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Absolutely No Information

Want more evidence that the Bolin Fellowships should be first on the chopping block during an era of belt-tightening? An anonymous faculty member writes:

Ephblog readers may not be aware that Fellows are not selected in anything like the way that visiting faculty, let alone tenure track faculty, are selected. The primary difference is that there is no rich pool of applicants in the same field against whom the Fellow competes for the job. Instead, the Dean’s office, when it finds an applicant that appears promising, asks a department whether it would be acceptable for that grad student to be around for a year. Many of us — even those who are supporters of the abstract values that the Bolin program is supposed to serve — think that that is an incredibly poor way to find excellent contributors to the academic community. We have absolutely no information on whether they can teach, little information about the ultimate quality of their research (since they haven’t written their dissertations yet), and no grounds for determining whether they are standout scholars in their cohort.

In our previous discussion, Professor Sam Crane reported that:

The Bolin program is great. Fellows bring an infusion of new ideas, they are immersed in what is going on in graduate programs right now. They add to the intellectual life of the college in many ways. I learn from them and that learning enlivens me and, thus, benefits my students, who do not want a brain-dead teacher.

Parent ’12 wrote

Based only on this press release, I think they [the Bolin Fellows] have the potential to enrich the Williams community.

I am happy to believe that both Sam and Parent ’12 are correct, that Bolin Fellows do “enrich” the community and that Professors like Sam “learn from them.” But are those very real benefits worth $300,000 per year? No.

Imagine that the College sent Sam on an around the world cruise every summer. I have no doubt that this would enliven him and, thereby, benefit his students. But advantages need to be balanced against costs.

Imagine that instead of a Bolin Fellowship, the College had a Parish Fellowship, devoted to bringing former military officers and current Ph.D. candidates to Williams for two years. Would they “enrich” the community? Would they “bring an infusion of new ideas?” Of course! But those real benefits would not be worth the cost.

If you accept, as I do, that the fundamental mission of William is to be the best college in the world, a place centered on undergraduate education, then the only plausible purpose for the Bolin/Parish Fellowship is the direct impact that the fellows have on undergraduate education. If the fellows are not chosen for their teaching abilities then they are most likely to be average teachers, almost by definition. Spending $300,000 per year for six average classes is a waste of money.

Moreover, I predict that the classes are likely to be worse than average since the fellows are inexperienced teachers. Even a fan like JG couldn’t generate much enthusiasm for their teaching abilities.

(UPDATE: JG objects to my characterization of her views. Readers should consider JG’s opinions carefully and not rely on my summary of her views. Apologies to JG if she thinks that phrasing is inaccurate, but, relative to her praise of several tenured/tenure-track Williams professors, I do not see much enthusiasm in her description of the teaching abilities of Bolin Fellows.)

From what I have heard, Laura is not the only Williams student with this experience.

I had a completely terrible class with a Bolin Fellow. It too was quite popular and over-enrolled, and I was really looking forward to it based on the course description. It was a complete disaster and a waste of tuition dollars (she cancelled 5 classes and we spent 2 others at the dance studio learning cultural dances). The classes that we did have were often interrupted by her 10 minute smoking breaks. She often didn’t respond to emails, wouldn’t give feedback on papers, and never learned the names of half of our 25 person class. It was so bad that I typed up several pages of blue sheet comments for her and expressed my concern to the Dean (or someone appropriate, I can’t remember who).

As always, this is an empirical question. There have been 30 or so Bolin Fellows at Williams over the last decade. The College knows what their average students ratings have been. That no one at the College (including Sam Crane) will tell us is how they compare to tenure-track/tenured faculty tells me all I need to know.

Finally, it is a sign of the intellectual life of the College that the above quoted faculty member feels the need to remain anonymous.

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#1 Comment By Derek On October 20, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

May as well grind my ax here: Sam Crane is a known faculty member who was willing to stand behind his words with his name. Why are we valuing equally the anonymous words of someone unwilling to do the same? Courage of convictions, people. Why is this so freaking hard?

And then we get one (anonymous, natch) criticism of one Bolin fellow’s teaching somehow allowed to indict the whole endeavor. Is this parody?


#2 Comment By Sam On October 20, 2008 @ 3:34 pm

Not parody, just standard Kane operating procedure.
As to my anonymous colleague, I have every confidence that he or she is arguing in good faith from a basis of experience. There are ways that the program could be improved, certainly. And there may be good reasons for anonymity, not the least of which is to maintain good working relations with current Fellows.
But that is not Kane’s game. It is not an “empirical question” for him. He espouses an ideologically derived “conclusion” – in this case, Bolins are bad – and then fits the facts to that conclusion. This is his way. He did this with the infamous critique of the Lancet report – claiming at the outset that it was fraudulent, and then scurrying for months and months afterward to try to regain unsuccessfully some shred of respectability after Harvard took down the post in which be brought the baseless attack. He did it in a previous post on how the college is dealing with financial crisis and JG called him out for “just making shit up.” Just so. And he just did it again in another post about a discussion on immigration: the announcement says nothing at all about amnesty but Kane ridicules as if it did.
Facts are in play for Kane only insofar as they are useful to his ideology.

#3 Comment By JG On October 20, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

Do not – I repeat DO NOT willfully misinterpret my comments on this blog. I will call you on it.

Go back and read both my first comment (you linked above) AND the second comment a few below that further explaining the first one and responding to your question. I said that one fellow was average for Williams, which means better than most professors I’ve encountered generally. I also said that other was in the top 1/3 roughly – a very high standard. I think my enthusiasm for fellows and their teaching ability was readily apparent.

Please edit the post to include the true meaning of both comments or better yet take me out of it. If you don’t wish to do so, I will happily create an entire post to refute your willful mischaracterization.

#4 Comment By Alexander Woo On October 20, 2008 @ 4:05 pm

Part of the point of the Bolin Fellows is so that the college can tell the prospective professor considering a competing offer from Dartmouth that he or she can still occasionally work with a graduate student while teaching at Williams. Another part of the point is to be able to tell the prospective black or hispanic professor considering a competing offer from Emory that there will be a few more black or hispanic faces on campus.

With the kind of money Williams is already offering, these kinds of things make a lot more of a difference in who Williams can attract and retain than an extra $5000 a year.

#5 Comment By Rory On October 20, 2008 @ 4:08 pm


again i’ve lost a longer post. In short:
1. Your anecdoatal evidence game is laughable. Laura had a bad experience. I had an even worse experience (the dean and chair of the department both apologize for the class to me)with a visiting professor than with bolins. JG said the bolins were equal to–or better than–the average williams faculty member in her experience. 2 to 1. I WIN! lol. I also know friends who saw a bolin fellow as their mentor when I was at school. 3 to 1!!!!

2. That a process for selecting members of a program MAY (and our anonymous faculty contact only seems to describe a portion of the hiring process) be flawed does not mean the program should be tossed. To make a football analogy: just because a pass got tipped at the line of scrimmage before being completed does not mean that pass play is a bad one. It just means the team should work on its pass blocking.

2a. An addendum. My graduate experience is very different from what your anonymous faculty member seems to assert. For one, I’ve been pushed aggressively to publish before and beyond my dissertation–in other words, when/if I were to apply for a Bolin (and, btw, I could. so there goes the “set aside” argument) I’d have not only a published piece of my own, but also a co-authored piece AND at the very least, a prospectus of my dissertation. While a chapter of the dissertation would be ideal (and, depending on my procrastination, quite feasible), that’s still a decent amount of work to consider. It’s also roughly the same amount that I will have when I go on the market for a tenure track job. This may be a difference in field, but it’s worth noting that graduate students who are one year from completed are not empty books as your post seems to assert. To continue, it is rare for job applicants to in some way have to prove their teaching chops on the job market as well (maybe this is different at Williams). And, again, TAs traditionally have student evals and teaching experience by the time they are on the market (again, at least in my field), so I don’t know that Williams has “absolutely no” info on that grad student as a teacher. To be fair, the flaw may be that the dean’s office fails to share this info with the department.
2b. Also, as for knowing if the student is a standout–that’s easily resolved with just a little bit of legwork. You know the students’ department and advisors–faculty can use their networks and call people and find out.

3. The comparison to military service is on its face inapplicable. Military veterans and military service is not historically an underrepresented area in the academy or in the halls of power of our country. complete red herring. cmon.

4. If I were dean, I’d never share that info with you. Why? Because you’ve already said you want to cut the program. Why feed the troll? (not that they think of you as such, but you’ve been more than biased enough without the data–why give you the data to play with and bias?).

5.Whence this absurd $300,000 in savings? For one, there are THREE current Bolins currently. 3×33 = 99,000. Add in unseen costs and lets say that’s a total of $150,000. Maybe incidentals should be more. but another $150,000 on top? evidence, please. In the future, with the expanded Bolin (which, btw, should help resolve the quality concern you’ve created in your mind) it might reach $300,000. Might being the critical term. Plus, 6 courses = how many faculty? 1.5? 2? How much would they cost? the savings aren’t nearly what you say. you might be remotely more convincing to me if you didn’t fudge your numbers (and you wonder again why people don’t share theirs with you…)

6. I find it distasteful for you to assume a motive other than the one Sam offers for why he won’t share information with you. Do you not trust his word from the prior thread on this very topic?

7.You again misrepresent the opposition. Our argument is that ON TOP OF teaching some courses, interacting with students, etc., the bolins ALSO enrich the academic community, etc. It isn’t only the enriching.

#6 Comment By Parent ’12 On October 20, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

David neglected to include the link to the press release, which was in my original comment. This is for those who’d like to read about their background.

Here are the recently appointed Bolin Fellows:


#7 Comment By Parent ’12 On October 20, 2008 @ 5:06 pm

Unfortunately, David, I’m wondering whether you’re compensated to teach a WSP course.

I really question how you can raise an important issue, which you entitled “cost cutting,” yet raise the Bolin fellows in such a provocative manner, that fewer responses are about “cost cutting” and more are about your view of the Bolin fellowship.

#8 Comment By Rory On October 20, 2008 @ 5:13 pm

jeez, david, even your edit isn’t very fair to JG…is it really legit to compare a description of bolin fellows to a description of (while at williams, tenured) Craig Wilder and tenured Bill Darrow? seems like an extraordinarily high bar to have.

JG can, of course, correct me if there were other professors she’s described with enthusiasm that i’ve forgotten. But compared to those two, of the other 25 or so faculty I had classes with, maybe 3 could compete.

#9 Comment By JG On October 20, 2008 @ 6:16 pm

David, what you see in my comments is entirely affected by your negativity-colored glasses. As Rory just said, and as I have made abundantly clear – repeatedly, and now again – on EB, there are a handful of truly standout professors from whom I was fortunate enough to take classes. I also interacted with many very very good professors, in and out of the classroom, who, while not the top 3-5 professors, were wonderful and amazing. One of the Bolin Fellows fell into this category. Is that enthusiastic enough for you? Perhaps you need some exclamation points? Okay then – one of the two Bolin Fellows who taught me was very very good!!!!!!

There were also the majority of professors that fell into “average” for Williams…again, that is not a put-down. An “average” Williams professor is an elite professor that might be a star elsewhere, and is only “average” when in a forced comparison with pretty remarkable company. If a Bolin Fellow is an average Williams professor, s/he is a tremendous asset to the Williams educational experience and a “get” for the school!!! (enough enthusiasm for you?) The other lens that needs to be put on this is that these are professionals early in their teaching careers. While I have my favorites, I’m willing to be they may have had rough patches in the first few years…part of what makes them great is the ability to continue improving.

You are trying to shoehorn my comments to fit your narrative. You are welcome to your opinion on the program, but if you think this approach is going to convince others to agree with you, I think you are mistaken. You know little about the hiring process (did you even try to ask anyone?) – you posted one quote from one professor about the particular piece of the hiring process involving feedback from a department (probably the last step). While I do not at all doubt the veracity of the professor’s perspective based upon what s/he knows, I do wonder if this person was (1) head of the department/program and/or (2) regularly involved in hiring in any way in (a) the department/program or (b) college-wide. The point of these questions being that this professor may not have the whole picture. What you (and s/he) have described does not fit with any of the faculty, staff, or dean hiring processes with which I was involved. That is actually far less rigorous even that selection committees for student awards that I helped select. I am highly skeptical that it is the full story.

Finally, I think the title of this post sums your argument up quite nicely. You are making these claims with Absolutely No Information.

#10 Comment By ronit On October 20, 2008 @ 6:47 pm

You know, David Kane’s inner narrative about race/diversity would make a fascinating topic for a senior thesis; there might even be a Ph.D dissertation in it.

#11 Comment By Parent ’12 On October 20, 2008 @ 6:58 pm

Imagine the stamina to undertake it.