Campus News

For Love of Opera

During Grinnell’s weeklong fall break, 11 students in Opera, Politics, and Society in Modern Europe left the classroom for San Francisco with Kelly Maynard, assistant professor of history, to get an up-close look at how politics and culture influence the development of modern opera. 

The idea for the trip began years earlier, when Maynard met Craig Henderson ’63, an opera enthusiast and Grinnell College trustee, on the ride back from the interview for her position at Grinnell. Discovering their shared interest in the world of opera and its importance as a window into history and politics, she later invited him to come speak to her class as a guest lecturer. Henderson was impressed with the students’ discussions and pitched the idea of a class trip to San Francisco. 

While it took time for Maynard to work out the details of how the students could receive funding for the trip, she finally decided to take Henderson up on his suggestion. He generously offered up his home and his opera contacts to make sure that the students had an unforgettable experience.

“Everyone they met in San Francisco was impressed with their intellectual sophistication and seemed to derive the same pleasure from the association that I did,” Henderson says. “I hope we can do it again next year.” 

Students spoke with opera singers, saw orchestral rehearsals, met with opera critics, and got exclusive backstage glimpses into set design and media suites. They also saw two live opera productions at the San Francisco Conservatory and the San Francisco Opera House, The Magic Flute and Lucia di Lammermoor.

“You can read about how people used to make sets or how people designed opera houses centuries ago, but you can’t get a real feel for it without seeing how everything operates with your own eyes,” says Austin Schilling ’17.

“We got to see firsthand that the history we’re studying in class is alive and functioning today, and is still as rich and complex as it was 200 years ago,” says Elizabeth Allen ’16

What students didn’t expect was the opportunity to meet with David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera, during one of their tours. With half a semester of in-class study and a rigorous week of immersion in the world of opera under their belts, students were prepared to ask Gockley questions that helped them to discover the modern correspondences to what they learned in class. 

“I was so proud of the students; I could tell they surprised him with the quality of their questions,” says Maynard. “He really had to think about his answers, and they walked away with all these fantastic contemporary parallels that we could map back onto the content of the class.”

Through learning about the many complicated components that go into an opera production, these students discovered aspects of opera that they had never expected to be interested in. Allen even discovered an area that may turn into a topic of future research — the way globalization and art collide in modern opera. 

“Thinking about The Magic Flute, which is an 18th-century Viennese opera, translated into English in the 21st century by David Gockley, using set design that includes the aesthetics of contemporary Japanese ceramics … it’s something global and contemporary, but still rooted in the past,” Allen says. “Seeing that was a really pivotal experience for me, and I realized that that’s the way I want to look at things in the future.”

“I think my biggest take-away from this experience is that you need to look at things from many different angles,” says Sam Hengst ’18. “When we do readings, we’re so used to just thinking about things in one way, but on this trip we saw that the world of opera is complex, from the actors and singers to set design and the use of technology. It’s a network, and we couldn’t have gotten such a great understanding of that from just reading about it.” 

Second Annual Grinnell Lecture

Bill Ferguson ’75 headshotBill Ferguson ’75, Gertrude B. Austin Professor of Economics, gave the second annual Grinnell Lecture to his fellow faculty members Feb. 5. Collective-action problems arise whenever individuals pursuing their own interests cause undesirable outcomes for a group. This relatively simple notion applies to a huge array of problems, Ferguson says.

Large-scale examples are global climate change and the war in Syria, while a small-scale example is who does the cooking in a household. “Collective-action problems can focus our thoughts on social, political, and economic interactions that are extraordinarily complicated,” he says. “If we can separate the important pieces from the details, they might help us theorize about these problems, generate hypotheses, and test the hypotheses with data.” 

Teaching for Fun

Since fall 2014, nearly 150 Grinnell College students have volunteered to teach workshops on campus to children from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. 

“I hope they discover something about teaching they didn’t know,” says Ashley Schaefer, Ignite Program coordinator and Lawrence S. Pidgeon Director of the Careers in Education Professions Program.

The Ignite Program began in the 2014–15 school year, offering classes on three different Saturdays last year — in November, February, and April. Attendance averaged 175 students for each day. For the first class in November 2014, they expected about 80 children but had 198 attend. 

In November last year, 256 children from Grinnell and the surrounding area participated. Classes included Dive into Archaeology, Iron Chef Grinnell, and Act Out Your Imagination in Improv 101. Children may take two different classes, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and have lunch on campus. 

Classes are taught by teams of two or three College student volunteers. These volunteers, dubbed “teacher scholars,” write a course proposal that includes a brief description and lesson plan. About half the teacher scholars are in the education program.

Schaefer meets with each team to review lesson plans. She emphasizes that the nearly 2-hour class isn’t a lecture and discussion. “It’s a workshop,” she says. “If you’re doing something with chocolate, the kids will expect to eat some chocolate.”

Cassandra Miller ’16, a biology major from Las Vegas, N.M., developed and taught Fun with Fungi last year for third and fourth graders. She chose that topic because she was taking a fungal biology course that she loved with Kathy Jacobson, associate professor of biology. 

In November 2015 Miller adapted her class for first and second graders. “I wanted to see what would happen,” she says. Her favorite part is trying to make the science accessible to young children. 

One of the activities, “fungal detective,” involved using microscopes and dried specimens. It was the first time many of these children had used a microscope. They could see the gills, pores, and teeth of their specimens. “They appreciate mushrooms more,” Miller says. 

Offered free of charge, the Ignite Program is sponsored by local philanthropists Helen Redmond and Pete Brownell, the College’s Office of Community Enhancement and Engagement, and the Careers in Education Professions Program.

The program was modeled on other colleges’ programs that bring high school students to campus for a day to experience classes. Schaefer wanted to start with the young kids. “The number of opportunities for academics for little kids was small,” she says. “This is the only opportunity for our students to teach elementary school students.”

In April the program is expanding to high school students. Even though Miller doesn’t intend to become a K–12 teacher, she’ll participate again. “I think education will always play a role in my future,” she says. 

Four New Designees for Endowed Chairs

An installation ceremony for endowed chairs, professorships, and staff on Nov. 14 in Herrick Chapel honored current endowed chairs and celebrated the naming of four new designees:

Shuchi Kapila, professor of English, assistant vice president for global education and senior international officer

Elaine Marzluff, professor of chemistry, Breid-McFarland professor of science

Daniel Reynolds, professor of German, Seth Richards professor in modern languages 

Erik Simpson, professor of English, Samuel R. and Marie-Louise Rosenthal professor of humanities 

Kapila joined the Grinnell faculty in 2002. Her research focuses on 19th century England, 19th and 20th century British colonialism in South Asia, and literary cultural production in postcolonial South Asia. She is the author of the book Educating Seeta: The Anglo-Indian Family Romance and the Poetics of Indirect Rule. She served as chair of the English department in 2007-08 and 2015-16, as well as director of the Center for Humanities from 2011-16. She was elected to the Board of the International Organization, Consortium of Humanities Center and Institutes, where she represents liberal arts colleges across the United States. She is the assistant vice president and senior international officer at the Institute for Global Engagement. 

Marzluff joined the faculty in 1997. She has served as chemistry department chair, on the Executive Council and Personnel Committees and recently completed a term as chair of the faculty. She is co-director of the Grinnell Science Project and is interested in promoting access to science for all students. In addition to teaching physical chemistry, she has also been involved in teaching policy studies. Her research focuses on the structure and dynamics of peptides and proteins in both solution and gas phases. More than 60 Grinnell students have collaborated on her work. With a recent grant, she has developed modular curricular materials for physical chemistry that introduce students to kinetics, quantum mechanics, and spectroscopy using context-rich pedagogy.    

Reynolds arrived at Grinnell in 1998. He chaired the German department from 2007-09 and 2011-15, and is a past director of the Center for the Humanities. He wrote the book Postcards from Auschwitz: Holocaust Tourism and the Meaning of Remembrance, the research for which was supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. His current work explores the role of perpetrator photography in Holocaust memorialization. In addition to recent articles that blend his interests in Holocaust studies, memory studies, and tourism studies, he has also published on the topics of German modernism and postmodernism, postcolonial German literature, and the literary responses to German reunification. His interests in second language acquisition and place-based study have also made him a strong advocate for course-embedded travel. Since 2010 he has been taking students to Europe as part of multiple team-taught classes.

Simpson, who joined the Grinnell faculty in 2001, studies British and transatlantic literature of the Romantic period. He is working on two books: Literary Minstrelsy: 1770-1830 and Mercenaries in British and American Literature, 1790-1830: Writing, Fighting, and Marrying for Money. He is the principal investigator of the Digital Bridges for Humanistic Inquiry, a partnership with the University of Iowa. His interests in computer programming and the digital humanities have led him to collaborate with Grinnell College students to create websites that feature student scholarship related to transatlantic 1790s and James Joyce's Ulysses. He is the co-chair of the planning committee for the College's new Humanities and Social Studies Center.  

New Admission and Financial Aid Building Taking Shape

The Admission and Financial Aid Center is under construction on Park Street, directly across from Alumni Recitation Hall (ARH). These images give you a glimpse of what it will look like when the building is complete in fall 2018.

See updates and project overviews on our Construction Central webpage.

Interior view of AFA, including the fireplace in the lobby

Interior view of AFA, including reception desk area

“Baby, She Had Sisters”

In 2014 Gina Clayton founded Essie Justice Group, and in 2017 she was awarded the $100,000 Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize. The Essie Justice Group creates “communities of belonging” through a nine-week “Healing to Advocacy” model to fight for an end to mass incarceration. While most attempts to find solutions to mass incarceration focus on men, Clayton instead focuses on the need and activist potential of the millions of women with incarcerated loved ones. As a woman with an incarcerated loved one herself and as a Harvard-educated lawyer, Clayton integrates both personal experience and professional expertise into her work. 

From idea to action: Founding Essie Justice Group

Sometimes, the solutions to problems are hidden in plain sight.

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 2010, Clayton joined the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem as a housing attorney. There, she came face-to-face with the problem that would define her career.

“My clients were the mothers, the grandmothers, the sisters, daughters, wives, and girlfriends of people who were arrested, charged, and incarcerated,” says Clayton. Often the women she represented felt so isolated and embarrassed by their association with someone who had run afoul of the law that they weren’t preparing for a fight, says Clayton — they were preparing to surrender. 

Clayton felt the need to address the root cause of the problem she was seeing, instead of continuing to work within the confines of an inherently oppressive system. She wanted to end the suffering and shame of women with incarcerated loved ones, and ultimately, mass incarceration itself. So, Clayton says, “I went to where I knew the ailments of our people suffering have always been found. I went to our matriarchs.”

The matriarch of Clayton’s family was back home, in California. Clayton’s grandmother was the daughter of a woman who left a Jim Crow-era Louisiana sharecropping farm in 1938 to come to California, working three jobs and raising three children as a single mother in a new city. She did this to provide herself and her children with better opportunities, and she succeeded.

Clayton wanted to know how her great-grandmother had done it. How had Essie overcome poverty, isolation, sexism, and racism? How had she persevered? Clayton’s grandmother appeared surprised that her granddaughter didn’t already know. “Baby,” she said, “she had sisters.”

Sisterhood as innovation

“We are living in a society that has bought into the myth that every person with a conviction and their children and their spouses are unworthy, unredeemable, and unlike any of us,” says Clayton. At a time when we so often look to Silicon Valley for “innovative” solutions to the world’s problems, Clayton recognizes that, when doing social justice work, innovation is found by “creating movements for change that are led by the people directly affected.” 

After Clayton visited her grandmother, she set to work trying to figure out how to build a sense of sisterhood among some of the most isolated women in the country. What she came up with was Essie Justice Group’s signature nine-week Healing to Advocacy program, currently operating in the California Bay Area and soon to expand to a second location in Florida. 

Incarcerated men and women nominate women in their lives who are helping them by providing financial support, driving hundreds of miles to visit, taking care of their children, or advocating for their rights when they cannot. Clayton or another woman with an incarcerated loved one then personally calls each woman and reads her loved one’s nomination letter. “That is our first programmatic isolation-breaking touch,” says Clayton. 

The women nominated are invited to attend nine sessions that focus first on healing, then on advocating for themselves and their loved ones. So far, approximately 50 women have graduated into the “Essie Sisterhood,” ready to become anti-mass incarceration advocacy leaders.

In the spring of 2017, Clayton received a personal phone call of her own. What she had expected to be an interview turned out to be President Raynard S. Kington calling to inform her that she had won the Grinnell Prize. Now, after fine-tuning her process, Clayton can start expanding her vision. “The Grinnell Prize is helping make my dream of building in Florida and two additional states in the next three years possible.” 

Communities of belonging and the liberal arts

The value of the Grinnell Prize, however, goes beyond the monetary award itself. Clayton and two other representatives from the Essie Justice Group spent a week on campus in October participating in workshops, panels, and class visits. Clayton clearly found her time with Grinnell students exhilarating (and after a week of a fully-booked schedule, more than a little exhausting). 

“The experience of being here and being fully integrated for a week with the fantastically deep, curious, and passionate Grinnell community has been like nothing that I have ever experienced before,” says Clayton. “It is so deeply meaningful to have a group of people that I have such tremendous respect for have such faith in this vision. I’m beyond moved.”

Throughout the week, Clayton showed how much respect she had for Grinnell students and their willingness to engage. She challenged them to brainstorm ways that the Essie Justice Group could improve and to think about building community in their own social justice efforts. “Creating communities of belonging in this climate is resistance work,” she says. “This is how movements happen.”

Grinnell is the type of place that is catalytic to social justice movements. It provides resources to fund justice work, opportunities for students to engage with current innovators, and a space in which students are constantly asked to question and challenge the status quo.

“It has become clear to me that this is a community where social justice belongs,” says Clayton. “And it feels like home.” 


Making Life Visible: Art, Biology, and Visualization

Feb. 2–June 10, 2018


Curated by Jackie Brown, professor of biology, and Lesley Wright, director of the Faulconer Gallery, Making Life Visible explores the processes of visualization and description in art and biology by featuring work by 17 contemporary artists and scientists, as well as historical material from the 16th to 19th centuries. In the past, biologists and artists had similar training in observation and drawing. Although the fields have diverged, individual practitioners on both sides continue to draw inspiration from one another, finding new ideas in the process of creating images. The exhibition asks: What do artists and biologists see, and how do their ways of seeing challenge and stimulate one another? Subjects addressed in the exhibition range from molecules and cells to organisms and ecosystems and the artists’/scientists’ work in labs, studios, museums, and in the field. 


Global Cosmologies of Vodou

Jan. 26–March 18, 2018

This year’s exhibition seminar, led by Fredo Rivera ’06, assistant professor of art history, explores the work of Haitian American artist Edouard Duval-Carrié and builds an exhibition around four of his paintings. The nine student curators will draw from the Grinnell College art collection and the Waterloo Center for the Arts — the largest public collection of Haitian art in the world — to develop an exhibition and catalog that places Duval-Carrié’s work in dialogue with diverse objects. Given the insularity with which Haiti is often seen, the curators hope to explore cosmological and cultural connections that reconfigure understanding of the world’s first black republic.

Alumni Couple Gives $1.158 Million to Grinnell College

Alumni Michael ’74 and Virginia Munger Kahn ’76 have established an endowed fund for career advancement with gifts totaling $1.158 million. 

The fund will support participation by Grinnell students in “high-impact” experiences, including supplementing unpaid and low-paid domestic and international internships in any sector of the economy, job-shadowing, interviewing and networking, and attending career-oriented, professional development conferences.

“Michael and Virginia understand that the priorities and resources of the College’s career initiatives will evolve over time, and they have created a funding mechanism to accommodate programs and ideas beyond their present scope,” says Mark Peltz, Daniel and Patricia Jipp Finkelman Dean of Careers, Life, and Service. 

“Ginny and I both share a deep passion for supporting career, service, and life ambitions of Grinnell students, for furthering the international experience of students, and for supporting students with demonstrated financial need,” says Michael Kahn. “We also think it is important to strengthen and expand the College’s reputation among, and relationships with, employers in the for-profit, nonprofit, and government sectors.”

Michael and Virginia Kahn met while students at Grinnell and have maintained a lifelong affinity for the College, serving it in many ways. In 2015, Michael was elected to the Grinnell College Board of Trustees. As he has done throughout his career at TIAA in New York City, Kahn annually hosts as many as three student interns in various positions and locations throughout TIAA. Several of those internships led to full-time employment with TIAA following students’ graduation from Grinnell. 

Empowering Latinos to Serve in Elected Office in Iowa

Robert X. Barron ’02, who co-founded the Latino Political Network (LPN), recently received the College’s Joseph F. Wall ’41 Alumni Service Award. Barron plans to use the $30,000 award to hire a full-time staff member for LPN. 

A nonpartisan organization, LPN strives to educate and empower Latinos to serve at all levels of elected office throughout Iowa. Iowa continues to become more diverse, but the elected leadership does not yet reflect this diversity. 

LPN is the only group in Iowa committed to the organization and civic empowerment of Latinos, Barron says. 

“This award gives the LPN a transformational boost for our work to educate and empower new leaders in Iowa,” he says. “As a proud alumnus, I am thankful to the faculty, staff, and my fellow students for providing me with a learning environment that was both challenging and nurturing. My work since graduation is a testament to their impact on me.” 

He brings extensive political expertise and experience to LPN after working for many years for former U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

In addition to co-founding LPN, Barron is special assistant for government and community relations to Grand View University President Kent Henning. In this role, Barron represents Grand View before elected officials and works to build relationships with the community on behalf of students, faculty, and staff. A native and resident of Des Moines, Barron has served on the Des Moines School Board since 2013 and recently was elected to a new four-year term.