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In midst of pandemic, Disasters class draws poignant lessons from history

Jake Frederick (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Jake Frederick is drawn to disasters.

Natural and unnatural disasters. World-altering disasters.

He doesn’t wish for them or the pain and destruction they bring. But the Lawrence University professor of history is unapologetically fascinated by them, struck by the physical, cultural, and emotional recalibration that comes in their wake.

By the nature of his chosen profession, Frederick is usually focused on disasters from long ago, exploring how they altered life in the years, decades, even centuries, that followed, how they exposed inequities, and how they reshaped cultural norms. But right now, as we’re living through a global pandemic unlike anything seen in 100 years, it’s tough for even a history scholar like Frederick to keep the focus squarely on the past. When he was teaching his Disasters That Made the Americas class during the last Winter Term, he found conversations quickly shifting to the present as the spread of COVID-19 arrived in the Americas and the panicked hoarding of toilet paper signaled that life as we know it was about to change.

“I think in any class, whether it’s history or English lit or physics, when students see what they’re studying unfolding in the world they’re living in, they always find that very stimulating,” Frederick said.

“At the moment, this group of students is living through a more dramatic historic moment than I think students have in 100 years. There hasn’t been anything like this since the Spanish influenza outbreak in 1919 and 1920. Even the second World War, there was a home front, so you could always be away from where the disaster was happening. But in the case of the pandemic, it’s everywhere.”

It’s not just the pandemic, of course. The wildfires that burned through large chunks of the western United States in recent months, fueled by climate change that is rapidly altering the planet, provide even more fodder for the intersection of historical disasters and modern times.

Disasters That Made the Americas, a 400-level history course that is focused mostly on Latin America, is being offered again in the upcoming Winter Term, and Frederick said the pandemic and the wildfires will certainly be incorporated into the class discussions. How could they not? The current disasters can help inform the study of past disasters, whether illness, climate, war, or otherwise, and perhaps provide some insight into what lies ahead.

“History is interesting in and of itself,” Frederick said. “But I think we can learn a great deal from the modern moment. I wouldn’t dare say what will be the effect of COVID, because historians get very freaked out by the present tense. We need a good 10, 20 years to figure out what the impact will be. But as we look backwards and look at cholera outbreaks, the Spanish influenza outbreak, there is always something contemporary you can refer to in helping them understand the historical point you are talking about.”

Ricardo Jimenez, a senior biology and music performance double major from Barrington, Illinois, was in Frederick’s Winter Term class. He remembers Frederick talking about COVID-19 on one of the first days of class, in early January, two months before it would be declared a global pandemic. There were reports of a few thousand cases in Wuhan, China, and Frederick talked to his students about keeping a close eye on its spread.

In nearly every classroom session to follow, Frederick would start the discussion by giving an update on the virus as more news came out. He tried to contextualize the gravity of the moment and what might lie ahead based on lessons from history.

“We saw it go from a few thousand to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, and then eventually to other countries,” Jimenez said. … “I will never forget the day in which it arrived in the Americas and we had class the next day. Professor Frederick sat us down and said, ‘I don’t think we will be seeing each other next term.’ By this time, Europe was already on lockdowns.

“It was a very sobering moment to hear from a professor of disasters of human civilizations that this event that we were experiencing was a historical moment.” 

Up close and personal

Frederick, a member of the History Department faculty since 2006 and co-director for Latin American Studies, comes by his fascination with disasters via experience. He fought forest fires in the 1990s before going to graduate school. The firefighting he did in Mexico piqued his interest in the history of that region, leading him to a Ph.D. from Penn State University with a focus on colonial Latin America.

“I’ve always found the history of fires really interesting and thought I could marry these things together,” Frederick said.

He’s on sabbatical during Fall Term as he works on a book about fires in 18th century Mexico. When the Disasters class returns in January, the students will, among other things, draw parallels between today’s ongoing disasters and those that dot the history of the Americas.

“Human beings care about the same things now that they cared about a thousand years ago,” Frederick said. “But it’s sometimes difficult for students to put themselves in that mindset. But with the kind of things they’re encountering right now, and with us looking at disaster as the focus of the course, we are going to have a lot of good conversations.”

Much of Frederick’s focus is on what comes next. What happens after a disaster alters life in a particular region? What inequities have been exposed? And what responses come from leaders and from the populace?

“To a certain extent, the disasters are the sexy hook that makes it very interesting to engage these moments, but the disasters themselves are isolated moments,” Frederick said. “What really is most compelling about them is the impact that they have.”

History suggests some of that impact is communal, at least in the short term. People—today’s anti-maskers notwithstanding—tend to rally together in times of disaster, trending away from the popular mythology that disasters cause societal breakdowns and lead to anarchy.

“In the wake of disasters, particularly very acute disasters, people tend to come together,” Frederick said. “In a big disaster, the first responders are always the neighbors, the nearest community. The rescue forces are there immediately. So, what you often see, after a big disaster, there is a big moment of community-building. And these things can do a lot, at least in the short term, to bring people together. Even if that’s not a lesson for the future, it debunks every disaster movie out there. In reality, people really do tend to provide a lot of help to their neighbors.”

The lessons of history

For all of our advanced medical technology, our radar systems, our smart phones, and the like, the disasters of 2020 provide a reminder that we are as subject to epic natural threats as humans were in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries—pandemics, wildfires, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes.

“When these things happen, there are very, very familiar consequences that tend to unfold,” Frederick said. “You find that certain parts of society will suffer the most. … What they tend to expose are pre-existing stresses that are in society, the pre-existing shortcomings of a society.”

The United States, for all its advancements, is no different, and the news cycle that is 2020 is making that clear.

“The responses (to disasters) tend to show the same thing,” Frederick said. “Wow, we have this disease coming, and it turns out that in the United States and across the world, health care is really unequally distributed. You might think that can be tolerated up to a point, but disasters tend to push those systems to the fracturing point.”

Lessons can be drawn, for example, from the cholera outbreak in Peru in the 1960s, which led to a reimagining of the country’s medical infrastructure.

“It was not necessarily, how are we going to prepare for the next cholera outbreak, but rather, how does this show us what is wrong with the system that exists now?” Frederick said. “And what it shows is that, disproportionately, poor people, people on the bottom of the socio-economic scale, were getting crushed by this disease. And there was a racial disparity. Indigenous people were getting disproportionately harmed by this disease.”

For Jimenez, learning how that has played out over and over again through history has given him perspective as he and his fellow students navigate the pandemic.

“I think studying past catastrophes helps you learn how events like these tend to unfold, who is really affected by them, and what the aftermath tends to look like,” Jimenez said. “I think the biggest takeaway from the course is really learning that the poorest in our society are those who suffer the most during any catastrophe. They are the most vulnerable but also the ones who are forgotten.”

These lessons from the past can inform the present. And vice versa. It’s what drew Frederick, the one-time firefighter, to the classroom in the first place.

“You can get a sense of relief and comfort from history,” Frederick said. “When you look at a disaster like COVID, you see that the world has gone through things like this before and we got out to the other side. It can be an awful process, and I promise this is going to get much worse before it gets better, but people have managed to get through this sort of thing and worse. Every single time, humanity has come out on the other side.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Interested is readings from the Disasters class?

If Jake Frederick’s Disasters in the Americas class has piqued your interest and you want to read more, try these books that are part of the class:

The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, by Jonathan Katz; New York: St. Martins Griffin, 2013. This book is about the 2010 earthquake.

A Paradise Built in Hell, by Rebecca Solnit; New York: Viking, 2009. The thesis of the book is that in times of urgent disaster people have a greater tendency to pull together than to turn on each other.

Floods, Famines, and Emperors: El Niño and the Fate of Civilizations, by Brian Fagan; New York: Basic Books, 1999. See chapters on the classic Maya collapse and the destruction of the Moche civilization.

On Main Hall Green With … Getting to know Jake Frederick, other Lawrence professors

Stunning talent, passion, wisdom guide John Holiday’s journey on “The Voice”

John Holiday found a home three years ago with the Lawrence Conservatory of Music in Appleton. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

As contestants on NBC’s The Voice scrambled to pull together family and friends for virtual watch parties on the show’s opening night, John Holiday had other ideas.

The voice professor in Lawrence University’s Conservatory of Music knew he was about to catch lightning in a bottle. He knew the coaches’ response to his performance of Misty was off the charts, and he knew there was a pretty good chance his world was about to explode. He also knew with whom he wanted to share that moment—his students.

So, as Holiday watched from his Appleton home as John Legend, Kelly Clarkson, and Gwen Stefani all turned their chairs and showered his performance with such overwhelming praise that he became the show’s immediate favorite, 10 of his students, connected by Zoom, hooted and hollered along with him and his husband, Paul, and their two house guests, Brian Pertl and Leila Ramagopal Pertl. They screamed when Legend called Holiday’s voice “otherworldly,” and again when a surprised Clarkson dropped the “I didn’t know you were a dude” line.

“One of the things I wanted to do in doing this show is to show my students what’s possible when you stretch yourself beyond what you think is possible,” said Holiday, an associate professor of music who has been on the Lawrence faculty since 2017. “There are people who dare to dream bigger than themselves; they never stop learning, never stop growing. I wanted to show my students what that looked like.”

In the more than two weeks since his audition aired, much has changed in Holiday’s universe, even though he, like most of us, remains mostly homebound in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. He continues to teach during Lawrence’s Fall Term, but he’s doing so while juggling multiple media requests and a growing social media presence. His path as part of Team Legend, under the guidance of the iconic singer, is still very much a secret, but viewers will begin to see it unfold as the battle rounds begin in the coming days. The show airs Mondays and Tuesdays.

On campus, Holiday has become the frequent focus of conversation, a welcome respite amid the frustrations of a year dominated by COVID-19. In the Conservatory offices and halls, faculty and students have been leading the cheers. Alumni have been reaching out. Even other music schools have been calling with congratulations.

“There is a definite buzz around John’s performance,” said Brian Pertl, dean of the Conservatory. “Everyone is so excited that the rest of the world is hearing this remarkable voice.”

Holiday, a countertenor with the ability to hit the highest notes, made it to the televised blind auditions in front of the coaches—Clarkson, Legend, Stefani, and Blake Shelton—after being selected from among thousands of hopefuls who went through the open-call audition process. He said he opted to enter the TV fray in part because his busy performance schedule, mostly on opera stages, came to an abrupt stop when the pandemic shut down performances around the world.

The John Holiday Tracker: Follow along on his journey on “The Voice.”

The reaction was immediate

Holiday’s phone blew up as soon as his audition aired on Oct. 19. A clip from the show featuring his performance quickly drew more than 500,000 views, and posts on various media sites piled on the praise and dubbed him the favorite to win it all.

Success isn’t necessarily new to Holiday. He has performed on some of the biggest stages in the world, and in 2017 received the Marian Anderson Vocal Award from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Washington National Opera, given to a rising star in the area of opera, oratorio, or recital repertory. He knows his way around applause. But this reaction was different.

“My social media has gone kind of bonkers,” Holiday said. “And that is absolutely something I was not expecting. I didn’t know people were going to receive it that way. In general, I’m a person who doesn’t read reviews. I think even if they’re great, sometimes it can get to a person’s head, and if the reviews are bad, they can make you feel bad. So, I tend to be a person who, generally, if I feel good about what I’ve done, I won’t read anything. I just kind of sit in the moment and reflect on what I felt was good and what I felt needed some work. But from the moment this came on, it was kind of hard to not see the things that were going on.”

Hannah Jones ’22, a voice student from Houston who came to Lawrence in large part because she wanted to work with Holiday, was on that Zoom call, watching with classmates through the two-hour episode in hopes of seeing the man they affectionately call Prof. For an hour and 50 minutes, there was nothing. Until they saw the boots.

“As soon as we heard and saw Prof’s heeled boots, every single square erupted,” Jones said.

The only shriek that was louder came from Holiday himself.

“The one thing that truly made this moment special is the fact that Prof shared this huge moment in his journey with us,” Jones said. “He could have easily shared this unforgettable moment with his close family and friends, but he chose us.”

John Holiday arrives in The Voice spotlight having already performed in some of the world’s most iconic venues. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Building to this moment

That journey Jones speaks of is one that’s been building for Holiday. What heights he reaches via The Voice, and what doors they open, have yet to be revealed. But the transition from rising opera star to a performer who lives in a more mainstream music world is one that’s very much deliberate. Holiday has frequently dabbled in jazz and gospel genres, and he said he’s long felt the urge to wade into more pop-focused opportunities. The pandemic shut-down and the arrival of a new season of The Voice provided the perfect storm.

“There are a lot of people who feel like opera is elitist,” Holiday said. “As an opera singer, I can understand that. But I also believe that it is not elitist. Opera is music that makes you feel things, the same way that Nicki Minaj might make people feel, the same way Smokey Robinson might make someone feel, the same way that Coldplay might make someone feel. Opera has that same ability. So, for me, the reason I also want to cross over is because I’ve always longed to be the bridge between opera and jazz and pop and gospel music.”

The 35-year-old Holiday grew up in Rosenberg, Texas, learning to play the piano and singing in his church choir, all with enthusiastic encouragement from his beloved grandmother, who he calls Big Momma. He would later join the Fort Bend Boys Choir of Texas, giving him his first introduction to classical music.

He held tight to family as he grew up amid frequent bullying. His high voice, now embraced, was often the source of ridicule from others, he said. He was harassed for being gay long before he knew in his heart that he is gay.

“I’m lucky to have my grandmother, Big Momma, in my life,” Holiday said. “She has been my biggest cheerleader.”

She was among the first to tell him that his voice was a gift, not a curse.

He went on to earn a Bachelor of Music degree in vocal performance from Southern Methodist University, a Master of Music in vocal performance from the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and an artist diploma in opera studies from Juilliard School.

He has since performed in operas—in four languages—at some of the most iconic venues in the world, from the Glimmerglass Festival to Carnegie Hall to the Kennedy Center. He’s performed with the Los Angeles Opera, Dallas Opera, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and Phoenix Symphony, among others.

About the time he was awarded the coveted Marian Anderson Vocal Award three years ago, the Washington Post called him “an impressive figure on an opera stage” and the New York Times hailed him as “an exceptional singer with a strong voice, even in its highest range.”

His left turn onto The Voice stage and into more mainstream circles isn’t out of character. He’s not running away from opera, he said. He’s simply drawing new fans to his journey.

“For me, I want to be able to change the narrative across the board and make opera more accessible,” he said. “Also make jazz more accessible because there are people who think jazz is far from opera, but it’s actually not. It’s very close to it.”

Holiday grew up singing gospel music and “hearing all the oldies and goodies.” Opera wasn’t something his family was initially drawn to. It wasn’t until he joined the boys’ choir that he gave much thought to classical music.

“It’s not something that was part of our fabric growing up,” he said.

Now, as he reaches his mid-30s and ponders new challenges, Holiday is looking toward those other musical influences. He understands that the ability to excel across the musical spectrum is a challenge with a high bar. He doesn’t want to shy away from it.

“I know that I am more than one-dimensional,” he said. “I feel like boxes are the death of art. … I want to go outside of the boxes in how people perceive the way I should sing. … For me, just singing opera, it would be inauthentic to who I am. I love opera in every fiber of my being. But I am also more than an opera singer. I am more than jazz. I am more than gospel. I am more than pop. Music is just a part of me. And I want to be able to give that in every single way that I can.”

John Holiday: “It is the most amazing gift to be a teacher and to inspire others.”

Landing at Lawrence

When Lawrence’s Conservatory had an opening in its voice department in 2017, Holiday was immediately intrigued. He had worked a number of times with Lawrence alumni in his opera and symphonic performances. He knew the school’s strong reputation was legit. And he had gotten a taste of teaching while working with the Ithaca College School of Music.

A chance to teach at Lawrence while still juggling a busy performance schedule was the dream, Holiday said.

It didn’t take long, Pertl said, for that interest to be mutual.

“John’s material immediately stood out,” he said. “The video samples he submitted were stunning, so we were very excited about his application. When he came to campus, he sealed the deal. His live recital was so moving that most of us in the audience were in tears, and the wisdom, connection, and compassion he demonstrated in his teaching made him the perfect fit.”

Three years later, Holiday continues to mesh seamlessly within the talent-filled Conservatory. From the start, he was often on the road due to his performance schedule, but he quickly grew adept at doing voice lessons remotely, connecting with students from back stages or studio locations or hotel rooms. It’s a skill set that other faculty members tapped into in the spring when the pandemic sent students home for Spring Term and all classes and lessons went remote.

Read more: John Holiday loves to recruit talented students to Lawrence

Holiday also serves as a de facto recruiter for the Conservatory while on the road, visiting high schools, particularly those that cater to the arts, whenever he can.

Jones, the third-year Lawrence student from Houston, said she first considered Lawrence after meeting Holiday her senior year when he visited her Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.

“He came to my school to do a masterclass with some of the students,” Jones said. “At the end of the masterclass, Prof sat down at the piano and sang a Negro spiritual, Over My Head, I Hear Music in the Air. I went up to him after the masterclass ended to express how amazed I was, and then he started speaking life into me and dismantling the unspoken doubts I had in my mind at the time. I remember bawling in the restroom and making the decision to go wherever Prof was. Prof is the reason why I am at Lawrence.”

Holiday doesn’t take those words lightly. It’s building that connection with students, making them understand what’s possible, making them believe in themselves, that gives him his greatest joy, he said. Allowing them to now see him being coached while competing on The Voice is one more piece to that puzzle. The teacher has become the student.

“I am not a coach, I am a teacher,” Holiday said. “And a teacher is someone who is teaching the science of the vocal anatomy. … How to breathe, how to stand, what it means to have good posture, what it means to have good vocal health, and how to navigate the complexities of the vocal apparatus. It is the most amazing gift to be a teacher and to inspire others to be the best of themselves and discover who they are meant to be in the world.

“And what is really beautiful to me is now being able to be in a position to show my students what it looks like for me to be taught and coached on the biggest of levels.”

Jones said she and other students are well aware that they have to share Holiday with the world. That’s always been the case, his performance demands being what they are. It may be even more so now that The Voice is introducing him to a wider audience.

“There have been a few times where we have had to remind Prof to not spread himself too thin,” Jones said. “But Prof’s ability to teach never wavers. We were having Zoom lessons long before the pandemic. … He pushes us to be better versions of ourselves. ‘You are your own competition’ is one of Prof’s signature quotes, and it’s a quote that has changed my life.”

Embracing what’s ahead

Now comes the next step on The Voice, a show that in its 19th season still draws an audience of nearly 8 million viewers. The coaches have established their teams. The battle rounds are set to begin.

For obvious reasons, Holiday can’t reveal what’s ahead. But he can say the experience of working with Legend was spectacular, and the opportunity to get to know and work with the other contestants was a beautiful experience.

He was in Hollywood filming the show earlier this fall, connecting with his students for lessons but unable to reveal where he was or what he was doing.

“I haven’t missed a step,” Holiday said. “All of my students have gotten all of their lessons, and I’ve just enjoyed it. They didn’t know what was going on, and, of course, I couldn’t tell them. I couldn’t tell anyone. My students are used to it. They’re used to me being on the road and teaching from the hotel or teaching from the studio where I’m at. I was teaching from the hotel room where I was staying in Los Angeles. That was an experience in itself, to be experiencing all these wonderful things and then also be teaching my students.”

Now, as the show progresses, he hopes his students will enjoy what they’re seeing—his commitment to the work and the music, even amid obstacles and challenges, his enduring love for Texas and his family, his attachment to Lawrence and his adopted home in Wisconsin, and his never-compromising eye for fashion. And he hopes other viewers looking on, 8 million strong, will share in the joy. After all, this is supposed to be fun.

“We’re living in such a time that can be devoid of hope and joy and peace, and I want to be able to give that with my music in every way,” Holiday said. “I don’t know if I succeed with that but I think that people who really connected with me can feel that. That’s my biggest hope and my biggest prayer.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Noonan puts focus on balancing short-term challenges, long-term strength

Mary Alma Noonan is Lawrence University’s new vice president for finance and administration.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Mary Alma Noonan will tell you that interviewing for and landing a new job in the midst of a pandemic can be a bit disconcerting.

Lawrence University’s new vice president for finance and administration came on board in early August after going through a lengthy interview process, all without ever leaving her home in Vermont. Thus, Appleton became her new home sight unseen.

“The hardest part was wrapping my head around coming to Appleton when I had never set foot here, had not really spent any time in Wisconsin at all,” she said.

Six weeks in, so far so good. The campus is gorgeous, the weather has been beautiful, and the Lawrentians she’s met – masked up and at a distance or via Zoom – have been helpful, collaborative, and committed. In other words, as advertised.

“Because of the pandemic, I haven’t been exploring as much as I might have otherwise,” she said of Appleton. “But I’ve been doing a lot of walking, getting a sense of the geography.”

Noonan also has dived into Lawrence’s finances, which, like those of most every institution of higher learning across the country, are being stressed by the COVID-19 pandemic. She arrives on campus at a particularly difficult time, with much of the instruction taking place virtually and a little more than 60% of students living on campus for Fall Term.

Noonan said she and other members of the Lawrence leadership team will need to work closely with shared governance committees to make decisions with an eye on both the short-term financial realities and the long-term health of the University.

“It’s difficult, but that also makes it interesting and challenging,” Noonan said of her new role. “If it were just a job that I stepped into and it was just clicking through the steps and checking the boxes, I probably wouldn’t be as interested in it. There are challenges out there. I feel I have some ideas that can be helpful, looking at strategies going forward. Right now, we are so focused on the here and the now and getting through this crisis that the strategic part is a little bit on the back burner. But I know that that is going to pop into the foreground before too long. That’s really an interesting part of this to me, to think about how to make the institution stronger, how to ensure the best possible experience for the students we have now and those in the future.”

Noonan spent the past year as the chief financial officer for the Rutland City Public Schools in Vermont. Prior to that, she spent a year and a half as the vice president for finance and administration at Green Mountain College, a struggling liberal arts college in Poultney, Vermont. She came on board well aware that Green Mountain was trying to dig out of serious financial difficulties. Efforts to reverse the slide were not successful and the school closed its doors after the 2018-19 academic year.

The experience gave Noonan insights into the hurdles facing higher education. And furthered a desire to work in the world of liberal arts education.

“Lawrence is in a relatively fortunate position vis-à-vis some of its peers in that we’ve got a pretty solid financial footing supported by a good endowment,” she said.

That endowment is being significantly bolstered by the $220 million Be the Light! Campaign that launched six years ago and is scheduled to conclude at the end of 2020, providing long-term sustainability.

The endowment isn’t “luxurious” when compared to the handful of other schools with similar faculty-student ratios to Lawrence and that count their endowments in the billions, Noonan said, but it’s strong enough to provide stability that some schools just don’t have right now.

“The higher education sector is going through some tough times, but Lawrence will get through it,” Noonan said. “We just need to be good conservators of the resources that we have. We need to put in the work and make sure that we’re using those resources as effectively as possible to ensure the longevity of what we do.”

Ultimately, identifying ways to generate higher levels of revenue while maintaining a commitment to Lawrence’s mission and values will be key going forward, Noonan said.

A new career path

Entering the world of higher education was no accident. Noonan, who has a bachelor of arts degree in East Asian Studies from Middlebury College and a Master of Business Administration from Harvard Business School and speaks fluent Mandarin, spent the bulk of her career in the business world, holding financial leadership posts with Sara Lee Corporation, Arrow Electronics, and Fannie Mae.

But after she took some time off to help see her mother through a health crisis, she shifted her focus toward more mission-driven work.

“When I started to go back to look for my next step, I realized my heart really wasn’t into continuing with a lot of the private sector functions I had been doing,” Noonan said. “It didn’t feel like there was a whole lot of purpose or mission behind that work.”

She had long been doing pro bono work on the side for a variety of nonprofits. That, she said, is where she was finding joy.

“I felt, particularly when I was in Washington, that I was getting more fulfilment out of some of the nonprofit work I was doing than in my day job,” she said.

She started to explore career opportunities in the nonprofit world. And that led to her connecting with Green Mountain, which put her on a path that would eventually lead to Lawrence.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Creative Writing major adds new path in English for Lawrence students

David McGlynn, professor of English, teaches an Advanced Creative Writing: Fiction class during Winter Term. (Photos by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Students looking to major in Creative Writing can now do so at Lawrence University, marking a significant shift in how the school’s English curriculum is structured.

Beginning in the fall, students in the English program will have two curricular tracks to choose from, one leading to a major in Creative Writing and the other to a major in Literature.

“The new ‘track’ system in the English department—essentially two majors, one in literary analysis and the other in creative writing—beautifully showcases the range of talent within our faculty while giving students the opportunity to explore their passions as readers, critics, and writers to the fullest range of their ability,” said Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine Gunther Kodat.

See details on the new Creative Writing: English major here.

David McGlynn, professor of English and chair of the English department, said the newly launched Creative Writing: English major will allow students who want to focus on writing to do so with more depth and purpose. It will build on—not replace—an English major with deep roots, one that has produced a wide range of novelists, journalists, technical writers, poets, and book editors through the years.

“We’ve seen more prospective students articulating their desire to focus directly on creative writing,” McGlynn said. “More current and prospective students are seeking graduate-school and career opportunities in writing. We believe the new track system will allow students more flexibility to pursue their goals.”

Lawrence has offered a minor in creative writing for nearly a decade. Many of the writing courses — taught mostly by McGlynn and colleagues Melissa Range and Austin Segrest — are already in place. But new offerings will be added, including an introductory creative writing course designed for first-year students as well as a senior seminar in creative writing for graduating seniors.

Meanwhile, the Literature: English major also will see new classes added, including one that focuses on academic writing at the advanced level and expanded offerings in the study of historically underrepresented writers.

“Both tracks will allow students more opportunities to focus on what they want to do with the English major,” McGlynn said.

As chair of the English department, David McGlynn has led efforts to launch a Creative Writing major within the English offerings, beginning this fall.

Lawrence has had no shortage of successful writers coming out of its English department through the years. Most recently, Madhuri Vijay ’09 had her debut novel, The Far Field, longlisted for the 2020 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction.

“Creative writing students learn how to work hard and to have faith in themselves over the long haul,” McGlynn said. “Developing as a creative writer takes years and the process can’t be cut short. But when we, as professors, find students who love to write, we do our best to encourage them to go big, to go for it.”

In addition to those who have become novelists or published authors, English graduates from Lawrence have found success in dozens of other fields where the ability to write and think analytically is so important.

“The skills learned in English classes, such as writing, communication, analysis, critical thinking, have applications far beyond studying literature,” McGlynn said. “Along with the writing comes the ability to look into the perspectives of other people, to consider things through someone else’s point of view. That turns out to be pretty good training for fields like social work, counseling, psychology; we’ve had students go on to study medicine, law, business, and library science. The possibilities really are endless.

“And when they get those opportunities, the writing, the thinking, the ability to sympathize and analyze simultaneously comes in really, really handy.”

English is often a popular option for a double major. The new Creative Writing major adds new possibilities across campus that has Kodat excited.

“In particular, it will be exciting to see what kinds of collaborative student projects the new track in Creative Writing unleashes at Lawrence, with its depth of course offerings in music and visual art,” Kodat said. “Expect to be dazzled and astonished.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lawrence unveils Data Science minor beginning in 2020-21 academic year

Andrew Sage, assistant professor of statistics, works with Erin Lengel in a Data-Scientific Programming class during Winter Term. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Lawrence University is introducing a new Statistics and Data Science minor in the fall, strengthening the school’s offerings in an academic area that is increasingly in demand in today’s job market.

While the minor is housed in the mathematics department, it will be evident very quickly that this is not just for math and computer science majors. Departments all over campus have been tapping into emerging trends in statistics and data analysis in recent years, spotlighting the interdisciplinary strengths of data science and its role in a liberal arts curriculum.

“Data scientists are working with bioinformatics, genetics; it’s huge in economics, and it’s become a huge thing in political science,” said Andrew Sage, an assistant professor of statistics who came on board a year ago and has helped bring the new minor to fruition.

See details on new statistics and data science minor here.

The hiring of Sage in the fall of 2018 was followed by the hiring of Abhishek Chakraborty, another assistant professor of statistics, in the fall of 2019. That put the faculty pieces in place to add key new courses in machine learning, Bayesian statistics, and advanced statistical modeling, among others, elevating the program significantly. The new minor recently got faculty approval, setting up a launch in the 2020-21 academic year.

“There’s really an interest across campus in using data to draw conclusions and make decisions,” Sage said. “By bringing in a second statistician and allowing us to really grow our program and teach more classes specifically to that area is really going to open up a lot of opportunities for collaboration across departments, and help us to better prepare students to apply statistical analysis and data analysis in their own areas.”

A 2019 report from LinkedIn showed a 56% year-to-year jump in data science job openings in the United States. TechRepublic.com listed data scientist as the No. 1 tech-related job in terms of openings and potential for advancement. All indications point toward continued growth as data scientists are sought in a wide range of fields.

At Lawrence, growing the statistics and data science offerings adds an important layer to the curriculum for students looking at options in a fast-changing job market, said Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine Gunther Kodat. Practical and pragmatic learning intersects here with the power of a liberal arts education.

“The new minor gives our students the unparalleled opportunity to connect modes of quantitative analysis with the distinctively thoughtful, broad-based approach to learning that is characteristic of a Lawrence education,” she said. “Bringing together the training in critical thinking and effective communication fundamental to liberal learning with the keen numerical acumen that is foundational to so many 21st-century careers makes for a uniquely flexible set of skills that will leave our students well-equipped for life after Lawrence.”

Chakraborty said the potential to grow such a program was what drew him to Lawrence. The demand from students, in and out of the math program, has been evident since the day he stepped on campus.

“I have had students asking me about the minor, and it’s really encouraging to see their interest,” he said.

Two new courses were launched this year with the arrival of Chakraborty, and two additional courses will launch next year. Other courses—some in the math department and some in other departments—will be developed in the coming years. All that has the two new statistics professors grinning ear to ear.

“Our new courses filled up very quickly,” Sage said. “I think there’s definitely a demand, so the chance to come in here and contribute to that was a really big draw for me.”

Abhishek Chakraborty came on board this academic year as an assistant professor of statistics. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Current Lawrence students can switch into the new minor depending on where they are in their academic journey and which courses they’ve already taken. A handful of students could arrive at their 2021 graduation with a data science minor in hand. The number is expected to grow significantly in the years to follow.

“The field of data science is changing so rapidly that I expect this will be a minor that will continue to evolve and adapt to the needs of the students,” Sage said.

That brings us back to its fit in a liberal arts curriculum. Professors from departments across campus provided input to the creation of the new minor because of the prospects it holds for so many students.

Israel Del Toro, an assistant professor of biology, was among those actively working with the mathematics faculty to create the minor. Giving biology students stronger quantitative skills does nothing but widen their career opportunities.

“The biological sciences are increasingly using big data and novel computational technologies to tackle big questions about ecology, evolution, and health, just to name a few examples,” Del Toro said. “By offering a data science minor to our students, we are preparing them with a marketable skill set that is broadly applicable regardless of what biological subdiscipline they choose to pursue.”

Gathering data is only one part of the equation, of course. A good data scientist needs to be equipped with the ability to analyze that data, to communicate its significance, to understand the context of the data, to work as part of a team, and to make ethical decisions of how and when that data is shared, Sage said.

“Data numbers by themselves are meaningless if you don’t have an understanding of the context and the domain,” he said.

“I think this is the perfect place to be introducing data science as a minor,” Sage said. “It really does incorporate so much, and you really do need to be able to think in so many different ways. I don’t see any better place to engage in that kind of thinking than in a liberal arts environment.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Trethewey to deliver Commencement address; 2020 ceremony to be virtual

Natasha Trethewey

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

A Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose writings are plenty familiar to Lawrence University students will be the speaker at the university’s 2020 Commencement celebration, which will take place in a virtual format.

Natasha Trethewey, who served two terms as the 19th Poet Laureate of the United States and whose book, Native Guard, has been part of the required reading for Freshman Studies at Lawrence the past five years, will deliver the address and receive an honorary degree.

Lawrence officials notified the senior class on Monday that an in-person Commencement ceremony on campus would not be possible this year because of the projected length and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. See President Mark Burstein’s message here.

Lawrence has moved its Spring Term to distance learning and has canceled all public events during that time.

Commencement, set for June 14, will continue, but it’ll happen in a virtual space. Details are still being worked out, but Trethewey has committed to participating.   

“No decision this year was more painful than the realization that we needed to transform our wonderful commencement celebration into a virtual event,” Burstein said. “Having Ms. Trethewey’s commencement address will help us all remember the importance of inclusive social connection and the power of humanity.

“Ms. Trethewey’s work has provided a gateway to our arts and sciences education for every Lawrence first-year student for years through our Freshman Studies program,” Burstein said. “It seems fitting that we honor Ms. Trethewey, whose powerful poetry has moved millions, at the Commencement of a class that her work launched.”

Trethewey previously gave a Convocation address at Lawrence in fall 2016.

“Our journeys have been intertwined since I visited Lawrence four years ago, and I am delighted and honored to be able to reconnect with this class in such a meaningful way,” Trethewey said.

A chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Trethewey is the author of five collections of poetry: Domestic Work (2000), Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002), Native Guard (2006)—for which she was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize—Thrall (2012), and Monument: Poems New and Selected (2018).

In 2010, she published a book of nonfiction, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

Trethewey is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Academy of American Poets, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Beinecke Library at Yale, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. In 2017, she received the Heinz Award for Arts and Humanities. A member of both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she is currently Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University.

When Trethewey came to Lawrence in 2016, she spoke on “The Muse of History: On Poetry and Social Justice.”

It’s Native Guard, meanwhile, that Lawrence students will be most familiar with. It’s been part of the Freshman Studies reading list since 2015.

Garth Bond, associate professor of English, was directing Freshman Studies last year when he said this about Native Guard: “This short collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry teaches students to recognize the fullness and precision of meaning in language. Trethewey’s poems meditate on the role that objects—photographs, monuments, diaries—play in shaping our memories and histories. She begins with the personal loss of her mother, then turns to the public history of American racism and the memorialization of the Civil War. The final section revisits personal experience, now reshaped in the light of that public history.”

Reunion 2020 announcement: Reunion 2020, a four-day celebration with Lawrence alumni planned for the week following Commencement, will not take place as planned this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, University officials announced to Reunion classes on Monday. Lawrence officials are in the process of determining how the University will move forward to celebrate and honor Reunion 2020. A message to alumni from Matt Baumler, executive director of Alumni and Constituency Engagement, can be found here. Alumni are encouraged to check the Reunion page at lawrence.edu for updates.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lawrence to add new faculty member in Spanish department for 2020-21

Miriam Rodriguez-Guerra

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

A new tenure-track faculty member will join Lawrence University in the Spanish department beginning this fall, Provost and Dean of Faculty Catherine Gunther Kodat announced.

Miriam Rodriguez-Guerra comes to Lawrence from the University of Arizona, where she is completing her Ph.D. in Hispanic Linguistics with an emphasis on phonology.

Madera Allan, chair of Lawrence’s Spanish department and a member of the search committee, said Rodriguez-Guerra brings background and teaching skills that will benefit students in and out of the classroom.

“Miriam is a dynamic scholar and teacher, with vast and varied experience and interests that will allow her to contribute to a number of programs across campus,” Allan said. “She studies bilingualism from multiple perspectives—phonological, cultural, and philosophical. We are thrilled to welcome a sage and enthusiastic new colleague to the Spanish department.”

Rodriguez-Guerra’s emphasis at Arizona has been in the areas of speech, language and hearing sciences, phonology, and sociolinguistics. For her dissertation, she has done extensive language and phonology studies with young Latinx children in Tucson, Arizona, focused significantly on the speech benefits of growing up bilingual.

“My dissertation contributes to the fields of Hispanic linguistics and speech and hearing sciences as it provides a bilingual approach of analyzing substitution patterns and it contributes to the description of growing up bilingual in the U.S.,” Rodriguez-Guerra said in a letter to Lawrence. “The results of this study give back to the community as this project provides speech and hearing clinicians new resources to better understand sound development for bilingual preschoolers in Tucson, Arizona.”

Rodriguez-Guerra holds a bachelor’s degree in English philology from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (Spain), a master’s degree in phonetics and phonology from the Spanish National Research Council (Spain), and a master’s degree in Spanish from the University of Arizona.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lawrence’s Buenzli, Rosa earn President’s Award of Excellence

Erin Buenzli (left) and Ariela Rosa ’15

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Two Lawrence University staff members who work closely with students and alumni have been honored for their tireless work and their willingness to reach across departments.

Erin Buenzli, director of wellness and recreation, and Ariela Rosa ’15, associate director of corporate, foundation, and sponsored research support, are the recipients of the 2019-20 President’s Award of Excellence.

The President’s Award of Excellence Committee and President Mark Burstein announced the honors. In past years, the awards have been announced at the annual Service Award Luncheon, but because of steps taken to protect the Lawrence community during the COVID-19 pandemic, the event has been postponed. It’ll be rescheduled at a to-be-determined date.

Nominators cited Buenzli and Rosa for championing the staples of the President’s Award — support, stewardship, innovation, and teamwork.

To see videos about Buenzli and Rosa, and to see past President’s Award winners and this year’s service award recipients, click here.

Buenzli: Seeking wellness

While Buenzli’s work is based in the Buchanan-Kiewit Wellness Center, she is active across campus, organizing an annual wellness fair, holding pop-up wellness sessions in unexpected spaces, and even teaching an annual Spring Term wellness class.

“She is in every space you could possibly think of on campus and she’s always looking beyond her position description for the good of Lawrence,” said Kristi Hill, director of the Center for Community Engagement and Social Change.

Leah McSorely, associate dean of students for international student services, applauded Buenzli for reaching out to all students on campus and making wellness services accessible for all.

“She makes sure Lawrence is at the forefront of providing an inclusive wellness space,” she said.

Rosa: Advocating for others

Rosa, meanwhile, drew praise not only for her stellar work on the grants team but also for her willingness to mentor others and be an advocate on and off campus for inclusiveness and fairness.

“She is someone who stands up for people whose voices aren’t heard, making sure people feel supported, making sure people know where to go when they need things, and just having a much bigger vision for what it means to be an inclusive campus community,” said Emily Bowles, coordinator for experiential funding and professional networking.

Jaime Gonzalez ’16, an assistant director of admissions with a focus on diversity, inclusion, and access, called Rosa’s mentoring skills an extension of who she is as a person.

“We kind of all go the extra mile to help and support one another,” he said of the Lawrence culture. “And Ariela is kind of the person who goes the extra, extra mile.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

LU music prof at heart of national effort to raise funds for out-of-work artists

Andrew Crooks directs music during a dress rehearsal of The Marriage of Figaro, staged during Winter Term at Lawrence University.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Lawrence University Assistant Professor of Music Andrew Crooks has helped launch an online fund-raising campaign that has already brought in more than $237,000 to assist musicians and other artists across the United States who are struggling because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Artist Relief Tree (ART) was started earlier this month as music venues began to close and performances and tours were canceled, putting many artists out of work. The web site, www.artistrelieftree.com, received more than 3,500 requests for help in its first four days.

While it started with a goal to raise $10,000, organizers have now reset the target at $1 million.

For artists not in salaried, stable positions, the shutdown of performances on such a massive scale is heartbreaking, Crooks said in an email interview from his native New Zealand, where he is hunkered down to teach remotely during Spring Term.

“It is very painful to bear witness to these stories, both through Artist Relief Tree and via social media, as well as via more personal communications with friends,” he said. “There is extreme anxiety in the arts community, and we wanted to offer a little help, a little hope, and as much sense of community and solidarity as we could possibly muster.”

Crooks, who serves as a vocal coach at Lawrence and was the music director for the Conservatory’s Winter Term production of The Marriage of Figaro, teamed with a handful of other artists from around the country to form ART.

4 ways Lawrentians can pitch in, stay connected amid COVID-19 crisis: Details here.

Numerous notable performers and authors have since jumped on board with endorsements, among them Russell Brand, Brene Brown, Ani DiFranco, Brian Eno, Ben Folds, Rhiannon Giddens, George R.R. Martin, Mike Posner, and Lawrence’s own John Holiday.

The process works like this: An artist in need can request funds, with a requirement to provide some basic documentation about their work. On a first-come-first-served basis for those who qualify, ART will provide a financial assist. Monies began going out on March 18.

This isn’t going to sustain anyone long term. But it’s an effort to help a community that is reeling, to embrace a sense of togetherness among artists, and to raise awareness along with dollars, Crooks said. Many of these artists who were lined up to perform in some of the world’s great opera houses and other performance venues have no fallback. In many cases, no performance, no paycheck.

It was a team of six artists and arts administrators, all tied to the world of opera, who launched the project, Crooks said. He and Morgan Brophy, of Wolf Trap Opera, have served as co-founding-directors. The organizers are all working as volunteers.

“They have poured their hearts and souls and time into this passion project,” Crooks said. “They all care so, so much … about their artistic friends all over the world.”

Back at Lawrence, the efforts are drawing applause across the Conservatory.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our remarkable faculty,” Dean of the Conservatory Brian Pertl said. “This is such a great example of turning compassion into action, which is exactly what we want to model for our students.”

For more details on the project, see www.artistrelieftree.com or visit ART on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/artistrelieftree.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Looking to pitch in? 4 ways Lawrentians can help during COVID-19 crisis

Kate Zoromski, associate dean of academic success, restocks the student food pantry in Sabin House. The pantry makes food and other necessities available to Lawrence students in times of need. (Photo by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

The move to distance learning to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the midst of this global pandemic is a heavy lift for Lawrence students, faculty, and staff.

These are challenging, unprecedented times. But it’s a path we must take, and we must take it together.

“We have always risen to the challenges that face us with resilience and ingenuity,” President Mark Burstein said in a letter to the Lawrence community announcing the difficult decision to go to distance learning for Spring Term. “I know, as we have in the past, we will rise to this challenge and ensure that Lawrence continues to create a learning environment second to none.”

For details of COVID-19 response at Lawrence, see here.

As we lean into the values and commitment that have always defined the Lawrence experience, we ask everyone in the Lawrence community to do what you can to help our students navigate these uncharted waters. Among the ways we all can help:  

1. Donate to the Student Pantry: Whether for students on campus during spring break or those who will be here during Spring Term due to an inability to get home, the pantry can be an important connection. It offers supplies and food to students, but also needed items such as personal products. You can buy/donate directly through Amazon via a wishlist. Please note that Amazon has removed “non-essential” items from qualifying for rush shipping, but orders and deliveries are still being accepted and processed. More information about the Student Pantry is here: https://www.lawrence.edu/students/services/foodpantry

2. Contribute to the Lawrence Fund: The Lawrence Fund – Supporting Our Students (SOS) emergency fund has been established to aid students’ unexpected and urgent expenses related to the impacts of COVID-19. This fund will make available critical resources for immediate needs like our new distance-learning model, food, travel, housing, and other unexpected expenses. Every contribution helps support the University’s ability to assist students.

3. Be an alumni connection: Help Lawrence students network by signing up for our new Viking Connect program. Connecting with a current student and providing some positive guidance has never been more important. This is a chance to reach out virtually while still making a personal connection. See link here: https://vikingconnect.lawrence.edu/page/about

4. Support each other: Be supportive of other Lawrentians through use of the Alumni Directory. Stay connected in these difficult times and check in on one another using the directory and via Lawrence’s many social media channels including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Find the alumni directory here: go.lawrence.edu/profile

We are Lawrentians, now and forever. Let’s come together to be supportive as we grapple with difficult challenges and show our current students the path forward. In the darkness of uncertainty and deep angst, let us again be the light.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu