Talk of the Quad: If you give a polar bear a rake
Another start to a fall semester is marked by another free T-shirt: grinning polar bears wearing overalls and wielding instruments of manual labor.
Common Good Day gets groups of students (teams, first-year floors and the rogue individual volunteer) together with faculty and staff for an afternoon of volunteer service in the greater Brunswick community. After a morning of pump-up talks and student musical performances in Farley Field House, participants lend about three hours of labor to local nonprofits and municipal organizations. The hope of the event is presumably to promote student engagement with the McKeen Center for the Common Good and long-term service.
It is a noble pursuit to strive for community engagement and service in the student body of a college. At Bowdoin, time is a scarce resource and service is not work that can be done in a day; it requires time and planning and critical thinking and reflection.
A major part of Bowdoin’s brand is its public commitment to the common good. As Joseph McKeen, Bowdoin’s first president, stated in his 1802 inaugural address: “Literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them.” Today, this commitment is restated in the Offer of the College, and understood as Bowdoin’s guiding philosophy. It can be easy to overlook, then, Bowdoin’s status in the world and the ways that, as an elite institution, it furthers private interests and privileges those already likely to succeed in a capitalist society.
As the 2013 National Association of Scholars report reminds us, Bowdoin is overwhelmingly liberal. That’s true. The problem with this liberalism, though, is that it is often surface-level, and focuses on doing small good deeds as opposed to transforming a system that roots itself in injustices and reproduces inequalities. Edward Abbey, the American essayist, wrote: “The conservatives love their cheap labor; the liberals love their cheap cause.”
Common Good Day is a great example of this “cheap cause.” It is the supposedly selfless donation of time to support organizations in need of help: a small, musty historical society, a farm with immigrant workers an hour away, a food bank. We dip our toes into service, shake a hand or two, snap some photos and accept gratitude. But, are the organizations benefitting as much as Bowdoin is?
Without the surrounding rhetoric, Common Good Day is simply a safe group-bonding activity. It’s good for the College and it’s good for the students who walk away feeling as if they’ve done something meaningful. At best, it provides organizations with one afternoon of extra help that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. At worst, it burdens the organization and leaves students with a savior complex. Either way, it doesn’t create a meaningful impact unless it’s surrounded by comprehensive education and critical reflection, and followed up with continued service. In fact, the McKeen Center’s Alternative Break programs do this by holding weekly seminar discussions leading up to a seven-day service immersion program, and following the trip there is a debriefing conversation.
Although it’s easy to slip on an ethically-produced polar bear T-shirt once in a while, promoting the common good as a brand is hollow.
While we’ve written “common good” seven times in this article (now eight), the words themselves mean little. They can be used to justify almost any action. (Consider Bowdoin’s promotion of military service during WWII.) Go beyond the rhetoric and consider what the common good means at Bowdoin, as it’s imagined from the Ivory Tower. Consider, too, what it might mean after you’ve left Bowdoin. Interrogate whether it means anything to you at all.
Emily Weyrauch and Eliza Graumlich are both members of the Class of 2017.
Musicians unplug for Sunday performances
Most students know Smith Union as a study space, home of Jack McGee’s Pub and Grill or the place where they can pick up care packages from home. But in addition to all of these functions, once a week, student performers turn the cozy, couch-lined area behind the Café into an impromptu concert hall.
Unplugged, a student-run acoustic concert series, takes place every Sunday night at 8 or 9 p.m., depending on the week. One to two artists perform at every concert, each one playing a 25-35 minute set.
Though the typical Unplugged performer tends to be a singer-songwriter playing guitar, past concerts have featured harmonica, Chinese harp, banjo and percussion instruments. There is just one rule regarding the performance: the instrument must be unplugged.
The space—dimly lit and filled with overstuffed couches—lends itself to an intimate show.“It’s a welcoming, comfy atmosphere. It doesn’t demand a formal performance and it’s very homegrown in that way,” said Veronica Verdin ’15, a leader of Unplugged.
Sam Dodge ’17, her co-leader, agrees. He finds that the space provides artists with a unique platform to share their work in a safe environment.
“Even though the sound does usually carry all across the Union, it doesn’t feel that way so people are able to sing out and express themselves pretty well,” said Dodge.
Artists who have played for Unplugged echoed Dodge’s sentiment.
When Evan Montilla ’17 played his first Unplugged show last year, he debuted songs that he had written himself. Since then, he has performed in three more shows. Montilla enjoys performing for Unplugged because it forces him out of his comfort zone.
“If I had a [microphone], I would rely more on voice, but without one I can do a lot more tricks on the guitar, whether it’s slap guitar or doing harmonics or double tap music,” he said.Unplugged was created in 2009 by Farhan Rahman ’10 in an effort to enhance Bowdoin’s music scene.
“I don’t think there is enough live music at Bowdoin and I don’t think there is enough student support for live music,” Rahman said in a 2009 interview in the Orient.
Supporting live music remains an important tenet of Unplugged today, especially to Dodge.
“I think a lot of people view unplugged music as less worthy than electric music because a lot of times it’s people covering songs [that are typically] played on an electric guitar with a full band. But I think unplugged acoustic music is an art form in its own right,” said Dodge.
Though Unplugged will continue to support the live music scene, it has also developed new goals.
For Verdin, Unplugged is about diversifying the music scene at Bowdoin.
“It’s important to me to maintain an openness about it and to not have one performer performing multiple times, so that if a new performer wants to perform, they have the chance,” said Verdin.
For Dodge, Unplugged acts as “a way of preserving the folk tradition for future students and future generations.”
“Folk is my focus,” he said.
So far Unplugged has remained true to its name in only allowing acoustic music—last year Andrew Roseman ’14 played his electric guitar unplugged. But both leaders see opportunity for expansion and deviation from the rules.
Dodge hopes that a future Unplugged concert will feature a piano performance.
“I think that would be a lot of fun and give a lot of new people a chance to perform,” he said.
However, incorporating piano could mean straying from Unplugged tradition.
“I don’t know if that would mean relocating to a new space and finding a place that actually did have a piano or just letting someone break the rules a little bit and bring a keyboard up here,” said Dodge.
Verdin flirts with the idea of going electric, too.
“There’s a person who does electric violin… and he really wants to do an Unplugged [performance] but he would have to plug in. This might be a new era,” Verdin said.
Though “plugging in” does go against the name of the series, staying true to the name is perhaps less important than staying true to Unplugged’s current mission.
“If the Unplugged aesthetic is promoting greater diversity in music, then maybe [he’s] got to quietly plug in. Maybe that’s acceptable,” Verdin said.
Portrait of an artist: Mik Cooper '14
If you ask Mik Cooper ’14 how she got into photography, she’ll tell you it was mostly by chance. At age 13, her father gave her his 35 mm film camera—a relic from the ’70s.
“From there I just started… developing photos and printing,” she said.
She started printing in her high school’s darkroom, working exclusively with black and white film. Then, she began to take darkroom classes at school, and later spent a few summers taking courses at the International Center for Photography in New York.
Theater department wakes up their fall season with The Pajama Game
Last night, the Department of Theater and Dance opened “The Pajama Game,” their first musical theater production in three years.
The musical, adapted from the novel “Seven and A Half Cents” by Richard Bissell, examines life inside the fictional Sleep Tite Pajama Factory. While the workers fight for fair pay, romance blooms between the factory’s superintendent and a the head of the grievance committee petitioning him for higher wages.
“It’s about workers’ rights and fighting for a raise,” said Davis Robinson, the musical’s director and professor of theater at Bowdoin.
Student-curated gallery brings art to H-L
Tucked behind rows upon rows of federal documents in the basement of Hawthorne-Longfellow Library (H-L) is the Ramp Gallery, a new exhibition space for student artwork. Earlier this month, the gallery unveiled its first exhibit, “90 Miles.”
Named for the distance between Cuba and the United States, the show features writing and photographs by Jack Mensik ’14. The gallery, located in the underground passageway to the Hubbard Stacks, is currently curated by James Boeding ’14.
Although a variety of places on campus display student work, the Ramp Gallery is one of the few that isn’t reserved for a specific class or department. According to Boeding, the Ramp Gallery was established “to create an opportunity for students who aren’t in art classes to exhibit work,” though he noted that art students can submit work as well.