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Winter Study

February 1, 2011

It’s January in New England. Outside my window is a pile of shoveled snow higher than my head. Another storm is expected Wednesday. I spend my days alternating between bursts of physical activity (walking the dog, shoveling), writing, and spacing out. A good time to reminisce about Winter Study on the Hill.

Particulars page

Section title from Particulars '74-'75

The ’75-76 Particulars described Winter Study this way: “Kirkland’s 4-1-4 calendar allots the month of January to the intensive study of a single subject. During this time, you devote all your efforts to one area which especially interests you, either by developing and executing a specific independent project or by taking a course at Kirkland, Hamilton, or another institution. For many students, Winter Study is a time to experiment, to try something new or unusual, or to explore an interest they would not be able to pursue during the regular school year.”

Winter Study wasn’t unique to Kirkland: other non-traditional colleges, such as Antioch, had similar programs. Still, it was uniquely Kirkland, designed to be an adventure, an experiment, a chance for students to create their own academic experience. Giving young people that much autonomy involves risk as well as opportunity, however. Doug Raybeck experienced both the up and down side, during his decades-long tenure as Professor of Anthropology on the Hill:

Whereas at most schools, the majority of students fell somewhere in the middle of the performance curve, Kirkland students tended to be either “marvelous self-starters who challenged you,” or academic misfits who goofed off, or else were “flying off the floor and sticking the walls,” Doug recalls. Winter Study brought out similar extremes: “While many students worked hard and quite creatively, others, particularly those who pursued Winter Study opportunities far to the south of Clinton, used it as a bit of a holiday.”


photo by Bob Zeigler

Sam Babbitt agrees. “Sometimes Winter Study worked very well, and sometimes did not, depending on how seriously it was taken by both faculty and students.”

Sam vividly recalls professor Ralph Leiberman and his students building a series of Gothic stone arches that originated from four stone posts and met in the middle. “It was wonderful, part engineering, part artistry, part oh my god will this work?  Which it did. The moment when they put in the capstone was very dramatic.”

The initial impetus for Winter Study “was wanting, early on, to do as many independent projects as we could, and really wanted to get them into curriculum,” Sam says. There were a few issues to sort out, like how to coordinate with Hamilton’s academic schedule, and lightening the regular semester workloads of faculty who taught full winter study courses. Some structure was also needed: the Winter Study Committee oversaw and administered the program, and provided a theme – optional, of course – for professors and students to focus on. In 1975, the theme was Corruption: perhaps inevitably, given that this was right after Watergate.

winter scene

Photo in '74-'75 Particulars

Students could also choose to opt out of Winter Study altogether, and many did, at least for one year. But students who took the opportunity seriously did amazing things. In 1975, for example, Meredith Melvin (’77) did environmental research in the Teton Range; Ann Fiester (’79) did backstrap weaving in Guatemala and Eva Heisler (’77) did an independent study of Anne Sexton’s poetry.

Here are some other notable winter study projects and experiences, told in Kirkland women’s own words:

Adriana Bate, ’73: “I set about attempting to translate one of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer’s “Leyendas”, a series of sometimes-fantastical short stories – from Spanish into English. What I remember, besides the spell of being on campus when so many others had left, was that I felt as though I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I had believed that the process of translating would be fairly simple: that all I had to do was take the words that Bécquer had written and just turn them into English. It seemed like a straightforward exercise.

These stories often incorporate spiritual and even magical elements, and the language is highly poetical. I was in the library for days, reading and rereading the story, with a couple of Spanish-English dictionaries next to me. I felt like I was wading through romantic language piled up to my chest. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t understand what the poet was saying in Spanish, but that I lacked the skills in my own language to express it without sounding, well, idiotic.

While the project itself ultimately was not successful – I didn’t manage the translation – I still felt as though I had achieved an inside appreciation of the translator’s art. Unfortunately, the experience also left me with a lingering sense of dissatisfaction with most translated literature. Still, when I read one of Richard Wilbur’s verse translations of Moliere, I can get a little emotional.”

Julie Weinstein, ’74: Winter Study 1973, my junior year. My project was to translate “New Poems” by Pablo Neruda because I hated the published translation. Sat in my room all day translating and listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. Spent the evenings enhancing a new friendship through long chats, on-campus movies, sitting around the coffee house. A truly magical and timeless moment.

Judy Silverstein, ’78: I did two Winter Terms on Capitol Hill- writing about nitrosamines and their deleterious effects on public health, on national park legislation to create Sleeping Bear Dunes and Isle Royale in Michigan, and one year with the National Trust for Historic Preservation capturing oral history from Mrs. Leighey (who lived in F.L.Wright’s Pope-Leighey House — learning about the man himself). I keyed and cataloged flora and fauna, since the house had been moved from its original location to an entirely different landscape, and documented architectural anomalies. I learned everything I could about F.Lloyd Wright, his designs and their connection to the land. I also studied Mozart’s Opera on the Hill one lovely and snowy year. It was something I intended to suffer through, and ended up loving the music and the pageantry. To this day, I can still hear individual instruments at performances because we were taught to develop an ability to listen. All three Winter Study programs were especially intense, but they taught me to delve deeply into subjects and pursue them with a singular joy.

Joanne Papanek (Orlando), ’74: “My weirdest Winter Study was studying Indonesian. My parents lived in Jakarta, Indonesia when I was at Kirkland, and I wanted to know the language. Cornell had recently published a two-volume text,. Much to my surprise (and very good luck) Doug Raybeck, had done his doctoral work in Malaysia. Malay and Indonesian are quite similar. We worked with the Cornell material and talked (as best I could) in Indonesian. One day when we were having an Indonesian “conversation” he began to speak quickly, in a guttural tone with strange, unintelligible words. He kept on talking until he saw my stunned look, and realized he had been using the dialect from the area where he had done his field work.”

Penny Watras (Dana), ’78: “Freshman year, I did a paper on Thomas Hardy, under Nancy Rabinowitz, and sophomore year I did the London Theater program with (Hamilton professors) Ed Barrett and Fred Wagner. Some of the plays we saw included The Rocky Horror Picture Show; Phaedra Brittanica starring Diana Rigg; and All Walks of Leg, which was written by John Lennon.”

Diane Pies (Toby), ’78, who was Penny’s roommate during the London Theater program: “The trip still means so much to me, that I get kind of choked up writing about it. An exquisite menu of theatrical performances. We had the almost impossibly rare opportunity to see Sir Ralph Richardson and Sir John Geilgud perform together, in No Man’s Land. I never had an experience like that, ever again. We were too young to appreciate it, I think! I remember Penny and me going to pubs and discussing the plays right afterwards, and the papers we wrote on each play. The professors wrote amusing, enthusiastic comments and I kept them because they still make me laugh.”

Zan Tewksbury, ‘80“The first year, I was cast to be in a film to be made by Harry Kondoleon for his Senior Project, which could not be made at the last minute because Nat Boxer was supposed to supervise the project and he was “detained indefinitely” in the Philippines doing sound for Apocalypse Now.  So I talked my way into an upper level English class at Hamilton on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I did so by convincing the professor, John Gordon that, like himself, I loved James Joyce more than life itself (which was just about true). Thank Goddess for that. It was in that class that I met and befriended my lifelong compadre, Jo Pitkin. No greater friendship was ever forged out of such a heady work of literature. Oh, and I aced my final paper, which was entitled “Paradox Lust.” Got to love that Ham/Kirk juxaposition…!”

Nancy Aaron, 78: “A bunch of us signed up for a “Crime and Punishment” class with a Hamilton faculty member. On the first day, he informed us that this was no “gut” class, and there would be no “fun” crime stories. This would be a complete full semester philosophy course, taught in 3 weeks, with mid-terms, finals, papers, etc. He expected us to spend 5-6 hours a day outside of class on the homework. Needless to say, I (and 90% of the class) dropped it on the first day. Not quite what we expected. Instead, I borrowed a roommate’s clarinet, found a music teacher on campus and spent a hour a day learning how to play, with a paper on “Emboucher” delivered at the end of the month. Unfortunately, I had to return the clarinet at the end of the semester, and I’ve never played it since. I’ve always regretted not taking that first teacher’s challenge and really delving into a subject matter intensely for 3 weeks.”

Robert Kaplan, ’76, provides a Hamilton perspective: “I remember taking a failed philosophy class at Hamilton my first year and a splendid non-course, ‘How to succeed while living the good life of the artist,’ which was total BS. And snow. Lots of snow. I remember my senior year I didn’t have to do a winter study so I played in the snow.”

As for me, Elisabeth Horwitt, ’73: My freshman year, I played Olga in an on-campus production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which was both fun and educational. Sophomore year, when an arctic blast broke my glasses, I took that as a sign that I should spend the rest of the month at home. My third year, I participated in a choreography class with Rhett Dennis and wound up wowing the audience with a sultry jazz routine performed to Laia Ladaia by Sergio Mendez and Brasil ’66.

I also remember playing in the snow and watching the campus dogs play in the snow,  traying down the hill behind Bristol Campus Center, and my glasses fogging up as I entered the Pub. Winter Study on campus was peaceful, yet intense. Many, if not most of us, had time to relax. Skiing, drinking (and toking), Hearts games and bed hopping were popular activities. But we also took advantage of the time to create and experience something new and exciting: a gothic arch, a performance, a useful item for one’s resume, a philosophy paper – as well as closer bonds with teachers and fellow students.

It was a good time.

By Elisabeth Horwitt ’73

One Comment leave one →
  1. Shelley Cowan permalink
    February 11, 2011 3:10 pm

    In January of my sophomore year, I took a winter study weaving class. I loved everything about it – the textures and colors, the weight of the loom, the magic of emerging patterns. I also loved winter study winter. I was used to snow and cold, but until that January I’d never experienced such clarity in the air and sky. Even today, a crystal-clear cold night brings me right back to that time.

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