We do our best to avoid an excessive amount of navel-gazing here at EphBlog. Blog posts should, in general, be about “all things Eph” and not “all things EphBlog”. But, on occasion, there is nothing to be done but to consider our own navels.

Only read further if you would like to join us.


Drew writes:

Furthermore, being 15 years removed from Williams, where did you gain the knowledge to make statements such as “Why is it that the President’s job has become more complex/challenging at a faster rate than the job of economics professor? Answer: It hasn’t.”

He also notes that:

With regard to my unanswered question and Mike’s comment, it often amazes me, and others I have spoken with, the number of statments and assertions you make about Williams, that may have been true about Williams 15 years ago but reflect a true ignorance of the way Williams exists today.

This is not a slam since I am sure you mean well and I wouldn’t expect an old alum to have a real understanding of what goes on at Williams today unless you have spent a lot of time on campus recently, which is what prompted my question initially.

I am sure that I, too, will loose touch with the pulse of campus life within a short period of time, too; it’s natural and to be expected.

There is an adorable if sometimes annoying tendency for younger Ephs to imagine that no one who is not actually living in Carter House right now can possibly imagine what life at Williams is like or offer reasoned commentary on what the College is or should be.

Drew, Mike Needham and (of course!) Aidan are among the most adorable young Ephs that I know.

;-)

In all seriousness, it is a fair question to ask — of anyone on any topic — why should I believe that what you are saying is true? So, why should Drew believe that anything I — or any other “old alum” — have to say about Williams is true? There are several issues here, I would like to unpack them one by one.

1) Are most of the factual statements that I make about Williams true? I believe that they are. (I thank Mike for correcting an counter-example to this statement.) When I write that Morty is paid X or that the College has donated Y to the local high school or that student Z is on trial for rape, I try my best to get the facts correct. When I get the facts wrong, I correct my mistake as soon as possible. Indeed, I would wager that Drew can not find more than 3 uncorrected factual mistakes in all my writing at EphBlog.

2) Are most of the conjectures/estimates/guesses that I make about life at Williams now or in the past reasonable? I like to think that they are, but your mileage may vary. I am curious, to use Mike’s example, about how many member of his class the typical senior knows on graduation day. My guess would be that it is a number like 125-225 and that this number is much higher than it was in the 1980’s and that the main reason for this increase is the change in the housing system.

I could easily be wrong about one, two or all three of these claims. But it is somewhat asinine to assert that these statements represent “true ignorance of the way Williams exists today” while not telling me — and the other readers of EphBlog — what the right answers are. So, I am ready to believe that I am ignorant about topics like social networks at Williams today. Indeed, I gladly confess my ignorance. Still, I think that, as these particular points come up, the constructive response is to correct me. To write: “No, David, the typical senior at Williams actually knows more like 50 (or 400 or whatever) of her classmates.”

I am ignorant about all too many aspects of life at Williams both currently (What the heck is Contradancing?) and in the past. But, unless you have specific examples where I incorrectly asserted — rather then guessed, estimated, conjectured or supposed — that X is true about Williams today, I think that my level of ignorance is clear to every reader, even those who or even further removed from Williamstown then I am.

3) Now there is a difference, of course, between factual claims about Williams as it is and policy disputes. I have lots of opinions about things that would, if changed, make Williams better off. I believe that Williams First Years should learn The Mountains. I think that Senior theses should be posted on-line. I argue that excellent teaching at Williams should be rewarded with cash prizes. I speculate on strategies for reducing sexual assault on campus. I believe that the College should not be making large cash donations to other non-profits. I think that the JA Selection Committee should be larger. And on and on.

As in any question of policy, there are two things on which we might disagree. First, we might differ on what the effect of these policies would actually be. Second, we might agree on the effects, but disagree on how we value the outcomes. I take Drew’s comments to mean that I am too often wrong about the effects that the policies I recommend would have.

Perhaps. One of the purposes of EphBlog is to discuss those effects. I am endlessly curious about the what other people think about Williams — about what works and what doesn’t, about what could be fixed and what isn’t broken. Again, instead of issuing a blanket claim that my forecasts of the likely effects of specific policy changes are ignorant, it would be helpful if Drew (or anyone else) cited a specific forecast that he disagreed with and the reasons for his disagreement. I might (slowly) come to agree with him. Indeed, it was the excellent discussion on EphBlog that changed my opinion on the reasonableness of tips.

Drew has, of course, no obligation to do so. Indeed, he has no obligation to read what I write. But I, and I suspect other readers, would be a lot more impressed with his argument if it were better grounded in specific claims rather than general attacks.

4) The “pulse of campus life” may or not be a useful construct, but it is dangerous argument for someone from the class of 2004 to use. I certainly agree that the more knowledge that you have about life on campus, the better able that you are, on average, to make accurate factual claims about life at Williams as well as to forecast the effect of changes in policy. But there is plenty of dispersion around that average.

The reason that this is a dangerous argument for Drew to make is that it leaves him open to similar jabs rom current students. Consider a claim made by a current student that the JA system should be abolished or that only scholarship (and not teaching ability) should matter in tenure decisions or insert-any-other-bad-change-here. Drew would have many good reasons for claiming that the effects of these policy changes would likely be bad and/or not what those in favor might expect. But a current student could reply to Drew:

Thanks, old alum, for your geriatric viewpoint. But, you are not a current student, you know nothing about the current pulse of campus life. What you believe may (or may not) have been correct 1 or 15 or 50 years ago, but it isn’t true now. Go away.

Now, I don’t think that this hypothetical student would be correct in making such an argument. I think that all sorts of people — alums or not, on campus or not — can have reasonable and insightful things to say about the likely effects of policy changes. I recommend that Drew adopt a similar viewpoint.

I may very well be wrong about every forecast that I make, but my age and location have very little to do with it.

5) And, finally, for those still with us, let me end with the specific subject of my dispute with Drew. To repeat:

Furthermore, being 15 years removed from Williams, where did you gain the knowledge to make statements such as “Why is it that the President’s job has become more complex/challenging at a faster rate than the job of economics professor? Answer: It hasn’t.”

What do my age and location have to do with my knowledge about such things? To be clear, there are two separate issues. One: How reasonable is it for a random alum to make such a claim? Two: How reasonable is it for me, in particular, to make such a claim? To be precise, we are talking not just about Morty or David Zimmerman or anyone else specifically. We are arguing over the relative changes in the complexity/challenge of the jobs of president and economics professor at Williams and places like Williams. (Certainly, the same salary changes are clearly happening at almost all other similar schools.)

There is also a rhetorical question of who holds the burden of proof here. Is it my responsibility to prove that the relative changes have been the same or must someone who is advancing this argument as a explanation/justification for increasing divergence in salaries provide evidence that the rates of change are different? Let’s leave this to one side.

Who is better equiped to judge the how the jobs of president and professor at places like Williams have changed over the last 15 years? A current student or an old alum? Let me be charitable to Drew and declare it a tie. Whatever a current student might know about what life is like at Williams today for our president/professor is equivalent, more or less, to what an old alum would know about life 20 years ago. They each have equal knowledge of their own eras at Williams.

But since we are interested in rates of change, we need to know who has the better sense of what life was like for the professor/president in some other era. Is it easier for a current student to learn about life 20 years ago or for an old alum to learb about life today? I again, I want to be charitable and declare a tie.

Of course, there will be current students who are completely clueless about olden days just as there are old alums who don’t know a thing about Williams today. But I see no reason why, on average, a current student is a better judge of this question then an old alumnus.

It is a separate question as to whether I, in particular, because of my background and experience, am well-equipped in making this judgment. If Drew really wants to hear about the relevant portions of my CV, I will be happy to provide them. Yet I think that the claims that I am making stand without assistance from my resume. Although the last 20 years have seen plenty of changes in all professional jobs — lawyer, doctor, professor, college president, consultant, investment banker — there is, to my mind, no good evidence that any of these jobs has grown more complex/challenging at a faster rate than any of the others. If Drew knows of any such evidence, I would be eager to read about it.

Let me close by thanking Drew for his comments. We would be eager for him to join us as an author at EphBlog. He has many interesting things to say about everything that Williams is and everything that Williams could become. I look forward to reading them all.

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