This is the first day of EphBlog’s Winter Study seminar on the induction speeches of Williams College presidents.

The most famous short sentence about Williams College is President Garfield’s aphorism that the best college is “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.” Yet the most famous long sentence comes from Mark Hopkins’ own induction address (pdf), given when he was just 34.

[W]e are to regard the mind, not as a piece of iron to be laid upon the anvil and hammered into any shape, nor as a block of marble in which we are to find the statue by removing the rubbish, nor as a receptacle into which knowledge may be poured; but as a flame that is to be fed, as an active being that must be strengthened to think and to feel — to dare, to do, and to suffer.

But, as popular as that sentence has proven over the years (it was quoted twice at Adam Falk’s recent induction), the conclusion that Hopkins himself draws in the very next paragraph is almost always forgotten.

There is indeed, great temptation on the part both of teachers and scholars to pursue a course not in accordance with this principle. It is far easier for a teacher to generalize a class, and give it a lesson to get by rote, and hear it said, and let it pass, than it is to watch the progress of individual mind, and awaken interest, and answer objections, and explore tendencies, and, beginning with the elements, to construct together with his pupils, so that they shall feel they aid in it, the fair fabric of a science with which they shall be familiar from the foundation to the topstone.

Williams, with its small classes and tutorials, has much to be proud of in the attention that it pays to “the progress of individual mind.” Yet, given our great wealth, the shocking fact is how much we fail to follow Hopkins’ vision.

Consider a class like STAT 201: Statistics and Data Analysis, a large lecture with 50 or more students, taught every semester. I pick this class, not because it is poorly organized or incompetently taught. Instead, it is everything that a lecture class should be. The professors who teach it, most recently Bernhard Klingenberg in the fall of 2010 (pdf), are uniformly excellent. The textbook is co-authored by Richard De Veaux, another Williams professor and a leading figure in statistics education. STAT 201 is as good as a lecture class can be. I recommend that (virtually) every Williams student take this class.

And yet, if we are to judge Williams by the standards set forth by Mark Hopkins 175 years ago this fall, STAT 201 is a failure. Like all large lecture courses, it can never allow a professor to “watch the progress of individual mind,” at least for more than a small number of students. Even the excellent professors at Williams, when confronted with a class of 50 or more students, can do little more than (try to) learn every student’s name, perhaps discover a bit about them over the course of the semester. A one-on-one relationship, the attempt to “awaken interest, and answer objections, and explore tendencies” is impossible in a lecture format.

If this is true (and it certainly is), then why does Williams insist on offering so many lecture classes? Mark Hopkins explained why in 1836:

But thus it is that indolence and interest of teachers have conspired with vanity in parents to sustain a false system. And the reasons are equally obvious why it should find favor with the mass of pupils.

Williams has lectures for reasons that we don’t like to mention in polite company. Parents care little about the quality (as opposed to the reputation) of their children’s education and provide no check on the College’s behavior. Students are often lazy. Allow them to sit in a large lecture — with a laptop nearby to surf the web and no concern about being called on by the professor — and they will be satisfied. Assign a professor as engaging as Klingenberg or De Veaux or Burger or Adams or Pacelli or Morgan or almost anyone in the MATH/STAT Department, and the students will be positively pleased. They like to have the “knowledge .. poured” into their brains.

And, worst of all, professors suffer from “indolence.” It is much easier to teach a lecture of 50 students, meeting them for two 75 minute sessions per week, then it would be to teach the same 50 students in a smaller setting. Consider the standard Williams tutorial: 2 students, one professor, together for one hour per week. If Williams organized STAT 200 as a tutorial, it would require the professor to spend 25 hours per week with his students, not 2.5. Ten times as many minutes in the same room as the students. Can’t have that!

Readers unfamiliar with academia may be confused. 25 hours per week is less than the 40 (or 50 or 60) hours that they devote to their own jobs. And we don’t get three months off during the summer! I will allow the academics among EphBlog’s readers to explain why 25 hours of teaching time per week during a 12 week semester would be simply unacceptable.

In the meantime, consider some more quotes from Hopkins describing the ideal Williams education.

[F]or young men will not set themselves efficiently at work until they feel that there is an all-important part which they must perform for themselves, and which no one can do for them.

[I]t is easy to see what it is that constitutes the first excellence of an instructor. It is not his amount of knowledge, nor yet his facility of communication, important as these may be; but it is his power to give an impulse to the minds of his pupils, and to induce them to labor.

It goes without saying that these descriptions apply perfectly to the Williams tutorial system. Indeed, it is (almost) impossible for tutorial students to not feel that their weekly assignments are an “all-important part which they must perform for themselves,” to not see how the tutorial format has “induce[d] them to labor.”

Assume for a second that Adam Falk agrees with Mark Hopkins. How might he (or the trustees) most easily move Williams in the correct direction?

First, measure faculty workload by the student, not by the class. The single most important structural reform that Falk could make would be to change the faculty requirement from (roughly) two classes a semester to 40 students per semester. Thinking in terms of classes rather than students is an anachronism, a leftover of the industrial age. Williams is not in the business of producing classes. It is in the business of educating students. Encourage (read: force) the faculty to focus on the latter, and numerous good results will follow, without (much) further micro-management. (Details of how such a system might work are left as an exercise for the reader. Leave your answers in the comments.)

Second, no more lectures. Every hour that a professor wastes lecturing to a room-full of students is an hour that she doesn’t spend interacting with a specific student, answering his questions, challenging his assumptions, inspiring his work. According to Hopkins, it is the “indolence and interest of teachers” which leads them to (mistakenly) believe that education happens in a lecture hall. It does not.

Third, make teaching ability the sole criteria for tenure and promotion. The Williams of 2010 is significantly different than the Williams of 1980, much less 1960, in terms of the criteria it uses in hiring, tenure and promotion. Too much emphasis is placed on research, on producing articles that Williams students will never reference, books that they will never read. Don’t believe me? Believe interim president Bill Wagner:

Wagner, who has been teaching at Williams for 22 years, says that he has only been aware of one real change in how tenure is awarded since he has been here. “In my early years at Williams, there seemed to be two career paths, each valuable, that one could follow. One would be the now standard path of being an engaged scholar and a teacher, and the other would be to use the energy that others spent on scholarship on increased student interaction and administration. The second path, through which it is virtually impossible now to get tenure, contributed something of value to the campus that is now harder to get.”

If Williams still had the same standards for tenure that it had in 1980, Nathan Sanders would now have tenure. All the energy he poured into linguistics at Williams counted for too little. He did not publish. So, Williams fired him.

Mark Hopkins would have thought that absurd. Sanders did more to “induce [his students] to labor” then almost any other Williams professor of his generation. Numerous students became contract majors in linguistics solely because of his influence.

Keep in mind that research is a part of teaching. You can’t be a good teacher if you don’t keep up with the latest results in your field. The more active you are in writing papers and books, the easier it will be for you to direct undergraduate theses and assist your students in conducting their own research. Winning grants from organizations like the NSF provides funding for student summer research. Research is valuable, but only to the extent that it directly benefits individual students. They are the measure of the quality of a Williams education, not the number of lines on the curriculum vitae’s of our professors.

Consider how the Williams Economics Department presents itself to the outside world.

Williams’ economics department offers a rare combination of excellence in research and teaching at one of the top liberal arts colleges in the U.S., in a beautiful location in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachuetts. We have an active group of more than 25 faculty, we’ve been ranked first among U.S. liberal arts colleges in terms of citations to our research, and we compare favorably to departments at mid-tier research universities in that regard.

The the Economics Department would place “excellence in research” ahead of “teaching” highlights, in just one phrase, much of what has gone wrong at Williams, and at other elite liberal arts colleges, over the last 50 years. Do you think that Mark Hopkins would care how often his professors were cited? Do you think he would be impressed that Williams compares “favorably to departments at mid-tier research universities in that regard?” No. Hopkins cared, first and foremost and only, about the education of individual Williams students. If writing an article makes the (excellent!) professors in the economics department — marvelous scholars like Professors Gentry, Sheppard, Kunstler, Bradburd and others — even better teachers than they already are, if that research provides funding for summer internships or generates connections to the world outside Williams, then great! Anything that improves the quality of a Williams education, broadly defined and as directly experienced by Williams students, is a good thing. But, if teaching quality is what matters, then there is no reason to have the evaluation of research (qua research) be a part of the tenure process.

Although the Economics Department is not to blame for the decision to deny tenure to Nathan Sanders, its emphasis on research, on articles and books that very few if any Williams students will ever read, is emblematic of the changes at Williams over the last 50 years.

Would these three changes be a radical departure from current practices at Williams? Perhaps. But note that many of the trend lines of the last 50 years — a larger faculty, smaller classes, more tutorials — have been pointing in this direction. More importantly, every powerful figure at Williams has always professed loyalty to the vision of Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.

Even better, such a change would allow Williams to (honestly!) market itself as a radically different (and better!) college, not only from research universities like Harvard and Princeton, but also from other elite liberal arts colleges like Amherst and Pomona. If every student had a tutorial-like experience with four professors each semester, then Williams would be the greatest college in the world.

And isn’t aiming for that distinction a perfect way to remember Mark Hopkins 175 years after his induction as president?

Print  •  Email