Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Sunday, at a few minutes to 9 p.m., Zoey Werbin ‘17 entered Scheuer Room in Kohlberg for Peripeteia, a weekend of 20 one-time classes, most of them taught by students.
“I don’t know how many people will show up,” she said, and sat down at a table.
Werbin was one of those who organized Peripeteia. Now, that weekend was coming to an end, and Werbin had arrived at Scheuer for the closing collection.
A few others had entered the room. They had moved chairs into a circular formation, but nobody seemed to know how the group would actually sit. A few had sat down at the large, round tables, waiting.
And then the man with goggles entered.
His goggles were large and blue, and he carried three pizza boxes. He was Victor Almeida ‘17, the creator of Peripeteia.
“[Peripeteia] was originally [Victor’s] baby. We raised it together, but […] he conceived it,” co-organizer Irene Kwon ‘17 said.
Peripeteia was conceived at Professor Peter Baumann’s office in Papazian building.
Almeida, a Papazian regular, had just dropped into Baumann’s office to ask for a radio interview. Almeida was co-hosting a WSRN show where he and a friend would interview professors. Baumann was immediately struck by the show’s concept.
“[He] thought it was a really liberal arts idea,” Almeida said.
The two started chatting and, about two hours later, Almeida walked out of the office with a new idea: Peripeteia.
That meeting took place in spring 2014. This past weekend, a sizeable Community Development Grant and several “Prelude” events later, Peripeteia held its first batch of classes. According to Kwon, more than 130 distinct students attended at least one of the classes taught. “That’s a much higher number [of attendees] than we were expecting,” she said.
Almost two years ago, there were neither teachers nor courses, and the Swarthmore-based Aydelotte Foundation for the Advancement of the Liberal Arts had rejected Almeida’s application for funding. Still, Almeida said there was never a time he thought Peripeteia would fail, and the group eventually got a $10,000 Community Development Grant.
“I knew it was going to happen, you know?” Almeida said. “I’m Brazilian, so the word I would use to describe myself in Portuguese is teimoso. It’s kind of like ‘stubborn.’”
Now that the $10,000 grant has expired, the group needs to find a new source of funding. “We’ll find [a home],” Almeida said at Sunday’s collection.
Almeida said that part of what motivates Peripeteia is the prevalence of those who study what is more practical rather than what they love.
“I was a little disappointed when I got here. […] I heard about a lot of people that started off wanting to do these things that they seemed really passionate about, and then taking a turn for the practical,” Almeida said.
These worries inspired the name. Peripeteia is Greek for “turning point.” Almeida hopes that Peripeteia can be a turn towards a stronger liberal arts philosophy at Swarthmore. He explained that the project draws on past influences like the Enlightenment and “the heyday of the liberal arts.”
“It is a bit idealistic,” Almeida said. “Then again, I’m not asking for the proletariat to revolt.”
For Kwon, Almeida’s idealism was part of what drew her to the project. “Victor has this kind of idealistic dream-boy appeal to him, he’s very seductive in that sense. So when he told me about the project, I felt like he could do it,” Kwon said.
As Peripeteia weekend neared, the organizers started soliciting applications from people who wanted to teach courses. These were mostly students, but ITS, for instance, also ended up creating a course.
On Sunday morning, Celine Anderson ‘19 prepared to teach her class, “Race in the American Sitcom.”
“I think I know all of you,” Anderson said as she surveyed the room of around 15 people.
Towards the end of the class, she showed a whole episode of Bewitched, a 1970s comedy series about a witch who lives a suburban lifestyle. At one point in the episode, the witch’s white daughter turns her black friend white; later, she turns herself black. As these fantastical transformations took place on screen, some people gasped; others laughed nervously. Sometimes, the streaming video was interrupted by different versions of the same modern-day AutoZone commercial, which was composed almost entirely of suburban whites. A discussion followed the episode.
“People talked, which was good,” Anderson said.
When I left the classroom, I saw a few organizers hanging around Science Center 101 in blue Peripeteia t-shirts. They said things were going well, and told me the most well-attended class had been Tessa Rhinehart ‘17 and Professor Sara H. Burch’s class about birds. More than 30 people had attended.
“Tessa has a following,” Remy said.
Before Sunday’s closing collection, I asked Rhinehart if this was true.
“Oh, gosh, a little bit,” she said, laughing.
A few minutes later, the collection started.
“Speak as the spirit moves you,” Almeida said, echoing the tradition of Quaker meetings. Quakerism had come up before: Almeida had told me that the organizers made decisions by Quaker consensus, which had led to some difficulties as the number of people involved grew.
“This was a very Swarthmore experience,” Rhinehart said. (Kwon remembered this comment on the following day, saying that it had “meant a lot, in a lot of ways.”)
Jacob Oet ‘16, who had attended two classes, was at the closing collection as well. He was happy with both classes, but told me he would’ve liked to have seen more classroom discussions.
Almeida’s goggles came up. He explained that they were prism goggles that distorted the wearer’s vision. He had recently heard about them in a (non-Peripeteia) class, and was interested in the after-effects of wearing a pair for an extended period. Almeida had put them on Thursday, the day before Peripeteia officially opened, and had thus far removed them only to sleep. The overlap with Peripeteia, he insisted, was a coincidence.
Kwon later said she believed that the overlap was unintended, but suggested that the goggles did reflect Peripeteia’s learning-for-the-sake-of-learning philosophy. “I love Victor, please quote me on that. He’s someone who is so intensely engaged in his intellectual passions and inquiries […]. I think the goggles were a very physical and obvious manifestation of that characteristic of Victor,” she said.
Plus, she said, the goggles had been a conversation-starter that attracted interest to Peripeteia. “[Victor] kind of became a mascot,” she said.
The closing collection was winding down; time for final remarks.
“An individual dream became a common dream,” Almeida said, and directed people to the pizza boxes on a side table.
A few minutes passed. With little fanfare, Almeida removed his goggles and looked around, dazed. He felt the after-effects, he said.
Featured image shows Peripeteia organizers at the closing collection (from left to right: Victor Almeida’ 17, Irene Kwon ’17, Emma Remy ’18); by Eduard Saakashvili ’17/The Daily Gazette.