Among digital natives, a letterpress revived

In 1966, the Alexander Hamilton Private Press, a student enterprise devoted to fine hand printing, completed its first project — an excerpt from The Journal of Samuel Kirkland. Michael Lang ’67, a Greek major enamored of printing and books, worked for more than two years to establish the letterpress operation housed in the basement of Root Hall.

Lang started contemplating a student-run letterpress in 1964 and took the idea to College Librarian Walter Pilkington, whom Lang had met when he first explored Hamilton’s Rare Book Room. The supportive Pilkington introduced Lang to the owner of Widtman Printing in Utica, which donated 40 cases of type and let Lang borrow a proof press, according to a 1966 story in the Alumni Review.

The critical donation, a Chandler & Price platen press, came from Clark Minor, Class of 1902 and chairman emeritus of the Board of Trustees. It was long in the making, but the first project of the Alexander Hamilton Press was a success: 150 copies of the Kirkland volume, with type handset by students. Forty copies went to libraries and collections; the rest sold for $3 each, money to bankroll another project.

After Lang graduated and the decades rolled on, use of the letterpress dwindled. It sat in the basement, neglected but not entirely forgotten. 

Type set for printing. Photo: Alex Rihm

Andrew Rippeon discovered its existence even before he took a job at Hamilton in 2014 as a visiting assistant professor of literature and creative writing. He was reviewing information about the department when he saw a note on a syllabus that mentioned a College manual press. That caught his eye; Rippeon had begun printing and bookmaking as a doctoral student.

The syllabus was Margaret Thickstun’s, the Jane Watson Irwin Professor of Literature and Creative Writing, who had rescued the press and related equipment from Root and moved it to Dunham Residence Hall, intending to use it for a course at some point. Rippeon repaired the equipment and started printing, at first working in the closet where it was stored. He knew from experience that if he could introduce the letterpress to the College, people would be interested for all sorts of reasons.

Over the last three years, Rippeon shepherded the restoration of the press and developed a “letterpress lab.” With support of the College, he’s acquired more presses and worked to engage students and the Hamilton community at large with the art of the letterpress.

Its use is growing. Rippeon uses the press in his teaching, and there’s now a student Letterpress Club. Rippeon works with a group of incoming students during orientation to print copies of the College Honor Code for other first-year students. And students have incorporated the letterpress into their coursework and other projects. 

“I’m always impressed with what students design and print,” Rippeon says. “Emma Reynolds ’17 did a piece for her final project in Doran Larson’s prison writing class that was incredibly elegant in its conception and execution.”

In Rippeon’s critical poetry survey course, he and his students use the press to collect and publish small collections of student poetry. He employs the press in his first-year course on book arts and book history and partners to use it with Red Weather, a student literary magazine, among sundry other projects.

Other faculty members are using the letterpress lab, too, including Assistant Professor of Art Rob Knight, who is producing a book of his photography. This summer Rippeon and Christian Goodwillie, director and curator of special collections and archives, are taking part in a workshop on 19th-century typography and printing. That will help Rippeon develop his practice on the press and with its use teaching 19th-century American literature.

The man who brought the letterpress to campus more than 50 years ago is pleased about its revival. After Hamilton, Lang went to law school and became an attorney. Now working as a mediator, he is still building his personal library and maintaining friendships with excellent printers in the U.S. and England. “I think Andrew Rippeon has done a wonderful job in bringing letterpress printing back to the Hill,” Lang says, “and through that, demonstrating to students and faculty alike that even in a digital world, the materiality of books and other original source material has an intellectual relevance that should not be dismissed. His ongoing work in helping students discover there is a tactile aspect to the printed word will, I hope, open them to the unique feelings and sensations which students and scholars really do experience when, instead of looking at a digital facsimile, they hold in their hands the actual physical document or first edition of the text that is the subject of their interest.”

A mindful approach to easing worries away

Assistant Professor of Psychology Ravi Thiruchselvam has practiced meditation for more than a decade but didn’t get serious about it until he attended a mindfulness meditation retreat last summer. He already was aware of a growing body of scientific work that shows the practice can increase psychological well-being and help with depression and anxiety.

“It is being increasingly used by clinical psychologists to complement one of the most effective therapies for depression, which is called cognitive therapy. There’s a new form called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and it is showing particular promise in preventing relapse in depression,” Thiruchselvam says.

When he returned to campus last fall, he thought about how students might benefit from meditation and decided to host a series of workshops for the campus community. The series was popular right out of the gate. Thirty people, the upper limit he could accept, signed up for the first five-class series. He held two more series of workshops in the spring, the first of which again drew 30 participants. So many people were interested that he taught two classes with 25 participants in each.

In the classes Thiruchselvam speaks about the practice, encourages discussion and guides participants in meditation, using a secular, science-based approach. “We tie this into the scientific understanding of how the mind and the brain work,” he says. In his own academic research, Thiruchselvam, who has a doctorate in psychology from Stanford University, uses methods of neuroscience to study emotion and emotion regulation.

So what is mindfulness? Thiruchselvam uses this definition: attending to the present moment with purpose and with an attitude of acceptance. He attributes that to Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic, the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society, and professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Thiruchselvam is convinced, and says science shows, that with dedicated practice, mindfulness meditation can ease anxiety, worry and suffering by allowing attention to reside in the current moment rather than moving back to things that have happened or creating scenarios about future events that may never occur. “So the value of the practice for me, and for, I think, many people, is that it really sucks the wind out of the primary thing that underlies our self-generated suffering, which is our tendency to generate unnecessary stress merely with thought,” he explains.

Next year Thiruchselvam will be off campus on sabbatical, but he intends to offer the meditation courses again when he returns. And he plans to teach a new course, Contemplative Neuroscience: The Brain and the Buddha, which looks at the connection between neuroscience and meditative practice.

If you want to learn more, here’s Thiruchselvam’s recommendation for reading: Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (Jon Kabat-Zinn).

Joining the ‘quest’ to increase access

Hamilton has bolstered its longstanding commitment to access by joining forces with QuestBridge, a nonprofit organization with an impressive track record of connecting high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds with top colleges and universities. 

Hamilton and QuestBridge announced their new partnership in May, and the College expects to start enrolling QuestBridge students in the fall of 2018. 

QuestBridge recruits exceptional high school students, helps them get into highly selective colleges and universities, and continues to support them throughout college and into their early careers. Its 39 college partners include six other members of the New England Small College Athletic Conference and eight Ivy League colleges.

QuestBridge“QuestBridge is aligned with our mission of access, and its work is highly regarded by institutions I respect and admire,” says Monica Inzer, Hamilton vice president for enrollment management. “I’ve spoken with several peers who have raved about the quality of the students and the great work QuestBridge is doing to provide a bridge to colleges like ours.”

Inzer expects the new partnership to produce a significant number of applications from high-achieving students who might not otherwise have dreamed of attending a college such as Hamilton. “We can’t wait to review their applications but, better yet, see what these students do when they get on campus,” she says. 

Hamilton’s efforts to increase access for underrepresented students already include a partnership with the Posse Scholars Program and successful, longstanding Higher Education Opportunity and Summer Scholarship programs headed by Phyllis Breland ’80.

Inzer credits President David Wippman with propelling Hamilton to the partnership with QuestBridge. Hamilton had admired the organization’s work from afar, she says, and then Wippman asked whether now was the time to join QuestBridge, given its kindred mission and the momentum of Hamilton’s diversity recruitment. 

QuestBridge, based in Palo Alto, Calif., has a “Scholars Network” of more than 10,000 current students and alumni nationally.

“We are excited to expand our outstanding college options for our applicants through the addition of Hamilton College,” said Ana McCullough, QuestBridge co-founder and CEO, when the partnership was announced. “We believe Hamilton will offer our students affordable, top-notch educational opportunities, and we look forward to our partnership.”

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