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Choosing Grinnell's future

In July 2011, as he concluded his first year at Grinnell, President Raynard S. Kington charted a 31-city regional alumni event schedule — starting in London in July 2011 and concluding in late-May 2012 in Seoul, Korea. At each stop, Kington delivered his “Choosing Grinnell’s Future” message, plus current news from campus.

Grinnellians seemed to appreciate the outreach. “Please convey to Dr. Kington my thanks for his trip to Denver to meet with Colorado Grinnellians. Although I read his remarks in a recent issue of Grinnell Magazine, it stimulated more thought on my part regarding how (and why!) I support Grinnell,” wrote Nancy Gallagher Mendenhall ’64 from Denver.

“This was such an inspiring event. I think alums, overall, feel that President Kington is making an effort to reach out, and that in turn creates a desire for alums to give back,” Margaret Higginson ’01 said about the Seattle event.

“This was an excellent way to meet alums in the area; I had no idea there were so many! Dr. Kington’s speech also made me feel more connected to what’s going on at Grinnell currently,” said Laura Wilson ’10, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Most cities on the alumni event schedule bested both 10-year average attendance and historical event records.

Details of next year’s tour will be posted on the Loggia soon.

Choosing Grinnell’s Future

Listen to Kington's message on Choosing Grinnell's Future, recorded live in Iowa City, Iowa, or read the transcript of Choosing Grinnell's Future.

You can also read "Choosing Grinnell's Future," in The Grinnell Magazine, Fall 2010, pages 10–17.

If I Can't Dance, I Don't Want Your Chocolate Chip Cookies

Zoe Schein '12Zoe Schein ’12 created "If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want Your Chocolate Chip Cookies" for one of her favorite classes — a six-week radio essay course taught last fall by visiting professor Jeff Porter, author of the memoir Oppenheimer Is Watching Me.

For more works by Grinnell students, see "Writers @ Grinnell" in the Summer 2012 issue of The Grinnell Magazine.

Transcript: Emma Goldman Radio Essay

Author, narrator: Zoe Schein

(“The Night That Goldman Spoke,” from the musical Ragtime plays)

Emma Goldman: I have just returned from Lawrence, Massachusetts, where eight weeks ago, the workers there went on strike. They are starving, their children are dying, but they are holding firm. And we must support them!

(Song continues, quietly.)

Narration, read by Schein:

I know, logically speaking, that Emma Goldman is not my grandmother. But the night I first saw the musicalRagtime, and the fictional Emma Goldman moved a crowd of chorus boys dressed as union workers to a rousing critique of Capitalism, a strange association took hold. I looked up at the stage, wide-eyed, as Goldman curled her fist into the air, seeming to command the soot-covered laborers to throw their arms skyward and jazz-hand in unison. As her voice rang out into the audience, commanded us to leave our little backyards and find a cause to die for, it sent chills through my eleven-year-old body. At that moment, my father leaned to my ear and whispered, “She’s buried next to your grandma Tobey, you know.”

(“The Night That Goldman Spoke” rises again)

Goldman: “You!: He thought he heard her say, “What brings you here today? Poor young rich boy, masturbates for a Vaudeville tart, what a waste of a fiery heart, dear,” he thought she said…

The key change, the sudden chill, the image of the figure above me. She stood in a single shaft of yellow light, feet planted in a heavenly cloud of fog-machine smoke. Some might say the three-part harmony caused a synapse in my young brain to misfire, but people usually talk about science when they want to deny a good old-fashioned divine intervention. All I know for sure is that at that moment, the thought was planted.

Emma Goldman is my grandmother.

(“The Night That Goldman Spoke” rises)

Crowd: Strike!

Mother’s Younger Brother: In the arms of fallen women, in the thought of suicide!

Crowd: Strike!

Mother’s Younger Brother: Like a firework! Unexploded! Wanting life but never knowing how…

Goldman: My brother, life has meaning, I’ll show you how!

Mother’s Younger Brother: ‘Till now…

Goldman: My brother, you are with us now!

(Song fades)

A few years after Ragtime, my family took a trip to Chicago to illegally spread Tobey’s ashes along a beach in Roger’s Park, one that she’d helped rescue from privatization. In the spirit of the weekend, we also swung by her grave.

(Ragtime piano plays.)

It’s true, both Emma Goldman and my grandmother, Tobey Silbert, are buried in the Forest Home Cemetery, the last stop for a number of notable communist, socialist, and anarchist activists. Most of them, like my Grandma Tobey, were active mainly in the Chicago area, but Forest Home houses a few more widely known remains. The Google keywords “communist cemetery Chicago” transported me to the “” site for Forest Home, which boasts a list of over twenty notables, including three congressmen, a dozen labor leaders, and, of course, Goldman. A disclaimer at the top of the page reads, “You are browsing famousburial locations. If you are looking for a non-famous grave, please start from our homepage.”

Goldman’s glamour was intoxicating. As my dad and his brother stood quietly, shoulders touching, by Tobey’snon-famous grave, I itched to examine the much larger tombstone a few feet down the row, bearing a relief sculpture of Goldman’s profile in withered bronze.

(Ella Fitzgerald’s “Dream a Little Dream of Me” begins to play.)

I could see from the corner of my eye that there was an inscription below the death date. And like a fan waiting for the announcement of the American Idol winner, I crossed my fingers anxiously. I was hoping for my favorite quote, the only quote I knew. “If I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution.” This single, clichéd statement summarized all of Goldman’s grandmotherly potential. She and I would dance our way to justice, or maybe just in the kitchen while we baked chocolate chip cookies. Over the speakers, Kelly Clarkson would belt “A Moment Like This,” or maybe “Miss Independent” if we were feeling sassy. Grandma Goldman would light a cigarillo, pat me on the head, and say, in the thick Lithuanian accent I knew from hundreds of plays on the Original Broadway Cast recording, “I’ve been waiting for you.”

(“Dream a Little Dream of Me” continues.)

Everyone would be jealous of my Grandma Goldman, the musical anarchist. The famous grave. I knew nothing about her politics, but I knew that Grandma Goldman was hip. She was edgy. And by association, I would be too.

(“Dream a Little Dream of Me” rises, then fades.)

I can’t say exactly when or why the shift occurred, but recently I’ve found myself thinking more and more about my actual grandma, Tobey. Maybe it’s because I’m at a liberal arts college where her radical politics are suddenly cool and interesting­. Maybe it’s my feminism, which sprouted late in high school, that compels me to shimmy back up the family tree towards my grandmother. Maybe it’s because she changed her name from Flora to Tobey, and for that reason I always suspected that she might have been a bit of a lesbian. We’d have something special to bond over, something to mark me as different, better, than the othergranddaughters.

(Joe Purdy’s “Wash away” begins to play.)

Purdy: I got troubles, oh, but not today. ‘Cause they’re gonna wash away.

Or maybe I’m just at that age when I’m realizing that my own memory might one day be lost beneath the persona of a flashier, more famous, adjacent gravestone. That I, too, might one day stand on the edge of being forgotten. I feel responsible, in some ways, for remembering her.

(“Wash Away” fades.)

I never met Tobey. She died before I was born, before my parents were married, even. So I only know her through stories—my dad’s, my Uncle Fred’s, or, more recently, the FBI’s. Their thoughts on my Grandma Tobey are preserved in the four-hundred page thick surveillance file that arrived one day on our doorstep, courtesy of Fed-Ex and the Freedom of Information Act.

Despite their diversity, there’s one thing each of my sources agrees on: Tobey was a badass communist.

(Kelly Clarkson’s “Miss Independent” begins to play.)

She built coalitions from the ground up, she spoke passionately at community meetings, and she never allowed her forty-year membership in the Party to erode her principles. Even as a leader, my dad told me, Tobey continued to pound the pavement, to knock on doors, to organize tenant unions and canvass for political candidates with her feet firmly planted on the sidewalks of Roger’s Park. While I have to note the bias inherent in her sons’ accounts of her, you just have to look at their birth certificates to realize that they spoke the truth about her devotion to the cause. While their last names belonged to Tobey’s husband, Lester Schein, her sons belonged to Communism first:

Clarkson: What is this feeling taking over? Thinking no one could open the door…

Howard Karl—that’s Karl with a “K”—and Frederick, were named for Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Even the FBI file can’t help but give her kudos.

“The source,” the file reads, referring to the neighborhood dry-cleaner who supplemented his income by snitching for the Feds, “The source described Silbert as one of the hardest working Communists in the Communist Political Association. She devoted nearly all her time to Communist Work.” Tobey was the monster of one thousand McCarthyite nightmares. I half-expected the Bureau’s exhaustive and unflattering physical description to include scales or claws. Instead, they noted her unusually “thick” ankles.

(“Miss Independent” rises, then fades.)

I’m proud that my grandmother was the hardest working Communist in Chicago. But I am the baby of a Capitalist era.

(Old-timey ragtime music plays.)

I type papers on my MacBook Pro. I have monogrammed Nike high tops. Almost everything I own has Batman on it. I recognize the absurdity of the things I surround myself with. Sometimes I even feel guilty. But because of my laptop, and my high tops, and my Bat Signal beach towel, the question keeps returning: If Tobey were alive, would she even like me?

(Ragtime music rises, then finishes.)

A while back I had a bit of a depressive spell. My dad did everything he could think of to cheer me up. In the car on the way to the sneaker store he cut through my melancholy. “Did I ever tell you about when I got Moy pregnant?” he asked, referring to the Chinese woman he had been involved with before he met my mom. I could tell from his tone that we were having one of those Mature Adult Conversations, and that I should suppress my reflex to respond with disgust.

“No, you didn’t,” I said.

“Well it was unplanned,” my dad said. “And so she was going to get an abortion.”

I felt more mature by the minute.

He continued, “But Tobey was pissed.”

This news came as a shock; it did not go with my image of Tobey, the benevolent activist, the progressive community leader. I felt as though he’d built up an idol, and was now poised to tear her down into humanity. “You’re kidding me. Tobey was against abortion?”

At this my father let out a giggle. “Tobey? Of course not! She just wanted an interracial granddaughter.”

(“Dream a Little Dream of Me” returns.)

Fitzgerald: … dream a little dream of me. Stars fading, but I linger on, dear, still craving your kiss…

In the midst of my fantasies about my Musical Grandma Goldman, I’d never stopped to think that Tobey might have had her own fantastical ideas of what her grandchildren would be like. I imagine Tobey’s vision: walking to a Party meeting with a small, half-Chinese girl gripping her hand. On the way home, carrying this alternate-universe me on her hip, she’d pass a dark sedan with tinted windows and say, “That’s your Nana’s federal agent! Can you say ‘Nana’s federal

“Na-na!” The girl would say.

Fitzgerald: But in your dreams, whatever they be, dream a little dream of me….

(Song fades).

Unexpected Learnings

Lanterns floating in the night sky in Chaing Mai
Photo courtesy of Sarah Casson ’11

Sarah Casson ’11 has spent her year after graduation on a study-abroad experience of her own design. She’s researching the effects of climate change on food production, but is learning that and so much more.

To date she has traveled to India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Cambodia interning with nongovernment organizations and universities. Currently, she is on an archaeological dig in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Below are a few anecdotes from Casson's blog. Find more about her travels in “The Do-It-Herself Watson,” on page 42 of the special, international-themed Spring 2012 issue of The Grinnell Magazine.


I must come across as a bit odd. With my trendy turquoise Vibram five-finger [shoes] on, I am mumbling to myself the Hindi equivalent of “big cake, BIG cake, good spoon, GOOD spoon … ” More often than not, I am not the only tourist (foreign or Indian) walking around at 6 a.m. Like I said, sometimes I get looks not just because I’m white female with blond-ish hair. Sometimes it’s the mumbling to myself a constant stream of nouns and adjectives while sporting stylish footwear.


In both villages, I tried to explain what I wanted and why, but perhaps language or cultural barriers prevented me from properly getting my point understood. I may not have learned much about many people’s perspectives on agriculture, water, and livestock in relation to a variable monsoon. I have, however, learned a lot about data collection, different cultural perspectives on what is important, and that I really, truly hate being force-fed multiple servings of various dairy products.


The walk to Bina’s village, according to Mezan, was “pretty flat.” After just 10 minutes into our walk, I was questioning his definition of flat. Iowa flat (or even New York flat) is not the same concept as Himalayan foothills flat. Going to Bina’s village we probably went down 1,000 feet in elevation.


The first night I arrived [in Chiang Mai], a bunch of us went to a lantern festival. It began with about an hour and half of monks chanting as the sun set. The chanting went along with a melody of stringed instruments, giving a surreal, beautiful feel to the field where 200 people sat quietly and listened. As the chanting ended, people working the festival walked around lighting the top of the poles. Then, at the exact moment [as] everyone else, we held our white cylinder lantern (same size as everyone else) above the flame. We let the flame catch the wick on the bottom of the lantern, which filled up with hot air. Then, when we couldn’t hold it down anymore against the power of the hot air pushing up, we let go. Slowly, it floated up, joining the others to become a small yellow dot in a cloudy sky filled with slowly moving yellow starlike objects. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.


This was originally published as an article in The Grinnell Magazine, Spring 2012.

"I Built the PEC"

Mitchell D. Erickson ’72

During the summer of 1970, I was a member of the construction crew that built the Physical Education Complex, or PEC. It was a hot job during a hot summer during a hot time. As I watched the building come down during 2010–11 while visiting my son, C.J. Erickson ’11, I began to remember.

Spring 1970

A bit of perspective is in order. Spring 1970 was tumultuous in America. Between April 13 and May 13, 1970:

  • Apollo 13 miraculously returned.
  • The Beatles’ “Let it Be” and The Jackson 5’s “ABC” topped the pop charts.
  • The first Earth Day was celebrated.
  • U.S. forces invaded Cambodia, followed by protests in the United States. Nixon was less popular than ever.
  • Four student protesters were killed and 9 wounded by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University, where students were protesting the U.S. invasion in Vietnam.
  • Two student protesters were killed and 12 wounded when police opened fire on a protest at Jackson State College.

Meanwhile, in Grinnell:

  • The College’s buildings and grounds workers went on strike. Students and faculty were mostly supportive.
  • Some Grinnell students walked to Des Moines, Iowa, to protest the Vietnam War and Vice President Spiro Agnew’s appearance at a Republican fundraiser. Phil Sasich ’72 achieved celebrity status when he was kicked out of the Agnew dinner for protesting.
  • A dozen students “returned” thousands of cans to beverage distributors, declaring “disposable cans and bottles are an ecological disaster.” Not only did they somehow escape arrest, the story made the Des Moines Register!
  • The College celebrated Earth Day with an environmental teach-in, trash pickup, a research project on solid waste volume and an organic picnic in central campus.
  • Crosses appeared on the central campus lawn; the ROTC was occupied; classes were suspended.
  • There were ongoing protests, meetings, angst, and fasting.
  • Grinnell officially closed for the spring semester without finals and without graduation for the Class of ’70; Freedom School classes continued throughout the summer.


After the College closed, I cast around for summer employment. My parents were in Topeka, Kan., an inhospitable place, so I decided not to go home for a summer job. I got along fine with my family and was not avoiding them, but I had grown away from high school friends and Topeka was just too Bob Dole-ish. I walked over to the PEC construction site, asked for a job, and was told when to start.

I had worked construction in prior summers, so I knew the drill: hard work, hot days, rednecks, colorful language, and limited achievement goals. Gilbert Construction, the low bidder, was really too small and too inexperienced for the job. They struggled with the complexities of the project. Before it was torn down, I could point to walls where we had not poured concrete properly, leaving voids that needed to be patched.

I could also point to the ramp that came up from the locker-room area toward Mac Field. When you pour concrete, you float the surface to make it smooth. For small surfaces, you use a hand float. Larger surfaces demand bigger tools, including a rotary float that looked something like a floor waxer. The wavy concrete on that ramp was caused by the assistant foreman, who had a big ego and thus had to do this plum job himself, even though he lacked the experience and skills to operate the rotary float on a slope. The best concrete finisher was black, but he was muscled aside for this key job. Once concrete sets, you get what you get. For 40 years, the waves were a reminder to me (and probably nobody else on earth) of hubris, racism, and incompetence.

The big event of the summer was setting the big, laminated wood beams over the pool. (Grinnell should have exploited “Largest Laminated Beams West of the Mississippi.”) Setting them on the concrete pillars required two cranes and steady nerves. The foreman and other skilled senior guys perched high on the pillars to seat the beams and bolt them in place. We laborers mostly observed. Somehow the beams got where they belonged and nobody got hurt.

The assistant foreman mentioned above did have one “skill” that I observed with bemusement. Clearly, he had taken Slacker 101 and always looked busy. He had a fast gait and would go around the site clockwise carrying a two-by-four, then come counterclockwise with a saw, then go clockwise with a level. He was always going from here to there, but never actually doing anything. It takes a lot of energy to not do any work!

I cut my hair for the job, but it was still longer than the crew cuts of the rest of the crew, who hailed from Searsboro, Lynnville, Sully, Montezuma, and other nearby towns. So, I became “Gorgeous George” (after a flamboyant professional wrestler whose signature was his long blonde hair) or just “George” for the summer. It was a form of endearment as we all tried to figure each other out and reconcile hippie/straight prejudices with the face of the likeable co-worker in front of you who pulled his weight in spite of his hairstyle.

Construction workers have a certain camaraderie — there are jokes, pranks, and tall stories over lunch. On payday, everyone tossed a dollar into a pot. The winner was the best poker hand you could make out of the last 5 digits of the check number on your paycheck. Pretty silly, but a little team-builder. I remember one particularly hot day when the temperature peaked at 103 degrees. We were all suffering and woozy, so the foreman knocked off work. As we were leaving the site, the big-boss superintendent drove in and started to get irate. The foreman simply said: “Sorry, boss, too f***in’ hot to work.” I just kept walking.

I made $1,156 that summer, or $6,495 in today’s dollars.


Summer 1970 in Grinnell

After work, I walked back to 1227 Park St., where I was living with Jim Dix ’71Roger Franz ’71, and Shri Venkatesan ’74 and flipped over to the Grinnell hippie life. We were four guys house-sitting for a professor’s family. We cooked together — my first experience with keeping my own house. I laundered dirty construction clothes. We partied at our place and at other student apartments. We sat on the front porch during the “thunderstorm of the millennium” and enjoyed the show. We shopped at McNally’s. A woman visitor to our house critiqued our housekeeping because a picture was askew. We responded by putting every picture in the place catawampus. Hippies crashed with us for a night on their way from here to there. I had a bicycle and got all over town faster than those with cars.

That summer’s student community was definitely colored by the tumultuous spring events. Among other things, the Freedom School continued into the summer and I went to several classes/meetings at a house on Broad Street. While my friends did research or formed a commune, I was a proletarian worker. But we all converged on various partying opportunities, such as a Saturday at Rock Creek State Park, several miles west of campus.

On Memorial Day weekend, Dix, Franz, and I among others drove over to join 60,000 hippies at the Kickapoo Creek Rock Festival in central Illinois to hear 30 rock, blues, and folk bands. We camped out, which meant sleeping on the hillside, periodically waking up to hear bits of an act before crashing again. I remember the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, B.B. King, and Country Joe and the Fish (“Gimme an F!”) It was a mini-Woodstock: “Cornstock.”

One party we missed that summer was “The Animals at Merrill Park.” Eric Burdon and The Animals” were a British psychedelic rock band best known for such hits as “The House of the Rising Sun,” “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” and “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” We saw the poster in town and dismissed it as some sort of poseur group. Later we heard that it had been the real thing. Bummer.


As classes started in the fall of 1970, we went back to our student routines. But the hulking construction zone just invited late-night exploration. We sat in the stands of the swimming pool and had bottle-rocket fights across the abyss. I had the insider knowledge of the place, having seen every inch of it as a construction worker.

In November, 1971, the PEC opened. We had had a long tradition of late-night swims in the old pool — four 20-yard lanes and a single one-meter diving board — and quickly transferred the party to the new, deluxe accommodations. We swam, we used the sauna, we used the steam room. This lasted for a couple months or so until the College’s buildings and grounds department, now known as facilities management, found out and re-engineered the doors so we could not open them with a coat hanger. It sure was fun while it lasted.

By 1971–72, my senior year, Grinnell had eliminated distribution requirements, so I no longer had to take physical education. Yet, I signed up for squash and swam in “my” pool regularly.

The PEC was designed and built before Title IX, so the focus was on athletics for men. As Title IX (passed in June, 1972) was implemented, the women’s side of the PEC rapidly grew busier and then overcrowded. The poured-concrete walls did not lend themselves to rearrangement, so the next four decades saw gross inequity in the accommodations for women. Further, the explosion of exercise and fitness among the students, faculty, staff, and townspeople further stressed the facility.

At reunions and other visits to campus, I have walked the halls of the Physical Education Complex, flashing back to memories of the summer of 1970 and my little contribution to Grinnell’s infrastructure.

The PEC is all memories, now. Good memories.

Mitchell D. Erickson ’72 is a chemist by training. He’s currently a senior adviser, Northeast regions, for the Department of Homeland Security in New York City.

This was originally published as an article in The Grinnell Magazine, Fall 2011.

Deconstructing the Physical Education Center (PEC)

Workers using handtools lever boards out of the floorIn the fall and winter of 2010, closely following the completion of the new Charles Benson Bear '39 Recreation and Athletic Center, workers dismantled and largely recycled the College’s Physical Education Complex (PEC).

You can read all about the 1971 building’s history in the Spring 2011 issue of The Grinnell Magazine.

Clawed diesel shovel pulls brick away from concrete block pillars

Ken Saunders, the College’s maintenance manager, meticulously documented the deconstruction process and shares these photos.

Funny Bits from the B&S

Matthew Imber ‘11’s student musing “Stirring the Pot” in Grinnell Magazine’s winter 2010 issue chronicles the long history of Grinnell’s alternative press. But it can’t possibly convey just how funny the B&S, the College’s current alternative paper (Imber edits it), really is. So, here are some of the tamer stories and story excerpts from the past couple of issues. We bet you can’t read them with a straight face! 

Students Protest Protesters Counter-Protesting Protest

OLD GLOVE FACTORY – A group of students calling themselves Students Against Pointless Protests (SAAP) is demonstrating in the JRC. Representatives from SAPP say they are trying to bring attention to important, overlooked issues, and that critics of their methods are overreacting.

SAPP is currently protesting the lack of a counter-protest against their protest.

“You shouldn’t pay attention to students protesting,” said Kory Steele ’11, handing out leaflets to faculty and staff outside the Old Glove Factory. “It only encourages them.” Steele has written letters to the editor in the Scarlet & Black after other students, including Students Against Students Against Pointless Protests, criticized his group for offending segments of the student body, using excessively confrontational language, and criticizing other student groups for being offensive and confrontational.

Steele, formerly of Students For Being Against Things and Grinnellians Against Supporting Things, has publicly denounced the usefulness of public denouncements.

Severe Storm Pours Tons Of Work On Grinnell

CAMPUS – Wednesday afternoon, a massive storm poured tons of readings, papers, and group projects onto Grinnell College. Early figures estimate an incredible 530 social lives were lost during the downpour.

The storm began shortly after classes, dumping a total of fourteen inches of work onto the campus and causing an estimated 1.2 million pages of reading. Flash flooding swept through the steps of Burling as students raced to take shelter from the storm in dorm rooms and the Grill.

Chief of Security Stephen Briscoe promptly sent out an email three hours later alerting the community of the severe weather, warning of textbook precipitation over the next several hours, including the possibility of seminar-sized hail.

Career Development Office Plagued By Leaked Emails and Cables

1127 PARK STREET- A posting by Wikileaks has revealed thousands of emails and cables sent by the Career Development Office over the past five years …. Those cables depict the college as using recently graduated alumni in sweatshops to knit all the clothing in sold in the Grinnell bookstore.

First-Year Loses Best Pick-Up Line With End of Tutorial

NOYCE – Donovan Richards ’14 is facing the prospect that with the end of Tutorial his best pickup line will become irrelevant. “Hey baby, what tutorial are you in?” worked well for Richards throughout the semester.

Sexually Frustrated Student Excited for TSA Pat-Down

DES MOINES – This winter break, traveling students will have a choice between backscatter machines or a full body pat-down at Des Moines Airport. Most students are dreading this, deathly afraid of cancerous outbreaks all over their bodies, or having flashbacks to Catholic school. Some students, however, like Harry Richards ’13, are excited. “Oh man, this is going to be the most action I’ve gotten all semester,” said Richards.


This was originally published in The Grinnell Magazine, Winter 2010.

Interview with Comedian Kumail Nanjiani ’01

Nanjiani chatting with audience in Grinnell's Harris CenterKumail Nanjiani '01 talking to Grinnell audience during his 2010 visit.
Photographer: Grant Dissette '12

Comedian Kumail Nanjiani ’01 returned to campus to talk to students in Paul Hutchison’s Taking Comedy Seriously tutorial and perform in Grinnell's Harris Center on September 8, 2010. Here Matthew Imber ’11 asks Kumail about his experience at Grinnell, his comedy, and scary movies.

Nanjiani, originally from Pakistan and a philosophy and computer science major at Grinnell, has appeared on The Colbert Report, The Late Show with David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Michael and Michael Have Issues, among other television appearances.

His new show, Franklin and Bash, will air on TNT this fall, and he can still be seen performing stand-up comedy around the country.

How was your visit to a tutorial?

It was really fun, actually. The kids were very interested and excited and curious. It’s different talking about humor in an academic way. The reading was pretty academic but our discussion was more fluid. I had a really good time.

Do you remember your own tutorial?

Yeah, it was Storytelling and Audience with Elizabeth Dobbs. I had a big fear of public speaking, which is why I chose that tutorial. Basically you studied storytelling and then at the end of the semester you write a story and perform it in front of the class. That was my first time performing in front of an audience. It was fun. I was very scared. I remember running it over and over again in my head—in the shower, everywhere. I think it went well. I had a good time. Very nerve-wracking.

Do you get nervous before your sets?

I used to get really nervous. Now I channel that energy into excitement. It’s a good sign, getting nervous—it means you care. If I’m not nervous, something’s wrong. In filming I get nervous the day before, but you do a scene maybe ten, fifteen times, so you only get nervous in the beginning. You settle in; you have multiple takes, and you get comfortable in the situation and people you’re working with.

You’re filming a sitcom on TNT. Are standup skills transferable to acting?

Definitely. With standup, you want to be in the moment, listening to the audience or reacting to them. Acting is very similar: being in the moment, reacting to the other characters. It’s not just that you memorize your lines and you recite them. I’ve never had any acting training and I don’t know what happens in an acting class, but I do feel that nine years of standup really helped me act.

You appeared on The Colbert Report as “Omar,” Stephen’s prisoner from Guantanamo Bay. How do you feel about playing racial stereotypes?

Well, in The Colbert Report he thinks my name is Omar, but my [character’s] name is actually Homer, and I’m Greek. I really like doing that—it subverts the stereotype. There are a lot of roles out there that are stereotypical, and at some point I made the decision that I wouldn’t do a part where I had to put on a thicker accent. It just gets hard for me to distinguish whether something is funny because it’s funny or because it’s a stereotype. I try to stay away from stuff that’s just caricaturish. It’s not for me.

What’s it like working with Stephen Colbert?

He’s a very friendly, very sincere, very genuine guy. Very talented and hilarious. I would see him snap into it, and I would feel like he was right there, reacting to everything I was saying. Doing that scene with him was really educational. He’s a genius. He orchestrates that whole show. To have somebody who’s so funny and so specific about what they want, but is still a good guy…everybody on set looked up to him and liked him. It was a really good experience.

An audience of Grinnell students is quite different from, say, an appearance on Letterman. Do you cater your set to different audiences or is it fairly consistent?

I try to keep it fairly consistent. Certain jokes I would do at Grinnell, but I wouldn’t do on Letterman. Doing comedy for an audience is very interactive. The audience has to meet you halfway, and if I’m doing my job right, no matter what the audience is, they’ll be willing to meet me halfway. You’re not talking about them; you’re talking about yourself. You’re giving something. I try to write so that most audiences will respond. But at Grinnell I can talk about being at Grinnell and I can’t do that anywhere else.

How often do you change your set, rotating out the jokes?

Pretty often. Some stuff falls out after a couple months, some after a couple weeks. Some jokes last a year. I try to write every day and whatever is the oldest, whatever feels the most boring to me, will drop out and the new stuff will move in. In New York and Los Angeles, I usually do ten minute sets — generally the ten newest minutes I’ve written, If it’s not funny to me anymore, it’s hard for me to convince other people that it’s funny. The more you write, the better you get, and if I’m not using the new stuff I’m cheating myself out of stuff that’s better.

Do you have a favorite joke?

The one about the guy who called me “Kumar,” from “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” I like because it’s personal. Whenever anybody is racist to me, it really gets to me, so I sat down and tried to figure out why. It’s because I have no comeback. As a comedian, it’s all about comeback, having the last word. When someone’s racist, they take that away from you.

What about hecklers?

Usually the people who do it think they’re helping. I talk to people in the audience and it helps me set the scene and be present and people feel more involved. So I think maybe I invite that a little bit more. But you don’t get hecklers that often and I don’t really mind them, because suddenly the whole audience galvanizes on your side, against the heckler. But dealing with hecklers is something that only comes with experience and confidence. It’s really hard.

You include a lot of jokes about horror films. Do you have a favorite?

The Shining is a really, really good. It has chump scares, it’s creepy, it looks great, and it has iconic moments…When you watch it, you realize it has so many images that have become part of the pop culture lexicon, like the girl twins or the elevator of blood, or “Here’s Johnny!” It’s my favorite.

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This article appeared as a web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Fall 2010.

Women and Drought 101

Indian women filling water jugs

Three Grinnell students and associate professor of theatre Lesley Delmenico traveled to India last spring to learn more about social implications of drought.

Delmenico developed a theatre production about women and sustainable water issues in India. Students Sunanda Vaidheesh ’12, Morgan Bober ’12, and Jordan Levine ’10 are studying sociology and global development, human rights and sustainability, and political science, respectively. They all wanted to witness how a lack of water affects educational, economic, and vocational opportunities for women.

The four spent 10 days working with the Jai Bhagirathi Foundation, which deals with water management issues in the Thar Desert. Their destination was a village in west India that drought has devastated for 43 of the past 50 years.

The students shadowed village families and were in awe of the strength of the people there. “I am from India so I have the cultural context,” Vaidheesh said, “but I was surprised by what it means to be Indian in a rural village versus my own urban experience. We learned so much as they opened their door to us. ”

“We take so many things for granted that I appreciated the reality check,” Bober said. “They are so happy and live without all of the amenities we have. I was really inspired by the trip to do more development work on the ground.”

The Grinnellians found that drought is harder on women than men, since women are often those who must walk hours every day to fetch water. This keeps them out of school and from doing other activities.

The students received two directed research credits for the life-changing experience. But they say the biggest gain was the trip’s exposure, which intensified their interest in field development work. Bober will study in Ghana this fall and plans to work with high school students next spring to spread awareness of global issues through World Water Day.

“This trip inspired me for the greater good,” says Vaidheesh. “Good things can happen.”

Travel funds provided in part by the Center for International Studies.

This article appeared as a web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Fall 2010.

New Year, New President

President Kington and some of the students at NSO 2010

President Raynard Kington, M.D., Ph.D., had a special bond with his audience during New Student Orientation this fall. In one of his first official acts as president of Grinnell College, he faced a sea of faces and explained “You and I are beginning a grand adventure at the same time.”

In a whirlwind weekend, Kington ended his tenure at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on a Friday, flying in to welcome the incoming class of 2014 the next day. Over the next several weeks, he and his family will be settling into the community and college life.

In an early act, Kington will open the 2010-11 academic year with a Scholars Convocation on Thurs., Sept. 2 at 11 a.m. in Herrick Chapel. He will discuss “Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health in the U.S.: Patterns, Causes, Trends,” reviewing the scientific evidence on racial and ethnic disparities and the challenges for intervention.

Grinnell College welcomes our newest president.

This was originally published in The Grinnell Magazine, Fall 2010.

Nine Years of Kevin Cannon '02 Cartoons

Kevin Cannon ’02 was still a student when his cartoons first delighted Grinnellians on the pages of The Grinnell Magazine. His wry, colorful graphics have had a long run.

The end of Cannon’s cartoon “run” with the magazine this summer coincides with another — the conclusion of Russell K. Osgood’s 12-year tenure as President of the College.

This article appeared as a web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2010.