By Michael Samuels 09F
There is, arguably, nothing that sets Hampshire College apart from every other college and university more than Division III, the primary occupation of every student’s last year. At the four other Five College consortium schools, some people know to ask, “What’s your Div III?” but with only a vague idea of how it’s different from a senior thesis. In my four years writing for Hampshire’s communications office, I’ve added countless parenthetical “(senior project)”s after the words Division III, but that doesn’t nearly cover it.
Other Hampshire students look on with fear and bewilderment as friends and housemates emerge from their “Div caves” for food and drink and a bathroom, blearier and gruffer than bears in spring. In a class I took my first year, Professor of Humanities Bob Meagher explained the Ancient Greek concept of “deathfulness,” in which humans, being aware of our own mortality, experience our own deaths in the deaths of others; every Hampshire student, looking on, has a similar “Divfulness.”
An important quality of Div III is the melodramatic language used to describe it.
I have to admit, though, that the relationship is much more complicated, and much less dire, than it sounds. “Divfulness” isn’t half bad, really. Last year I made the mistake of admitting to my girlfriend how much time I spent fantasizing about my future Div III. She wasn’t pleased.
The way we talk about Div III reveals the depth of the relationship between student and project. Both project and student are called “Div III,” maybe to reflect the dissolution of boundaries between one and the other. When I first came to Hampshire someone explained Division III as a year devoted to “that thing that you bore people at parties talking about.” Adults glean some sort of concept of other adults with the question, “What do you do?” Hampshire students get a much more accurate picture with, “What’s your Div III?” because it means, “What do you love? What are you becoming an authority on? When you stare into space, where are you?”
Div III students refer to their “Divs” as if they were living, tangible things, furry and with big eyes, that elicit a grudging tenderness, an affection, a surprisingly fierce love. Like the “oneness” of Div III (student and project), this sense of tangibility makes a Div more than a project. I have been up to plenty of other things this year—working for communications, learning Norwegian, TAing a literature class, applying to graduate programs, participating in a writing workshop, and editing the literary magazine Quick Brown Fox—but I come home to my Div.
My Div really is almost tangible now. I recently wrote my table of contents, imagining the page numbers, how many pieces of paper thick this story or that essay will be. I gave this to my committee, along with the first half of the penultimate draft of what I’m beginning to think of, with a sense of awe, as “a book.”
I was asked to write here about my Division III experience, and I’m realizing that you still don’t know what my Div actually is. In brief terms, it’s a collection of short stories about people’s relationships with places, like the little boy who escapes from his small town in New Hampshire by reading The New York Times, the party of wealthy Bostonians whose visit to a beach in Maine in 1912 ends in disaster, or the night watchman who begins to feel the slightest glimmer of doubt about the “perfection” of his dystopian home. These stories are followed by three essays that are to varying degrees academic and personal, about the Argentine Jorge Luis Borges’ criticism of local color and suggestion that writers emulate diasporic Jews, the Icelandic reception of the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen’s “saga play,” and my relationship with masculinity in the novels of New Hampshire’s John Irving. The “book” ends with a creative essay about fruit and geographical desire.
In briefer terms, my Div is, hopefully, the beginning of a career in writing and literary analysis.
Div III is usually described as a “culmination” of what a student learns at Hampshire, in and out of classrooms. While it’s definitely a pulling-together of what we learn, and a “capstone” to our work at the College, there’s something about the word “culmination” that doesn’t seem right. It sounds like a close, and, while it’s a close to our time at Hampshire, in every other sense it’s anything but. “Culmination” is from “culmen,” the Latin word for “summit,” but Div III is the summit from which we can see other, higher summits, and, confident from how far we’ve climbed, we climb further.