Meet Arendt Speser
Academic Director, Clemente Course, Port Townsend, WA
There’s a new kid on the Clemente block. In 2017, Dr. Arendt Oak Speser joined the team as the new academic director of Jefferson Clemente. He’s the program’s second director, stepping into the role vacated by Clemente National Program Director Lela Hilton, who founded the Port Townsend, WA, program in 1999.
For Arendt, the decision to return to his hometown on the Olympic Peninsula to work with Clemente was obvious. “As someone who has dedicated his scholastic and professional life to the humanities, using a curriculum like this to address the cycle of poverty makes perfect sense to me,” he said. “I believe these works are relevant to people from all walks of life.”
Port Townsend is the most rural of Clemente programs, situated in a town of just 9,000 residents. Arendt understands the need to consider the specific nature of the place when designing the program. In fact, his familiarity with the community is one of the many strengths he brings to his new job.
“Arendt is uniquely prepared to guide Clemente here,” said Lela Hilton. “He has deep appreciation and affection for the place, but is clear-eyed about the fact that the remarkable natural and cultural resources we have here can very easily gloss over what is not only deep economic disparity, but also a profound insularity among and between people.”
Thus, Arendt sees his first task as opening doors. He takes inspiration from a surprising source: the years he spent running programs for the University of Washington in Rome, Italy. Like Clemente, those classes were interdisciplinary and provided a powerful educational experience for students.
“Working in Rome encouraged me to think about breaking down barriers, even in terms of classroom space,” he said. “I’d ask students to go out into the city, to visit a museum or find something to draw, and I’d see them come alive in a way that was directly related to their lived experience.”
That connection to lived experience is essential to the Clemente classroom as well. If the program is to serve the students and the community as it always has, participants must engage not just with the texts, but with their relevance to their lives today. “As much as possible I want students to see that the work they do academically is directly related to who they are and their choices in life,” he said. “In their encounters with the humanities, I want to ask, ‘How can you make them your own? How can you apply them to your life?’”
Jefferson Clemente alumni will have the chance to answer that question this spring, when Arendt leads a bridge course for them, with a complete faculty of five professors. He’s also offering a workshop on Homer’s Odyssey to community members, who can have their own encounters with the humanities through a groundbreaking new translation of the text.