These winter term classes will give you chills

By RAIN JI

Every winter, Middlebury attracts visiting scholars and professionals who bring innovative J-Term classes to campus that not only challenge students in all disciplines, but often extend beyond the constraints of normal lectures. This year, visiting instructors discuss Vermont’s food system, build Japanese tea houses and uncover the workings of Vermont’s Supreme Court.

Visiting instructors undertake a rigorous vetting process led by the Curriculum Committees headed by Dean of Curriculum and Professor of Psychology Suzanne Gurland. The committee balances a variety of high quality classes that can satisfy the student body’s general interest.  (Read about how the college picks its J-Term professors here)

Some of this year’s winter courses share the theme of political advocacy, storytelling and social activism through different prisms. 

Eleni Schirmer, a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and former co-president of the Teaching Assistants’ Association, teaches “Educational Change and Teachers Strike.” The class begins with a discussion of major issues currently faced by teachers’ unions while considering today’s economic and political context. Key questions the class explores throughout the month include whether teachers’ unions improve or undermine democracy, the relationship between teachers and the working class, and the history of teachers’ unions.

After outlining the major themes, Schirmer dives deeper into each topic using specific case studies, such as teachers’ strikes in Chicago and Los Angeles. Since teachers’ strikes garnered much national attention in 2019, Schirmer notes that students in this year’s course are more fluent in basic concepts related to unions. Ultimately, Schirmer wants to share with students the complexity behind bringing democracy to workplaces and schools. “I have personal activist experience and a certain amount of academic expertise, and I try to bring both into the classroom because I think they’re both valuable,” she said. 

She designs the classroom dynamic to resemble an employer-employee relationship rather than that of professor and student. From the first day, students collectively bargain with her to set up a contract. This teaching method is highly regarded by her students. “[Professor Schirmer] employs so many interesting teaching techniques and activities, and facilitates discussion really wonderfully,” said Caitlin Barr ’22.5. Schirmer’s unique experience as both activist and scholar brings valuable perspectives to the issue of teachers’ unions and educational change in America. 

While Schirmer’s class focuses on a specific cause in the grand scheme of political activism, Phil Aroneanu ’06.5 and Deborah Moore explore how to conduct successful campaigns in broader terms in their class “Waging Winning Campaigns: How to Advocate for Change.” 

I think it’s important for students at Middlebury to understand how power works in the world, and in particular, at a college.”

— Phil Aroneanu '06.5

Aroneanu wants to reconnect with the Middlebury community and teach a class on campaigns because he feels “there is a lot of student activism but not a ton of investment from nonprofits that provides the nuts and bolts of how to run a campaign.” 

“There is a hunger for applied skills to make real changes in the world,” Moore, parent of a Middlebury alumna, said. They decided to co-teach the class after a mutual acquaintance introduced them to each other. 

Throughout the class, students design and implement a campaign strategy using tactics they learn in the class, such as writing press releases and op-eds. Additionally, the class has an opportunity to travel to the Vermont State Legislature to meet with elected officials and advocate for their issues. 

Instead of solely focusing on one type of activism, they look at issues ranging from civil rights, to healthcare, to immigration rights. They also discuss causes across the political spectrum. 

“I think it’s important for students at Middlebury to understand how power works in the world, and in particular, at a college,” said Aroneanu. “I hope to see students integrate civic engagement into their lives, because that’s what democracy requires,” said Moore. 

SARAH FAGAN/THE MIDDLEBURY CAMPUS

In a similar vein, Kim Gagne teaches a class on advocacy and story-telling. He was previously a MiddCORE mentor and jumped at the opportunity to teach a course this winter. Gagne’s career is equal parts nonlinear and impressive: from a high school teacher in Texas, to an attorney in D.C., to foreign service officer in Haiti and Saudi Arabia and to policy campaign manager in Europe. Because of his own experience, he wants students to realize that the critical thinking and writing skills they acquire from their liberal arts education will be of immense value to them for the rest of their lives. In “Controlling the Narrative: Legal, Diplomatic, and Political Advocacy,” Gagne explains that advocacy entails something completely different in today’s political landscape. “We used to think of Clark Gifford when we think of advocacy in the old time.” However, good advocacy includes elements such as “direct outreach” and “influencer outreach.” In order to help students better understand each element, he invites many speakers who, according to Gagne, are “people at the absolute top of the discipline.” 

For their final project, students examine what happens behind the scenes of a chosen advocacy project and analyze the tactics that it used. Gagne hopes that after his class, students will be able to look at campaigns happening around them and understand them on a deeper level. Essentially, advocacy is about how to properly present your story when adversarial narratives exist, according to Gagne. “Life is about storytelling,” Gagne said. “That’s how you persuade people.” 

Similar to Gagne’s course, Joel Fendelman, an award-winning producer, aspires to tell socially-conscious stories in his professional career. This winter term, he teaches “Voice Through Documentary” after being encouraged to do so by his co-producer, Assistant Professor of Writing and Rhetoric James Chase Sanchez. 

Life is about storytelling. That’s how you persuade people.”

— Kim Gagne

Fendelman hopes to teach this course as an opportunity to share with students what it means to find their own voice. “There could be something that spans the artistic spectrum that you may not even think of as documentary,” he said. In order to help students move past their preconceived notions about documentaries, he assigned a variety of documentaries in the first week.  

From there, an intensive three-week preparation period begins, during which Fendelman works alongside his students to provide them with guidance. Since students come from different backgrounds, the technical aspect of filmmaking is the most challenging. To combat this, he assigns students LinkedIn video-making tutorials, and even inexperienced students can quickly reach a basic level of proficiency.

Fendelman hopes students can plow through the plethora of techniques and find the one that they truly connect with. He emphasizes that a person must first recognize their own individuality in order to tell a unique story. 

Following a year of widespread activism in Hong Kong, Paris and Algiers, among others, these classes show an urge from visiting professors and students to study and scrutinize political advocacy and storytelling techniques together.