“Williams is a place where we’re engaged in a million conversations and one grand conversation all at once. And it’s a conversation that goes on forever.”
So said Professor of Classics Edan Dekel during a panel discussion hosted by President Adam Falk during the Oct. 3 campus launch of Teach It Forward: The Campaign for Williams. The wide-ranging conversation, held on the MainStage of the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, also included Denise Buell, who is dean of faculty and the Cluett Professor of Religion, and Tiku Majumder, Science Center director and professor of physics. Dekel’s statement was in answer to Falk’s question to the group: “What is it about being here that’s particularly special?” But his words also provide a larger context for the campaign.
Aimed at raising $650 million and engaging the entire Williams community in building the future of the college, Teach It Forward is the most ambitious campaign in Williams’ 222-year history. Fundraising priorities include deep investment in financial aid, faculty support, undergraduate science education and the student experience.
At the heart of the campaign are three questions: Who will we be? How will we teach and learn? And what difference will we make? The conversation among President Falk, Buell, Dekel and Majumder offers important answers.
Who Will We Be?
“In the sciences, the broadening of the student body has had a number of great effects, especially given the kind of collaborating that goes on at Williams. … It’s so valuable to have students who’ve had different kinds of training, knowledge bases, ways of thinking and problem solving. … In the sciences we have more students from under-resourced high school backgrounds but who have tremendous talent and passion, and Williams is ideally positioned to nurture them.”
“We need to find people that … are willing to explore the different kinds of mindsets required to be at a place like this, to make a commitment that goes beyond just being an excellent researcher and excellent teacher but also being collaborative, global and interdisciplinary—even in your off-hours, when you’re not in your classroom or lab.”
“We have more faculty who are and will be retiring in the next dozen years or so, which means the faculty’s … getting younger. … I see the ways in which each department and program is thinking about what the curriculum can look like and paying attention not only to looking for ways to diversify the faculty so that it looks more like our student body … but also thinking about the ways that graduate education is … increasingly interdisciplinary in its methodology. … My newer colleagues are bringing perspectives to the college that are fully in keeping with the mission we’ve always had, to be in conversation with each other across and outside of our units, as well as to do the work inside our departments and programs as well as we can for our students.”
How Will We Teach and Learn?
“My classroom technology is a piece of chalk and the truth. … No matter what kind of course it is, no matter what technique I use, it always comes back to the same core thing—the authentic encounter between the student, the instructor and … the material. To have as intimate and authentic a meeting between those three things is the core of every successful teaching experience I’ve ever had. … I try to put all the attention on that interaction, to get people to come as close to the thing as possible, to question it, to examine a concept or text from as many perspectives as possible. … You can use technology and incredible databases and library resources, and you can use a 500-year-old book and the textbook in front of you, but you learn to bring all those things together … to collaborate with your scattered self.”
“I worked with a very advanced physics student, a senior. … He had developed such a sense of responsibility for his own learning … that clearly came from not just what he had been taught but the way he had been taught and the culture of responsibility that had been inculcated by the interactions he’d had in classes and tutorials with other students.”
“I love that I get to teach non-major students about the science of music and sound … because I’m an amateur musician. … Then I have the juniors and seniors who have had four years of preparation and who I teach in a small setting where I get all these wonderful questions that I often have to answer, ‘That’s a really good question,’ and pause and think about it to see if I actually have an answer. And I get to work with students in the lab. … We’re not outsourcing any part of this teaching.”
“My goal with students is to get them thinking and talking with each other and not just with me. … I try to create a context in which … my role as the instructor [is not] to be the lightning pole … but to actually be the person who helps create the conditions for unknown weather so that the students are engaged with a generous spirit, in a capacious way, with a curious manner but also forced to confront complexity.”
What Difference Will We Make?
Eventually the idea is you get [students] to take more responsibility for their own education. … So that they’re working together, working on their own and really appreciating that, though it may be a hard transition from the kind of teaching and learning that they had in high school … it’s not so much about ‘Did I see this problem before?’ but, instead, ‘I’ve never seen this problem before, but let’s figure out what step 1 might be to solving this problem. … When it clicks, it’s just really exciting.”
“If we can get our students to be comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty and conflicting ideas that they hold in their heads at one time—to work their way through that—it’s almost the most important thing in this day and age we can give them.”
“I often think of the classroom as just the starting point. … It’s so important to get students to develop their own taste, their own understanding, their own capacities, their own interests—and then to take responsibility on an individual paper that they’re writing, on a problem set, on a project, working in the lab, or on a thesis they’re writing.”
“I wanted to be at a place where I could get to know my students, learn from them, share my passion for all the things I’m interested in. … I can paint outside the lines in terms of my scholarship and in terms of my teaching and training … and be a part of the workings of this college— not just in the role that I’m now in administratively but as a faculty member all the way along. To be able to think with my colleagues and the students about how we want this college to be—that’s something I couldn’t have gotten at any other place. We do it so well here.”