of one of his field guides, which he asked to be donated to Special Collections.

When students discussed Mark’s visit, they came up with some interesting feedback. One student, who hadn’t known about Mark before seeing his lecture and hadn’t initially understood his art, said that as soon as he had begun to speak, and she had gotten his sense of humor, it had all made sense to her, and she became intrigued with exploring it. Another student said that he had never seen art like Mark’s before, and that he liked how unconventional it was. He said that he thought of Mark less as a traditional artist and more as a unique hybrid of archaeologist and museum curator.

Fortunately, this isn’t the last we’ll be seeing of Mark Dion! While he might not be returning to campus anytime soon, he will continue to have an impact on our community. Some of his artwork will be on display in the Colby College Museum of Art this summer and fall in a show organized by his friend, artist and curator Phong Bui, and focused on environmental issues and climate change. We look forward to seeing Mark’s contributions to this exhibition, and hope that you will join us to admire all this exceptional artist has to offer.

To see what happened during Mark’s visit for yourself, check out this video!

Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator