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Everything Old Is New Again

By John Bryant ′11

It′s early September 2010, the second week of classes and everyone is back in the academic rhythm. Tests, papers, angry debates over “Inception’s” “real” ending over never ending bowls of fro-yo. Yep, we’re back. And everything’s the same. Or is it? Turns out, something new is afoot and we students almost missed it. Do a double take yourself next time you pass by—Palmer Hall looks better than ever, yet “different.”

We students were soon on the case, craning necks around corners, pausing upon steps, probing the halls with keen ear and nose. That quiet, polite whir of drills, the ever soft murmur of correct measurements, the fascinating paint smells. What, exactly, was going on? For a brief moment, we were all British detectives. But you just about have to be on the “up and up” of Palmer Hall this year. Thanks to the spectacular, efficient and quiet care of the Rhodes Physical Plant Department, hardly anyone knew that Palmer was in the final phase of its transformation into the flagship building for Rhodes’ academics.

The transformation is more than a facelift. New floors, new offices, new wood paneling, and all of it in perfect keeping with Palmer’s signature Gothic style. Palmer Hall is all dolled up, but has somewhere to go. Beyond the new look, the true spirit of the renovation is Rhodes’ renewed emphasis on providing the best academic experience possible for its students. And that is a renovation story best told in three acts, as we follow Modern Languages’ move to Palmer, the construction of a new student focused, user friendly language center and President Troutt’s pilgrimage to his new office home on the ground floor.

Katheryn Wright, chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, and Eric Henager ’89, associate professor of Spanish, in Wright’s new office, which since 1925 has served as a student lounge, classroom and Financial Aid office, in that orderA bit of exposition gets the story rolling. Why renovate? The answer takes us back to 2004 as the faculty put together its long-range vision for academics at Rhodes. The plan addressed a pressing, yet welcome, new concern—and Rhodes’ commitment to academics is partly to blame. Thanks to its long tradition of providing students with the best quality education available, Rhodes was bursting at the seams with world-class professors with nowhere to sit. Continued growth meant office space was crowded. But thanks to the nimble foresight of the academic space committee, the solution was ready and waiting for just two dominoes to fall: Barret and Burrow. The opening of the new Barret Library in 2005 provided “wiggle room” for exciting expansion and strategic shuffle on campus.

“The building of Barret gave us an empty Burrow, a building with creative design work and wonderful craftsmanship,” explains Dr. John Olsen, associate dean of Academic Affairs. “They’ve now built something in Burrow that looks terrific and houses the administrative offices and student services that were once in Palmer. And that created the space to let us start doing big things in Palmer.” 

President Troutt confers with his student associates Meredith Hicks ’12 and Sameer Warraich ’13 in the president’s new first-floor Palmer conference room To figure out what those big things would be, the committee canvassed the campus, taking an inventory of the space needs for each department. The answer came back loud and clear. It was finally time to bring all of Modern Languages and Literatures, long scattered across Buckman, Rhodes Tower and Clough, to its new home in Palmer. Now that the move is said and done, our language professors are ecstatic, especially when it comes to their newly built offices’ “open air” aesthetic. When asked “what was really cool” about their new offices, one professor says, “It just feels good being here. It feels good to be at work.” 

Another laughs, “Personally for me, there are two windows in my office now.”

Beyond windows, the move gets applause all around for its academic advantages. Chair of Modern Languages and Literatures Professor Katheryn Wright gives voice to the faculty’s mood: “This is the first time we’ve ever been together as a department. You can imagine how we feel in that we can now work together on a daily basis. When we were in separate buildings it was very difficult to interact like that unless we set up a meeting—and there are always way too many meetings,” she laughs. “Now, we’re working in the same building. We see one another, we are doing some fine things, and we can share those things even better. It develops a ‘being togetherness,’ esprit de corps.”

The move not only fosters community within the department, it speaks the department’s new public persona loud and clear to the rest of the campus.

“The department now has a face, a common space that is associated with us,” says Russian Studies instructor Sasha Kostina. “People can come here and know, ‘OK, this is Modern Languages.’”

Felix Kronenberg, assistant professor of Modern Languages and Literatures and director of the Center for Language Learning, with students in the new center, located in the former Admissions OfficeSitting at the heart of this new community is Rhodes’ rebuilt, rethought and radically revised new Center for Language Learning on the north side of first floor Palmer. No more than three (OK, perhaps four) steps from the language offices, the student-focused language center flows right into the new faculty lounge, facilitating the vital yet casual ebb and flow of student-faculty interaction that is so often the highlight of students’ experiences at Rhodes. But the language center does more than accent student-faculty rapport, it’s its own creature. Striking a delicate balance between rigorous and informal language learning, the center allows students to take the skills they’ve learned in class and plug them into real-world contexts.

The designer of the space, Dr. Felix Kronenberg, paints us the picture: “Human beings want to communicate. So we made the space communicative. With the old language center in Buckman, everything was bolted down, everything was walled-off. But learning a language means talking to others. We wanted to open it up. We wanted students to talk.”

The new language center has everything it needs to get the real-world conversation started. Its availability, accessibility and flexibility let language breathe. The first thing one notices when entering the space is its sliding partition, allowing students and faculty to replicate the private classroom experience in one-half of the room while the other half remains open for any curious student who breezes by. Perhaps most interestingly, none of the furniture or technology has to stay where it’s put. Everything can be moved, and should be. Students who’ve already tried it out know it’s the best thing since the sandbox.

“Students can really make the space their own,” says Kronenberg. “All the furniture is mobile. The tables are mobile. They can be rearranged into any different configuration. Even the computer screens are movable into any shape or form. Everything has wheels.”

Not even the walls are set in stone. With innovative whiteboard paint covering all four walls, the students practice their writing on a canvas as wide as the room itself.

“In a traditional classroom, you have the whiteboard up front, maybe a projector, oftentimes it’s covered. Everyone looks in the same direction,” says Kronenberg. “This space is much more organic. It shifts all the time, so an instructor can go right here, right there, anywhere.”

The walls are a kick start to lateral thinking, allowing the students to begin seeing how language moves in 3-D and real time.

“The walls are awesome,” says Anne Harper ’11, John C. Hugon Scholarship recipient. “You never have to stop the flow of your ideas.”

“It’s what I always write on when I’m practicing my Chinese drills before class,” says Jasper Page ’12, Lucy W. Rowe Scholarship recipient. “I love it.” Thanks to its innovative design, the language center has no expiration date in sight. Built around the idea of flexibility, it’s set to keep pace with the Joneses and the Jetsons.

“With technology changing so rapidly, we decided to build a space that went beyond technology,” says Kronenberg. “No matter what software we use, we have a space that’s configurable.”

The technology may only be a complement to the space, but so far the space is flattered. Students have all the equipment to immerse themselves in language and let it live out loud. Webcams and headsets can be used for international Skype calls to students and classrooms around the world, allowing, for example, a German 101 student at Rhodes to share his experiences with an English 101 student in Germany. A fully-equipped multimedia center also lets students get creative with the language learning process. They can narrate their own slideshows, make a film, create a visual tour of a foreign country through Google Earth, or create their own graphic novel. According to Kronenberg, the rationale behind this equipment is simple—“When you share your language, it sticks to you.”

But this still doesn’t cover all the language center offers. It’s also stocked full of films, videos, music, magazines, board games and other resources that’ll be sure to appeal to any and every type of language learner. There’s even foreign language karaoke. And ready and waiting to show students and faculty just how to use these new features is the language center’s staff of expert trained student employees. And the students are thrilled.

It’s Jasper Page’s “one-stop shop.” And according to Stephanie Sessarego ’13, “International Skype is a really great tool.”

The award for the language center’s funniest plaudit, however, goes to Sameer Warraich ’13: “Foreign language karaoke will help facilitate social embarrassment across the language gap,” he laughs. “Really, though, it’s cool.”

The renovation also dovetails with Rhodes’ larger story—Palmer’s return to its original roots as a true academic building. It now houses not only Modern Languages, but the English Department and Greek and Roman Studies—all under one roof.

“Everyone who’s teaching anything having to do with language and literature is now in this building,” says Dean Michael Drompp. “The idea was to get Modern Languages and Literatures all together into one coherent space, but part of the idea was also to bring to Palmer a more academic feel and give it a thematic unity as the building of ‘languages and literary studies’ through the Departments of English, Modern Languages and Literatures and Greek and Roman Studies.”

Thanks to this new unity, Palmer Hall—the geographic and architectural heart of Rhodes—is now the pulse of academic life on campus.

“Palmer is in many ways the focal center of the campus,” says Drompp. “So the idea of returning that to a predominantly academic space was really attractive to all of us. When people come into the largest building on campus, they see faculty offices and the language center, which signal Rhodes’ devotion to the student academic experience.”

As a happy punctuation to the renovation story, President Troutt has moved to his new office on the ground floor. It’s a wish come true for the president, who now has a better sense than ever of the college heartbeat.

Russian instructor Sasha Kostina in her new office, bedecked with all things Russian, with students Kelly Whelan ’14 (left) and Emily Swanagin ’14 “My move to the first floor of Halliburton Tower has already improved my access to our many campus guests,” says the president. “And coming in and out of my office enables me to stop and visit with more students, faculty and staff on a daily basis. I love it.”

The new office space even flows directly into the language offices and language lab, ensuring that the captain will always be listening to his crew as Palmer steers itself to great new waters. So keep a lookout. With a renovated Palmer Hall, Rhodes is going places.

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