NBN Connections to Grinnell

Grinnellians in the New Books Network catalog include current, past, and retired professors Andrew Hsieh, who was interviewed (along with co-author Sherman Cochran) about The Lius of Shanghai (Harvard University Press, 2013); Scott Cook, who chatted about his book The Bamboo Texts of Guodian: A Study and Complete Translation (Cornell University East Asia Series, 2012); and Edward Cohn, who discussed his work The High Title of a Communist Postwar Party Discipline and the Values of the Soviet Regime (Northern Illinois University Press, 2015). 

Book cover samples

Alumna Erica Lehrer ’92 a professor at Concordia University, was interviewed by Hugo Lane ’85 about her book Jewish Poland Revisited: Heritage Tourism in Unquiet Places (Indiana University Press, 2013). Lane hosts the New Books in Eastern European Studies channel.

How to Produce a Podcast

  1. You’ll need a computer with a broadband Internet connection, a decent microphone, a set of earphones, and a reasonably quiet place to record.

  2. To make the podcast, talk into the mic and have your computer record it. If you want to interview people, that’s more complicated. To do it in person, you’ll need something studio-like to get good audio. Interviewing them remotely is easier, and you’ll have several options: Do it over Skype, with audio-capture software like Piezo, or over Zencastr, which works through a browser and is your best option in terms of ease and audio quality. 

  3. You’ll then end up with one or more audio files, like MP3s. This is the raw audio. You’ll need to edit and process it (remove sounds and such) with an audio editor like Audacity, Garageband, or Adobe Audition. Once you’ve buffed and polished your raw audio, it’s almost a podcast. 

  4. The final step is to put “bumper” music on it, beginning and end, because, well, all podcasts have bumper music. You can use the audio editors to do that. You’ll have to get something that’s free to use; there are websites for that. 

  5. Once your podcast is done, you have to distribute it. That means uploading it to a server, showing it on a webpage, and getting it on any number of podcast aggregators like iTunes and Stitcher. You can do all this yourself, but it requires technical know-how. If not, use a dedicated podcast hosting service like Blubrry, Podbean, or Libsyn. 

  6. Now the last step, the one everyone misses. If you want people to listen to your podcast, you have to promote the heck out of it. If you want to do this on the cheap, be prepared to spend a lot of time on Twitter and Facebook. Or, you can pay to have your Twitter and Facebook posts “boosted,” and pay other podcasters to promote your podcast. Not cheap, and only sometimes effective. As any editor will tell you, the way to build an audience is to produce good stuff in volume, consistently, over the long term. If you don’t want to do this, I recommend you avoid the podcast business altogether. Remember, content is still king.  

Podcasting for the People

In his previous life as a professor of Russian history, Marshall Poe ’84
enjoyed reading as many scholarly works as he had time and inclination to digest. But like most academics, his research tastes were specialized; who else but a small circle of historians would be interested in Poe’s first book, A People Born to Slavery: Russia in Early Modern European Ethnography, 1476–1748 (Cornell University Press, 2000)? Even Poe’s mother barely glanced at it. 

Poe realized, not for the first time, that valuable research being produced by academics wasn’t reaching the public — and he felt it should. “A lot of good ideas and scholarship are trapped in these expensive monographs. You won’t find them in local libraries, and most aren’t written for the public,” he says. 

“The target audience for journal articles and most academic books are academics,” continues Poe. “But there’s darn little attempt to get them out there to the broader public. I thought if there was a way to get that information to more people, more would consume the content.” 

Poe turned to podcasting, and now thousands of listeners — academics and nonacademics alike — daily consume scholarly work via Poe’s brainchild, the New Books Network (NBN). Each weekday, five podcasts are posted free of charge on the NBN website and podcast subscription sites, which are promoted by Poe’s fellow Russian major (and the much more social-media savvy) Leann Wilson ’07

“You have to meet people where they are, and where they are isn’t in front of books,” says Poe, whose second book, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet (Cambridge University Press, 2011), explores such issues. “I knew people wouldn’t even know about these [academic] books; and if they did, they couldn’t afford them; and if they could afford them, they wouldn’t have time to read them. Most people avoid reading books and if given a choice, will watch or listen instead.”

Facilitating lifelong learning

What NBN offers are 30–60 minute interviews with academics chatting about their latest books with other experts in the field. Whether the topic is Empire’s Guestworkers: Haitian Migrants in Cuba During the Age of US Occupation (Cambridge University Press, 2017) or The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man’s Wealth Shaped the World (Oxford University Press, 2016), the podcasts are informal and informative, and the authors, who usually receive little publicity, “are pleased as punch to talk about their books,” says Poe. “There’s a real difference between listening to someone talk about a book they’ve written and reading their book. The book comes alive, and that’s what happens on these shows.”

Listeners can subscribe or browse through 81 subjects (or channels) ranging from philosophy and national security to Hindu studies, mathematics, and architecture. Each subject has its own website, RSS feed, Facebook page, and Twitter feed. NBN archives contain 5,000 episodes, and nearly 250 volunteer hosts produce 100 new episodes monthly. All of the books come from academic presses, although some books are “crossovers” — more popular books from those presses — and most are nonfiction. (One notable exception: A professor interviewed actor James Franco about his book of poetry.)

“We provide an easy way for anyone who is interested to get acquainted with books and ideas they might not otherwise be able to,” explains NBN philosophy host Carrie Figdor, University of Iowa. “There’s only so much time in the day and only so much information that will come to your attention.”

Empowered to make a bold career change

The network has grown immensely since Poe’s first foray into podcasting. In 2007 he was interviewed for a podcast about an article he’d written for The Atlantic magazine (on the history of Wikipedia, one of Poe’s inspirations for sharing knowledge.) At the time Poe was a history professor at the University of Iowa. Inspired by the experience and intrigued by the idea of spreading information and research far beyond its usual (written) borders, he learned how to podcast and started New Books in History, interviewing one historian a week about his or her work. The project took off, and in 2011 he launched NBN, expanding it to dozens of topics and recruiting other academics to do the interviewing. Poe left his tenured position at Iowa and eventually moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, where he devotes himself full time to the venture.

Wilson joined NBN in 2015. She was a Fulbright scholar who’d spent so much time in Burling Library “that most people from the class of 2007 wouldn’t know me.” After dropping out of a Ph.D. program in Russian history at the University of Michigan (she instead earned her master’s, then moved back home to Milwaukee), the dry-witted Wilson knew the chatty, exuberant Poe through his scholarship; the two met in person at history professor Daniel Kaiser’s retirement celebration. Poe asked if she would help with NBN but couldn’t yet pay her; they exchanged emails, and she eventually joined, editing and publicizing the podcasts. 

“A big part of my job is knowing the hosts, their area of interest and what books they’d like and not like,” she explains. “For someone like me, it’s fun. You get to flip through these catalogs; and if I want a book, I ask. I do what university press publicists do; but instead of begging The New York Times to feature our books, I go to social media and engage directly with people who are listening to our podcasts.”

Wilson writes attention-grabbing summaries and tags the author and where they teach, posting on Facebook and Twitter. “We started using Twitter vigorously, and it has really helped out,” she says. “We want to reach the people who will listen to our interviews and retweet and create buzz about them.” The New Yorker staff writer Adrian Chen, for example, tweeted that “My favorite running soundtrack is the @NewBooksNetwork. They post like 4 interviews with authors of (mostly) academic books per day on every topic. I’ve learned so much.”

NBN’s audience is wide-ranging; in 2017, more than 7.3 million downloads were recorded by NBN’s server. Of the roughly 250,000 subscribers, many are academics; but the typical listener, says Poe, is simply curious and educated. A New Zealand farmer wrote to say he enjoys listening while herding sheep into the paddock, while an adult film star recently tweeted his endorsement of NBN. Other fans who’ve written Poe include commuters looking for something new to learn each morning on their way to work. Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger and Southern Poverty Law Center director Richard Cohen are also NBN fans.

“I’ve listened to perhaps 150 of the interviews over the past few years — at least one or two a week on average,” says William A. Clark, associate dean of The Graduate School at Pennsylvania State University and a former professor of Russian/Soviet politics. “Marshall has a very unique knack of identifying interesting and important works by top-tier scholars in these disciplines. He also identifies younger up-and-coming scholars who are making significant forays into the scholarship. … Nothing matches the scale and sweep of the New Books Network.”

Sharing scholarly work for the common good

NBN doesn’t accept advertising and is primarily supported by Amherst College Press under Mark Edington, director. “I’m so excited about NBN — it’s such an act of goodwill,” Edington says. “New scholarly ideas are important and of significance to our society and democracy. We aren’t giving books away but are giving authors a chance to reach an audience vastly larger than the audience that will buy their books.”

Though it’s not the goal, NBN is selling books; when a listener on the NBN site clicks on the book being discussed, they’re directed to Amazon, and each day, 2–10 books are purchased via that route.

But the listeners are the primary target. On an average day, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Time Use Survey, American leisure time includes 19 minutes of reading as a primary activity — compared to 2 hours, 47 minutes of watching television. Time spent listening to audio is harder to measure and vastly underreported, says the bureau, since it’s generally done as a secondary activity, while commuting, walking, or working out, for example.

Recently a speech language pathologist and regular NBN listener contacted Figdor, the longtime co-host of the New Books in Philosophy channel. “I have minimal formal education in philosophy and have learned most of what I know through podcasts and other secondary sources (e.g., Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy),” wrote Rick Carpenter. “It is to your credit that I am able to understand your podcasts, as they are among the most content-dense that I listen to.” 

It’s just the kind of response Poe dreamed of when he launched the NBN. “Our mission is to democratize access to scholarly information in books so [that] not only someone at a university knows about it, can afford it, and can take time to read it, but that everyone can. There’s a lot of valuable research that’s not reaching people, and I think it should.” 

New Books Network by the Numbers

  • On average, NBN podcasts are downloaded about 5,000 times in the first days after publication. Downloads decline slowly until they settle at around 50–100 per month. 
  • The most popular single NBN episode was a New Books in Political Science interview with Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde, based at University of Georgia, on his book Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2017). It was downloaded nearly 12,000 times in one week. 
  • The most popular NBN subjects are history, political science, philosophy, African-American studies, Jewish studies, and Islamic studies. 
  • The NBN has more than 250,000 subscribers and probably several times that many listeners, located in 163 countries.
  • The NBN has more than 300,000 followers on Facebook and Twitter. 


Birth Justice

When she was an expectant mom, Monique Hagan knew the risks that she faced: African-American women are twice as likely to experience pregnancies that result in early delivery, low birth weight, or even infant death, according to National Vital Statistics. 

Various studies have shown that “psychosocial stresses” – such as racism – can raise a woman’s level of cortisol to dangerously unhealthy levels. Cortisol regulates everything from metabolism to the body’s immune response.  

“That stress can also stress out the baby, so it’s definitely a concern,” says Hagan, a New Orleans resident who calls racism a “difficult” fact of life. “Once you fall down that wormhole, it’s just more stress, so you’ve got to pull yourself out of it.”

That’s where Latona Giwa ’09 comes in. The New Orleans registered nurse in 2011 founded the Birthmark Doula Collective to provide emotional, physical, and educational support to mothers-to-be, most of them black and poor. Giwa moved to New Orleans after graduation to serve as a Grinnell Corps fellow (fellows perform community service and promote leadership and social integrity).

“Certainly, the pregnant families that we’ve worked with often articulate a number of stressors and challenges that they’re experiencing, such as poverty, issues finding work, discrimination at work, and the difficulty in finding supportive providers,” Giwa says.

Value of doula services

In medical circles, a consensus has developed attributing hypertension and preeclampsia (a combination of high blood pressure and damage to organ systems — typically the liver and kidneys) to the stress brought on by racism. Both conditions can result in infant death and even maternal death. 

“Unfortunately, those rates are getting worse over time instead of better,” Giwa says. 

Doulas, however, are being hailed for improving birth outcomes. But in 47 states, doula services, which typically start midway through the second trimester, are not covered by insurance. Birthmark, which is partially grant-funded, provides care on a sliding scale. 

“Doulas are shown to reduce C-section rates really dramatically, by between 30 and 50 percent depending on the study, reduce the rate of unnecessary medical interventions, reduce the use of anesthesia and epidural medication, and thereby improve birth outcomes,” Giwa says.

“Both women and their infants emerge from birth healthier when a doula is involved. They’re more likely to breast-feed; they’re less likely to have postpartum depression or postpartum mood disorders. The impact is tremendous.”

Black births matter

Latona Giwa“Black births matter” is a rally cry that Giwa coined. Challenges don’t just come at birth. Stress has been attributed to another troubling statistic: Black infants are twice as likely to die in the first year of life as white infants. 

The 28-year-old Hagan, thanks in part to Giwa, escaped the misfortunes faced by other African-American moms. She gave birth three yours ago to a healthy daughter, Sariya. Giwa’s influence was so consequential that Hagan became a doula herself. She now is one of a dozen doulas working for Birthmark, which helped shepherd the pregnancies of 500 women in 2018. 

There are reasons for optimism in some states. Giwa was asked in the past year to sit on the Louisiana Department of Health’s reinstituted Maternal Mortality Review Board, in which doctors and community health workers like herself are “elucidating and drawing the connection between social determinants of health and these horrible outcomes,” Giwa says. 

Birthmark’s efforts extend to postpartum care (sometimes referred to as the fourth trimester), during which women learn the importance of infant feeding, future pregnancy plans, and specific health needs. Family nurse practitioner and lactation consultant Nikki Greenaway makes home visits to new moms in conjunction with Birthmark. Greenaway and Giwa in 2018 opened the New Orleans Breastfeeding Center. Breast milk, with its potent antibodies, is hailed for giving infants a healthy start on life. 

Studies affirming black birth challenges can, not surprisingly, create stress for providers. Giwa is well suited to the task, Greenaway says. “When you first meet Latona, you see her as this calm and quiet, almost meek, person,” she adds. “But deep down, there’s a ferocious lion that keeps everything moving and working. There’s a fire that burns in Latona.”

Embodying social justice

Giwa, a sociology major, came to Grinnell already embodying social justice sensibilities. But the College, she says, gave her opportunities to cement her worldview in ways she couldn’t have elsewhere. 

As a first-year student, Giwa enrolled in a community organizing tutorial taught by Chris Hunter, professor of sociology, senior faculty status. It quickly became clear to Hunter that his protégé was “eager to embrace the material.

“She was particularly eager to learn more about how to bring a progressive agenda into play,” Hunter says. “It wasn’t just a theoretical attraction to her.”

At Grinnell, Giwa developed the now-defunct Voicebox, a student-led group that served as a resource center for all campus activist groups, which normally operate independent of one another. Voicebox provided training for students to “learn how to do their thing,” Hunter says. 

“Latona was really interested in promulgating a broader movement among the students that would work better together,” he adds. 

Giwa also developed a peer education group dedicated to social justice. The program, called A Just Grinnell, carried the slogan “Learning Oppression, Creating Community.” Like Voicebox, A Just Grinnell ran a social justice training program and received funds from the College to aid in its efforts.

Additionally, Giwa helped supervise the Grinnell Community Meal, created in 2000 to build community with the town of Grinnell. The weekly event is coordinated by the Grinnell Social Justice Action Group. In her native Minneapolis in 2007, under the guidance of Hunter and with a nonprofit called StreetWorks Outreach Collaborative, Giwa helped to produce a guide for homeless children and teens that lists social service support organizations. 

The internship with StreetWorks, after her second year at Grinnell, gave Giwa her earliest ideas for a birth justice movement. 

“These young women were either becoming pregnant because they were homeless or they became homeless because they were pregnant and lacked resources,” she says. “I started researching how to support pregnant women, and that’s when I discovered the concept of a doula.”

Grinnell classmate Leah Krandel ’09, an independent studies major (marginalization in American society), works closely with Giwa as a biology teacher and director of mental health at New Orleans’ G.W. Carver High School, a public school in the Ninth Ward.

Giwa recently spoke with one of Krandel’s biology classes about opportunities for careers in the sciences, and she also highlighted challenges facing pregnant black women. Krandel has referred pregnant students — as many as five per academic year — to Birthmark. 

Krandel, who is white, used Birthmark when she delivered her own daughter seven months ago. The doula stayed with her during the course of her 16-hour labor, telling Krandel what to expect and encouraging her to be an “advocate” for herself.

“The medical personnel changed out about three times while I was in labor, so my doula was the constant while everyone else around me was changing,” she says. 

Giwa, for her part, escaped complications in delivering her daughter, Emory, three years ago. It’s an outcome that she’s tried to replicate with the thousands of women that Birthmark has assisted. New mom Hagan says Giwa has an enviable aptitude.

“Latona is a calming spirit who’s able to bring peace into a room,” she says. “She’s not wavered by anything.” 

When You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

For students whose parents didn’t complete a four-year college degree, getting into Grinnell is just the first hurdle. Figuring out how to survive, much less thrive, is a whole series of hurdles. And it’s less a sprint over a brightly lit track than a marathon through a dark tunnel with blind curves, switchbacks, and alarming obstacles. 

How do they navigate this tricky landscape alone, without a map? For those used to pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, asking for help isn’t exactly second nature. They’re independent and self-reliant, and even if they wanted to ask for help, who would they ask and what would they say?

Anticipating those questions and those needs is something Grinnell is getting better at. As a first-generation college student himself, Mark Peltz, Daniel ’77 and Patricia Jipp ’80 Finkelman Dean of the Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS), understands the questions and the needs. 

With Grinnell’s individually advised curriculum presenting much less structure than the traditional general education requirements at most colleges, he wonders, “Are we inherently making some assumptions about our students’ ability to navigate those sorts of less well-defined structures that are part of the student experience here?”

Being able to navigate the world of higher education effectively means understanding how it all works. Social capital theorists use the term habitus for that sort of understanding. “Habitus refers to the deeply ingrained knowledge, habits, and skills that we develop over our lifetimes. Some authors, like [Pierre] Bourdieu, have referred to habitus as understanding of the game,” Peltz says. “How processes work, how systems work, how higher education works is not inherently understood by all college students. How do you manage your time in an environment where there’s lots of free time? What are office hours? What are student groups? And who gets involved in those things? And why and how frequently? Oftentimes first-generation students may not have the habitus to make the most of college.” 

Figuring out the rules of higher ed

Nomalanga Shields ’18 is a survivor. She was a low-income, first-generation student from Chicago, excited about attending Grinnell. Thinking about psychology and biology as possible majors, she attended the Grinnell Science Project pre-orientation for underrepresented students. During New Student Orientation, she recalls people saying, “Go to the Writing Lab, go to the Reading Lab, meet your professor in office hours.” The advice fell on deaf ears, Shields says. “I didn’t have to do that in high school because to go to Grinnell you have to do pretty well in high school, and you did it mostly by yourself.” 

Her first semester, she took Russian, biology, and calculus in addition to her First-Year Tutorial. “I didn’t listen to anyone because I was thinking I can do this. I took hard classes in high school. I can do it now. But it was way too much to balance,” she says. The further into the semester she went, the worse she did, and the more alone and untethered she felt.

At home after that semester, she checked her grades on the College portal. Her GPA was below 2.0. She was put on academic probation. “I felt like such a failure,” Shields says. “I called my high school adviser because I didn’t have any good connections with professors or any staff at the time. I didn’t know who to go to for support or even to say how I was feeling.” She was worried she’d get kicked out of school. She wanted to quit or transfer, but her high school teachers urged her to tough it out.

At the beginning of her second semester, Shields was invited to join Partners in Education (PiE), a team of Grinnell faculty senior mentors, advising staff, and post-baccalaureate fellows as well as other struggling students. Mark Schneider, now professor emeritus of physics and then Shields’ academic adviser, was part of PiE. He and the others provided advice on homework and making a schedule. “He was someone to hold you accountable,” Shields says. 

She had trouble making her own schedule. If she had three papers due, she didn’t know what to do. “I would sit down with Mark Schneider and he would be like, “You should go to the Writing Lab during this time, then check back in with me.” The process allowed her to start building better habits. 

Shields also started developing a community with fellow students in PiE and relationships with professors. She went to their office hours and asked for help with papers. “By doing that, then my papers started getting better,” Shields says. Early in her work with Patrick Inglis, associate professor of sociology, he thought she was a C-minus paper writer. “I was so upset,” she says. “I was like an A-plus paper writer in high school. Now he jokes, ‘You’re an A-minus paper writer. You’ve grown so much.’

“Second semester got a lot better because I felt like I had a team behind me at that point. You can’t really do everything by yourself,” Shields says. “In higher education it’s just not in the classroom where you’re learning, but also what you do you do after hours. Who are you meeting, what study groups are you a part of, how are you spending your time, if you’re going to sleep at a right time. Every hour after classes matters, and that’s something that I didn’t understand during my first year. I didn’t realize higher education really was like the whole 24 hours, how you plan that out. It really matters.”

Preparing for careers that matter 

Two people looking through binoculars Figuring out the academic side of college is a huge relief, but there’s still figuring out what to do for a career. Peltz says, “We shouldn’t assume that students know how to navigate this process. Some students might have a very clear and well-defined idea of what they want to do and the pathway to get to that particular outcome. Other students may not necessarily have any sense of what that future goal could look like, should look like, and how to navigate that pathway. I think that the work that we do in the CLS helps coach and mentor students in navigating some of those worlds.” 

Tim Burnette ’19, a low-income, first-generation student from Virginia who self-identifies with the pronouns they/their, knew since high school that they wanted to earn either a Ph.D. or an M.D. For half days during high school, Burnette attended a magnet school that emphasized science and prepared them well academically for Grinnell. They figured out early on how to navigate College and get what they needed by speaking up and asking for it. But, Burnette says, “I had no idea how to do outside of Grinnell, real-life stuff. Laundry and daily things, got it. But getting a job, getting a competitive fellowship, going to grad school? I had no idea how to do any of it.”   

Peltz says, “In the context of our work in the CLS, I think about it helping students to develop both the personal insights about themselves, you know, ‘Who am I, what do I care deeply about, why?’ But then it’s also then mapping some of those personal observations onto what other opportunities are available and understanding what those options and pathways might look like and how to navigate those. And some of that comes through direct experience of various kinds.” An externship, for example. 

Burnette did an externship their first year with Lynn Westley ’80, assistant professor of biology at Lake Forest College. Burnette got to see what the life of a professor is like, and since they had been trying to decide between being a professor and pre-med, the experience made a big difference. “That convinced me this is what I want to do,” Burnette says.

During their second year, Burnette was invited to a “potato lunch extravaganza” put on by the CLS for second-year students with excellent grades to talk to them about highly competitive scholarships and fellowships. Burnette says with a grin, “I liked the idea of a baked potato lunch. It just sounds fancy, so I went. That put fellowships on my radar, because I didn’t know what they were. I ended up getting an honorable mention for the Goldwater Scholarship, which is a big national science award. I would never have applied if [the CLS] wouldn’t have had the baked potato luncheon, because I wouldn’t have known to.”

Burnette credits Ann Landstrom, assistant dean and director of global fellowships and awards at the CLS, with helping them figure out what fellowships and other opportunities to apply for and how to prepare application materials so they were as compelling as possible. “She was able to turn every con, or what you would think as a con, into a pro. It was incredible, yeah. I won’t say she’s a magic worker but she’s a magic worker,” Burnette says. They’re waiting to hear about a possible Fulbright grant, which they’d use to study with a professor in the Arctic Circle and defer graduate study for a year.

Burnette plans to pursue a doctorate in botany and has already been accepted by the University of Kansas. “Vince [Eckhart, professor of biology] not only convinced me that was an option but was the person that helped me figure out how to do a lot of that. He provided a lot of guidance about who I should talk to, who’s the better school, what school has the best reputation, who he knows.”

People like Eckhart, Landstrom, and Ashley Millet, manager of the campus greenhouse where Burnette has worked all four years, form a sort of personal network for Burnette to bounce ideas off of, learn how things work, and forge further connections. 

Two people in a cave with flashlights

It’s exactly the kind of networking Peltz wants all students to experience. “The other big piece with social capital is,” Peltz says, “in addition to increased self-awareness and a better understanding of how particular industries behave, or how decisions get made, or things like that, there’s also this sort of network effect that is oftentimes missing from particular groups of students. Meaning who they know, who is able to help them even further, may be initially pretty limited.

“So through experience, through these connections, and through developing one’s personal advisory board, students are leveraging the knowledge, skills, and connections — the social capital, of sorts — of others to develop their own. And that’s one of the benefits of coming to a small-knit community, because it’s through those relationships and experiences that those gaps tend to get filled.”


And Shields, who had such a rough first year? Well, she’s over halfway through her Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, studying housing displacement and social inclusion strategies in Hungary, India, and South Africa. 

Charting a Course from Classroom to Career


From their very first days at Grinnell, students work closely with an exploratory adviser to identify key experiences, interests, and relationships that can help them understand what’s important to them. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, career interest inventories, and reflection exercises can help students get a clearer sense of themselves and their goals. “That foundation helps students identify intentional action steps toward their professional, personal, and civic development,” Crawford says.


Advisers help students get ready for their next steps: reflecting on their experiences and skills to create application materials they will need for securing interviews, pursuing internships, and ultimately landing meaningful jobs. “We help them identify and articulate their hard and soft transferable skills for cover letters, resumes, and interviews to be competitive candidates,” Crawford says. 


The best way to learn if a specific path is right for a student? Test it. Grinnell offers a range of options including a three- to five-day externship shadowing program, Grinnellink alumni-affiliated internships, and service learning work-study options. “We encourage students to test out their career hypotheses by engaging in high-impact experiential learning opportunities,” Crawford says.

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Defining the Humanities

Elfenbein: It’s the study of how people make sense of their lives, but importantly, what it is that they produce to communicate, and how they communicate what it is they’re thinking about and experiencing.

Running: I think about the humanities from two different places. One is a place of making. … I’m really interested in humanistic activity that happens in process, and is a way to process, a way to build understanding of something.

I’m also interested in art’s ability to generate empathy. … Through works of fiction, through works of music, and through works of art, we can often access the experience of others and can put ourselves in that space.

Cummins: When I think of the humanities, I go back to the Latin word humanitas and what it meant to the ancient Romans. It could mean human nature, it could mean just being human; but it also could mean the qualities of being human. Then, humanitas would mean the kind of education that’s appropriate for a human. 

My reason for bringing this up is because I think it gets to the point that [Lee is] making, that the Romans thought it should induce a kind of empathy. Why? Because to be human is to be born, to live, and to die. And humanities is what we do to make sense of the interval in between, in large part.

Simpson: I love what’s developing, the combination of empathy and making and analytic skill. … What I’m thinking about more and more in my teaching and my scholarship are the ways in which the humanities are especially suited to combining those functions, so that we’re making and critiquing simultaneously.

Cummins: What the humanities are trying to spark is observation, the thought that comes, whether it’s drawing with your hands, observing, or whether it’s absorbing a text and being thoughtful and careful and finding something to say about it, even if it’s something ambiguous — embracing the ambiguity because life is ambiguous. 

Simpson: Those skills of assimilating a complex body of text and producing something clear and persuasive from it, and recording the process by which you got to it — all of that is valuable in itself, and valuable to employers. You can go down that road, and I very much think that’s true. But there’s also a great satisfaction in understanding the technique of someone who is really good at doing what they do. Essays can be beautifully done, too.

I think that students find it deeply satisfying to be able to understand that process, which is so opaque at the beginning. 

Feng: So I was thinking, as I listened to you, maybe the first step is to teach students, or guide them to the ways, of how we see things. Maybe it’s drawing, it’s artwork, or maybe it’s writing, it’s literature. And then they can try to do something like that as a first step, right? 

Why Should We Study the Humanities?

As new learning spaces dedicated to humanities and social studies rise up on the Grinnell campus, so are conversations springing up about what those disciplines commonly identified as “the humanities” mean to our lives.

The Grinnell Magazine assembled a group of tenured professors in the College’s humanities division for a roundtable discussion to share their thoughts. Participants included Monessa Cummins, associate professor of classics; Caleb Elfenbein, associate professor of history and of religious studies and director of the Center for the Humanities; Jin Feng, professor of Chinese, Orville and Mary Patterson Routt Professor of Literature; Lee Running, associate professor of art; and Erik Simpson, professor of English, Samuel R. and Marie-Louise Rosenthal Professor of Humanities. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Are the humanities still relevant?

Grinnell Magazine: What do you see as the future for the study of the humanities, their continued relevance to the liberal arts experience, and their impact on students’ overall life satisfaction? 

Erik Simpson head shotErik Simpson, professor of English, Samuel R. and Marie-Louise Rosenthal Professor of Humanities:
Part of what we do will involve responding to technological change, which creates new problems of understanding how cultural materials are created and received. If you get words and images from Facebook, to pick the most obvious example, you may not understand how they’re coming to you, in a pretty fundamental way. … To me, it makes the humanities all the more important for understanding and responding to the way our culture is being processed for us.

Monessa Cummins smiling Monessa Cummins, associate professor of classics:
I think one of the things humanities brings is a perspective to say, you know, the world’s always been somewhat chaotic and perplexing. And it’s not really a whole lot worse now than it was 2,000 years ago. 

Lee Running head shotLee Running, associate professor of art:
How do we remain observant? How do we remain informed? How do we remain in dialogue inside of a system that is in flux? And I think the training for that feels inherently humanistic to me.

Jin Feng head shotJin Feng, professor of Chinese, Orville and Mary Patterson Routt Professor of Literature: I also think this really is the hope of the humanities. We don’t necessarily train people to become a surgeon; of course they can become a surgeon, right? But that’s not the goal we have in mind when we start. 

I think it gives us a certain suppleness in emotional and intellectual muscles. … It helps you to understand yourself, and then understand your relationship with other people. By doing that you understand others. Understand people. That is a life skill. …

We teach students how to do critical thinking, to question the source of this information. Is that sent by a robot? That sort of thing. That is very, very practical, too. And this gets back to your question about satisfaction. Maybe happiness is not the right word, because that may not be the ultimate goal of an education. But you can enrich your life so much by doing the humanities. To be a full human being. To be a complete human being. Even though it’s messy. Even though it’s chaotic.

That’s how I see it. It teaches people wisdom.

Cummins: I’m not sure I want to say this — I’m not pushing for the practical value of humanities — but there is a practical byproduct of what we do, that I think serves our students very well when they go out into the world. We don’t have to preach it, we just have to enforce the apprenticeship and the learning of the skills and the listening, and they learn and they walk away much more discriminating and much more patient. 

Caleb Elfenbein head shotCaleb Elfenbein, associate professor of history and of religious studies and director of the Center for the Humanities:
I do think that an essential part of the experience of our students is seeing all of us continue to wrestle with these problems and to have a conversation like this one, where we’re all repeatedly saying that we’re learning in the process of this conversation. And that we’re learning in the process of larger conversations that we’re a part of and in collaboration with each other. That’s been so important in my life here, that I’m trying to figure out what it is to be a humanist in a context where we’re all figuring that out together.

Feng: And there is also the larger context outside of this College, outside the bubble, so to speak. And at tumultuous times, at chaotic times, how to hold onto the center, right? So that’s something we also would like our students to learn, as we are learning ourselves.

There’s still hope. Don’t lose heart if you study the humanities. You’ll see, across history, there are cycles. There is always chaos, wars, suffering, and so on and so forth. But we move forward.

Cummins: Yes, and that message can be profoundly inspiring, and profoundly depressing. The cycle continues. 

Elfenbein: I’ve really been thinking a lot about what role we, as humanists on the faculty, have in helping students think about what is happening right around us. Is this something that we bring up explicitly in classes? Is this something that we hope that filters through what we’re talking about? And what we’re seeing, especially around bias-motivated incidents. These are things that, as humanists, we are saying students will learn about difference. Where do the humanities fit here? Where do we, as humanists, fit here?

Feng: I think there are lots of emotional forces at play when we engage with other people. It’s not just about ideas. It’s, if I feel you don’t respect me, then I take offense. That happens quite often. So it’s the individual level as well as the system, the big picture. And we can only start with the individual. We cannot jump up to the whole national level all at once. 

We do class discussion. We do debate in class. That’s one way to model, to guide students, to lead them to learn an effective way, or a more civil way of engaging with different opinions. And it’s a safe place, in a classroom. 

Cummins: I have, at times, brought contemporary events into the classroom, or things on campus into the classroom, but I tend not to because I agree with Jin, that if you value honest disagreement in the classroom, if you teach students how to sit and be quiet and listen to something they may not agree with, but wait patiently for their turn to speak, that you are building up the habits that they will turn to when they confront these things outside the classroom.

Lee Running talks with her class at CERA

Running: The question of critique, too, I think is such an interesting one. … I think, for a class to come together and develop a set of critique standards — like, how are we going to speak to each other about these things that we have made together — is a really important skill for them to develop with each other because it is not imposed from outside. Here are four drawings together, each made by a different individual, each created with the same materials, same time limit. Four very different images in front of us. How do we talk about what these are? How do we evaluate?

Elfenbein: When I think about what the humanities have to offer when we’re thinking about difference, for example, my mind immediately jumps to content. But it’s really interesting that from each of you I’m hearing about pedagogy, and humanistic pedagogies, and actually how essential they are to laying the groundwork for effective engagement with the world. And I use “effective” very purposefully there.

Cummins: But I don’t have that goal in mind. Those are byproducts of the intellectual action in the class, if you see what I mean. Simultaneously I tell students, you will have skills that you can use in the marketplace, but that’s not why I do it.

Elfenbein: I’m not even thinking marketplace. I’m thinking in the dorm, as we watch our students really struggle with how to work through these very present questions around difference, diversity.

Simpson: I think we’ve talked mostly about the way we choose to respond to those prompts in the classroom. But, of course, a lot of our connections with students are one-on-one, too, and those come from the way we communicate with all of our students about our availability and the way we make ourselves present on campus. Not only in the classroom, but in a lot of other ways with students when we know that they’re struggling. I take that to be a very important part of my job, and a part that I do think that my training in the humanities has helped prepare me for: reading widely, understanding where a lot of different people are coming from, having the humility to know that my understanding is imperfect and that I need to listen.

On the value of well-designed learning spaces

Grinnell Magazine: Soon you will be teaching and collaborating in learning spaces designed specifically for the humanities and social studies community, in the Humanities and Social Studies Center (HSSC). How important is this?

Cummins: It’s really important to me in a really basic way. I teach Greek and Roman art and archaeology to 20 students in a classroom which has seating for 15 at a table. There are the people at the seminar table, and then there’s a line of people sitting in straight-backed chairs against the wall. It creates very much a first- and second-class feel. And I tell them they have to move back and forth between the table and the chairs so that it doesn’t feel like a group of insiders and spectators on the outside. 

When I go into the new building, I have profound hopes that I will be teaching in one of the case study rooms, where there will be horseshoe seating in two tiers, where my students can all see each other. No one is second class, and they can all see the images. I can lecture when it’s appropriate and move seamlessly to discussion, and they will all see each other. I look forward to that experience. 

Feng: The new building certainly will help improve our teaching space and growing space. But I also look forward to this idea of collaboration between different departments, the neighborhood idea.

[There will be scientists], art historians, and people moving into the new building to work with faculty members in the humanities and the social sciences to work on projects for a certain period of time. I certainly look forward to that because I really like interdisciplinary teaching and interdisciplinary research. Maybe some team-teaching idea will come out of that as well.

Caleb Elfenbein talk with student in the rare book room

Elfenbein: Having taught in very different spaces [across campus] really brought into relief the effect that space has on the way that we teach and the experience that students have because of the placement of what was a very small screen. I couldn’t project documents that I wanted to serve as a basis for discussion. In other classrooms, I haven’t been able to leave documents up to serve as a reminder and an inspiration as we’re having discussion, because I can’t have that screen down and use the chalkboard. 

So, just the flexibility that these spaces will provide will really be a difference-maker for me in my teaching. I’ve also found that, to honor the fact that students have very different ways of working up to participating in large classes, that having spaces that smaller groups can go and talk with some privacy, to formulate their thoughts, to say things that they might not have the courage to say in front of 26 other people, that’s really important to their experience, and to, ultimately, the kinds of discussions that we have in class. 

[Also] I would say that, in my experience of teaching in Steiner Hall, for example, or in ARH, where there really isn’t great public space, this building is going to make a big difference where people are hanging out or talking to each other, and they can sit and do that.

I think that is really significant in trying to imagine how, as a community, we function. Where is the public space right now? It’s the [Spencer] Grill, it’s some parts of Noyce [Science Center]. But I don’t know where else that is. And I’m actually really excited about having it.

Simpson: I think the café is going to be really important, too — to have an informal, unplanned gathering space that is within the humanities and social studies communities. 

Feng: I see that improved teaching and learning space can not only aid our teaching, but maybe also inspire our teaching through exploration of new pedagogical tools and methods and such.

Cummins: I am beginning, now that it’s actually taking shape, to feel excitement about seeing other colleagues. The dean was savvy, at least for classics. There are only four of us, and he divided us in two pairs. Two relatively closer to each other and two further down the hall, but relatively close to each other. And then, I believe English and history will somehow be interspersed. I don’t know who we’re getting, but it’s exciting to think about who those other people might be, because there’s enough proximity that we can feel cohesion as a department, and yet there’s a little bit of excitement about whom might I see and talk to that I don’t otherwise, and what may happen.

And in conclusion

Grinnell Magazine: Final thoughts?

Cummins: I would stress, in spite of the fact that this was about the humanities, the commonalities that we have with our colleagues in social studies and science. They too are vigorously involved in examining the human condition. They too care about all the things we care about. The knowledge they pursue may have different methodologies, but their teaching and their mission, I think, is the same as ours in the end. Human knowledge.

Simpson: It is a huge advantage, at this institution, that we do have that sense that we’re all on the same team, that we’re all interested in the liberal arts. 

Cummins: We are all components of the liberal arts. All of us together.

Feng: I think we should not lose heart because we, as humanists, specifically, but as instructors or professors of liberal arts colleges, we do teach resilience. We teach emotional resilience. We teach endurance. We teach hope. So this sounds, maybe, too amorphous, but —  

Simpson: I just voted for you.


Feng: — it explains what we are doing. I think we should also have the courage to say what we believe in. Sometimes students are conflict-averse. They do not want to disagree with other people. Sometimes they do not dare to, or feel uncomfortable, sharing their thoughts that other people would disagree with. That happens in my class as well. But I would really encourage people to say what they think. Then we can have some real engagement.

Cummins: I get that thing about crisis, but I experience a lot of hunger on the students’ part in the classroom. Hunger. They want something to think about. Then we have an obligation to offer what we have.

Feng: Yes, sometimes they also seek rules because it’s so much chaos outside. They want to follow certain paths. I think we could provide that, but also encourage them to explore on their own. 

No Room for Error

From flowering crabapples to sycamores, birches, and firs, the trees dotting Grinnell’s campus have served as familiar landmarks — as well as beloved spots to climb, make art, and meet for class — for generations of Grinnell students.

So when 31 trees between Alumni Recitation Hall (ARH), Carnegie Hall, and the Robert N. Noyce ’49 Science Center were scheduled for removal to make way for new construction, campus sustainability coordinator Chris Bair ’96 came up with a plan to preserve them.

A third-generation Grinnell graduate, he didn’t want the trees to be fed into a chipper and turned into mulch or used for lumber by someone with no connection to the College. “They seemed like a resource worth celebrating and keeping on campus for another 100 years in another form,” he explains. 

The first thing that came to mind: Use those trees to make furniture for the new buildings on campus.

Bair’s idea resulted in an internship in the summer of 2018 that brought together California-based furniture maker Tor Erickson ’01 and a current student, Isabella Kugel ’20, to build a desk that now greets visitors in the new Admissions and Student Financial Services center (ASFS), which opened in November at Eighth Avenue and Park Street.

Bair’s official title is environmental and safety coordinator, and he’s involved in anything green on campus, from recycling and energy efficiency to renewable resources. To get the project started, the Office of Development and Alumni Relations searched for Grinnellians who are skilled woodworkers. They found a half dozen. Bair pitched the idea of using campus wood for furniture to the architects designing the ASFS and the Humanities and Social Studies Center (HSSC). Designers, alumni woodworkers, architects, and Bair brainstormed and came up with several pieces — including benches, the reception desk, and a logo — that would go into the two buildings. 

Kugel is an independent major with a focus on agronomy and economic ethnobotany. She’s worked with Bair on recycling, composting, and other sustainability projects, so when she found out about the campus trees idea, she emailed Erickson. The two then set up the summer internship at Erickson Woodworking, outside tiny Nevada City, California. 

“We really wanted to use this wood to tell Grinnell’s story,” explains Bair. “Tor decided to come to Grinnell, then he used his carpentry skills for service after graduation (Erickson was a volunteer on a Rotary grant, teaching carpentry skills in Africa). The idea of taking campus wood and having it used by an alum who did Grinnell-type service to build a desk, then place it in the admissions building, is a neat story. And getting a current student involved brings it full circle.” 

Desk in AFA

Designed by Erickson, the desk is 14 feet wide and 5 feet deep, made from black walnut that came from three 80-year-old trees that stood just north of ARH. “It’s really exceptionally beautiful material, with incredibly rich and even-colored grain,” says Erickson. 

Erickson also made a 4-foot-wide Grinnell laurel leaf logo with curled edges that hangs above the desk. That wood came from a maple that grew near the old campus bookstore that was once located on the east side of Carnegie.

About a dozen of the 31 campus trees taken down — mostly maple, sycamore, and walnut — were large enough to be processed for lumber. Some of them were brought to a nearby farm in Grinnell for milling, then transported back to campus and stacked and stored. The trees that were too big for local milling were hauled to an Amish-operated sawmill in southern Iowa, then brought back to Grinnell. Some trees were too small for lumber but perfect for other uses, including spoon carving during a one-day workshop sponsored by the Center for Prairie Studies in early 2017. 

From the wood that was stacked and stored, Bair, Kugel, and Erickson (remotely), picked out hundreds of board feet of lumber for the desk — about 2,600 pounds of wood — that was then driven across the country to Erickson’s shop last summer via semitrailer. 

The family business

Both Kugel and Erickson come from woodworking backgrounds. Erickson’s parents founded Erickson Woodworking in the early 1970s and he grew up learning the craft. A history major at Grinnell, he traveled, built houses, and taught after graduation, then returned to California in 2007 to work with his father in the former gold mining town where he was raised. He’s since become a partner in the company. Erickson, his parents Robert Erickson and Liese Greensfelder, and one employee make and sell just 75 pieces of furniture a year, primarily chairs (rocking, dining, and office) and tables that for the most part come from trees harvested in California. 

Isabella Kugel ’20 uses chains to move woodKugel’s father has a custom wood cabinetry business outside Milwaukee; and like Erickson, she spent a number of summers working in her father’s shop. But the Erickson shop is “a very different school of woodworking,” Kugel explains. “Chair-making is different than cabinetmaking — they (the Ericksons) work with so many more angles. They do a lot of bending of wood and cutting shapes.”

Along with an intern from the Rhode Island School of Design, Kugel worked with Tor and Robert Erickson and a shop employee each day during her internship, focusing most of her time on the campus desk. She also helped build a rocking chair and designed and built two sawhorses from local sugar pine.

 She also processed the walnut wood slabs for the desk, cutting them into usable pieces, then running them through the jointer (which flattens and straightens the lumber), the planer (making it all the same thickness), and the table saw (to cut the correct width). 

“All the wood pieces had to be absolutely precise when we were building the desk,” says Kugel, who at night slept in a tent pitched on a pine platform outside the shop. “We measured to five-thousandths of an inch, so every time you milled down a piece, you had to be ever so precise on how much wood you’re taking off because there’s no room for error.” 

Once the pieces were processed, they were sanded in one batch so there was a consistent pattern to them. That pattern is especially obvious in the two raw-edged, walnut slabs that mirror one another on the front of the desk that visitors see as they walk in to the admission building.

Tor and Isabella standing in front of wood slabOne of the coolest parts of the internship, Kugel says, was a trip she and the Ericksons took to Zamora, California, about 75 miles from their shop, to mill lumber at a local sawmill. “I’d never experienced wood that way before. There were massive logs and we made lumber out of them. I’m used to ordering wood that comes prepackaged as beautiful, perfect boards. We were there for two days milling that lumber, working on a giant saw machine, debarking the wood, and using a huge winch to lift a 1-ton piece of wood.”

Grinnell connections, through wood

Anthropology professor Jon Andelson ’70, who initially connected Bair and Kugel and is director of Grinnell’s Center for Prairie Studies, finds the campus wood project especially appealing. Both Kugel and Erickson have taken classes with him (he’s one of Kugel’s advisers), and Chris Bair is a member of the Center for Prairie Studies Advisory Board. 

“There are so many connections in this project,” Andelson says. “It connects Chris and Tor to current students, it connects California to Iowa, it connects us to the natural world around us, it connects our heads and our hands, and it connects something old that was living until recently with something brand new being built today.”

In addition, says Andelson, “Prairie studies has been sponsoring the Prairie Artisan Series (where the spoon-carving workshop began), and the mantra for that is ‘add a little hand knowledge to your head knowledge.’ There are very few ways connected to the College that Grinnell students can gain some knowledge of manual skills. I think it’s neat to have Tor as an alumnus making his living with both his hands and his head, and I can see Bella [Kugel] doing that in the future, too.”

For his part, Bair says, “I’m tickled pink that we’re having stuff made out of this wood. Trees are taken down all the time and they’re a resource. In 50 years if we don’t want that desk anymore, it can easily be repurposed.” 

And the campus wood has even more life ahead of it: Pioneer Bookshop is selling pens, letter openers, bowls, and cutting boards all made from campus wood. Bair wants to get some of the wood into the hands of alumni for woodworking workshops during Reunion, and Tor Erickson is working with Andelson to plan another summer internship for a Grinnell student at his shop. 

For Kugel, who spent this past fall semester in rural Italy studying sustainable agriculture, the internship was incredibly rewarding. “We’re taught about networking — that you’re supposed to find alumni who are passionate about what they do — and that’s what happened,” she says. “I made this awesome alumni connection with Tor and felt like I could contribute my skills and knowledge. At the same time I was learning new skills and knowledge, all while having a lasting impact on Grinnell. 

“That really mattered to me,” she says. “To have an impact.”