Feature

What’s Important (or not) About College Rankings

U.S. News & World Report first published its list of “Best Colleges” in 1983. Today, a profusion of commercially published rankings enthrall and mystify consumers every fall. For high school students and their parents, rankings by venerable sources like U.S. News, Money, and Forbes ostensibly provide objective guidance about academic reputation, affordability, and other supposed measures of college quality and accessibility.

For the colleges themselves, rankings can be both a headache and a useful measuring stick. Some institutions have noisily boycotted the annual ritual of lobbying for positive peer assessments, which play a big part in reputation ratings. An infamous handful have been caught trying to game the system by cherry-picking data or just plain lying. 

The great majority — Grinnell included — take a more reasoned approach, because even though the data are sometimes questionable and the methodologies imperfect, the lists are not going away. “Like it or not, rankings matter,” says Randy Stiles, Grinnell’s associate vice president for analytic support and institutional research. 

How students perceive rankings

Stiles points to research by the Art and Science Group that says 72 percent of traditional students pay at least some attention to rankings. Seven out of 10 students report that they discuss rankings in person or on social media, mostly with parents and friends. 

What’s more, college test scores are predictive of students’ attitudes and behaviors with respect to rankings. The 2016 poll reveals that students with ACT test scores of 28 and higher are apt to care more about the prestige associated with higher rankings. But students whose scores are 21 and lower are likely to give rankings more weight in choosing a college. 

Incoming Grinnell students seem to bear out that research. While their average ACT score of 30 may indicate awareness of the status that a lofty ranking commands, it also appears to signal greater discernment with respect to the importance of rankings in relation to other factors. Stiles says annual surveys of first-year students show that rankings in national magazines show up about halfway down the list of their top 20 reasons for enrollment. 

“Year after year students report the main reason for coming to Grinnell is the College’s academic reputation,” Stiles says. “Number two on the list is financial aid, which is not surprising because there is very generous aid given here.” 

Rounding out the top five reasons are the size of the College, the ability of graduates to gain admission to top graduate programs, and graduates’ prospects for getting good jobs. 

illustration showing a huge bar chart with tiny people on platforms and a spiral staircase examining its details

Perception versus reality

It could be that student perceptions are formed at least in part from rankings, and Stiles emphasizes that Grinnell does exceptionally well in systems that give considerable weight to academic quality and reputation. The challenge for data analysts is to balance those perceptions with what rankings are really saying about college quality, given that each system calculates performance differently.

Stiles says Grinnell’s approach to making sense of the complexities of college quality is to use “multiple lenses” in comparing and benchmarking performance against similar institutions, or what are referred to as the “peer 16.” That includes a review and in-depth analysis of seven different systems plus Princeton Review every year. 

“Our philosophy is not to manage to these systems,” Stiles says, “but to be informed by them, to be able to answer questions about them, and educate anybody who has an interest in what rankings have to do with the whole world of higher education.”

Stiles’ team studies not only Grinnell’s rankings within each of those systems but also the rankings of those peer liberal arts colleges in the Midwest and on the East and West Coasts. A daunting task, it requires knowing how each system works and what makes some more meaningful than others. 

How rankings actually work

“What these ranking systems all do in one way or another,” Stiles says, “is put together some collection of schools — liberal arts colleges, research universities, publics, privates — and rank them all on one long list. Then there is some collection of measures that are given some collection of weights. All of that gets added up into an overall score, from which is produced an ordered list.”

What makes one set of rankings more influential than another depends to a large extent on commercial reach. “Readership matters a lot,” Stiles says. “Some of these things have a lot of readership, and people give greater credibility to them. Others, not so much.” 

Making sense of college rankings would be easier if all of the rankings systems produced similar results. In many cases they don’t, and Grinnell is a perfect case in point. Last year, Grinnell was No. 19 among national liberal arts colleges in U.S. News rankings. In the other systems that Stiles tracks, the College came in at No. 19 also on Washington Monthly, but at Nos. 73, 9, 156, 31, and 54 on other lists. 

 “U.S. News puts a big emphasis on reputation and resources,” Stiles explains. “Forbes claims to emphasize outcomes or ‘output over input.’ Kiplinger’s is about best value. Money, not surprisingly, is about affordability and the salaries of graduates. The New York Times Access Index emphasizes the percentage of Pell students and the economic diversity. College Factual is outcomes-focused. 

“These days, there is more and more talk about outcomes,” Stiles continues, “and when people say outcomes in these systems, they’re talking about graduation rates and salaries more than anything else.” That’s an important distinction, he says, because rankings that weigh earnings heavily can skew data unfavorably for graduate students whose higher incomes materialize on a longer timeline. 

Also, not all systems are equal in terms of their own development. Stiles says Forbes’ ranking of Grinnell since 2008 has fluctuated by “an incredible variation” of 80 points. “I can guarantee you Grinnell didn’t change that much between 2008 and 2012. But the system changed, as did the way people were using it and the way it was managed. So it’s important to remember that the systems themselves need time to mature and achieve stability.” 

illustration of several people reading over the shoulder of another reading a newspaper called College Rankings

Rankings that resonate

Among all of the annual rankings, U.S. News’ “Best Colleges” remains the source that students use most widely to compare academic quality among 1,800 U.S.-based schools. “People pay most attention to U.S. News,” Stiles says. “It gets a lot of readership.”

In the U.S. News system, the categories given the most weight are reputational assessments by counselors and peers (22.5 percent), graduation/retention rate (22.5 percent), and faculty resources (20 percent). Student selectivity rank is next (12.5 percent), followed by financial resources (10 percent), graduation rate performance (7.5 percent), and alumni giving rank (5 percent).

Stiles says the key take-away from the 2017 U.S. News rankings (released in 2016) is that Grinnell’s overall rank of 19th is stable. “In fact we’re improving lately in overall rank. We have a great academic reputation,” Stiles says. 

“We’ve also become much more selective,” he says. “Just a few years ago Grinnell was 38th among liberal arts colleges for selectivity. Now we’re ninth in that category.”

To illustrate the seven-year data lag that can occur in published rankings, Stiles points to a blip in attrition among the student group that came to Grinnell in the fall of 2012. “That cohort will have a negative impact in our graduation rate when U.S. News rankings are published in 2019,” Stiles says. “We know that’s going to happen, and we’re working hard on graduation/retention as part of the quality initiative that’s connected to the upcoming accreditation review.”

Still, all ranking systems do not use the same measures, and a large readership for U.S. News does not necessarily make it the last word in college quality. Stiles says one of the more discriminating ways to view rankings is in how a system resonates with a college’s core values. One that gives particular weight to criteria consistent with Grinnell’s values is Washington Monthly’s ranking of “Best Liberal Arts Colleges.” 

Washington Monthly’s primary factors are social mobility, research, and service, each of which counts for one third,” Stiles says. “There are lots of details beneath those major categories, but the point is that different systems attribute different weights to measures that are relevant for what’s going on at a college.”

Breaking into the top 10

Everybody wants to be No. 1, or close to it. Human nature dictates that college graduates who encounter a list of best colleges will almost certainly want to know how their own alma mater stacks up. The question is, should Grinnell be content with being No. 19? What exactly would it take to be No. 15, or No. 12, or even third? Stiles explains:

“When you add everything up in the U.S. News system, schools will score numbers in their overall tally of about 70 to 100. The top 10 schools — and there is a lot of variation in the top 10 — go from a score of 100 down to about 87. Among the next 10, there’s a variation of only two points.” Grinnell’s overall score in last year’s U.S. News rankings was 85, tied with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“If this were a road race, you would see the first 10 runners spread out,” Stiles says. “Right behind them would be another 10 in a clump, which is where Grinnell is. In the one-to-10 range it takes a big change to make a move, but even a small move in the overall score in the 10-20 range could move us six or seven places.” 

It’s about culture

While Stiles’ job is to analyze rankings from an institutional perspective, his insights are just as valuable for parents and prospective students who are staying up nights trying to decode the latest list of “best colleges.”

Stiles prefaces his advice with sociologist William Cameron’s famous quote, which he says is applicable to any consideration of college rankings: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” 

“Remember that the data lags,” Stiles says. “Also, cumulative earnings matter; rankings based on graduate salaries five years out do not tell the full story for a college like Grinnell that produces a lot of graduate-degree candidates. 

 “Look at a variety of rankings as a first filter in choosing a school,” Stiles says. “Culture and fit are so important that you’ve got to do a campus visit and check out several institutions to really know. The peer 16 are all fine colleges, and Grinnell is very highly regarded in that mix. You almost can’t go wrong with a liberal arts education at any one of these schools, but it is culture and context that really matter.”

Ridiculous Day Sale on Saturday, July 15 at 8am

The Pioneer Bookshop, at 933 Main Street, will join with other Grinnell merchants for the summer sale of the year, Ridiculous Day. Starting at 8am on Saturday, July 15, Main Street will be closed and filled with tables of deals. The Pioneer Bookshop will  have items 50% off and more. We'll have tables with $3.00 hardcover books and $2.00 paperback books as well as toys, apparel, office supplies and the like. We will be sharing Main Street with several home based businesses and non-profit organizations such as Tupperware, Origami Owl Jewelry, Puppy Jake service dogs, and donuts by the Grinnell Area Christian School. Don't miss it!

Alumnus creates long-term ties mentoring Grinnell interns at TIAA-CREF

In the globally competitive job market, quality summer internships markedly differentiate college graduates. Résumés that include student experiences at top companies tend to get the attention of talent acquisition specialists faced with evaluating otherwise similarly qualified candidates.

For Grinnell students, summer internships at TIAA-CREF Financial Services are the gold standard for superior learning opportunities. Since 2000, several Grinnell students have been fortunate to be accepted there each year. Not only do students discover an opportunity to develop their skills and career paths in meaningful ways, they find that much about the experience is distinctly Grinnellian. 

Values that resonate

Michael Kahn ’76 is senior managing director of corporate strategy and development at TIAA-CREF in New York City. He sponsors, mentors, and works closely with the majority of Grinnell interns, whether their student experiences are in midtown Manhattan or at another major TIAA-CREF campus, such as Charlotte, N.C.

 “TIAA-CREF is a particularly great environment for Grinnell students,” says Kahn, who was elected to the Grinnell College Board of Trustees in May. “We’re a mission-driven organization. We exist to serve those who serve the greater good, which aligns well with how Grinnellians think about what their role in the world will be. 

“We are really good at what we do, whether it’s broad financial services or sophisticated asset management,” Kahn says. “We’re aligned with the interests of all our clients and we produce great outcomes, so TIAA-CREF is a company that has values and capabilities that resonate with Grinnellians.”

Challenging opportunities

Most important for students is that internships offer real substance, and Kahn says TIAA-CREF interns regularly work on assignments that not only are important to the company, but that constitute challenging student learning opportunities. 

“Internships at TIAA-CREF typically involve working with senior level staff,” Kahn says. “Students are not buried deep in the organization. They actually get to work with people from whom they can learn a lot and who are really accomplished. I’ve even had students working on launches of new lines of business, which is something that interns would almost never get to do anywhere else.”

Success stories

David Jutrsa ’15 was a Grinnellink summer intern at TIAA-CREF in 2013. “David worked on a potential major acquisition,” Kahn says. “It was a big deal, and it was complicated. As an intern you’d think you would never get near something that interesting, but he got to work with the core team and was in meetings with our most senior staff.”

Jutrsa recently accepted a research assistant position with the International Monetary Fund. “The TIAA-CREF internship exposed me to the world of business and really solidified my interest in finance,” Jutrsa says. “I would definitely recommend any Grinnellink internship with TIAA-CREF to students looking to break into these fields and connect what they learn in classes to the professional world.”  

Natalie Duncombe ’15 also was a Grinnellink intern at TIAA-CREF in 2013. She says building a mentor relationship with Kahn was the most valuable aspect of her internship.

“His advice throughout the summer helped me get the most out of my time at TIAA-CREF, and he continued to help me with recommendation letters, as well as career, résumé, and interview advice,” Duncombe says. “Without him and my time at TIAA-CREF, I don’t know if I would have been as successful in securing my economic research assistant position at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in Washington, D.C.”

Defining mentorship 

Megan Goering ’08, who interned at TIAA-CREF in 2006, says, “Interning with Michael defined the role and value of a mentor for me. At the time, I was really opening to discovery and my own personal capacity in a new way, and Michael’s example seeded lessons for me that continue to unfold nine years later.

“The consciousness, creativity, teacher and learner’s spirit, and deep dignity and value Michael has for people shown through his work in a way that continues to light my path,” Goering says. “Michael’s way is soulful, honest, connective, endlessly creative, accountable for human principles, and just. There are good people in finance, and because of Michael’s extension of his work through mentorship, perhaps there will continue to be more.”

Dolan Talukdar ’05 was a student intern at TIAA-CREF for two summers, in 2003 and 2004. She says she watched the program evolve into one tailored to develop students’ skills for a job in finance. “Having witnessed the partnership’s initial progression under Michael, I am not surprised to see that it has become a mainstay at Grinnell,”  Talukdar says.

“From day one Michael came across as warm, quietly intelligent, and genuine,” Talukdar says. “His management style convinced me that it was indeed possible to be an empathetic yet successful leader in finance, and I have tried to emulate his approach in my own career.”

Talukdar says she still considers Kahn her “go-to mentor” and tries to renew the connection whenever Kahn’s work brings him to London, where she currently lives and works. “We have wonderful conversations about Grinnell and TIAA-CREF’s consistent collaboration with the school,” she says. 

Alums make the difference

Kahn says he firmly believes that having engaged alumni involved in the internship process makes a big difference in the quality of student work experiences. He typically maintains close contact with students at TIAA-CREF, talking with them about their assignment and helping them think about how the internship can prepare them for a career. 

“Having a Grinnell alum as an advocate in an internship situation brings additional value beyond the work assignment itself,” Kahn says. “The College already does so much to prepare students for great things in life, and our internships are an excellent example of how Grinnell extends the community beyond the prairie to places like midtown Manhattan.

“I’m passionate about Grinnell, and I’m passionate about giving back to Grinnell in any way I can,” Kahn says. “One of the best ways I believe I can do that is by being a resource to current students, as well as to younger alumni who may be early in their careers and looking for that type of guidance.” 

 

Meals from Global Learning Program trip to China

A small collection of images captured by Justin Hayworth, College photographer and videographer during the recent Global Learning Program trip to China. 

Family style meal in ChinaNoodles with fried eelChina DishesChina dish with shrimpDuck Tongue

 

 

 

 

 

Chicken soup with head and feetBeef with peppers

Squirrel Fish

Vegetarian dish with tofu, mushroom, and noodles

Dish of baby octopus Lotus Root and Bamboo Shoots

How the Drakes Met

Sue Ratcliff Drake ’58, a native Minnesotan, graduated from a high school class of nearly 450 students. She didn’t know half her classmates, so she wanted something smaller. She applied to Grinnell because it was more intimate than the University of Minnesota. 

“I didn't visit ahead,” she says, “I just applied, and in those days they took anybody, because I have to admit, I'm not the greatest student. I have fun. I had to work hard for my grades but enjoyed knowing everyone and participating in the special activities. 

 “I knew of George Drake because he was a big deal on campus,” she says. He was a runner and made a bid for Student Council president.

“In those days,” Sue says, “you dated a lot of different people. I dated his roommates.”

But she never even said hello to George.

In the fall of 1959, Sue was teaching second grade in Hinsdale, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago. She persuaded her roommate, Nancy, to drive to Grinnell with her to go to homecoming. They met one of George’s college roommates on campus, and he invited Sue to the homecoming dance.

“I said, ‘Sure, but I've got my friend here.’ And he said, ‘Well, George Drake is here. We'll just double.”

During the dance, George learned that Sue had driven from Chicago in her ’51 Plymouth. He had taken the train, so he asked if he could get a ride back with them.

“About two weeks later,” Sue says, “he called me up and asked me out. So, that's how I met George. That was in October. By February we were engaged, and in June we were married.”

Around the World, Around the Table

Seven thousand miles from Iowa, I sit around a table of Grinnellians and stare down at the bowl that has just been placed beside our bubbling hotpot. Inside it is an intact organ that looks awfully similar to a human brain, albeit a generously seasoned one.

What have I gotten myself into, I wonder, as I poke the pig brain with a single chopstick. At the next table over, Garrett Wang ’20, Karin Cho ’20, and Kaity Moore ’20 chow down on a plate of duck blood tofu. Meanwhile, Alex Johnson ’20 turns a bright shade of pink and begins to cough. I shout across the room to ask if he is okay.

“Yep,” he answers. “I didn’t realize Sichuan food was so spicy!”

Back at my table, Jackson Schulte ’20 takes an unceremonious bite of cerebrum and seems to emerge unfazed. So does Yanni Tsandilas ’20, who has family in Greece and likens the dish to lamb brain he has eaten there. 

A picky eater by normal standards, my habits are comically out of place among a group of foodies. But after four days in China (and a cold pint of beer), the idea of eating all parts of an animal is becoming slightly less aversive. Still, the thought of putting a piece of brain in my mouth feels more than a little unnerving. I am certain that I will not regret going through life without trying it. And yet —

“Justin,” I announce to Justin Hayworth, College photographer and videographer, “I’m going to do it.” 

This is the point of no return. With the whole group looking on, Hayworth points his camera at my face. I select the smallest morsel I can grasp with my chopsticks and swallow it whole. Snap. Snap. Gag. Snap. Relief.

After downing my drink and furiously scrubbing all traces of brain matter from my chopsticks, I can’t help but crack a smile. 

“Was it worth it?” asks Francess Dunbar ’20.

“As long as it makes it into The Grinnell Magazine,” I respond.

Katie Mehltretter ’20 tries baby octopus at a hotpot restaurant

Food for thought

Over spring break, 15 first-year students traveled to China as part of a Global Learning Program tutorial led by Jin Feng, professor of Chinese, and Todd Armstrong, professor of Russian. The class, Food, Culture, and Identity in China and Russia, explored foodways as a window into the history and culture of these two complex societies. 

Rather than simply reading about food (after all, that would be cruel), the students experienced Chinese culinary culture firsthand. Over two weeks, they ate their way through Hangzhou, Nanjing, Suzhou, and Shanghai. Between meals, they also visited cultural sites, bonded with classmates and professors, and explored beyond the itinerary. As this issue went to print, the class kicked off summer break with two more weeks of course-embedded travel to the Russian cities of St. Petersburg, Moscow, Irkutsk, and Vladivostok.

Hayworth and I were lucky enough to accompany the class for the first eight days of their trip to China. Undeniably the least adventurous eaters of the bunch, we nevertheless managed to get out of our comfort zones and sample a wide variety of Chinese cuisine. In the process, we explored a beautiful country and gained insight into one of Grinnell’s most exciting new academic initiatives.

Lazy Susans and eel noodles

On a warm Sunday evening in late March, our group arrives in China after nearly 30 hours of travel. We spend the night in Shanghai before boarding a bus to Hangzhou, a city that Marco Polo once described as “heaven on Earth.”

Our first stop is lunch at Kui Yuan Guan, a 150-year-old noodle restaurant of international acclaim. Feng leads the group into a private dining area, where two round tables await. Each is equipped with a Lazy Susan and topped with several cold dishes, served family-style. 

“Here you can see the fan-cai principle that we learned about in class,” says Feng. “Who can explain it to Justin and Katherine?”

Eric Kasprzyk ’20 and Audrey Enerson ’20 fill us in. “Chinese meals are all about balance,” Kasprzyk says. “Each meal includes fan, a base of starches and grains, and cai, meats and vegetables.”

“It’s also important to have a mix of heating and cooling elements,” Enerson adds. “And eating in season is essential.”

Feng looks pleased. “Many of the vegetables we see here don’t even have an English translation,” she says, pointing to a plate of what appears to be frosted greens. “But they are all spring vegetables, harvested from this region.”

From the moment we pick up our chopsticks until we take our last bites, the dishes don’t stop coming. The staff are like whirling dervishes: serving the lotus root, clearing the duck tongue, pouring the tea, on and on until nearly 30 plates — per table — have been consumed. 

In the midst of this orchestrated chaos, I try my first Chinese delicacy: noodles with fried eel. To my pleasant surprise, it tastes more like beef jerky than seafood. I try another nibble before determining that I have had enough eel for one day. 

EelsAfter lunch, we are invited to take a tour of the restaurant’s sprawling kitchens. The highlight is a room featuring seven large basins of live baby eels. Someone inquires about the unusual preparation, and the manager lights up. He launches into an explanation of the basins (the eels are kept for a week without food, which allows them to excrete any fishy-smelling substances) and shares Kui Yuan Guan’s secret method of cooking eel for maximum freshness.

We leave our first meal with a heightened appreciation for the regional pride, rich culture, and meticulous attention to detail that characterizes Chinese cuisine. I, for one, am also appreciative to have tried the famous eel noodles before viewing the lineup for next week’s dinner.

Exploring Chinese tea culture

On our next day in China, we venture outside the city and into the tea plantations of rural Hangzhou. As the bus winds its way through sloping mountains, our tour guide, Kai, prepares us for the next series of stops. 

“If you want to learn about Chinese foodways, it is essential that you learn about the culture of cha,” he says. “What have you been drinking at every meal?”

“TEA!” shouts everyone in unison. A former high school teacher, Kai is skilled in the art of coaxing responses from even the most reluctant of groups.

Our first stop is the China National Tea Museum, which manages to pack a dizzying array of information into a surrealistically beautiful setting. With six halls and an open plan — there are no external walls, only enclosures of vegetation — it is easy to forget that you are inside a museum.

Venturing into the exhibition halls, we learn about the complex cha culture that has unfolded over millennia in China, the birthplace of tea. Various displays document the historical origins of tea, methods for its growing and processing, and its central role in a wide variety of social contexts and customs.

Kohei Kotani ’20 is intrigued by the differences between tea culture in China and in his native Japan. “Japan is famous for green tea, and I’ve learned about it since elementary school,” he says. “But I never knew that Chinese tea culture is just as complex, if not more so.” 

When I ask him for examples, Kotani notes that Japanese people are less likely to use tea for medicinal purposes. “I also learned that there are three major ways of serving tea in China, and each utilizes different utensils and water temperatures,” he adds. “In Japan, I only know of one method.”

Later on, we head to the Meijiawu Tea Village. Outside a traditional teahouse, we are greeted by a statue of Lu Yu, an eighth-century scholar who is considered the most influential figure in Chinese tea culture. 

Inside, we sip cups of Dragon Well tea, a prized variety of green tea that is native to the region. A skillful saleswoman demonstrates its antioxidant properties by pouring iodine into a glass of rice. When rinsed with water, the rice remains stained, but when soaked in the tea, it regains its white color.

“This is no Lipton tea,” she tells us with a smile, already packing the pan-fried leaves into canisters for sale. “Because the nutrients in Dragon Well tea are intact, it detoxifies the body — dissolving fat cells, clearing your skin, and eliminating free radicals.”

By the time she pitches a student discount, everyone is hooked. A full 18 members of our 20-person group leave the teahouse with tins big and small. Perhaps the tea will fail to work miracles, but at least we will take home a piece of our trip. At any rate, this is what I tell myself as I amble out with a large tin, a small tin, and two bottles of tea-based supplements.

Sipping tea

Food meets art at Hangzhou Cuisine Museum

That evening, we head to the Hangzhou Cuisine Museum for a tour of Chinese food history. Like the class itself, the Cuisine Museum investigates and celebrates Chinese gastronomy — more specifically, the regional cuisine of Hangzhou over the past millennium — as a window into China’s history and culture.

As we explore the museum, audio guides direct us through a series of exquisite exhibits. One features silica replicas of every dish served — over 40 in total — at a 12th-century banquet for Emperor Zhao Gou. Another documents the rise of food culture during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279 C.E.), when Silk Road migrants from the old capital of Kaifeng introduced Northern flavors into Hangzhou cuisine. 

By the time we have finished our tour, everyone’s stomachs are grumbling. Thankfully, dinner is not far away. A museum employee directs us to a private dining room, which has already been set to accommodate our group. 

Even the décor has been seemingly arranged to welcome the GLP class. “Hey, Professor Armstrong,” one student says, “check out that bookcase on the other side of the room.”

We turn and look to find a Russian cookbook prominently displayed on the uppermost shelf. Whether or not this was a purposeful choice on the part of the restaurant staff, everyone appreciates the reminder of adventures to come.

After filling our cups with Dragon Well tea, the waiters begin to deliver the dishes. From delicate melon to mandarin fish and pork belly prepared in Song Dynasty style, each plate is not only a rich slice of regional culture, but also a work of fine art.

When the 30-course meal is finally over, we are treated to a visit from the head chef. Nobody is surprised to learn that he cooked for last year’s G-20 summit in Hangzhou; the food is that impressive. Feng presents him with a GLP class T-shirt, and we burst into applause. 

art at Hangzhou Cuisine Museum

Snippets from the bus 

The next morning, we wake early for the three-hour trip to Nanjing, the former capital of the Republic of China. Although everyone is tired from a late night out, the professors ask the class to spend some time debriefing on the bus.

One group discusses the biggest differences between Chinese and American food culture. Schulte and Dunbar note that Chinese meals are less open to customization; unlike in America, there is no such thing as “having it your way.” Johnson, meanwhile, is surprised by the sheer volume of food at each meal.

“Yeah,” adds Ethan Huelskamp ’20, “it’s interesting how that stacks up to the stereotype of overweight Americans.”

We agree that this probably has something to do with nutritional value. Though fast food restaurants have multiplied across China in recent years, processed food remains far less common than it is in the United States. In China, most dishes are seasonal, regional, and generously spiced.

At the other end of the bus, Gabriela Gryc ’20 brings up the topic of American privilege. When she, Steffie Ochoa ’20, and Caryn Crittenden ’20 stopped for a late night snack — at a McDonald’s, no less — the staff delayed closing so that the group could finish their meal. 

Another student mentions the difference between “meals in competition” versus “meals in conversation.” Compared to Americans, Chinese people place less of an emphasis on which region or city produces the “best” cuisine. Instead, they take pride that distinct regional styles can coexist.

Finally, Katie Mehltretter ’20 shares that she is starting to get over her squeamishness. “It’s a lot easier to eat baby octopus outside of an American context,” she says. Thinking of the pig brain, I agree, but not without a slight shudder.

Exploring a rural village

The next morning, we leave the city and bus out to a rural village on the outskirts of Nanjing. The sky is still gray — thick with smog or rain, we cannot tell — but here, the streets are empty, and the rice paddies stretch for miles. There is a quiet beauty, but also an overwhelming feeling that this village has seen better days.

“In the last 20 years alone, the proportion of China’s population living in urban areas jumped from 26 percent to 56 percent,” says Kai. “With so many young people moving away in search of better jobs, these rural communities die out.”

“However,” he continues, “this village is one of the nicest in the country. It’s been maintained for tourists, so there’s not as much poverty here as in other regions.”

Though the village has emptied out over the years, several dozen families remain. Walking through the streets, we encounter an adorable toddler, her grandfather, and multiple unleashed dogs. One affectionate mutt decides to follow us through town, circling our feet and barking our arrival to animals that eye us from the side of the road.

The group converges at a home-style restaurant for lunch. We watch as the owner nets fresh fish from a basin, then motions to the river across the street. “Our lunch was caught fresh today,” Feng translates. Catching my eye, she adds, “And of course, there are vegetables too!”

The meal is simple, flavorful, and nutritious. In addition to the fish, there are spring greens, pork dumplings, and a hearty chicken soup, head and all. Gryc mentions that some plates remind her of her mother’s Polish cooking, and Kaspryzyk, who is also Polish, agrees. 

Johnson adds that he appreciates the ubiquity of farm-to-table food in China. “Unlike in the U.S., local food isn’t overpriced and overhyped,” he says. “It’s just a fact of life.” 

Culinary fusion and Grinnellian bonding

After a rainy visit to the mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China, we head back to Nanjing for dinner. In a nod to the city’s large Muslim population, the professors have selected a halal restaurant for tonight’s meal. We are joined by Karol Sadkowski ’16, who is teaching English on a Grinnell-sponsored fellowship in Nanjing. He also happens to be Armstrong’s godson.

At an ornate table, we indulge in a variety of familiar and unfamiliar dishes. Per halal strictures, there is no pork, but we are served generous portions of beef, lamb, fish, dumplings, and vegetables. One dish features spiced beef intestines, which Tsandilas declares to be the best he has ever had. I am less enamored and gladly pass my plate to the more enthusiastic eaters.

When the meal is over, the majority of the class follows Sadkowski back to his dorm. Several students remark that they could see themselves applying for the Nanjing English teaching fellowship after graduation, which prompts a grin from Sadkowski. “Do it,” he says, before leading us out of the building. 

Later on, we take a group trip to an American-themed bar and restaurant near Sadkowski’s dorm. Crowded around a table, we trade stories over plates of nachos, then sign our names and class years in a “Grinnell box” on the colorful wall. 

“It’s like Bob’s-in-China,” one student says, referring to the popular Grinnell campus hangout. Everyone agrees, and we are happy to be in the company of others who understand.

“This is why I love Grinnellians,” adds Ochoa. “I didn’t know anyone in this class before, let alone two young alums. But look at us now, here in China ...”

Across the table, I catch Sadkowski’s eye and smile.

Scorpion on a stick

Reunions and goodbyes

On Hayworth’s and my last day in China, we visit two universities. The first, Nanjing Normal University, was founded on the site of a women’s college that informed Feng’s early research. As we tour the grounds, Feng shares the illustrious history of the 100-year-old institution. In addition to being the first college to grant bachelor’s degrees to female students in China, Ginling Women’s College also sheltered 10,000 women and children during the Nanking Massacre of 1937–1938.

Next, we head to Nanjing University for a celebratory reunion lunch. Our class is joined by administrators and professors who have been involved with the Grinnell-Nanjing exchange, including many longtime friends of Feng and Armstrong.

When toasts have been made and gifts exchanged, everyone spreads out to mingle before saying goodbyes. While Kasprzyk, who is studying Russian, picks the brain of a Russian professor from Nanjing, Wang and another professor discuss living and learning abroad. All in all, the reunion is a fitting tribute to the 30-year-old partnership between the two institutions, rooted in shared history, invigorated by fresh faces and the promise of collaboration to come.

That evening, we dine at a restaurant in Nanjing’s Confucius Temple district. Like the rest of the city and China itself, Confucius Temple is a district of dualities. Though anchored by a historic Confucian temple, today the area is a bustling center of commerce, culture, and entertainment. Century-old medicine shops and cheap street food vendors abut underground markets, artisans selling crafts, and more than one Starbucks. New and old, rich and poor, modern and traditional — China is a dizzying blend of contradictions in flux. Most of all, it is a country that is growing, adapting, and very much alive.

Seated around the dinner table for our final meal, Kai asks me and Hayworth what we will take from the trip.

 “I think it would have to be the experience of eating together,” Hayworth says, and I agree. The simple act of sitting around a table, sharing plates of food, and trying adventurous new dishes creates a sense of community that can be hard to come by in Western society. Did we learn about Chinese culture by studying its food? Certainly, the answer is yes. But we also learned about human culture — how shared dishes and rituals can bridge divides, invite conversations, and create space for community at Grinnell and abroad.

In the end, perhaps Huelskamp sums it up best. “I’m definitely getting a Lazy Susan when I get home.” 

 

Excavating the Peace Rock

No one on campus had seen the granite boulder known as the Peace Rock in its entirety since April 25, 1914. That’s the day the rock was buried by students opposed to the abolition of the annual Class Scrap — a fight that pitted second-year men against first-year men. 

John Whittaker poses with the peace rockDuring the spring 2017 semester, students in John Whittaker’s Archaeological Field Methods class worked on excavating the Peace Rock with the help of other faculty members, anthropology majors, and local historian Byron Hueftle-Worley ’81, who has taught a class about the Peace Rock at the local library.

Whittaker and his students used ground-penetrating radar and other tests to locate the rock. They found what appeared to be the granite boulder about 75 yards east of Carnegie Hall, near the Humanities and Social Studies Complex (HSSC) construction site. 

But after 40 person-hours of digging with no sign of the Peace Rock, the students and Whittaker were ready to give up — until Hueftle-Worley began pushing a rod into the earth in the area surrounding the dig and eventually hit something hard. The class quickly excavated it, exposing the end of granite rock.

 “Despite there being some hiccups along the way,” says Rhett Lundy ’18, an anthropology major from Murfreesboro, Tenn., “it was surreal to unearth an object that was buried over a century ago and was a part of a distant, violent tradition, which differs from our current-day Grinnell College.”

Archive image of students with peace rock Class Scraps often resulted in black eyes and broken bones, Hueftle-Worley says. But in 1913, a student was killed in a Class Scrap in Wisconsin, prompting Grinnell College’s then-President John Main to proclaim the evils of the Class Scrap and call for its abolition. 

The Peace Rock first appeared on campus in 1913, when the planned Class Scrap was replaced by a gathering of first- and second-year men on a farm with a large granite boulder about 2.5 miles west of town. After a night of celebration, they pushed a large piece of the boulder into a cart and pulled the cart by hand back to campus. They unloaded the stone, declared the Class Scrap was dead, and announced that the Peace Rock symbolized the end of the fighting.

Upper-class students who didn’t want the Class Scrap tradition to end began to attack the Peace Rock in April 1914. First, they covered it with red paint. Then they tried to blow it up with dynamite from a local hardware store. 

The final assault came on April 25, 1914, when students dug a pit, rolled the Peace Rock into the hole and covered it with dirt. A page in the 1916 yearbook features a photo of two students posed near a sign that said, “Class Scrap Departs April 25 for Grinnell, China.”

The peace rock will be incorporated into the landscaping for the HSSC. 

Portrait of a Teacher:

George Drake ’56 has filled many roles at Grinnell: student, athlete, intern, sabbatical replacement, soccer coach (sort of), trustee, College president, and, perhaps most importantly, teacher. As a student, he dreamed of someday teaching at his alma mater. 

“I thought that would be the pinnacle of life,” he says during a conversation in his office in Harry Hopkins House. At age 83, Drake still teaches at Grinnell and his office shows it. Shelves overflow with books. His desk is not neat. 

His winding path to teaching at Grinnell

In 1960–61, after his first year at the University of Chicago Theological Seminary, Drake tasted the college teaching life. He organized an internship with Grinnell’s chaplain, Winston King, and taught two history courses for Homer Norton, the College’s British historian, who was on sabbatical. John Pfitsch, athletic director, drafted Drake for an additional duty. 

Pfitsch told him, “The president wants a soccer team. You were an athlete at Grinnell, and you’ve seen soccer played. Would you be the coach?”

Drake smiles at the memory. “So I agreed to do that, but fortunately we had an older Nigerian student named Joe Okumu [’62], who was a great soccer player. I organized the practices and Joe did the coaching. 

“So that year persuaded me that what I really should be doing, and wanted to do, was be a college teacher.”

Sue Ratcliff Drake ’58, who taught second grade that year at Cooper School (now a parking lot east of Quadrangle Hall), could see him being a professor. She points out that George was never ordained, though he’s given a number of sermons. “Not that I particularly wanted to marry a minister,” she says with a smile. 

George Drake returned to the University of Chicago and earned his doctorate in church history, though he wondered what good it would do him in his quest to teach in a liberal arts college. 

While the couple was in Colorado one summer, George learned more about Colorado College. “I wrote to the president and introduced myself and wondered if I could stop by and meet him,” George says. “I did and met some historians, and actually I got a job that way at Colorado College.” 

He started as director of the freshman honors program plus some teaching. The teaching responsibilities evolved and a few years later George found himself in the position of dean — without tenure. 

“This was the late ’60s,” George says. “The president thought a young guy might understand what these kids are doing. The student revolution and so on. So I did that for six years. Then went back to the classroom thinking I would never be an administrator again.”

By then George was serving on Grinnell’s Board of Trustees as an academic voice. Several years later the board offered him the job as Grinnell’s president.

Sue says, “He was well acquainted with the people that were in the administration at that time. He kept up with the professors that he knew already. I think that experience just made him feel really comfortable stepping right into [the presidency].”

George was on the board during A. Richard Turner’s presidency (1975–1979) and saw the problems he had with students and faculty. “When I got the job,” George says, “I thought, What have I done to myself? The word was Grinnell was a graveyard for presidents.

“I had some sense that I could maybe bring some healing to this place,” he says, “that it needed healing at that point and that my strengths might fit what was needed.”

Although being president was not exactly his dream job, he served 12 years, from 1979 to 1991. As he departed the presidency, the Grinnell College Board of Trustees honored him by creating the George Drake Professor of Religious Studies. “I didn’t mind being president,” he says with a smile. “Actually I liked it a lot better than I thought I would.” 

Tenure was the only thing he negotiated for when he was offered the presidency, which he left with about 10 years of full-time teaching ahead of him. “I wanted to make it worthwhile,” he says.

After George stepped down from the presidency, he and Sue joined the Peace Corps and served two years in Lesotho, a nation encircled by South Africa. George taught English at a girls’ high school and Sue demonstrated teaching techniques to area teachers. 

By the time Drake returned to Grinnell’s campus, most students didn’t know who he was. “I could make a fresh start,” he says.

Preparing to teach at Grinnell

While still in Africa, George was already thinking about what he would teach when he returned to campus for the fall 1994 semester. His scholarly background in early modern European history and British history — thanks to a year in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship followed by two years at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship — overlapped that of two other professors. 

“But we didn’t have African history then,” he says, “so I realized I could develop a course in southern African history.

“I had almost no interest in Africa when we went to the Peace Corps, knew very little about it, so I did a lot of reading while we were there.”

But reading wasn’t the only source of ideas. “A lot of what I did in that course on southern Africa had to do with my understanding of rural African culture. I think those two years gave me that understanding, and teaching those girls gave me that understanding.” 

George also knew he’d be teaching a First-Year Tutorial and wanted to include Nelson Mandela. “Seeing him, after all those years in prison, reach out to his former captors and look forward with the truth and reconciliation process,” he says, “that just seemed so extraordinary.” 

He had a theme — crisis, liberation, justice, and leadership — but how could he put a course together that wasn’t only Mandela? Inspiration came from an introductory history course he was preparing, Europe to America.

“It was English antecedents to developments in American history, regionalism, religion, and constitutional history,” George says. “I had to do a lot of reading in American history and got really interested, particularly in the early national period. Because of that and because a tutorial on this subject ought to include Americans in it, I developed the idea of using Washington and Lincoln. 

“Going from Washington to Lincoln makes a lot of sense. A lot of coherence there,” George says. He included Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. too. 

“Gandhi and King are closely related. And Mandela as well. Mandela self-consciously rejects the Gandhian approach. [He] concludes that there are some regimes that are so awful that they have no conscience. You can’t use their conscience against them. So that made a nice package.” 

George taught Crisis, Liberation, Justice, and Leadership for the first time in the fall of 1995 and many times since. He smiles again. “It has worked, so I’m lazy enough to stay with it. Because it’s a lot of work to develop a new tutorial.”

George Drake in the classroom

On teaching writing

In 1997 John Aerni-Flessner ’01 took George’s tutorial, “randomly and luckily.” He says that George “really sets a tone in the classroom that all opinions are welcome and makes sure that all voices are heard. I remember some absolutely epic discussions in there where he didn’t have to say anything after his introductory framing remarks. He picked an interesting topic and interesting readings and made everyone feel comfortable.”

Aerni-Flessner, who earned his doctorate in African history and is an assistant professor at Michigan State University, describes George as a great mentor and role model. “I actually utilize some of the strategies from George’s tutorial still. He had us write one-page reflections on each of the books. It was one of the hardest writing assignments I ever had — to hold yourself to one page and say something meaningful.”

George doesn’t claim any originality with that assignment. He learned it from Monessa Cummins, associate professor of classics, during a summer seminar for faculty to learn more about teaching writing. 

“I’d always used shorter papers,” George says, “but I’d never used the one page and she convinced me of the advantages. It poses a huge challenge to the student — how can you say something meaningful in one page? Plus, it’s close to what you’ll be doing in life when you’re writing. 

“It’s manageable from the faculty point of view to move from craft to final paper with a meeting with every student. Those meetings last 10 or 15 minutes. They’re not very long. You can accomplish quite a bit. 

“Plus you can take sentences apart. You can take paragraphs apart, because it’s a short assignment. So you really can focus on structure and grammar and things like that, as well, obviously, as organization and argument. It’s the best thing I’ve ever found for the teaching of writing,” he says.

Students tend to agree. Ariel Keller ’17, a sociology major, chose the same tutorial topic as Aerni-Flessner. “Professor Drake really focused on allowing us to grow as students in his class,” she says. “He had us bring our first draft in to him and then we were given preliminary feedback. We were able to revise and the second draft is what was graded. So I think I wasn’t as consumed by the idea of letter grades but more of becoming someone who’s involved with academics.” 

Aerni-Flessner says he doesn’t recall grades except one — his last tutorial paper. “I’d been getting lots of B pluses on tutorial papers,” he says. “I thought I’d finally hit it with the last tutorial paper. I spent copious amounts of time at the library in front of my computer with all the books. I got it back and George had given me a B++.” He laughs and continues, “Because he was George, I didn’t hate him for this. I just said, ‘What does it take to get an A-?’

“Then a couple of years later,” Aerni-Flessner continues, “when I was a second-semester senior about to graduate and taking his Southern Africa history class, I remember writing a paper and getting a comment like, ‘This is the kind of paper I’ve been hoping to see from you for years.’ That’s the kind of teacher George was.”

The knight as stealth bomber

It’s not just students who appreciate his teaching abilities. Ellen Mease, associate professor of theatre and dance, team-taught Humanities 140: Medieval/Renaissance Culture 1100-1650 with George at least three different times. 

 “The advantage of team-teaching, I think,” she says, “is I get to hear how a professional historian goes about providing the sociopolitical and the cultural context for the close study of the selected text that we’re working with.

“He would describe, for instance, the development of the most sophisticated armed weapon of the period, the knight, in terms of the expense that it takes to develop and deploy a stealth bomber. He’d talk about all the equipment that you needed as a knight — the squire, the armorer, the guy who’s going to repair, the guy who’s going to shoe, the horse, the technological development of the stirrup. You can’t stay on your horse in heavy armor unless you have a stirrup that allows you to balance. That’s the kind of detail that students don’t forget.

 “So here’s the other advantage of team-teaching, especially with George,” Mease adds, “being able to, both of us, evaluate student papers and to look at the utter simplicity of George’s ‘This could be clearer’ written neatly in the margin. He’s not telling the student how to rewrite the sentence. 

“When we advertise the extraordinary value of a Grinnell education,” Mease says, “this is a serious component of it; it’s the quality of the feedback that they get on their papers. George will say, ‘This is not college-level writing. Take advantage of the Writing Lab. Read carefully; write carefully; revise early; use the Writing Lab.’ He was always, I think, proud — not just as a teacher, but as a longtime faculty member and president of the College — that we were able to take underachieving students, C students, and turn them into a solid B if not the occasional A- student.”

Another component of George’s approach to teaching writing is the use of tutorials. These stem from his two years at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship before he went to seminary. 

“The way it works best in the U.S. is for three or four students to come in,” he says. “They’ve all done the same topic. They read each other’s papers and discuss them for an hour.”

Mease appreciated this approach in Humanities 140. “George and I would sit in as flies on the wall. You learn more about your own writing, the clarity of expression, from phrase to phrase, the cultivation of appropriate vocabulary, the clear thesis, the more than perfunctory concluding paragraph,” she says. “It was the willingness of George just to sit back and let them critique each other and not wait until he wrote comments on the paper. They would do better by letting them critique each other.”

A teacher who loves to learn

George Drake“If you’re trying to empower students,” George says, “and trying to recognize where they are individually and collectively, I totally subscribe to where Grinnell has evolved. When I taught here in the early ’60s, I predominantly lectured. It was sort of what most were doing.”

But now? “You would be in trouble around here, unless you were just a superb lecturer, if that’s what you did in the course. Any course that doesn’t empower students in the classroom to be actively engaged in what’s going on is, at Grinnell, not as good a course as it should be.”

So George continues to learn about teaching. During the last faculty writing seminar he attended, he explained to his fellow participants why he was there. “When I was president, we instituted the SFS [senior faculty status] program as we wanted to phase people into retirement and then get them to retire, because we didn’t want a lot of 80-year-olds doddering around here trying to teach. Well, I’m 80 years old and I’m doddering around and I’m trying to teach, so I better do seminars and try and improve myself.” He smiles at the retelling.

Sue, his wife of 57 years, had a lot of influence on him as a teacher too. She taught grades two and three for several years, including some of the hardest teaching of all — substitute teaching. She served as a model for him. 

“She’s a superb teacher,” George says, “balances discipline and loving.”

“He’s a man of doing. And curious,” Sue says, “and that’s why he’s so good.” 

Grinnell's Prairie

Drive down Interstate 80 to exit 173, head north for 100 yards, and take the first gravel road on your right. After about a mile and a half of rolling prairie, you’ll come across a sign with the College’s familiar red laurel leaf: Welcome to the Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA). 

Though CERA is just 11 miles from the town of Grinnell, the College’s sprawling field station feels worlds away from the bustle of campus. Just beyond the low-slung, LEED-certified laboratory and a couple of small administrative buildings, 365 acres of prairie, savanna, wetlands, and oak forest beckon. 

Grinnell College acquired CERA in 1968 and named it for the late Henry S. Conard, internationally recognized botanist and beloved Grinnell professor. In the 49 years since, students, faculty, and staff have worked to preserve, restore, and learn from its complex ecosystems. 

Biologists, birdwatchers, artists, and ecologists alike value CERA for its beauty, vibrancy, and immersive learning opportunities. Through these photographs, we invite you to experience CERA in a year — without getting your car stuck in the mud, which may or may not have happened to the author.

CERA plantlife in the summer

Grasshopper on yellow flower

Lightt snow on the ground in January

Winter plantlife

Snowy trail at CERA

CERA in the fall

White flowers blooming in the spring

Yellow flowers in the prairie

Fall colors on the trees at CERA

CERA in the fall

Plantlife at sunset in the fall

Grass burn in the spring

Studying Arabic for Fun

When I told my coworkers last fall that I was taking Beginning Arabic I, their eyes grew round and they said things like, “You’re brave,” or “Whew! Good luck.” I thought they were joking. 

Okay, sure, Arabic uses a different alphabet and it reads from right to left. And my 49-year-old brain is not as willing to memorize vocabulary as it once was, or perhaps it’s just more cluttered than it was at 19. But I was not the least bit nervous about taking Arabic. In fact, I was ridiculously excited. Learning new things is so much fun and I particularly like language. It’s such a window into different ways of thinking; and as a writer, I am always fascinated by how others think. Because I was a French major at Grinnell, I also felt confident in my ability to learn Arabic. Perhaps too confident. 

On the first day of class, 15 or 16 students crowded inside ARH 322, a small classroom with three tall windows overlooking Park Street and two walls filled with chalkboards. We sat in two messy, nesting semicircles, facing the widest chalkboard. At 1 p.m., Mervat Youssef, associate professor of Arabic, strode into the room speaking Arabic. Alarm flickered across people’s faces.

Mervat pointed at herself and said, “Issmee Mervat.*” She swept an arm around the room, as though gathering us all in like a flock of chicks. “Issmee,” she said again, beckoning us with her hand to speak. “Issmee,” we repeated and inserted our own names. It sounded a lot like “It’s me, Michele.” One word plus our own names? We could do this.

 “I really liked [Arabic] from day one when we were being made to feel uncomfortable,” said Moises Herrera ’19. “She just started talking and we didn’t know what she was saying and eventually we got the hang of it.”

The first day “felt like someone had picked me up and dropped me in Egypt,” said Cora Touchstone ’19, a transfer student from Georgia who took Arabic “on a whim.” It gave her a bit of a panicky feeling. 

Cora Touchstone ’19 practices her Arabic alphabet on the chalkboardOther students may have felt some panic too. On the second day of this five-day-a-week class, there were more empty seats in the room. By day three, the class was about two-thirds the size it was on day one. A Grinnell High School freshman stuck it out for two weeks; I suspect the heavy load of homework got to him as it was already getting to me. Two hours a night — are you kidding me?

Introducing our Arabic teacher

Teaching her native language was not in Mervat Youssef’s career plan. She was a radio journalist in Egypt before coming to the Midwest to study journalism and mass communication. She was finishing her dissertation at the University of Iowa in 2007 when she first heard about Grinnell. She was invited to read some poetry of Muḥyiddin Ibn ’Arabi, a Sufi mystic, as part of a celebration of the three Abrahamic traditions. “I was smitten [with Grinnell],” she said. 

Grinnell was apparently smitten too, because the event organizers told her the College was planning to start an Arabic program and invited her to apply. Arabic had been offered as a language through the Alternative Language Study Option since 2003 and was growing in popularity.

Yet Mervat wasn’t convinced teaching Arabic was in her future. “That’s not what I had in mind when I ended up in grad school,” she said. “I wanted to teach journalism.” Her dissertation adviser pointed out that she was already doing Middle East studies (her dissertation was about how Arab Americans were negotiating their Americanness on opinion pages), that she was bilingual, and that Grinnell is a great place. 

She also knew a Grinnellian, Sarah Burke Odland ’97, who was in the same doctoral program. “She was fabulous, very smart, and I always admired her,” Mervat said. “I thought, oh my gosh, if the students are like Sarah Burke, life would be good.” 

In fall 2008, Mervat began teaching Arabic on a two-year contract. “I thought this was a great opportunity,” she said. When the position was advertised as tenure-track, she applied. She earned tenure in 2016. “I came and I stayed.” 

The former journalist didn’t study how to teach a foreign language. “I think my teaching is reflective of how I learned,” she said. She learned English through immersion while attending a Catholic elementary school in Kuwait, where she was born and grew up. She learned German in high school the same way. “I’ve been inspired by all the great teachers that I had,” she said. One of those teachers was her father.

“I remember vividly how he taught us to swim,” she said. “He got some empty bottles of Pepsi. They’re plastic so they floated. He told us that if he wraps them around us, just two of them, they would make us float. So when we swam, we thought that we were being held with the bottles. Then he took one off and took the other one off, and we were swimming. I don’t think he lied to us because he showed us that it floats. But in our brains we can’t understand the physics behind it, so we got the confidence to just jump. And that became my main thing in teaching. Start speaking.”

Learning from scratch

We spent the first two weeks learning to read, write, and pronounce the alphabet. I was reminded of how random our English letter signs are for the different sounds we use. Arabic is wonderfully phonetic. For example, there is a single letter for the “sh” sound that in English we find in “dish” and “nation.” 

To my American ears, some Arabic letters sound quite similar to each other, like a “tuh” sound that’s made next to your teeth versus a back-of-the-tongue “tah” sound. Consequently, my spelling ability, once a forte in English, is less so in Arabic. The letter that probably bedevils me more than any is one we don’t have in English. “Ein” has a guttural, back-of-the-throat sound.

Besides learning how to pronounce all these letters, we also learned to write them. Arabic is written exclusively in a script form, but not all letters connect to each other. So each letter has four different ways of appearing in text, depending on whether it’s at the beginning of a word and connects to a letter after it, or if it’s in the middle, the end, or by itself. “Ein,” for example, looks very different depending on its place in a word.

To further complicate my spelling efforts, some letters have precisely the same shape as other letters. The only difference is where the “cookie,” a dot about the size of a period, is located. A “B” sound has a single cookie below it while the “N” sound has a single cookie above. I still occasionally misplace my cookies and create words that make no sense. 

Learning to read in Arabic felt a bit like being in first grade. Mervat wanted us to sound out the words, one letter at a time. “Cover and release,” she said, over and over. Covering the later letters in the word helped us focus on the pronunciation of each individual letter. 

We quickly graduated to learning vocabulary. Grammar came along for the ride. Even on the first day, though I didn’t realize it at the time, Mervat was subtly introducing us to grammar. After we practiced saying, “Issmee” plus our names, she introduced the question that would elicit that answer. “Mah issmookah?” she said to male students and “Mah issmookee?” to female students. It wasn’t until many weeks later that we formally learned about the suffixes used to indicate the gender of the person being addressed.

The immersion approach to learning a language was new for me. I learned French a few years before that shift in language pedagogy occurred. Mervat is very good at acting things out and explaining things in Arabic with simple words in ways that we all could understand. To convey the plural version of a noun, for example, she’d tick off on her fingers its singular form, “weh-LEYE-uh, weh-LEYE-uh, weh-LEYE-uh,  weh-LEYE-uh, weh-LEYE-uh,” (it means “state”) and then give us the plural form, “wi-LEYE-uh-tuh” (“states”). 

Class itself was intense and fast-paced. “You constantly have to be focused and I really like that in Mervat,” Moises said. “She really knows when someone’s lost their train of thought.” 

“You can’t get by without being fully engaged,” said Sarah Cannon ’19. “It’s the only class where I was actively learning the whole time.” She also found the class “exciting because it was 100 percent new.” 

I thought when I enrolled that I’d be able to practice with my husband. He studied Arabic intensively for nine months in 1971, when he worked for CIA, but he has forgotten a lot and doesn’t know how to read it at all. When I practiced reading aloud to him, he often couldn’t understand me because he learned the Lebanese dialect, which has different vocabulary and was not the dialect spoken in Morocco where he was stationed. When he’d hear a word he didn’t recognize, he’d say, “That must be Egyptian Arabic.” I’d say, “No! It’s modern standard Arabic.”

What I didn’t anticipate was all the studying required. Mervat wasn’t kidding when she said two hours of studying per hour of class. I confess that I didn’t study that much every night, especially after fall break. Sometimes I did the minimum to complete the homework rather than follow the suggested study method: Listen to the vocabulary words, write each one three times while saying it out loud, then use it in a sentence. I discovered that it’s an effective study method, but not quick. 

Nor did I attend the Arabic language lab, which was held from 7 to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday. I’m sure it would have been helpful because Tarik Taghzouti, the Arabic language assistant and Fulbright scholar, was very helpful both in class and during his office hours. Back home in Morocco, he’s a secondary-school English teacher. His expertise in breaking down concepts into simple bits was evident when he explained to me, in Arabic, how possessives work. 

A humbling experience

Mervat Youssef, Michele Regenold ’89,  Sarah Cannon ’19, and Ankit Pandey ’20 discuss the class assignmentEven though I was auditing the class, not taking it for credit, I did virtually all of the homework and took all of the quizzes and tests. I wanted to see how much I was learning and try to keep up. 

But oh my, what a humbling experience to be the slowest student in the class. My French was more of a hindrance than a benefit. It was like an old dog who’s annoyed by the introduction of a new puppy and keeps trying to insert itself when I was searching for the Arabic words. On one quiz, a fill-in-the-blank question was looking for “with whom,” and all that would come to me was “avec qui,” the French, instead of “mah men.”

Right before fall break, Mervat mentioned the final presentations that we would do the last week of classes. We had to work with a partner and present — all in Arabic — for 10 to 15 minutes. 

I wavered. Surely I had enough material to write a story about the class. I didn’t need to do a presentation, did I? Especially since I wasn’t being graded. Plus, I didn’t want to drag anyone else down with me. 

And did I even have the stamina to stick with the class through the end of the semester? After all, I work full time. I have a husband, a dog who likes to go running, and no dishwasher. I’d rather work on my young-adult novel than use “ahhm” (paternal uncle) in a sentence. Studying each night was already more than I’d bargained for. Planning, writing, and practicing a presentation with a partner?

I finally decided to suck it up and do it. One day in class I asked Moises if he wanted to work together. To my surprise, he agreed. We had been frequent partners for in-class activities so I already knew him to be diligent and motivated and unafraid to speak Arabic. I told him I wouldn’t let him down.

Given our fairly limited vocabulary, I wasn’t sure what we could talk about for 10 whole minutes. So I suggested we pretend that it’s 2026 and we run into each other at a coffee shop in Grinnell and catch each other up on ourselves, our classmates, and teachers. He agreed. And that gave us license to make up virtually everything we presented. We didn’t know too many words for professions, so most classmates became teachers, one became an army officer, two became translators — Moises assigned himself to the United Nations. I remained a writer. We also gossiped about our classmates’ love lives. We made our audience laugh. That was reward enough.

Overall, taking Arabic was incredibly fun and mentally stimulating. It was probably more challenging to my ego than I would have liked, but it was a thrill to experience something new again. 

“Are your brains exercised yet?” Mervat asked every day at the end of class. Yes, yes they are. 

*Mervat Youssef is vehemently opposed to the use of transliteration in the learning of Arabic. We never used it in class. I’m using my own version of it here to give readers a sense of the language’s sound.

How Arabic became part of the curriculum 

Arabic got its start at Grinnell thanks to student demand. In 2003, several students came to Dan Gross, then coordinator of the Alternative Language Study Option (ALSO) program, and asked for it. 

ALSO is Grinnell’s self-instructional language program — students learn reading, writing, speaking, and understanding skills using textual and online audiovisual materials. ALSO students are tested by an outside evaluator, an instructor from another institution. One requirement for a language to be offered through ALSO is that a fluent speaker, often a fellow Grinnell student, be available as a conversation partner for the students to practice with three hours per week. 

When Arabic was initially requested, a student from Alexandria, Egypt, was on campus and provided that support. 

Arabic was offered through ALSO until 2006. Then the College tried a distance-based program for two years. “It was awkward and slightly clumsy,” Gross says, “and too slow for Grinnell students.” So the College decided to make Arabic part of the regular curriculum.