The Brown Reader
Preface JUDY STERNLIGHT
In anticipation of Brown University’s 250th anniversary, I returned to Providence at the start of 2013 to discuss the creation of this anthology with members of the Brown community. We talked about some of the remarkable writers whose voices, opinions, and life choices had been influenced by this singular Ivy League institution (and how some of those students had influenced the university right back), and we agreed that a collection of original pieces by these alums, recalling their college days, would be a great way to commemorate Brown’s sestercentennial.
Being back at Brown for the first time since my graduation in 1982 was fascinating and surreal. I discovered that some favorite landmarks—Jake’s coffee shop on Thayer Street where I used to study, and the funky vintage clothing stores where I’d found silk bed jackets and rainbow-striped stilettos to enhance my waif look—were long gone. I recognized the outlines of College Hill, but some of the renovated buildings clashed with my expectations. Still, I found touchstones everywhere: the Rock, the John Hay Library, and Carrie Tower appeared just as I remembered them. And there was a vital energy in the people I encountered on my stroll through campus that filled me with a profound sense of recognition.
When I caught sight of the Ashamu Dance Studio in Lyman Hall—bang! I time-traveled back to Julie Strandberg’s modern dance class. I was a skinny dancer, warming up to a recording of Vivaldi (or a pair of live drummers) as Julie, graceful and muscular, drifted among us, calmly adjusting our positions as we stretched. The studio was brand-new in 1979 and the sprung wood floor still smelled fresh.
Sunshine poured through the big, square windows, warming the floorboards under my bare toes. Names and bodies and faces came rushing back.
I was rehearsing a duet with my future housemate Barbara to the song “Planet Claire” by the B-52s. We wore one-sleeved, polka-dotted unitards (mine purple, Barbara’s pink) and our synchronized New Wave piece was greeted with raucous applause at the annual Faunce House dance concert . . . One year later, a performance at Faunce House would find me in despair; I had just split up with my rock-musician, law-school-bound boyfriend when I was cast as an old cockney hag in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara. I chose to embrace the misery, blackening my teeth with theatrical wax to match my raggedy costume, while sharing a dressing room with actresses in beautiful gowns.
My years at Brown were filled with dramatic mood swings. But while I was emoting up and down, I was also learning. I focused intensely on the performing arts from practical, technical, historical, and philosophical vantage points but I also explored psychology, sociology, and creative writing, and learned the art of collaboration through Production Workshop, the thriving student-run theater.
Some students were very adventurous, taking full advantage of the freedom of the New Curriculum (a system that has been described as Escher-like) and the option of Satisfactory/No Credit (S/NC); they took big chances in studying subjects they knew little about or combined disparate interests into cohesive paths of study. Examples in The Brown Reader include Christine Montross, who combined poetry and medicine; Brian Christian, who paired his computer science background with creative writing; and Marie Myung-Ok Lee, who concentrated in economics, fell in love with a US history class, and ultimately became a novelist.
My common thread was a keen interest in human behavior and a passion for storytelling. This dual focus, which intensified in my classes at Brown, would one day help me to navigate the various stages of my career in theater, communications, and publishing. At
Brown, I learned from gifted professors, but I was also inspired by the independence and idiosyncrasies of my classmates. This gave me a lifelong hunger to work with bright and intuitive people who are experts at different things—which is one of the greatest rewards of being a book editor.
In January 2013, as I peered through the windows of Ashamu, I imagined class after class of Theatre Arts concentrators moving through that airy, sunlit studio over the years, pursuing their dreams, while I was off living my life in New York, forging my own path to good storytelling.
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Working on this anthology has given me the chance to collaborate with an extraordinary group of writers and creative artists whose essays invite us to see the world—and Brown—through their eyes, over the past few decades. Alternately hilarious, poignant, subversive, and thought provoking, the cumulative effect of these pieces, as one early reader told me, is a kind of love letter to the humanities.
Filled with vivid historical details from the past sixty years, The Brown Reader takes an intimate look at what these students’ academic passions were, where they lived, what they thought of the food at the Ratty, whom they fell in love with, and how they engaged with what was happening in the world around them. At the same time, it follows the sweep of Brown’s evolution over the years, as the university responded to student protests and changing times, initiated new programs and policies, and fostered what Donald Antrim calls “a philosophy of education that embraces agency and autonomy: You are among mentors and your peers, the University seems to be saying to its students, and you are nevertheless independent, singular, autodidacts in a way . . .”
Some of the recollections in this anthology shed negative light on Brown at different points in time, while others offer rave reviews or poke fun at the school. This lack of whitewashing—a willingness to convey the bitter and the sweet, the outrageous and the very
personal—strikes me as an especially Brunonian approach that should resonate with anyone who has spent time at the school. I was surprised by the number of transfer students who landed in this collection. But it’s an indication of how many of us carefully chose Brown, and sometimes fought hard to get there.
Limited by time, space, and authors’ prior commitments, we knew it would be impossible to include all of the professional writers who deserved a place in this collection. Our aim was to gather a diverse sampling of recollections from writers who attended the university from the 1950s to the present—inviting them to help articulate (as Jeffrey Eugenides puts it) “what makes Brown Brown.”
Because of our focus on professional writers, readers will see an emphasis on the humanities and arts in this anthology and few pieces on science, mathematics, or sports. We regret this omission but hope that these contributions will invite each reader to revisit—or anticipate—their coming-of-age years.
Marilynne Robinson writes, “I have come more and more to realize that the trust I placed in Brown was very graciously answered by the trust Brown placed in me.” We each took away something different. And whether we realized right away what we had learned or it took some time to discover it, our educational journeys at Brown continued to shape us long after we had walked through the Van Wickle Gates at commencement.