In Professor Homer Norton’s British History course (1950–51), I learned the importance of reading original sources before making a judgment on historic and current issues. Today we can more easily find those original sources on the Internet, but I learned how to do basic research in the Grinnell library.
Prompt: Grinnell students read a great deal for their courses. What has stuck with you from your course reading, and why?
I revisited campus as an employee from 2014–16. During my “victory lap,” I had the pleasure of taking Professor Shuchi Kapila’s Introduction to Postcolonial Literature course, and Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh was the most impactful read for me. The first book in a trilogy (which I just finished, having received the third book for Christmas), Sea of Poppies presents perspectives on the British opium trade in China from a varied cast of characters. Readers engage with the effects of western imperialism on characters of different genders, ambitions, religions, social statuses, countries of origin, and cultural mores in a captivating, humorous collision of narratives. The novel was all the more interesting in the hands of Professor Kapila and students of different backgrounds, class years, and majors. I wish everyone had the opportunity to experience this book like I did, but I recommend it anyway.
Prompt: Send memories of your favorite pranks — including photos, if you’ve got them.
As part of my work-study, I worked all four years at Cowles Dining Hall. At the end of the dining room facing the North Campus field were two wide floor-to-ceiling doors secured only by a wooden beam on two hooks like a frontier fort. In the spring of 1977, I proposed to my imbibing buddies — Iowa drinking age was then 18 — that after finishing mopping the floors, I leave a window open so I could get in later and open the two doors. We would then empty out the dining hall and set it up in the field.
Word spread and 30 to 40 people showed up. Halfway through emptying out the cafeteria, security arrived. Everyone ran. A group of participants was hanging around Rawson Hall when security came out of the shadows and grabbed one person. This hero was taken to the president of Grinnell. When asked who helped him, he replied, “I did it all myself.”
The most elaborate [prank I knew of] involved 40 of the 48 residents of West Norris Hall. A variety of chains, padlocks, and other devices were developed for the project. At five minutes before midnight, 40 men moved with synchronized watches to all the doors of the (then) Women’s Quadrangle as well as Burling Library. All the doors were locked.
Those inside made various choices. One young man, under the alcohol weather, feared being found in the women’s loggia after hours. He feared so much that he leapt through a window, demolishing a bush in the process. Of course, some of the culprits were recognized.
The dean of men came to visit Norris Hall, and with what appeared to be mostly-hidden admiration, as well as more obvious disappointment, placed the entire hall on social probation for the semester.
In the second semester of 1977or 1978, an enterprising group of sophomores from Rawson Hall planted the “model” of the [untitled] sculpture [by professor Merle Zirkle] in front of the dorm. They found the model behind the Buildings and Grounds building. It was made of wood but was colored and was an exact replica of the one on central campus. Because it had snowed, no one could tell that it was not the original.
My good friend K was apparently bored or distracted during finals week one year and decided to print out and anonymously put up on our door embarrassing Facebook posts from my and my roommate’s middle school years. Or it would have been anonymous if I hadn’t opened the door and nearly tripped on him during the act.
Like any good friends would, my roommate and I decided to repay the favor. K is a hardcore Russophile, so we bought a boatload of paperclips online and spent several months of the next semester linking them together into chains. Right before finals week, we snuck into his room and strung them across the ceiling to make an “iron curtain” separating his side from his roommate’s. We then posted Cold War-era anti-communist propaganda across the walls and ceiling on his side. The Soviet flag that K used as a closet curtain was artfully thrown into the trash, and we hung up the Stars and Stripes instead.
2,000 paperclips cost about seven bucks on the internet. Seeing my friend’s face when he walked into the room was utterly priceless.
Prompt: Share a story about how a Grinnell professor — any professor — made an impact on your life.
My father died during my second year at Grinnell. That spring I took a class with a visiting professor from Taiwan. The week of my dad’s birthday, I emailed Professor [Mu-chou] Poo, saying that my deceased father’s birthday was coming up, that I was having a hard week and might miss class one day, but I would still hand in my paper on comparative death rites the following week.
I went to class on my dad’s birthday, carrying with me over 100 daisies of different colors. I asked people, “Would you like a flower? Snow, sunshine, or lavender?” I offered Professor Poo a daisy in honor of my father. He smiled and took one.
At the end of the semester, Professor Poo had us all over to his house for a Taiwanese meal. When clearing my plate in the kitchen, I saw on the counter something beautiful, and one of my final memories of Grinnell — a little glass jar holding a single, crinkly, wilted daisy.
Because I was considering the possibility of majoring in history, I enrolled in the required historiography course, co-led by Raymond Betts. Professor Betts was notable for his erudition, his enthusiasm for his subject and discipline, and his eagerness to provide unusual learning opportunities for his students, and that sealed the deal.
We were challenged to consider deep questions that led well beyond the immediate subject matter. How do we know what we think we know? How do differences in perspective and methodology affect what we are able to learn? I’m still exploring these ideas, in many contexts.
I signed up for Professor Dan Kaiser’s Basic Issues in European History my first semester at Grinnell, fall of 1982. Dan’s class turned me into a historian. And all it took was the one question he brought out in every single class discussion: “How do you know that?”
Every time someone propounded a theory of this or an interpretation of that, Dan’s rejoinder was always the same. “How do you know that?” It was all very well and good to throw your ideas out into the middle of ARH Room 33, but they were useless fluff unless we could back them up with specifics. We soon learned that even the specifics weren’t definitive enough without also questioning their intrinsic veracity, source, bias, and outside influences. Question everything. Take nothing at face value. Always, always ask WHY.
Whether it’s teaching a 6-year-old how to make change for her lemonade stand or mediating one of the dozen or so disputes that flares up every day, my companionship with “How do you know that?” continues to thrive, even 34 years later. Thank you, Dan!
Though I majored in classics at Grinnell, it was Roberta Atwell, professor of education, who made the biggest impact in my life after college. Roberta taught gender and women’s studies classes and, for one semester, guided me in an individual study of men’s liberation.
Roberta helped me begin to think about what it means to be an ally in various struggles for liberation. She did so with a caring, curious, and creative manner.
I didn’t know upon graduating in 1984 that I would dedicate my life to peace and justice. Since 1995, I’ve worked with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker nonprofit organization.
I’ve had to check my privileges and stay open to how, when, and where I can make a contribution to movements for freedom and justice. I’ve made many mistakes, and often feel like I’ve fallen short.
Still, I’m thankful to Professor Atwell for helping set me on this course. She changed my life for the good.