MIDDLEBURY — For the next few weeks most Middlebury College students won’t be studying typical academic subjects like biochemistry or economics. Instead, they will learn about topics ranging from adventure writing to Motown.
As they return from their holiday break, students this week began Winter term classes, known casually as J-term. In a four-week span students take courses on a wide variety of topics, many of which they are not able to explore during a full semester. The classes meet for eight hours a week, much more often than a typical semester-long course, allowing them to explore a single topic more deeply.
“J-term is a time to take something a little out of the ordinary, something not routinely in their course requirements,” said Kristine Pozatek, a 1996 graduate of Middlebury College who this winter is teaching a class on wilderness therapy. “It’s more intensive, and it gives students an opportunity to immerse themselves.”
Miles Donahue, a world-class musician who lives in Addison Counting and provides private instruction in saxophone, is teaching a class about Motown music this winter. He welcomes the chance to teach students who have the time to really get into the topic.
“J-term is a great idea because it’s a concentrated effort in just one subject,” he said.
Donahue’s Motown II class touches on history, race relations and music theory through the lens of the Motown genre. But students will also learn the tools of jazz that were employed by Motown, play music in the genre and ultimately perform a concert with the students accompanying a professional singer of this genre.
Classes such as this one allow students to expand their knowledge on a specific subject while learning about broader topics as well.
“We learn the musical theory that’s used in that type of material, the types of musical tools in the genre,” said Donahue. “It lends itself to improvising. I teach the kids the tools of music they need to know in order to improvise at a higher level.”
He noted that the Winter term structure works especially well for musicians.
“People who play musical instruments are so busy with academic interests they don’t have time to practice their instruments,” Donahue said. “I think this is a great opportunity for people who like music to have a concentrated month to do it.”
Like many J-term classes, this Motown course encompasses a significant amount of practical learning. Students will learn improvisation techniques and methods to memorize songs, culminating in the public performance on Feb. 2, at 8 p.m. in the Town Hall Theater.
To lend authenticity to this performance, Donahue will bring in renowned Motown singer Chris Waller toward the end of the course, to help students truly learn the songs on a near-professional level.
“I think it’s great for the students to work with someone like Chris Waller, who’s not only a great singer but a great entertainer, who brings a professional energy level,” said Donahue.
The course focuses on learning songs, playing instruments, and learning the musical tools necessary to higher-level improvisation.
“It’s a lot to accomplish in a month,” said Donahue.
Some courses take a subject, or couple of subjects, and introduce students to a new field combining them. Pozetek’s wilderness therapy class does just this.
“I think of wilderness therapy as a crossover between environmental science and psychology,” she said.
Pozetek recognizes that many students going into the course may not be able to define wilderness therapy.
“It is treatment for mental health issues, but you are using the wilderness as a method of change,” she explained.
In the course, students will use various concepts, such as environmental science, ecopsychology and other relevant ideas and theories to develop a fuller picture of wilderness theory. Pozatek said students will learn “how the natural world is beneficial to us.
“The idea is to expose students to another idea that’s out there,” said Pozatek.
Weybridge author Peter Lourie is teaching a J-term course that will certainly present new ideas — “Adventure Writing and Digital Storytelling.” In this class students will undertake their own adventures while using equipment such as a video camera, laptop computer or audio recorder, and then write a narrative in the adventure-travel style.
“It’s not an academic class about the analysis of adventure writing, the idea is you can have an adventure in many ways,” Lourie said. “It’s a kind of travel adventure writing mixing people, places and settings. You put it all together in a personal essay because it’s something you are passionate about.”
In the class students will hone their narrative writing skills and learn how to use computer programs such as Final Cut. Lourie connects students with local experts on topics ranging from dog sledding to bobcat hunting to help them begin their adventures.
“I try to link up students with local people. It’s a neat connection between the college and the community,” said Lourie. “What I really love about is that they get passionate about their adventure and they’re writing out of passion.”
Lourie summed up the value of J-term for his and other professors’ students.
“It is really a great way to work on a course,” he said. “Students can really get into a subject they are interested in.”
Reporter Kaitlyn Kirkaldy is a January intern at the Independent.