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Another interesting discussion from Morty’s visit to College Council.

President Schapiro said that the public speaking requirement failed by one vote in May 2001 when the writing requirement, quantitative reasoning, tripling of the number of tutorials were all passed. President Schapiro wanted to require tutorials and thought a public speaking requirement would be a way to get students involved in tutorials. For public speaking requirement, 80% of the grade would be based on oral presentations. Would like to bring it back as something that would come out of the 2020 Committee. He said that one problem with requiring tutorials is that those who really want to be in course shouldn’t be paired with those who don’t want to be there. However, he hoped to bring back the discussion of public speaking and thinks there should be a tutorial requirement. He then said that Williams competes against wonderful schools that don’t have any requirements at all and this is problematic. He doesn’t want Williams to be perceived as a paternalistic institution where students are not trusted to make their own decisions.

Exactly right. The only requirements that Williams should have are 32 classes and a major. Everything else is either unnecessary or counterproductive. Now, individual departments have the right to require whatever they want. If PHIL wants to require a tutorial to be a philosophy major or ECON wants to require two writing intensive courses, then that choice is within the purview of those departments. See here for related discussion.

Note that the topic of public speaking requirements is particularly ridiculous because Williams already has a public speaking requirement, at least if you are a MATH/STAT major. I am unclear on the exact details (clarifications from current students welcome) but I think that every MATH/STAT major needs to present a public colloquium (see here for an example by Kristin Sundet ’08. This is a serious presentation, requiring students to thoroughly master a small part of mathematics. All the students that I have discussed this with have praised the exercise, describing it as one of the highlights of their academic careers at Williams.

No professor at Williams should propose a public speaking requirement until her department has already instituted one.

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#1 Comment By Ronit On April 23, 2008 @ 12:35 pm

So, uh, Williams doesn’t need a public speaking requirement because Math has one? Come again?

Also, if we got rid of requirements, there are too many students who would be only too happy to concentrate all 32 of their courses in just one area where they are strong, while avoiding any areas where they are weak. This defeats the point of a liberal arts education. Distribution requirements are both necessary and good, in that they encourage students to explore areas they might not have otherwise (many students end up doing significant work in areas that they first entered only to fulfil a distribution requirement); the greater the diversity of courses taken by students at Williams, the more likely they are to end up as creative and original thinkers. Getting rid of distribution requirements only makes sense if you truly believe that 18 year olds already know everything about what they need to know.

I think it should be an institutional goal of any liberal arts college to not turn out students who spend their entire four years doing only one or two topics. I would even propose getting rid of official double majors altogether; I knew many double major students who, in senior year, regretted that they had not been able to take more courses in different areas. The formal recognition of a second major only encourages this kind of concentration (why not have minors instead?)

#2 Comment By frank uible On April 23, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

Ronit: You must have known that all along David has aspired to turn Williams into a glorified school of cosmetology.

#3 Comment By Glenn ’11 On April 23, 2008 @ 1:24 pm

I think what is most ridiculous here is that Morty doesn’t want Williams to be PERCEIVED as a paternalistic institution. Come on, how about letting students make their own decisions because it is best for their growth and development, instead of being so freaking toady.

#4 Comment By ronit On April 23, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

@Glenn: Making your own decisions is not always best for your growth and development. Sometimes, it is the job of the college to push you into uncomfortable situations, including unfamiliar areas of study. I firmly believe that this is ultimately better for your intellectual development than total laissez-faire.

An overriding majority of my friends and acquaintances did not end up majoring in what they thought they would major in when they came to Williams as freshmen. Most of them are not doing the kind of work they thought they would do when they were 18. Giving 18 year olds total freedom over their course concentration is a recipe for turning out one-dimensional students.

#5 Comment By Glenn ’11 On April 23, 2008 @ 1:57 pm

Learning to make your own decisions is. Ever seen documentaries about captive animals being released into the wild and promptly dying?

In any case, that is not my point of contention at all. My point is how Morty seems to be caught up in what people think about us when we should be focusing on ourselves. Note the word perceived in bold? Stop looking for an argument where one doesn’t exist.

#6 Comment By current eph On April 23, 2008 @ 3:01 pm

A large part of Morty’s job is being concerned about what other people think of us. However, if you’ve ever talked to Morty 1-1, you’ll know that his primary concern is with the reality of Williams, and not its image. I’m sorry that’s not the impression that he gave to you at the CC meeting.

#7 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On April 23, 2008 @ 4:20 pm

I for one think a public speaking requirement is a good one. A lot of one’s adult life is not just spent studying/doing stuff; it’s also convincing others that what you’re proposing deserves support. This is true of scientists (who spend a lot of time these days writing grant requests), business managers of all stripes (convincing the business to invest in a product or strategy), educators (convincing students, administrators, and once again asking for grants), politicians–the list goes on.

When my father attended Brown in the late 1930’s, public speaking was a required for graduation, which got lost in the do-your-own-thing era of the 1960’s. The thought isn’t new; it’s just recognizing a real world reality. Obama is giving Clinton a run for her money in part because of his well-written book and his public speaking ability. Great communications skills can be very powerful.

#8 Comment By hwc On April 23, 2008 @ 4:36 pm

Guy: I think the question is whether a requirement is called for or if Williams students already get experience in public speaking as a normal activity in their tutorials, seminars, thesis presentations, etc. I know that my daughter has made oral presentations to the class in covering everything from physics problem sets to case studies in the field to podcasts on contemporary religious ethics issues. I suspect the same is surely true for Williams students or students at any top liberal arts college.

If so, a requirement may be just needless red tape.

#9 Comment By dkane On April 23, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

Ronit writes:

An overriding majority of my friends and acquaintances did not end up majoring in what they thought they would major in when they came to Williams as freshmen.

True, but irrelevant. That happened 25 years ago, before there were distribution requirements. The issue is: Would Williams be a better or worse place if there were no distribution requirements?

Also, if we got rid of requirements, there are too many students who would be only too happy to concentrate all 32 of their courses in just one area where they are strong, while avoiding any areas where they are weak.

Sure. Williams is filled with students, especially all Ronit’s friends, who would take 32 physics and math courses if they could. In fact, without distribution requirements, no one would take ARTH 101-102, least of all those narrow-minded DIV III majors.

Snark aside, it is important to think hard about what Williams would look like with no distribution requirements (DR). The College did some studies in conjunction in the 80’s about this. I can’t find any links on-line, so this is from my imperfect memory. And I assumes that kids today are not that different from kids 25 years ago.

1) Even without DR, the vast majority of students would meet the requirements because Williams students have wide ranging interests and the College offers so many amazing courses. It is impossible to take 32 math courses even if one wanted to to that. In the 80’s (before DR), I think more than 80% met the requirements anyway (and another 10% met it modulo one course).

2) Even without DR, everyone takes 3+ courses in DIV II. For whatever reason, there is something in DIV II for everyone even if they don’t have to.

3) Even without DR, most people take 3+ courses in DIV I. ARTH 101-102 plays a big part in that, as do English and languages.

4) The real impact on DR is in forcing students who do not want to take DIV III courses to take them. But does this really do them any good? Are they better off for taking a DIV III course instead of the DIV I or II courses that they really wanted to take? I doubt it. And, being a believer in freedom, I trust their judgment.

Let’s drill down to this case, far and away the largest impact of DR. What sorts of students are forced to take DIV III courses because of DR?

First, most/all are not math/science naifs. They come from excellent high schools. They have taken math and science APs. They know as much about math/science as 98% of the US population. And, guess what? They don’t like it. They don’t want to solve integrals. They don’t want to spend time in the lab. Do you really think that forcing them to do so is a good idea? Do you really think that this will awaken in them a love of science that was lying dormant? I find that absurd.

Second, a very, very small number of them might have come from lousy high schools at which they did not get a decent exposure to math/science. That is a shame, of course. But college policy can’t be driven by unusual cases. Moreover, there are better ways to reach such students, like assigning them freshmen advisers from DIV III. I bet that Frank Morgan could convince most of them to (voluntarily!) try math for a semester or two.

Third, are the students who would have taken an amazing or unusual course in DIV I or II but were prevented from doing so by this ridiculous requirement. This is the great hidden cost of any requirement. It takes away one of the most precious resources at Williams: those 32 golden tickets. Everytime you force someone to take a course she does not like, you prevent her from trying a subject that she might love. And she is a much better judge of that than you are. This is not just about students staying in a comfort zone, as if Art History and Japanese and English Poetry were all the same thing.

Fourth, most of these students (just the subset that would not take three DIV III courses if the College did not force them to), don’t actually do math/science! The requirement is pretty much a fraud. They take some ridiculous science gut that does not teach them anything useful, that does not require meaningful work, that would not earn credit for a science major, that is an insult to a Williams transcript.

Division requirements don’t affect course choice very much and, to the extent that they have an effect, it simply forces smart students with good science educations to take a bunch of ridiculous guts, thereby preventing them from having a great experience in some other class.

#10 Comment By ronit On April 23, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

David, I don’t have the exact number, but I know there is a non-zero incidence of majors in each division who take the bare minimum of courses outside of their division, and would take zero if they had the choice. I don’t think there is a way to pre-screen for such people, but I do think it is beneficial for them to be forced to do something apart from their primary area of strength.

And there are plenty of freshmen each year who fail the quantitative screening test, and would find it much easier to opt out of Div III altogether, even though it would lock them out of many options further down the line. Having a Div III requirement ensures that these students are forced to address their deficiencies before graduating.

#11 Comment By rory On April 23, 2008 @ 5:19 pm


Those requirements have value for science. For one, science at the college level is not remotely like sicence at the AP level necessarily. Who knows who might be turned on suddenly?

In addition, it also gives incentive/reason/requirement to the departments to not gear all of their teaching to science-lovers. That is a good thing–liberal arts college is not the time or place for such narrow focusing, in my opinion.

As for public speaking, I know it’s possible to get through a williams or any other college’s four years without having to give a major public talk. I believe such a requirement could be a good thing, especially if it isn’t necessarily a class based requirement. Like the math/stats colloquium outside of a class. That’s a wonderful model–why not expand it? Why not let being college council president or MinCo co-chair or some such public leadership positions count? Creativity could make the public speaking requirement truly valuable to students while not impinging on their class-selection flexibility.

#12 Comment By jeffz On April 23, 2008 @ 5:20 pm

Fifth, no one has ever chosen Williams over Amherst (or other requirement-free schools) because it had additional requirements, but surely some have done the converse. Not saying such considerations should necessarily govern, but in the quest for best students, affording extra freedom can only help …

#13 Comment By dkane On April 23, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

Rory asks:

Who knows who might be turned on suddenly?

If requirements were free, if there were not cost to forcing students to take three Div III courses that they do not want instead of the three Div I courses that they do, your point would be reasonable. But there is that cost! And it is huge. Instead of taking CHEM: CSI because you make her, a student could be trying out studio art or sociology or Chinese or any of a dozen interesting courses/fields that, right now, don’t quite make the cut. You take away three of her golden tickets by forcing her to take those courses.

#14 Comment By rory On April 23, 2008 @ 5:47 pm

that’s right, david, three. the cost isn’t necessarily that great–and you’re example is kinda proving my point: is an 18 year olds’ interests the ONLY metric a college should use for designing its curriculum? Limiting that 18 year olds’ options for less than 10% of his/her coursework is a pretty small requirement.

I would have never taken statistics if not for the requirements (I only took 3 div 3 courses) and it’s one of the classes that has had the greatest impact on my current path because it was well taught.

Now, it wasn’t a “gut” course, but the professor knew he wasn’t getting only math people in the class. I have a beef with those “gut” courses (I took one of them, btw as my 3rd div 3 course), but that’s a question of implementation.

#15 Comment By Larry George On April 23, 2008 @ 6:22 pm

Some applicants do pick other schools because they don’t want to have requirements. I’ve lost a few I was trying to steering to Williams for just that reason. And, of course, Amherst in particular makes a very big thing about having no requirements other than the ones in the major.

That’s not necessarily a reason for Williams to drop requirements, but the requirements are already complex and can be burdensome. I think it argues for caution and thought.

#16 Comment By Diana On April 23, 2008 @ 10:11 pm

BTW, you’re right about the colloquium requirement. Mine is here. Math majors are also required to attend at least 30 of those colloquia to earn a math major, which is another good way to learn public speaking (by seeing what works and doesn’t work in your peers’ presentations).

#17 Comment By Chris ’10 On April 23, 2008 @ 11:41 pm

As a physics major who takes mostly Div II courses, I probably wouldn’t have taken any Div I courses if I didn’t have to. But because of that requirement I ended up taking French, which is something that I see myself looking back upon happily.

#18 Comment By eph ’07 On April 27, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

I think the div requirements are great, and could even be expanded, because I think cultural literacy (in some broad, vague definition) is one of the things a liberal arts college should provide in its list of intangible gains. David, you ask what’s lost if a student takes the Div I class s/he wants to take instead of the Div III class that’s required – I’d say it’s cultural literacy. Science is pretty important in our society, and some exposure to the basics seems like a good idea.

In this respect, the requirements could even be expanded. I took 3 math/stat classes and 1 geology class, meaning that I managed to get out of college without taking a single class in biology, chemistry, or physics, and near the end of senior year it occurred to me that maybe after Williams I’d appreciate exposure to other fields more than that fun, completely inapplicable double major.

You may be right about the non-major electives, though. Coming from a high school without strong science classes, I was intimidated about taking basic chemistry, and that’s one reason I avoided it, but I never had much interest in the non-major, non-fundamental classes. My experience of stat 101, a class taught to non-majors and mostly Div I and II people, was that it was much less challenging and engaging than the math classes I took with mostly math and physics majors. (Again, didn’t take Stat 201 due to being intimidated by those math & physics majors – oops! My advice to younger readers: take the harder classes, what you learn will hopefully be worth the humiliation. I have no idea how to encourage people to follow this when I didn’t myself, however.)

On another note, there are so many ways public speaking is worked into the curriculum and student life at Williams, I don’t see a public speaking requirement as necessary at all.