Among the 500-plus faculty who teach at the College are a slew of individuals with talents you’d never imagine. Meet Massimo Maggiari, who teaches Italian language and cultural studies in the Department of French, Francophone and Italian Studies. Maggiari is a well-traveled adventurer who grew up climbing mountains in northern Italy. Those early experiences whetted his appetite for outer-edge excursions. These days, when he’s not in the classroom, Maggiari can be found traveling, often in the Arctic where he has built igloos and driven dog sleds.
Maggiari combines his vocation with his avocation by researching and writing about Arctic issues and exploration. Last spring, he traveled to Greenland (his second visit inside of a year) to interview adventurers and hunters. He was researching Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen, so he traveled via dogsled to the most remote village of Northern Greenland – Siorapaluk. His research there includes exploring the connection between Amundsen and other famous explorers and noteworthy Italian figures such as Umberto Nobile and Italo Balbo.
In September 2015, he spent a month in Ilulissat, Greenland, where he was hosted by an Italian-Greenlandic family. Among his activities during that time were building an authentic igloo and traveling to and fro by dogsled. Since then, Maggiari has published his latest book chronicling that trip – L’avventura del Grande Nord (Adventure of the Great North).
“Around this area there are mountains everywhere,” explains Maggiari. “You see glaciers floating, melting, the ice cap and a few polar bears. It’s a place where you won’t find any comforts….It’s extremely wild, beautiful and unspoiled. You can navigate the waters in a kayak without running into anyone for days. It’s a place of silence – full silence – that’s absolutely amazing to listen to. It’s a completely different feeling. It’s being in the center of this natural setting that life is absolutely sublime.”
Mississippi born and raised – Rénard Harris plays a mean blues harmonica. When he’s not busy teaching in the Department of Teacher Education or serving as the interim associate vice president and chief diversity officer for the College’s Office of Institutional Diversity, Harris has been known to dominate open mic night at Tracey’s Too in Charleston.
Harris has been playing the harmonica for 25 years. He grew up in an all black neighborhood, listening to Gladys Knight, Curtis Mayfield, the Jackson 5 and Walter Jackson. “Walking down our street, I would hear everything from Rap to Soul to Blues to Gospel,” he recalls. “I didn’t have a choice but to love music, but there was something about the Blues and the sound of a harmonica that called my name.”
Before moving to Charleston, Harris lived in Knoxville, Tenn., where he played in a blues band for 10 years. “I loved that,” he says, “but at this stage of my life, I don’t miss those late nights. These days, I get my Blues fix by playing in jams. It’s really a perfect way to stay active with music. I go out and sign up on the jam list. Then, when they call my name, I get up on stage and jam with some cool musicians for three or four songs. After that, I get off the stage, hang for a while and then go home.”
When asked who his musical influences are now, he says: “Sonny Boy Williamson (the second Sonny Boy) is a beast – simple, raw and unapologetic. And I love Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and, of course, the master writer Willie Dixon for similar reasons. I also love raw soul artists like Bill Withers, and I can’t leave my girl Aretha Franklin out either.”
Harris says that he uses his passion for the Blues to help foster his student’s passion for knowledge. “How Blues singers and musicians expressed their struggles and passions through their music and sought to better their lives, resonates with students,” he explains. “For me, the Blues is cultural, and the complexity is captured in its simplicity and irreverence.”
Another pair of musically inclined faculty members includes geology professor Leslie Sautter and Associate Chair of the Department of Mathematics Deborah Jeter. These women are two of the five members of Sweetgrass Acoustic Band, which performs regularly at bars and restaurants around the Charleston area.
Both Sautter, who plays the fiddle and guitar, and Jeter, who plays, mandolin and guitar, also sing in the band. “We got our start unconventionally,” explains Sautter. “The two of us happened to be at the same conference in Oregon years ago, and it came out in conversation that we both play guitar and like to sing,” she recalls. “So, we started playing together – singing and picking – basically whenever we had some time. It was very informal”
Sautter has been playing music since the fourth grade and Jeter since she was nine. Both say that their preferred musical style is acoustic rock/country. “Neither of us grew up playing bluegrass,” says Sautter. “Actually, when we perform with Sweetgrass, we joke that the music we play is sweeter than Bluegrass.”
This duo has been playing with Sweetgrass for 13 years. And both of them say it’s the harmonies that keep them engaged and performing. “We both love to sing harmony,” says Sautter. “Sweetgrass is known for its three-part (sometimes four-part) harmonies. The third female in the band, Gail Pohl, is also a great vocalist. It’s a lot of fun, and there’s nothing like hitting the harmonies just right!”
Both professors say that they use music in their teaching. “There is so much mathematics in music,” says Jeter. “I talk about the math in music theory in my pre-calculus course. I always have students who were in band in high school and they still play a musical instrument. We look at the concept of note frequencies and scales when we study sinusoidal and exponential functions.”
And Sautter actually wrote a song that she uses to teach hydrothermal vent exploration in her marine geology courses. “Debby and I recorded the song together, and I made a video using that soundtrack. I use the video as a way to reach students who are artistically inclined. One of these days I’ll post it on YouTube.”
If you’re lucky, you can catch Sweetgrass or the new quartet that Jeter and Sautter formed not too long ago – Indigo Moon – at a local Charleston venue. If not, you may have to wait until June when they’ll both perform at the National Marine Educators Conference in Charleston.