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Art and religion across the Himalayas
Rob Linrothe and Vajrasattva
First-year "ready" strikes new cord Freshmen tackle jazz and Katrina
Student-life coach Calhoun succeeds Oles as dean
Admissions up (and down) Class of 2012 stats
Trustee arrivals and honors Janet Lucas Whitman '59 assumes board chair
Sports and service team up T'breds help lead sports camps

First-year "reading" strikes new chord

When incoming first-year students started corresponding early this summer through Facebook, one of the hottest forum topics was the summer “reading” assignment. A common summer reading is a staple of college curricula far and wide, and Skidmore faculty have selected texts that stimulated discussion of complex issues—Gregory Williams’s Life on the Color Line for the class of 2010; Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains for 2011. This year the director of the First-Year Experience, Beau Breslin, had a different idea.

“I wanted to move beyond narrative text to an art form such as dance or music,” says Breslin. Since Jeff Se­grave, dean of special programs, was lining up Grammy-winning composer and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard to be this year’s McCormack Artist-in-Residence, they both thought of Blanchard’s CD A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina) as a superb way for freshmen to explore and confront what Segrave calls “one of the single most powerful episodes in American history.” Both felt it important to resurrect awareness of the hurricane’s destruction. “One of the things that fascinates me, as a political scientist, is why we don’t spend much time thinking about this anymore,” says Breslin. “Why do we care so little?”

Blanchard cares a great deal. His mother’s house was inundated, and Spike Lee’s movie When the Levees Broke, which is scored with Blanchard’s music, shows the musician bringing his mother back to the shell of her former home. He quickly became a musician with a mission, asking people to help and reaching out through the very music that was born on that city’s streets. As he writes on his Web site, “Music will always be a part of New Orleans. It is buried deep in its core. We must all center our focus on its people and their recovery.”

When approached about centering the first-year summer assignment on his CD, Blanchard was “enthusiastic immediately,” says Segrave. “He is abso­lutely thrilled that we are asking students to interrogate an art form, the more so because jazz is a quintessentially American art form and because it’s his beloved New Orleans.”

Breslin hoped the freshmen would devote some quality time to the music, as he did. “It’s fantastic and moving,” he says, though he insists he knows “absolutely nothing” about jazz. In­coming student Michelle Baker ’12 of Suffern, N.Y., liked the music right away: “The assignment is a nice break from the ordinary. But it’s hard in its own way, since there is no text to fall back on.” There were, however, supplemental readings from the likes of John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, Michael Eric Dyson’s Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster, the official White House report on the federal response to Katrina, the poetry of Langston Hughes, and Mark C. Gridley’s Jazz Styles: His­tory and Analysis.

Steven Merberg ’12 from Acton, Mass., admits, “When I first saw that I was going to have to go outside my musical comfort zone by analyzing a work in a genre with which I am entirely un­familiar, I was pretty worried and also kind of annoyed. And after I listened to the first few tracks, I was pretty sure I would strongly dislike this assignment.” But after listening to the music several times, he says, “I started to ap­preciate and see the sig­nificance of the whole album.”
The assignment, says Segrave, is not only “a bit different” but, with its broad interdisciplinary connections, “very Skidmore. And it has to do with social justice, with informed and responsible citizenship—we want students to think about what that means.”

They’ll have ample opportunity, as the music and its circumstances are now making their way into discussions of jazz and geography, poetry and the experience of black Americans, nature and politics, race and class. All the incoming students viewed Spike Lee’s film during orientation, many are talking with Blanchard in their first-year Scribner Seminars, and Blanchard will perform for them live during his spring residency. As Breslin told the first-year students early in the summer: Stay tuned. —KG