Jan Plan Still Prompts Students to Explore Their Imaginations
More than 60 years after its inception, Jan Plan is cherished as a time to try something new
If you wandered onto the second floor of the Lovejoy Building in the month of January, chances were pretty good that you were met by the lilting sounds of a group of students playing the mandolin.
The musicians focused intently on their fingers and hands as they played a catchy, toe-tapping Québécois jig. They were just a week or so into the intensive Mandolin Workshop Jan Plan course, and they were making good progress.
“They had zero experience, but they’re picking up on it pretty quickly,” said instructor Fred Frayer ’80 of Great Barrington, Mass., a legally blind musician who played along with the students as guide dog Linus snoozed at his feet.
More than 60 years after its inception, Jan Plan continues to encourage students to create a new outlook on learning by spending the month delving into a variety of topics, limited only by their imaginations.
Colby was a pioneer of this kind of educational innovation, which started here in part to solve a nagging scheduling problem with the academic calendar, but ultimately has become a defining characteristic of the College experience. Since those early days of independent learning, Jan Plan has grown and evolved and comprises dozens of courses, some based in Waterville and others in far-flung locales around the world.
While it’s true that a significant number of students choose to take courses for credit to fulfill graduation requirements, Jan Plan is still cherished as a time to try something a little different.
“Students often take advantage of January to seek out new experiences and learn about topics or acquire skills that they may not encounter during the academic year,” said Associate Provost for Academic Programs Melissa Glenn, who coordinates the program.
Like learning to play the mandolin—or learning to fly, making books, or turning trash into art.
Zen and the art of binding books
Inside the light-filled ground floor of the Greene Block + Studios on Main Street in Waterville, students carefully focused on using needle and thread as they learned how to put a book together from scratch.
The course, Introduction to Bookbinding: Techniques and Intangibles, offered a practical, hands-on introduction to the ancient craft of bookbinding. And although the students were quiet as they sewed paper signatures together to make larger sheaves, the silence in the room was serene, not stressed.
“It’s very meditative,” said Emma Ollerhead ’23, a science, technology, and society major from Westwood, Mass., as she pulled a needle through paper. “It’s a great class for me. I don’t feel drained after this class at all.”
The course, which was first offered in 2018, is taught by Andrew Eddy of Dexter, Maine, a self-taught bookbinder with a contagious enthusiasm for the trade. “It’s all problem-solving, aesthetics, and design,” he said. “And the excitement of working with different types of pieces.”
He’s delighted that the Greene Block + Studios is now home to the antique bookbinding machinery, much of it painted bright, fire-engine red, that is part of the former Hitchcock Bindery. Alberta Hitchcock, a resident of Alna, Maine, had donated the equipment to the College in the 1960s. Until recently, the machinery had been kept, and used, in the basement of the Lorimer Chapel.
The machinery, including nipping presses that are “easily 100 to 150 years old” and leather finishing tools used to emboss cover designs, are now part of Colby’s new Center for Book & Print on the ground floor of the Greene Block + Studios. They serve as a functional, beautiful connection to the history of the age-old craft.
For Anosacha Peete-Meyers ’23, an artist and African-American and American studies double major from Houston, Texas, the skills she learned in the course were new, but she used them with intent. Last semester, she made a digital zine about Black motherhood and the evolution of the Black press in history. She wants to turn it into a bound book.
“I’ve always been interested in making books,” she said.
Harry Kassen ’23, an English major from New York City, was eager to try something different in this year’s Jan Plan. “This was my one opportunity to do something off the beaten path,” he said. “Part of what I enjoy is that I get to come in and do something with my hands. It’s a good change of pace from the more traditional classes. This is a good way to step back, do something else, and then recharge going forward.”
From trash to art
Artist Kim Bernard of Rockland, Maine, worked with 25 students during Trash to Art: Upcycled Sculptural Installation. The students, split between two sections, worked creatively and collaboratively to clean, shred, extrude, and transform No. 2 plastic trash into upcycled public sculptures that have been temporarily installed in Cotter Union. The installations will remain on view until April 28.
In the course, she asked students to consider sustainability, to think of ways to reduce consumption, and to talk about where trash and recycling go after being placed in dumpsters and bins. Some students took up her challenge to save their trash for a month to see how much they generated.
“They were into it,” Bernard said of the students. “They were fabulous. I just thought the world of these students. I teach as a visiting artist in enough locations that I recognize that the Colby students are very bright. They’re sharp. They’re on the ball and very engaged.”
A step away from ‘STEM-ness’
Back on the second floor of Lovejoy, the mandolin students seemed to relish in the luxury of dedicating so much time, energy, and concentration to learn something unexpected. Lily Hyce ’25, a neuroscience major from Wasilla, Alaska, had previous experience playing the violin and cello and was glad to spend the month immersing herself in the study of another stringed instrument.
“I thought it was a good opportunity to step away from my STEM-ness. It has been really nice. A breather from my last semester, for sure,” she said.
Annie Thomas ’26, of Winston-Salem, N.C., in the heart of bluegrass country, has “always wanted to play the mandolin. I was super excited when I saw this course. It’s definitely been a challenge, but I’ve really been enjoying it.”
Frayer, a first-time Jan Plan instructor, was delighted to share his lifelong passion for music with a new generation of students. Knowing how to play an instrument is a lifelong skill, one that can enrich a person’s life in sometimes unexpected ways, he said.
Back in his own Colby days, he spent one Jan Plan forming a bluegrass band with friends. They called themselves One Shot Deal, with the expectation that they would exist only during that month of January. But they had so much fun they kept playing, spending a summer doing gigs around the state.
Frayer for many years earned his living working in arts administration in Philadelphia and became a computer programmer when he started to lose his vision. Throughout his life, playing music has been a constant.
In the workshop, students learned tuning, basic chords, pick and rhythm techniques, the importance of timing and tone—and the physical challenges associated with playing a stringed instrument.
“The first two weeks I was hurting. Now I have calluses,” Hyce said, speaking like a seasoned musician.
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