On the first Saturday in April, members of the campus community came together to participate in Daring Change, a series of 12 thought-provoking talks about the future and about Williams. Throughout the TED-like program, the presenters—faculty, staff, students and alumni—pondered four questions: What will we learn? How will we learn? Who will we be? What difference will we make? Excerpts of all 12 talks are shared on the following pages. To see the presentations in their entirety and to offer your thoughts on Williams’ past, present and future, visit Daring Change.
What Will We Learn?
Jeannie Albrecht, assistant professor of computer science
Sustainability is the ultimate liberal art. It really does take this interdisciplinary knowledge. You have to know a little about the sciences—physics, chemistry, geosciences, computer science, math. But you also need to understand social interactions—political science, history, psychology, sociology, economics. … And then, of course, these are really hard problems. So we also need to have some appreciation for the way people think and human inquiry and moral reflection. And that’s what we can get from the humanities and the arts. … A liberal arts education is going to be key to solving these problems because [it] focuses on this interdisciplinary learning style, the breadth and the depth that you need to solve these problems. I think Jack Sawyer would agree—at Williams we’re really good at creating problem solvers. That’s really what we do best. … We need people who can solve these problems in a holistic way and look at all aspects, not just the little area of expertise that they’ve focused on. … While it isn’t easy being green yet, I think it will be in the not-too-distant future, and it’s our students who are going to take us to that sustainable future.
Embracing Conflict and Change
Leslie Brown, associate professor of history
The process of change engenders conflict, and we don’t like conflict. … We like calm. We like people to get along with each other. We don’t like yelling, we like rationality, we want things to go smoothly, but the process of change not only engenders conflict but it also engenders resistance and backlash. … Institutions in general, and institutions of higher education, then, change only very slowly. We creep forward because we don’t want to leave anybody behind. We creep forward because we want to see if anybody else is doing the same thing that we are doing. We creep forward—or not. … Our politeness, our fear of pissing people off allows us to make only small adjustments. … But the flash points of change in American history and in Williams history tell us that this doesn’t really help us to accomplish much. … Fifty years from now some historian will stand here and tell us that our embrace of politeness and civility has caused us to shun discontent. We have traded disorder for calm, and we’ve lost our sense of adventure. … Fifty years from now some historian, and our students and our alumni and our trustees and our faculty, will look back and … assess what we do now. They will assess whether we have encouraged, created and engaged conflict, because that’s what daring change is really all about.
Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Rick Spalding, college chaplain
To make you a little more comfortable with the idea of proposing beliefs, I’m going to invite an iconoclast into the conversation in the person of the poet laureate of New England—of a century or a century and a half ago—Emily Dickinson, who wrote in a letter to a dear friend: “…we both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble.” I like the idea of there being compelling disbelief. That’s some part of what we’re about here, isn’t it? And I like the idea that whatever believing we do should be nimble, our knees should be bent all the time. And I especially like, and I recognize, too, the truth that these things change by the hour. Except sometimes, to me anyway, the wavelength seems to shorten quite a bit—a hundred times a minute, perhaps. … Sometimes we think of beliefs as things that you have to sign on to in order to get your token, in order to belong in the room. But let’s think of them instead as things that we try on, just to see how they work, for a few minutes, remembering that we may disbelieve them a few times, even within the next few minutes.[top]
How Will We Learn?
Satyan Devadoss, associate professor of mathematics
This is a snapshot of an image that my students and I developed in our course on phylogenetics. … On the left side of the circle it shows all the things you can major in, in roughly 15 categories. On the right side it shows all the careers you can be in, roughly 15 categories. And there’s a line for every alum at Williams from the left side to the right side, from what you majored in to what you are doing now or had been doing before. … And here’s the good news: No matter what you study, you can do anything you want. The disciplines are already broken down at Williams. … If you majored in English or literature, [the line] splits evenly into almost every possible career there is. If you look at history, it shatters into almost every possible career there is. … Here’s economics. There’s a little bit more bent to banking and finance. … Still, every field is open to you. … At Williams, we are not training you to go so deep that you’re only obsessed in that field, that you’re only equipped in that field. We’re asking you to ask general, big questions. How do you write clearly? How do you communicate your ideas well? Can you break down arguments? Can you work with others? These kinds of general tools that you learn from a Williams education apply across the fields.
The Porous Cube
Christina Olsen, Class of ’56 Director of the Williams College Museum of Art
Museums are looking and will look very different … over the next decade or two. They will become increasingly porous and increasingly transparent. They are becoming a space and a concept that is permeable and fluid … with objects, ideas and people and the mess of real life moving into them and out of them as never before. … People’s relationships to objects and to institutions are shifting. They’re becoming more mobile, more dispersed, more global and more multidirectional, which means of course that institutions have to as well. … Museum objects, both the physical object and its surrogate, will have increasingly complex lives, both inside the institution and outside of it on museum websites and on all kinds of other sites online. … Museums will have vastly larger publics, vastly more diverse publics than they ever have before. … And it won’t just be digital images that will flow out of the museum—it will also be museum objects. And these will be shared and exchanged between museums as never before. … What does any of this mean for the college or university art museum? Many are ideally suited to grapple with the implications of the museum’s new and growing porousness, to experiment with the possibilities, to rethink things and turn them around, turn them upside down.
Living as Learning: The Future of Experiential Education at Williams
Sophia Rosenfeld ’15
The value of experiential education … is not about doing community service or conducting an anthropological study. … Rather, the goal is to meld the personal with the intellectual. … Before [spending Winter Study on a homestay in] Portland, I never thought about fluency. … It wasn’t until Portland, where I helped to teach English to the newest of newcomers at Portland High School, that I realized how precious this ability of mine is. … I can read and write and speak English fluently. … I am fluent in the knowledge of navigating life in America. I know how to use public transportation, how to send an email, how to tell a doctor that I’m feeling sick. My time in Portland taught me there is a lot that I know, but it also taught me there are certain experiences that I can never know, certain feelings that I can only imagine. I have never fled my town because of war. I don’t know what it’s like to be a newcomer in an unknown country. I have never not been able to return home.[top]
Who Will We Be?
Charles B. Dew ’58, Ephraim Williams Professor of American History
We have got to be able to recruit and hold an absolutely first-class faculty at Williams College. And this is not easy. We’re an undergraduate institution, and people come out of graduate school hell-bent on being a scholar, of replicating the career of their mentors in graduate school. But what we are able to do here, because we have the resources to do it, is to approach these candidates and say, “If you want to teach, and particularly if you want to teach undergraduates at a place where it doesn’t get any better, Williams College is the place to do that.” We can also tell them that we will support their scholarship, that we have the means for sabbaticals and for research grants and for travel to professional meetings. You can be both a teacher and a scholar here, and we want you to be a teacher and a scholar. We want you to be engaged with your profession, and we want you to teach at a very high level.
Changing Country, Changing Campus
Chris Winters ’95, associate provost
For the past 20 years it has been relatively easy for colleges to get more selective every year, because every year there have been more kids to choose from than the year before. But we’ve peaked. That pool of high school students is leveling off, and a lot of colleges are going to feel acute pain as a result. Why? Because the underlying demographic changes will not be evenly distributed. Up until now every region has experienced year-over-year growth, but now the only growth area is in the South, and all the others will be basically flat or in decline. Schools that have geographic strengths in growing markets will benefit, and schools in declining markets will lose as this demographic wave crashes over them. … We know one more thing about the pipeline of high school grads, and that is that these high schoolers are getting more racially diverse. By 2027, total U.S. high school grads are expected to be almost 57 percent minority, driven by growth in the Hispanic and, to a lesser extent, Asian populations. To those U.S. demographic data we can apply another set of data, this time internal. We know that our popularity, or market penetration, if you will, varies by region and also by race and thus by race within region.
50 Shades of Beige
Olivia Polk ’16
We know so intimately the ways in which students have served as activists in claiming their racial, sexual and gender identities. But … we are now so diverse as a campus that our tent need not be widened in terms of inherent identities like color and orientation. … Perhaps instead the tent that describes this Williams community is made of patches or swaths of cloth, all representing the different colors of the identities that we now feel empowered to claim. … We look more diverse, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re thinking more diversely or that we’re really analyzing and claiming the fact that we have these different identities. … What are the next set of identities that students will feel that they need to claim on this campus through activism that will change the shape of our tent and not just its color? … I’m mixed-race. I’m read as black, socialized white. I’m a political socialist. I come from a place of economic privilege. I’m queer, I’m identified as pansexual, but I was educated in a very strong Catholic tradition. My identity is as disparate and incongruous as they come.But maybe that’s the point: that my identity is disparate and incongruous, and I am aware of it. … As students on this campus
we’re beginning to make that transition to the deeper awareness of the fluidity of our identities.
What Difference Will We Make?
Ifiok Inyang ’11, senior consultant, Booz Allen Hamilton, Washington, D.C.
The future of Williams College is your responsibility. You shouldn’t take this as some four-year experiment where you get a degree and that’s that, but you are actually the driving force behind this ecosystem that we call the purple bubble. Alumni, faculty, staff, trustees, administrators—we all play our part. But at the end of the day the greatness of this institution depends on the battles you fight as students, and it always has. … The goal is that students should be game-changers, not afraid to speak up when necessary regardless of who the audience is. … The goal for Williams must be not just to produce students who are smarter after their four years, but who are better husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, better citizens, because what difference can we make if we’re not game-changers? And that doesn’t happen unless we’re given that opportunity to … speak up when necessary. If we’re not given the opportunity to achieve what we want with the real possibility to fail… It is in those moments that we learn something so valuable that you won’t find in a textbook, that you won’t pick up on the field, on a court or even in a theater. It is that confidence, that agency, that you learn over time by being given that opportunity to be a game-changer.
Citizen Williams: College as Community Member
Kairav Sinha ’15, founding director, Williams Speaks
Whether you’re teaching public speaking or science, tutoring or mentoring, volunteering at the nursing home or the food bank, doing this work means being exposed to a broader variety of perspectives than you could ever get staying on campus, and it means taking what you learn at Williams and applying it to the real world. … The types of engagement that the college should be working to foster are the ones that encourage this two-way exchange, matching a student talent to a community need. Part of being a good citizen is for Williams and its students to keep an eye out for our neighbors, not just because the college is a large employer, but because at the end of the day we’re all just sharing this little piece of the planet, and the issues that affect our neighbors in North Adams affect us as well, even if we’re just here for four years. … “The presence of the college in a New England town offers a range of opportunities for the college and its students to relate to the town and county, which adds a good deal of meaning to their common existence. … These situations add a dimension of contact with reality that enlarges and deepens the lives of many.” That [is what Jack Sawyer said] 50 years ago, and I think it’s still incredibly relevant today.
Reaching the Purple Mountaintop: Intentional Community at Williams and Beyond
Meg Bossong ’05, manager of community engagement, Boston Area Rape Crisis Center
For community work to really work, it has to be related to a shared identity, and that goes two ways. One is that … we have to feel like our identity is shaped by being a part of that community. … The other piece of this is that we have to feel that the community is shaped by our being a part of it, that it’s responsive to and aware of and flexible about changing because of our impact on it and our impact in it. And that is part of the difference that we’ll make. We are all very familiar with this image—Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other. … I have an idea of what it means. … Faculty are not up on a pedestal, they’re not stuck behind a podium in a huge lecture hall … and they’re not on a computer screen. They’re with us, engaged in the learning process. We’re holding one another accountable for our teaching and for our learning. And that’s at the very core of the liberal arts experience.[top]