- EphBlog - http://ephblog.com -

What Williams classes have stayed with you since graduation?

While cleaning out some old files, I recently came across a copy of my Williams transcript.  Looking at it produced some surprises, and my older son was not very impressed with my grades.  (My arguments about grade inflation did not impress him either.)

One of the items on the transcript was a political science class I took as senior with Prof. Michael MacDonald called Settler Societies. The class was a comparison of the similarities and differences between the conflicts which were then present in Israel, South Africa, and Northern Ireland.  One of my clearest takeaways from the class was how intractable each of the conflicts appeared, and how it seemed as though there was no way for any of them to be “resolved” short of full scale civil war.  Much to my surprise, within 10 years, both the situations in South Africa and Northern Ireland had fundamentally shifted (“solved” is probably not exactly accurate), despite there being no obvious way forward at the time I took the class.  It appears that the class has now morphed into a senior seminar called Identity Politics: Conflicts in Bosnia, Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, & South Africa“.  Here is the course description:

Identities have been either the stakes, or the guise taken by other kinds of conflicts, in Bosnia, Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, and South Africa for centuries. They have led to, or expressed, political divisions, clashing loyalties, and persistent and sometimes consuming violence. They also have produced attempts by both internal and external actors to resolve the issues. This research seminar will engage the origins of the conflicts and the role of identities in them, the role of disputes about sovereign power in creating and intensifying them, the strategies for reconciling them that are adopted domestically and internationally, the deals that have been struck or have not been struck to bring peace in these societies, and the outcomes of the various efforts in their contemporary politics. The course will begin by reading about both the general theoretical issues raised by conflicts in these “divided societies” and various responses to them. After familiarizing ourselves with what academic and policy literatures have to say about them, we then will read about the histories and contemporary politics in each society. With that as background, students will choose an aspect or aspects of these conflicts as a subject for their individual research.

For some reason, this course has stuck with me through the years, even though it has no professional relevance for me.  Perhaps it was that the subject matter always seemed relevant to current events (and it still does).  Perhaps it was because of Prof. MacDonald’s talents as a teacher.  Probably some combination of both.

What Williams classes still stick out in your mind?


7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "What Williams classes have stayed with you since graduation?"

#1 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On July 23, 2019 @ 10:20 am

And don’t forget the MacDonald Report, one of the three most important documents to come out of Williams in the last 20 years.

#2 Comment By Whitney Wilson ’90 On July 23, 2019 @ 10:24 am

I had completely forgotten that Prof. MacDonald was the MacDonald of the report.

#3 Comment By abl On July 23, 2019 @ 12:04 pm

Thanks for this post! Do you have any sense for why Northern Ireland and South Africa shifted — or what it might take to effect a similar shift in the middle east?

#4 Comment By Anon88 On July 23, 2019 @ 12:50 pm


For me the answer is probably the great year of introductory Art History (101 and 102?) that students have been enjoying forever. The course really taught me to appreciate art and architecture. When travelling for work, I always try to get to the city early so I can walk the streets looking at the architecture and ending up at an art museum. The course has brought me abiding joy for decades.

I’m famous (or more likely infamous) among my children’s friends for my insistence that they take introductory Art History in college.

I would also add that the two classes that I am still thinking about the two classes that I took with Mark Taylor as I try to understand the world.

#5 Comment By 89’er On July 23, 2019 @ 2:33 pm

Great topic Whitney.

Your course would have been fascinating.

Like Anon ’88 – intro art history has provided a lifelong interest/fascination with art and architecture. It has definitely added to the richness of my life.

I remember a Raymond Baker course on the Mideast as an eye opener on the complexities and historical roots of the modern Mideast and its conflicts. It was an at times uncomfortable excavation of history.

#6 Comment By anon On July 23, 2019 @ 3:08 pm

Not to sidetrack the conversation, but what the hell happened to EphBlog’s formatting?

#7 Comment By Whitney Wilson ’90 On July 23, 2019 @ 3:29 pm

No idea about the formatting. I’m generally OK with it, but I don’t like the fact that the list of recent comments down the right hand side of the page is gone.