New undergraduate course examines the philosophies underlying Jorge Luis Borges’s literature
Monday, November 7, 2022
By Cassandra Mainiero, Office of Grants & Sponsored Programs
What is chaos? What is order?
How does the human mind differentiate and make meaning out of these two concepts?
These are just some of the questions that Middlebury College Professor Mario Higa will pose and explore in his new undergraduate seminar, “Jorge Luis Borges: Chaos and Order.” The seminar was inspired by Higa’s recent summer research on Argentina and Borges, which was funded by the Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation.
The Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation (M&J Whiting Foundation) is a private foundation in Boston, Massachusetts that aims to enhance classroom instruction by engaging and broadening the minds of teachers from New England colleges and universities. The awarded grants allow faculty members to study or conduct a project abroad.
Throughout the years, Middlebury’s Office of Grants and Sponsored Programs (OG&SP) has helped many Middlebury faculty members develop and submit grant proposals to the M&J Whiting Foundation for a variety of complex subjects—from studying Greek food to exploring how Germany uses psychology to increase sustainability. Many of these grants have been used to either cultivate better perspectives for current subjects/courses or to create entirely new courses at Middlebury College. Since 2015, OG&SP has submitted 64 grant proposals to the M&J Whiting Foundation and has been awarded 38 of those grants.
Professor Higa was one of the awarded recipients.
Since 2009, Mario Higa has been professor at Middlebury College, where he teaches Portuguese and Luso-Brazilian literature/culture. One year, he was also the Department Head of Luso-Hispanic Studies. His cultural classes tackle popular and multifaceted subjects, such as the history of soccer in Brazil or the global impact of bossa nova. In addition to teaching Portuguese, Higa also occasionally teaches courses in Spanish. In Winter Term of 2020, for instance, he taught a course on the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges and Borges’s short story collection, Ficciones (19401). Ficciones includes thirteen stories that address different philosophical and ethnic questions but are unified by a reoccurring theme: a labyrinth.
“Borges was one of the most influential 20th century writers. He was the first Latin American author to be recognized as a world-class writer by the European community of scholars and critics. Before Borges, Latin American literature was either overlooked or underestimated,” Higa explained. “Borges changed the status of Latin American culture and prepared the ground for the emergence of the so-called ‘Latin American Boom,’ which revealed authors like Gabriel García Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, and Jorge Amado.”
Higa’s interest in Latin America literature has existed for years. On a personal level, it is part of his family history; his maternal grandfather was born in Buenos Aires and then immigrated to Brazil. But it is also a focal point in Higa’s own academic studies and published writing. For example, in Higa’s undergraduate and doctoral studies, he compared and analyzed writers from Brazil, Mexico, and Chile. Additionally, in 2009, Higa co-translated The Invention of Argentina by Nicolas Schumway, which explored the cultural history and identity of Argentina.
Despite his personal history and studies, though, Higa never visited Argentina. That is why, during summer 2021, Higa used his M&J Whiting Foundation grant to fund a three-week trip to Argentina. This allowed Higa to glean a firsthand experience of the country’s culture and the impact of Borges. Specifically, he explored Borges’s birth city of Buenos Aires, referred to frequently in his written works.
Throughout this experience, Higa sought ways to connect this new insight to hermeneutical questions. Hermeneutics is the art or study of interpretation—its philosophies and principles— and how interpretation changes a text. While it is a term often used to refer to how one interprets biblical scripture, it can also apply to literary texts, such as Borges Ficciones. Hermeneutics asks questions, such as: What is meaning? How do we derive that meaning?
Now, Higa’s new course, “Jorge Luis Borges: Chaos and Order” is set to debut at Middlebury College soon. The class will be the culmination of Higa’s research and the intersection between Higa’s major interests: Borges, literature, language, and hermeneutics. The course may be taught in English or Spanish.
“What fascinates me the most in Borges is the way he succeeds in creating an elusive and permeable discourse in which literature becomes philosophy, and philosophy, literature: the marriage of thought and beauty,” Higa said. “I want to invite my students to re-evaluate the concept of meaning at an interpretive, metaphysical, and linguistic level. The re-evaluations will be done by scrutinizing the literary text from a philosophical viewpoint.”
Food Studies Professor uses abroad experience in Mexico to strengthen classroom instruction
Monday, October 3, 2022
By Cassandra Mainiero, Office of Grants & Sponsored Programs
Even after teaching about agroecology for more than 20 years, Molly Anderson, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Food Studies at Middlebury, continues to seek innovative ways to enrich her teaching and provide her students with firsthand experiences. One way that Anderson recently has achieved these goals is via her 10-week project in Mexico, where she gleaned real-life insight into the future of food system transformation.
Anderson’s project was supported by a grant received from the Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation. The Marion and Jasper Whiting Foundation (M&J Whiting Foundation) is a charitable foundation in Boston, Massachusetts. The foundation aims to enhance classroom instruction by engaging and broadening the minds of teachers from New England colleges and universities. Specifically, these grants are used for faculty members to study or conduct a project abroad— or at some location that the teacher is not closely associated with—and cover travel and travel-related expenses.
Over the years, Middlebury’s awarded grants under the M&J Whiting Foundation have tackled a variety of multifaceted subjects—from studying Japanese Mountain Cartography to exploring how Sicilians have learned to co-exist with plate tectonics hazards. Anderson, who was awarded the grant in 2020, added to that diverse pool of awardees by tackling a food studies project.
Anderson’s project was titled “Agroecology as a Pathway to Food System Transformation in Mexico: Farmers’ Practices, Current Research, and Policymakers’ Perspectives.” Agroecology is the study of the relationship between plants, animals, people, and the environment within agricultural systems and practices. Anderson has directed the Academic Program in Food Studies at Middlebury since 2015. In this role, she has taught about hunger and food security, fixing food systems, and sustainability via independent study programs and undergraduate classes like “Hunger, Food Security & Food Sovereignty” and “Food, Power, and Justice.”
“Agroecology has the potential to overcome most of the environmental and health problems caused by industrialized agriculture and can give farmers better incomes because they are not purchasing external inputs,” explained Anderson. “I have been interested in agroecology as the most promising alternative to the industrialized food system for several years and have recognized that it is most advanced in Latin America.”
In the last decade, agroecological practices, such as sustainable or organic farming, have emerged as positive alternatives to the industrialized food system prevalent in the United States. Despite this, agroecology receives little to no government support. Instead, according to Anderson, officials support industrialized practices, which have been proven to degrade soil, water, and air quality; lead to the depopulation of rural areas; and contribute to the unhealthy diet responsible for more than half of the deaths each year in the U.S before COVID. The government also has layered and complex associations with agrichemical companies, which sell items that agroecological farmers do not use, such as synthetic fertilizers and herbicides.
Latin American farmers and researchers have been advancing agroecology practices for decades and have aided social movements that support it, such as La Via Campesina. Mexico also has passed laws that align with agroecological practices, such as restricting entry of genetically modified corn and gradually withdrawing glyphosate, a herbicide widely used on U.S. farms to kill broadleaf weeks, but which poses health hazards to people, plant life, and animals.
“In the United States, where industrialized agriculture is widely practiced, farmers plant large fields with single crops and apply pesticides regularly. …Pesticides have harmful impacts on human and ecological health,” said Anderson. “Agroecology promotes diversity within and between fields and synergies between crops (such as planting nitrogen-fixing plants and nitrogen-loving plants together.) This helps to discourage pests; but in addition, agroecological farmers use natural pest control practices that don’t kill beneficial insects such as pollinators”.
For six weeks in 2021, Anderson worked with faculty and students at the Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR) in Mexico, a center for agroecological research and teaching, to gain on-the-ground experience of Mexico’s agroecology practices. Anderson sought to not only learn more about Mexico’s practices but also how much confidence farmers have in them. Anderson also met with representatives from civil society organizations to better understand their views on agroecology as well as the opportunities or barriers in transforming Mexico’s food system.
Additionally, Anderson prepared for her trip by participating in both Middlebury’s intensive summer language program and a language program at the Instiuto Jovel to improve her Spanish.
This allowed Anderson to directly speak with farmers, civil leaders, and students. She also shadowed agroecology courses at ECOSUR that focused on the impact of diet and agroecology markets during COVID. In return, Anderson provided agroecology lectures in Spanish for ECOSUR’s graduate classes, which focused on how food justice differs between Mexico and the United States.
Currently, Anderson is seeking ways to share what she has learned about agroecology in Latin America with Middlebury students. One promising possibility is taking students to Peru, to study at the Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development (AASD) near Cuzco. AASD works closely with an agroecological farmer and teaches students about Andean history and culture in addition to agroecology.
“I believe that professors must be able to ‘do’ the things that they teach about to explain why positive alternatives are not widely adopted,” said Anderson. “The more grounded experience a professor can bring to the classroom, the more compelling will be the lessons.”
New research explores how media shapes attitudes toward Black Lives Matter
Monday, August 22, 2022
By Cassandra Mainiero, Office of Grants & Sponsored Programs
During part of his sabbatical year Middlebury College professor Erik Bleich took his research and teaching talents across the Atlantic to Lyon, France. There, he served as the Fulbright-Tocqueville Distinguished Chair and as a fellow at the Collegium de Lyon, researching how the media covers Black Lives Matter.
Black Lives Matter is a racial and social justice movement that started in the United States in July 2013 after the death of Trayvon Martin. The movement focuses on the systemic racism and racial inequality, discrimination, and violence experienced by black people, especially regarding police brutality.
Bleich researched the Black Lives Matter movement in France as part of his Fulbright grant. The Fulbright program offers grants and scholarships to students and scholars to study, conduct research, exchange ideas, and ultimately create cultural understanding and find solutions to worldwide challenges. As its Fulbright-Tocqueville Distinguished Chair, Bleich was in France from January to July 2022.
“I have been interested in how marginalized groups are viewed by non-marginalized groups, and how politics and society are organized around this cleavage,” explained Bleich, who has been a political science professor at Middlebury since 1999. Bleich has served as Middlebury’s Director of European Studies, Director of International Politics & Economics, and Chair of Political Science. He is currently Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science.
In his research, Bleich collected articles from two to four different newspapers in five different countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain, France, and the Netherlands. He drew on newspaper databases such as NexisUni and ProQuest and assembled about 30,000 articles for analysis. He focused on coverage in major newspapers such as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal in the United States and Le Monde and Le Figaro in France.
“We found that by far the most significant factor driving media coverage of topics like Black Lives Matter over the past eight years was the murder of George Floyd—this one event led to a tremendous spike in the number of articles not only about Black Lives Matter, but also about related topics such as systemic racism and white privilege,” said Bleich.
After collecting the texts of these articles, Bleich used computer-assisted methods to assess the quantity, tone, language used when discussing specific topics. One such computer method that Bleich employed was “sentiment analysis,” a process that gauges text to determine whether an article is positive, negative, or neutral.
Another method was “topic modeling,” which uses an algorithm to identify sets of words that “hang” together in multiple articles. Meanwhile, “collocation analysis” identifies words that are found beside each other or in the same sentence. In addition to the computer-assisted methods Bleich used qualitative methods to read a sample of 35 articles from the U.S. and 35 articles from France regarding their coverage of Black Lives Matter in France.
“It turns out that the U.S.-origin articles were much more positive about BLM in France than most articles about Black Lives Matter in the U.S. itself,” said Bleich. “French articles were mixed. The ones that were negative were mostly in the right-leaning newspaper and were mostly critiquing the importation of American race-based concepts and movements.”
According to Bleich, research shows that newspapers commonly serve as agenda-setters versus other media outlets. Newspapers also tend to be more factual versus emotional and therefore less prone to sensationalism or hyperbole. However, Bleich and his team plan to expand their research. Specifically, the team plans to look at social media platforms like Twitter, at Google searches, and at government documents and data, such as congressional records, bills, and court cases. The team also began to research the diffusion of ideas, asking questions such as how do concepts like “institutional racism” or “critical race theory” move from the academy to public knowledge?
In the more immediate future, though, Bleich plans to use his research to teach a senior seminar in Middlebury College’s political science department. The course will be titled “The Media and the Marginalized,” a course that he piloted and taught during his leave year.
“Honestly, it was challenging to do as much as I wanted because I was teaching two courses at the Institute of Political Studies in Lyon and had 90 students. That’s unusual for a sabbatical. It was also challenging to collect the data. Some media data that used to be widely accessible are no longer easily available,” shared Bleich.
“But, researching and teaching abroad as part of the Fulbright program and as a fellow of the Collegium de Lyon was an incredibly enriching experience,” added Bleich. “It allowed me to advance my research agenda and to try out courses that I will bring back to Middlebury. I could not be happier with my leave year.”
Middlebury professor will debut two original performances in spring semester
Monday, August 8, 2022
By Cassandra Mainiero, Office of Grants & Sponsored Programs
Using worldwide changes as a creative catalyst, Middlebury College dance professor Laurel Jenkins is re-imagining how dance can transform trauma into resilience. Now, like an ode to her research, Jenkins will share such themes in two original performances. Those performances (Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, and The Wilds) were developed this winter in Paris at the Institut Français.
The Institut Français is a cultural institute funded by the French government. Its purpose is to promote French culture via the arts, such as dance, painting, architecture, and film. Its Cité Internationale des Arts is an artist residence in Paris, where local and international artists can meet and pursue creative work or research projects.
As one of the Institut’s 2022 grant recipients, Jenkins was in residence at Cité Internationale des Arts from January to April 2022. She was the only American selected for its residency. Jenkins has been an Assistant Professor at Middlebury College since 2017. She received this grant to collaborate with local artists on new choreographic projects titled Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, and The Wilds.
Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright is an original dance/theater performance with projections that engage with the body as a site of transmogrification, the process of change. The project was inspired by worldwide events: COVID-19, violence, and major political upheavals.
According to Jenkins, such events put art programs on hold and impacted the body and each individual’s nervous system. This encouraged many artists like Jenkins to re-consider one’s relationship to the body.
“The dancing body is an imagining body,” said Jenkins. “The dancer has embodied knowledge that is specifically relevant to this historical moment where adaptation and transformation are necessary for our survival and evolution.”
To develop Tiger, Tiger, Burning Bright, Jenkins rehearsed at Cité Internationale des Arts with local actress Pauline Cheviller and Parisian documentary filmmaker, Ania Gruca, who captured the process of developing and performing this work. At Cité Internationale des Arts, Jenkins met artists from around the globe including Croatian projection artist Nives Sertić, who became a collaborator on the project, too.
Jenkins and Cheviller collaboratively developed the work by playing with mirroring so that actions would repeat, expand, shrink, and change. They engaged the voice by repeating text. These games allowed the artists to identify how a movement or phrase began and then over time morphed into something new.
“The effect on the audience is that we start off with one identity and end the work in a completely new place. We are grunting in our duet and then Pauline goes up to a balcony and sings an aria. We are catching the audience totally off guard,” Jenkins said.
Throughout her experience, Jenkins explored key questions, such as intensity of presence, vulnerability, identity, trauma, change, as well as the balancing act of making art and parenting.
“One of my personal goals is to integrate parenting and art making so that they both enhance each other,” said Jenkins, whose three-old son, six-month-old daughter, and husband joined her at the residency. “Parenting is a huge challenge. Making dances is a huge challenge. In my time at this residency, I had to make choices so that my family and art practice could flourish. I had to work with limitations, and this resulted in finding new ways to make.”
When her collaborators weren’t available Jenkins engaged in a daily solo movement practice where Jenkins developed choreography for a second project titled The Wilds. The Wilds is a new mixed reality performance experience where movement instantly becomes music as emerging technology allows dancers to create an immersive journey of sound, light and visual media in real-time. Part mythology, part utopian vision, The Wilds fuses live dancers with motion capture technology and real-time animation inspiring a profound bond of a shared, collective experience. The Wilds will premiere at the Lied Center for Performing Arts this fall in Lincoln, Nebraska. Starting in October. The premiere can be viewed at this link: https://www.liedcenter.org/event/wilds
The Wilds was created by Jesse Fleming, Laurel Jenkins, and Lewis Pesacov. It was commissioned and developed by the Lied Center for Performing Arts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in partnership with the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts.
During her residency, Jenkins and her team performed Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright twice at Cité’s Open Studios. However, thanks to the Performing Art Series and the Performing Arts Council at Middlebury College, Jenkins will also bring Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright to Middlebury College in Spring 2023. In addition, in Spring 2023, Jenkins will teach a first-year studies class at Middlebury College entitled “Collaborating Across the Arts” as well as “Introduction to Dance.” Students will view these performances and meet the collaborators. Free workshops will be offered to the Middlebury community on interdisciplinary collaboration and global exchange, too.
“The underlying principle that I am interested in sharing with Middlebury students is that by engaging in creative processes with people who have different lived experiences, skills, and aesthetic interests, we can expand our own artistry and worldview,” Jenkins said.
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