Category Archives: Academic History

Summer Reading

by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist

June — the seniors have graduated, the underclassmen have finished assessments (which are what we at kinder-gentler Williston used to call “exams”), and a lazy green quiet has settled onto the campus.  Our parting shot to our returning students: “Goodbye, and don’t forget your summer reading!”  It has been so for nearly a century.

I have a confession.  Back in the summer of 1966, prior to my entering Williston Academy’s 9th grade, I was handed a list of perhaps half a dozen books.  Now, I loved to read, almost at the expense of any other summer activity.  And there was good material on the list, most especially Walter Edmonds’ Drums Along the Mohawk, which was an exciting story, although in retrospect, I don’t recall its subsequent mention even once in David Stevens’ English 9.  But also on the list: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.  Now imagine yourself in 1966, as a 13-year-old boy who has recently discovered the works of Ian Fleming and is anxious to get back to them (albeit under the covers with a flashlight), but is faced with endless pages of prose about living in the woods and planting beans.  I tried.  I really did.  But I couldn’t do it.  And in the ensuing 51 years, I’ve tried several more times but, apparently scarred by my adolescent experience, I still find Walden barely readable.  I think of Thoreau as the guy who put the “trance” in “transcendentalism.”

A summer reading requirement at Williston appears to date from the 1920s.  No syllabi have surfaced from that early date.  However, we have a list from 1941, which is worth reproducing in its entirety.   (Please click images to enlarge).

Once one gets past the still-valid point about a “foundation for effective expression,” as well as whiff of testosterone, one notes that the requirement – a minimum of three books – isn’t especially onerous, despite a suggestion (“hearty cooperation”) that one attempt “as many as possible.”  Where something doesn’t appeal, students are encouraged to move on.  And nowhere is there even a hint of a test or paper in the fall.It is interesting to note what is, and isn’t, here.  So many of these authors have fallen utterly out of fashion, never mind out of the canon, that some names are unrecognizable even to a pre-elderly librarian.   And with few exceptions, almost everything is by American or English authors, the overwhelming majority of them male, and only one identifiable as an author of color. Continue reading


by Rick Teller '70, Williston Northampton Archivist
The Archives Acquire a Fascinating Record of Science Teaching
Meticulous renderings of earthworm anatomy, from William T. Mather's biology notebook.  (Click all images to enlarge.)
Meticulous renderings of earthworm anatomy, from William T. Mather’s biology notebook. (Click all images to enlarge.)

It was one of those phone calls that vastly improves one’s week.  “My name is Will Wyatt – I’m a dentist in Texas.  I have what appear to be a notebook from a Williston biology class, dated 1890.  Would you like it for the Archives?  If so, I’d be happy to donate it.”

Would I like it?  That would have been an understatement.  Among the more important things we collect are examples of academic work: what was studied, and how it was taught, going back to our beginnings 175 years ago.  We actively seek current student work, as well as that from the past.  Consider: all the other things we save and cherish – theater photos, box scores, school newspapers, and dozens of other categories, most of them well-represented in this blog, wouldn’t even exist without the academic program.  It provides a context for everything else in our daily lives at a busy school.  Academics are the most important thing we do at Williston.

Mather's title page.  While much of the notebook is handwritten, some pages were reproduced using a transfer process similar to what we, mid-20th century, called "purple ditto."  The machine used was probably a Hectograph, invented in 1869.  Other documents in the Archives indicate that Williston Seminary had on as early as 1877.
Mather’s title page. While much of the notebook is handwritten, some pages were reproduced using a transfer process similar to what we, mid-20th century, called “purple ditto.” The machine used was probably a Hectograph, invented in 1869. Other documents in the Archives indicate that Williston Seminary had one as early as 1877.

So yes, we were thrilled to accept Dr. Wyatt’s generosity – the more so given the age of the item.  It is relatively easy to lay hands on student papers from 2015.  Anything from the 19th century is another story entirely.  And as shall be seen, this particular item is very special.

The document is a set of teaching notes for an 1890 Williston Seminary biology course taught by William Tyler Mather (1864-1937).  Mather, Williston class of 1882, went on to Amherst College, graduating in 1886.  He taught at Leicester Academy, 1886-1887 then, like many Williston and Amherst alumni, returned to Williston to teach (1887-1893).  During this time he also completed a master’s degree at Amherst (1891).  In 1894 he entered Johns Hopkins University, earning a Ph.D. in physics in 1897.  In 1898 he became Professor of Physics at the University of Texas, Austin, where he remained the rest of his life.  (This would tend to partially explain how a set of teaching notes found their way from Easthampton to “a very eclectic used book store” in San Antonio, where Will Wyatt purchased them in the 1980s.)


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Hélène Cantarella – “Noblesse Oblige”

For a generation of Northampton School for Girls alumnae, the name of Hélène Paquin Cantarella (1904-2000) is one with which to conjure.  Merely to write that she taught Senior English from 1958 to 1969 is to understate her influence.  There is virtual unanimity among her former students that she was the most demanding teacher they ever had (her summer reading syllabus alone exceeded 30 titles), that her conversation, in and out of the classroom, was constantly challenging, that she urged and inspired her students to levels of production and insight of which they had never imagined themselves capable.

Perhaps her students caught only a glimpse of a life fully lived: she was prominent in the Italian anti-fascist movement during the War; taught at Smith College, where she founded the film program; was a prolific, nationally recognized literary critic and translator.

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