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MayX Snapshot: A deep dive into swimming – and culture, psychology and literature

Asha Marie Larson-Baldwin ’22 and Professor of English Melinda Menzer discuss the history of segregation in public pools in the MayX class “Why We Swim.”

Each day this week, we’re highlighting a course from May Experience – a chance for students to explore topics beyond the typical academic year.

COURSE: Why We Swim
INSTRUCTOR: Melinda Menzer, professor of English
OBJECTIVE: Explore swimming from a variety of perspectives: cultural, psychological and literary.

In the segregated South in the mid-20th century, where a city chose to put a swimming pool could literally be a life-or-death decision.

Black people, of course, could not swim in pools reserved for whites only – and “the response to the need to desegregate public pools was to shut them down,” says Melinda Menzer, professor of English at Furman. “The city pools were shut down or privatized rather than integrate them.”

No access to public pools meant less chance to learn to swim, which likely led to higher rates of drowning among Black children, Menzer says.

Professor Melinda Menzer.

This is just one of the issues that Menzer’s MayX students plunged into. There is swimming in literature – think Hero in her tower on one side of the Hellespont, and Leander who drowned while swimming across to her, a story retold by Shakespeare, Byron and Tennyson. There is competitive swimming – such as the Greenville summer leagues that the class visited. There is the psychology of swimming – do we swim to socialize, relax, get fit, meditate?

And, of course, there is the sheer joy of swimming. Classes on Tuesdays met in the Furman pool, and a field trip took students to Lake Jocassee in northwest South Carolina for an open-water swim.

Their final project was a 20-minute presentation on “The Perfect Swim” on the last day of class. Each student chose from a list of open-water swims compiled by marathon swimmer, coach and commentator Steve Munatones, researched its history and present-day status, and made a case for that swim being “ideal.”

“Our goal here is to think about our relationship to the world in a different way,” Menzer says. “Swimming is the lens through which we’re doing that. But there’s so much going on. How we relate to the world, how we relate to our teammates, our community, how we relate to nature when we get into our experience with open-water swimming at the end of the course. Swimming allows us to do all those very different things.”

Menzer, who taught the course for three years between 2014 and 2016, also finds personal joy in reviving it in 2021 – especially after the landlocked year of 2020.

“I’m having a lot of fun after the pandemic,” she says. “This class is allowing me to connect with Furman students in a way that I just don’t feel I’ve done since we were sent home, and that’s fantastic for me. It just restored my joy in teaching.”

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