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The Career Center & Its Fabulous Successes

Did you know that 80% of first-years have met with someone at the Career Center already? We’re quite a special bunch, aren’t we? Let’s return, for the second time this week, to the Career Center singing our praises:

 

We leave you with an upbeat note from Mike O’Connor, Associate Director/Director of the Career Discovery Program…”Congratulations to the Class of 2020, who have been utilizing the Career Center at unprecedented levels! Nearly 80% of the class has met with a counselor already, which is truly impressive. Personally, I’ve been pleased with the number of students whom have already drafted college-appropriate resumes, as this leaves them better prepared to compete for summer job and internship opportunities. Well done, first-years!”

 

Gee, I wonder why that could be? Is Williams finally on the verge of creating a maximally careerist student body? Has Admissions finally got a handle on how to weed out all the would-be professors and regular ol’ burn-outs? This email from a few months ago is appended without comment — draw your own conclusions as to why frosh are “utilizing the Career Center at unprecedented levels”:

It’s with great pleasure that I welcome you to the Williams Career Family!   At Williams, Career Development as a four year process of exploring, defining, and achieving your life goals; all starting now!

€‹Fortunately, during the first three weeks of the Semester you’ll be meeting with your college Career Guidance Counselor to convert your high-school resume into a college format, learn about incredible internships, and begin thinking about how to make best use of your college years ahead.

All Class of 2020 incoming students are expected to Schedule an appointment immediately.  To do so…

  1. Log into Rt. 2 using your abbreviated email address as your username (e.g., mko1@williams.edu) and 7 digit Student ID Number without the W as your password (e.g., 1234567).
  2. Click “Schedule A Counseling Appointment” from the Shortcuts box on the right side of the page.
  3. For this first appointment, please follow these specific instructions. Select Appointment (In Person) under “Type”, and select Date Range as “2016-08-29″ to “2016-9-30″. You may choose your preferred time parameters in the “Time Range” field. Click the + icon underneath “Counselors” to select all available counselors, and choose the days that you’re available (our counselors are here Monday through Friday).
  4. Click “Check Availability” and select a day and appointment time by clicking on a counselor’s name.
  5. Type “Introductory Appointment” and any details you wish to share with your Counselor in the “Reason for Visit” box.
  6. Click “Submit Request” and you’re done!

To get even more out of your appointment €‹bring a draft of your resume modeled after the attached college template.

Enjoy your last few weeks of summer!  We can’t wait to meet you!

Sincerely,

 

Michael O’Connor
Director of the Career Discovery Program
Williams College

(Bolding, pointedly, not mine.)

But since I’m just out of midterms and could really use a chuckle, here, for your enjoyment as much as mine, is the sample resume provided, the Williams student of the administration’s ideality: First_Year_Resume_Template_Updated (1)

Pretty much bang-on, if I do say myself. If you took all the students that get put in the promotional errata and stuck them in a blender, this is just about what you’d get: from NE, plays a sport, has enough gall to study something interesting (Arabic, in this case) but not enough to not major in Econ too, politically “active” (read: aimlessly volunteerist; actual political/social energy is bad, better to be “fostering discussions”) and does some kind of inexplicable thing with computers, “Java” or whatever that’s supposed to mean.

I don’t think I could do a better job of creating a stereotypical Williams student. If anyone in the comments would like to try, please, do.

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Windows on Williams IV

As someone who attended Windows on Williams and loved every moment of it, I’m still more than a little skeptical of its efficacy. A lot of the people I met at the program, point blank, told me they weren’t that interested in the school; for others, it was a better-than-average safety now that they pretty much knew they’d get admitted.

Ephblog has covered this question before, but, as a new author with a bit of personal experience, I’d like to take a crack at the topic myself. I shamelessly quote from the same Williams Magazine feature that lead our WOW post back in April:

The program is competitive; we get about 1,200 applicants. The students we select are very strong candidates for admission, and getting them here on campus dramatically increases the chances that they apply and will choose to enroll here if we admit them.

I agree with the first bit, I can nod along to the second, the third leaves me in want of proof. Sadly, there’s almost nothing public about WOW beyond what little the college deigns to publish, so, I leave you with my thoughts and more than a little anecdote:

1) The yield rate for WOW students might not be higher than our general yield. Again, we proceed w/o especially good data, but, the numbers I were quoted went thus: 70% of two hundred WOW students apply to the college, 85% of that number are admitted, and roughly 40% of those students matriculate at the college. That’s not a “dramatic” increase in the chances that a student will enroll; 40% is maintenance on our general yield rate.

Now, perhaps, a 40% yield is good considering that WOW students are alleged to be more talented, diverse, or otherwise just more valuable to admissions than your garden variety Eph. Perhaps that sort of student is more likely go elsewhere, and thus we have to work extra, extra hard to make sure they matriculate.

But none of that seems clear from the quoted block of text! The reasonable inference to make is that a “dramatic” increase in yield rate would mean one that at least exceeds our general yield. You can wax poetic about how a relative increase in the yield rate technically satisfies the quoted statement, but, that answer leaves me a little discomfited; it seems a deceptive way to represent the data. Of course, this wouldn’t be a point of contention if the college were to release its actual figures on WOW and not speak in generalities. I eagerly await the day.

2) Is WOW even competitive with similar programs? All of our immediate peers — Amherst, Swarthmore, Pomona — run their own fly-in programs. Further, because the total pool of students who attend fly-ins is pretty small, we can assume that out of the 200 students that attend WOW, at least a few will go to a program at one of our peer schools.

We could easily enough, and due credit here to regular commentator simplicio, send a survey out to students who attended WOW and ask them to check off what fly-in programs they’ve attended, as well as what school they plan to matriculate at in the fall.

If, out of students that attend both WOW and Amherst’s fly-in, we only get 20%-30% of them to matriculate here, then we know that WOW isn’t keeping pace. Of course, we’d be working with a fairly small sample size (likely no more than about ten students) but rough indicators would beat flying blind.

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Windows on Williams III

Half of this year’s entering class is comprised of students who applied Early Decision. How many of those students, might you ask, went to WOW too? 13:

Thirteen students admitted through Early Decision participated in Windows on Williams, a Williams-sponsored program that provides talented, high-achieving high schools seniors from low-income backgrounds the opportunity to visit campus during the fall of their senior year.

We bring nearly two hundred students to campus for WOW and of those students that apply, we admit 85-90% of them. So how do we only have 13 students, about a 20th of the students we fly out here, applying ED? My best guesses:

1) They have no good incentive to apply ED.  That 85-90% number, while not promulgated, isn’t secret either; everyone who goes to WOW, by the end of it, has heard that number and knows that they stand a very very good chance at getting admitted to the college. Nothing stops these students from treating Williams as a safety. Those that hold the purple-and-gold dear would blanch at the thought, but, like it or not, there’s more than a few students on campus today who might have preferred an acceptance letter from Yale or Stanford to one from Williams.

2) They don’t think that they can afford to apply ED. If this is the case, then that’s something we ought to change. Perhaps WOW students, if interested in applying early, could have a “tentative” aid offer prepared by someone in the financial aid office?

Considering that we’re admitting 90% of them already, and we’ve already brought them to campus at some expense, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to close that last inch of distance and get them to apply ED. I’m sure many poorer WOW students, although not all, would jump at the chance to apply ED if they could be reasonably confident that Williams would give them enough aid.

3) They just don’t like the school that much. Decently common! You would presume that students who go out of their way to apply to WOW would be above-average in their love for the school, but, you wouldn’t be all that correct. I met more than a few people at WOW that didn’t plan to apply to the college at all; some liked other schools more, some were just in it for the free trip.

Perhaps, there’s some way we could get a slightly more enthused student body to WOW? The prompt for WOW, as it stands, is very general; perhaps we would be better off with something that’s more specific to Williams? Or, maybe, it’s just a matter of doing a better job at knocking some school spirit into our guests while they’re here.

My suggestion: teach visiting students to sing The Mountains. It’s never too early, or late, to learn.

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Windows on Williams II

Welcome! We’re spending the week covering Windows on Williams. Today, I’ll be bringing you through the parts of WOW that stuck out to me as memorable:

Welcome Dinner and Introductions

Quite interesting! At the other fly-ins I went to, for the first night, you were handed a meal ticket and pretty much left to shift for yourself at one of the cafeterias. Williams, however, has a whole separate banquet type thing, with catered food and huge tanks of iced apple cider, where student interns in the admissions office mull around and answer any questions that visiting students might have.

I like this quite a bit. It gives the student hosts a break, it gives our visiting students more time in front of admissions office staff, and, it makes for a good venue to conduct introductions from.

Jamboree: Student Performance Showcase

Wretched. Awful. Needs to die, both at Williams and as a convention of the fly-in generally. For one, they almost always schedule the student performances on the first night — when everyone is jet-lagged, and cranky, and really not in the mood to watch a step routine. (And, might I add that attendance is usually mandatory.)

Any charms of the format wear thin by one’s second fly-in, usually. Mostly because there’s no variety between colleges. I visited three schools, hundreds of miles apart, in different athletic conferences and with radically different alleged styles of education; all of them subjected me to three acapela groups, two dance troupes, and some really maudlin, weirdly metered poetry.

Jamboree: Bad, Bad Trivia

What gave me the most hope for student showcase at Williams — the promise of trivia — ended up being the most disappointing. Here are the three of the questions they asked at my WOW: “What war did Col. Ephraim Williams fight in?” ; “Who is the director of admissions at Williams?” and “Williams is the second oldest college in the state of Massachusetts, what school is the oldest?”

Seriously? We, purport to, and in fact have, a very rich trivial tradition at Williams. And this is the best we can do?  I don’t want to put too fine a point on this (because WOW as a whole is great and my specific critiques should be read as footnotes to mountains of praise) but how fun is it to ask students to recall the name of an admissions director they’ve just met? And why the last question? Why are we bothering, even indirectly like this, to compare Williams to Harvard? It seems a slimy way to rub some of the Harvard prestige off on Williams. Why not ask a question about Pres. Garfield, or Leehom Wang? It might teach the youth something.

 Mountain Day

My WOW, the October session, ended up falling on Mountain Day. I couldn’t imagine a better time to be on campus; the idyllic, sexed-up Williams that we ought to be showing prefrosh comes out on Mountain Day. Can we bring future WOW classes to campus during Mountain Day without spoiling the surprise? It’s my hope we can.

Sample Classes

Very good! Surprisingly good, actually. I was worried that, at fifty students apiece, the sample classes would be overcrowded, but, evidently there exist members of the Williams faculty that can teach fifty student seminars. Prof. Leyla Rouhi, in particular, had a sort of rockstar quality; there was a line of people waiting to speak to her after she finished teaching.

Divisions Dinner

I won’t say much about it, because unqualified praise doesn’t need the space. Interestingly, two Ephblog favorites, Prof. Joe Cruz ’91 and Prof. Steven Miller, were both in attendance at the October WOW. Prof. Miller even gave the whole room a neat little demonstration of Benford’s Law.

That concludes our post today! Tomorrow, we return to the usual Ephblog listicle format as well as to reasonable standards of length.

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Windows on Williams I

We’re spending a few days covering Windows on Williams, the college’s biggest little program that no one seems to know a thing about. If you, dear reader, are one of those people, best to consult our two other articles on it first before proceeding below. Today is day one, and we begin with the college’s own scanty description of the program:

WOW [Windows on Williams] gives high school seniors the opportunity to spend three all-expenses-paid days at Williams. WOW is a selective program open to high school students in the U.S. and Puerto Rico; preference is given to high-achieving students who couldn’t otherwise afford to visit Williams.

WOW participants stay in dorms with current students, attend classes, meet with professors, and learn about our admission process and our extraordinary financial aid program.

Where to start? General context first:

1) Williams is not unique, or particularly virtuous, in offering to fly students to campus. All of our peer schools — Amherst, Swarthmore, Pomona (even Bowdoin) — have similar programs. Why? Easy: because it’s one of the few ways elite liberal arts schools can counter punch when they, inevitably, scrap with larger universities for students. We can’t out-spend, out-market, or out-brand a financially massive institution like, say, Harvard. What we can do is target a few excellent students, bring them to campus, and make the case that a choice between Williams and Harvard is an easy decision.

1.1) Further, we can expect most of our fly-in students will know that. Personally, I went to three fly-ins. Talking to people, I got the sense that was pretty average. About half of the people I talked to attended less than that (usually two, rarely just one) and the other half attended more. (One girl I met planned to go to twelve fly-ins; she had applied to more.)

2) Williams is, however, not not virtuous. Williams, as it should, makes its application public and welcomes all sorts of folk to apply. Some schools either put their application on a part of their website that isn’t public facing, or, even better, require that you be “invited” to apply. The amount of sleaze required, to limit access to a program designed to provide access to the poor and disadvantaged, is staggering, yet, unsurprisingly, not uncommon among the admissions staff of fancy-pants schools.

3) But, Williams does run a good fly-inThere’s a few things that spell a good, or at least prestigious, fly-in: funded travel for all admits, relatively small size, selectivity and two-night length. Windows on Williams hits pretty much all of those benchmarks: everyone gets their travel paid for, each session of WOW is around 100 students, only 16% of WOW applicants get in, and, most importantly, the program is a luxuriant three days — two whole overnights.

Tufts, on the other hand, crams 250 students into one fly-in, that accepts roughly 50% of applicants, and only lasts two days (one overnight). That sort of program, at least to students who’ve attended better ones, are treated as minimally desirable (e.g, if you had a better fly-in to go to, you’d bump the Tufts one off your schedule.) Or, if you didn’t have anything to do that weekend, you might attend as a sort of blow-off trip because it was easy to get in and the application was short.

It’s important that our fly-in students have a good time here, but, because recruiting students is a zero-sum game, it is arguably more important that they have a better time here than they have anywhere else. Is that something the administration keeps in mind? I would expect so, but I’m really just guessing. Perhaps admissions officers are less savage than I imagine them to be.

Guesses, educated or otherwise, on that topic are more than welcome in the comments.

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Asian American Studies at Williams

We talked a little bit about cultural studies at Williams earlier in the week. Today, keeping with that theme, we turn our attentions to this record article:

The administration’s response to students’ demands for more Asian American studies courses and professors specializing in Asian American studies has proven lackluster. At the panel, it was stated that the administration has suggested that student demand for Asian American studies is insufficient. The administration thinks that it would be more fruitful to dedicate the College’s resources to an area in which courses have traditionally been more popular and overenrolled, such as economics.

Shameful! We ought not to be just offering what’s already popular. My thoughts:

1) While I equivocate on the value of cultural studies generally, I don’t find any reasons not to hire an Asian-Americanist to the faculty convincing.  All reasons to have Africana or Latino studies stand as fine reasons to offer more courses in Asian American studies.

2) Although I struggle to find good principles here. What is our metric for what subfields of ethnic/cultural studies deserve our attention? Is our standard rough proportionality of offered courses to population? Native Americans comprise about a percentage point of the U.S population, and a total of four students at Williams.  Should we be offering a major/concentration in Native American studies? I ask that honestly, and w/o facetiousness.

Moreover, the College’s American studies major is incomplete without Asian American studies courses. An examination of Asian American issues is essential to understanding America as a whole. Also, the College is not in a position to say that there is insufficient demand for Asian American studies courses if students do not even have the option of taking an Asian American course every semester.

3) Essential? Okay, does that hold for the study of every ethnic group of size in the US? Or is there something about Asian-Americans that’s supposed to be supranormally edifying? I’m on board w/ expanding Asian American studies, but, I don’t know that I’m not also for expanding the race critical studies of other ethnicities, too!

For example, we don’t have any dedicated, tenured professors in Arabic. Maybe we should have one. And what about people of/from the Indian Subcontinent? Asian-American studies could, technically, include them too but it seems “Asian” is usually construed to mean “East Asian” at Williams.

Someone, either in the administration or among the growing swell of student activists, needs to sit down and have a long think about what our approach to cultural studies is generally — what courses to offer, what faculty to hire, what departments to found. Every student lobby to hire more professors of X discipline is going to fail if we can’t find a way to frame this holistically and lay down operative standards of what to teach.

Alas, I am not the person to figure any of these things out. But, perhaps you are? If so, Ephblog is always looking for new authors!

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A Minor Problem II

We’re spending two days on minors at the college. If you haven’t, read this article, which we’ll be covering, before proceeding to the excerpted text below:

Having established how minors better illustrate an applicant’s areas of specialization to employers, and why specialization is even important in one’s education to begin with, we can now examine how minors could help support a diverse education in particular. Currently, about 38 percent of students at the College double major. Double majors take up a significant fraction of one’s education, and ought to be pursued by a more limited group of students to whom a pair of majors confers some unique value in light of their interests. At a school where breadth and diversity, especially in coursework, are core tenets of the education, it’s surprising that such a wide swath of the student body pours their academic careers primarily into two areas of study. But, this phenomenon is not a reflection of a student body that is set on double majoring. At Dartmouth, a slightly larger institution which is less devoted to the liberal arts than here, only about 15 percent of the students double major. This is because 30 percent of students at Dartmouth graduate with a minor.

While I duly commend our student authors for coming at Dartmouth sideways like that (“less devoted” to the liberal arts? Ouch!),  I think they’re burying the lede somewhat. Why does anyone care about minors to begin with? I doubt it’s a money thing. We went over this briefly yesterday, but, all save for the most optimistic would agree that minors are usually of middling value in the job market.

The only serious reason remaining for pursuing a minor (other than vanity) is for the structure that a minor degree builds into your education. And that’s what we should really be worried about: are students flocking towards supernumerary minors and majors because so much of their non-major coursework lacks coherence, and structure?

That explanation satisfies me, at least more thoroughly than any other. For all their great talent and alleged intelligence, Williams students are still very young and mostly untutored. It’s not strange that they’d want guidance. And, I think we realize that! We require faculty advising for first-years, major advising for upperclassmen, and staff bespoke academic advisers for near everything else — law school, medical school, foreign service, study abroad.

Why can’t we do something similar for non-major coursework? Granted, there are problems with advising, and giving every student an academic adviser for all four years would be impractical, but, given how often and loudly we hype the value of liberality in education, we ought to at least be doing something to make sure students are proceeding through their out-of-major classes in a way that’s thoughtful.

Comments welcome — particularly from ephs in academia (of which there are a few.)

 

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A Minor Problem I

Among what seems to be the last crop of Record articles for the year is this Op-Ed on minors at the college. Sadly, perhaps because it was published right before finals, the piece hasn’t elicited any comments. Which is a shame! The two student authors who penned this article obviously put some time into writing it and we ought to take some time to listen, although not uncritically, to what they have to say. An excerpt:

While the value of having minors for the job search process has the easy potential to be exaggerated, minors offer some appreciable value when graduates seek work. This value comes in the form of official certification. Students have the ability, even without minors, to take around five courses in a subject. But, for employers, it is difficult to discern such a specialty without formal certification. While employers with thorough hiring procedures will likely notice such areas of commitment by combing through an applicant’s transcript, a minor can ensure that an applicant’s disciplines of specialty don’t go overlooked. Minors do not change one’s ability to specialize in a subject. Rather, by providing official certification, they make it easier for these academic specialties to be recognized.

Quite a bit here, but, let’s be brave and soldier on. Comments:

1) I start to take issue at the second line: minors offer “appreciable value” when graduates seek work? I’m doubtful. Major degrees barely signal expertise anymore; why would a minor? My guess is that a minor — even one relevant to a given position — helps you get a job about as much as being an amateur flautist helps you get into Williams. Which is to say, not very.

2) Even if we’re willing to grant that minor degrees have “appreciable,” albeit small, value to employers, is that a good reason to offer them? There’s quite a few things the college could do to pump up the value of the Williams degree: start mentioning our US News ranking in advertisements, recruit harder, maybe inflate grades a bit more to help those not graduating cum laude get into fancy professional schools.

And, strangely, I’m alright with most of those things! We ought to do the best we can to communicate the value of a Williams education to everyone — prospective students, employers, the hoi polloi, everyone — but we shouldn’t cheapen ourselves to do it.

Now grade inflation is well ahead of the “cheapening ourselves” line. Is offering minors? I’d have to say  so. We’re talking about a total of five courses for a minor — one introductory, one “gateway” and three or so conducted at a level that we might term “intermediate.” Is that really enough expertise to award a degree for? If so, where do we draw the line? Should we also start giving students commendatory stickers for every course they manage to pass?

In any serious field, and I like to think that all areas of studies at Williams are serious, five courses is enough to get your feet wet. Which is alright! You can only do so much in four-years; perhaps recognizing how much is left to learn would do the student body more good than vigorously credentialing what little they’ve actually learned.

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Saying Hello (New Author)

Greetings! As a frequent scribbler in the comments, it’s a joy to climb the dais and finally contribute to Ephblog as an author. To introduce myself as well as one can anonymously: I’m an incoming member of the class of 2020, an alumnus of Windows on Williams and someone who’s been rabid about the college (and this blog!) long before I was even admitted.

I’ve already arranged the broad strokes of a few posts on WOW, but, as even Ephblog is woefully without much information on the program — a search for “Windows on Williams” on this site yields, as its first result, a literal window — I’d like to make sure that I’m not missing anything that could be of interest. Anyone with specific questions or general curiosities is welcome to pose them in comments.

Best to all those reading. More to come soon.

 

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Moock ’95 has “made it”

According to my arbitrary but inflexible standard, an Eph has become truly successful if and only if I hear about his/her success through a non-Williams channel. Since I am not that well-informed, this sets the bar pretty high. For example, in the world of music, truly successful Ephs include Stephen Sondheim, the Fountains of Wayne guys, Timothy Sellers of Artichoke … and, well, that was about it until yesterday, when I opened my Oasis Childrens [sic] Volume XI #1 Radio Sampler and discovered that the closing track was “Belly Buttons” by Alistair Moock ’95. This is from his latest CD, the (Williams-inspired?) A Cow Says Moock.

I don’t really know how much of a breakthrough it is for Moock to be included in this Oasis compilation. Of the 23 other featured artists, I’ve only heard of one: Lucas Miller, the “Singing Zoologist.” Nevertheless, some non-Williams judge of music quality decided that Moock was worthy of inclusion, so, in my mind, he is now truly successful. I didn’t even have to listen to the track to render this judgment, but I did — and I was pleased by what another blogger called an “ecstatic Zydeco-ish song.” Given my irrational devotion to scientific music, I’m especially glad that Moock worked a bit of reproductive physiology into his lyrics: “They connected you to your mom / So they’re kind of where you come from / That’s how she fed you through there / And that’s how she got you your air.”

Well done, Moock.

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Music as a tool in science education

A Williams sweatshirt makes an appearance about 1:55 into this 2-minute rap video.

Perhaps that’s a lame excuse for posting this here. Yes, I’m trying to boost the YouTube hit count of the video, of which I am the star. There is a slightly less egocentric angle to this as well, though, which is that I and others are interested in educational uses of science songs and are compiling relevant info — including a database of 3600+ songs — at www.SingAboutScience.org. Perhaps other instructor/teacher/professor types will find it useful.

As a further attempt at a Williams tie-in, I could add that I wrote one of my very first science songs, “Sphingo,” as a means of avoiding work on my senior thesis (on sphingolipid metabolism).

OK, enough of this. Thanks for humoring me.

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A. Hopkins Parker and Rob Benson: names not easily forgotten

I had to read A Separate Peace by John Knowles in high school. Perhaps you’ve read it too. If you have, and if you’re an athlete, you probably recall the following passage.

One day [Phineas] broke the school swimming record. He and I were fooling around in the pool, near a big bronze plaque marked with events for which the school kept records — 50 yards, 100 yards, 220 yards. Under each was a slot with a marker fitted into it, showing the name of the record-holder, his year, and his time. Under “100 Yards Free Style” there was “A. Hopkins Parker — 1940 — 53.0 seconds.”

“A. Hopkins Parker?” Finny squinted up at the name. “I don’t remember any A. Hopkins Parker.”

“He graduated before we got here.”

“You mean that record’s been up the whole time we’ve been at Devon and nobody’s busted it yet?” It was an insult to the class, and Finny had tremendous loyalty to the class, as he did to any group he belonged to, beginning with him and me and radiating outward past the limits of humanity toward spirits and clouds and stars…. He said blurringly, “I have a feeling I can swim faster than A. Hopkins Parker.”

So, with his friend Gene (the narrator) as the only witness, Phineas swims 100 yards in 52.3 seconds, then declines to repeat the feat or tell anyone about it. Gene concludes, “The Devon School record books contained a mistake, a lie, and nobody knew it but Finny and me. A. Hopkins Parker was living in a fool’s paradise, wherever he was.”

The repetition of “A. Hopkins Parker” is, to me, quite funny but also captures some of the prestige and solemnity of these school record boards. I was reminded of this the other day when I came across the name of Rob Benson on the Big Games website run by Will Dudley ’89. Rob Benson — why did that sound so familiar? Is he a Williams alum or something? And then it hit me.

In the early ’90s, the Williams cross-country team had pool practices on Monday nights, and in between bouts of thrashing around in the water I’d look up at the wall and see the school swimming records … including the one held by Rob Benson. 400-yard individual medley, 4:02.09, 1988.

I didn’t overlap with Rob at Williams, nor have I seen footage of him in action, nor do I have any particular fondness for the 400-yard individual medley. And yet seeing Rob’s name again — a faceless name with nothing attached to it but an event, a time and a year — filled me with nostalgia. Good old Rob Benson — he sure was a hell of a swimmer, wasn’t he?

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Rephsearch #4: purple chemistry goes green (Dave Vosburg ’97)

A couple of months ago, Rory and Aiden and I agreed to try to post periodic entries about research published by Williams faculty, students, and alumni. A new blog category, Rephsearch, was created. As the scientist of the group, I was to cover the sciences (and math, I suppose). I was given EphBlog author status, which I test-drove with a silly entry about my son (What every Eph golfer needs?). And now I’m finally ready to offer my first bit of “rephsearch.”

Here are the citations, with links to the abstracts:
Green, enzymatic syntheses of divanillin and diapocynin for the organic, biochemistry, or advanced general chemistry laboratory, Nishimura, R.T.; Giammanco, C.H.; Vosburg, D.A. Journal of Chemical Education 2010, 87, 526-527.
A green, enantioselective synthesis of warfarin for the undergraduate organic laboratory, Wong, T.C.; Sultana, C.M.; Vosburg, D.A. Journal of Chemical Education 2010, 87, 194-195.

This pair of papers comes to us from Dave Vosburg ’97, who is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Harvey Mudd College. The papers’ common theme is green (i.e., environmentally benign) chemistry. In Dave’s words, “The general idea in these experiments is to apply environmentally friendly methods to the preparation of useful and recognizable molecules in an undergraduate setting.” He adds:

The warfarin that is used in rat poison and is prescribed as a blood-thinner (including to President Eisenhower) is racemic, or a mixture of the right- and left-handed forms. We adapted a new procedure that can selectively form either the right- or left-handed form selectively. Basically, in this experiment undergrads can easily make “better” warfarin than what you could get from a pharmacist. Sometimes my students ask if they can sell the warfarin that they make in this experiment, but they aren’t too sad when I tell them no. Faculty at several other schools have inquired with me about using this experiment, which is exciting.

Vanillin is extremely popular in foods and fragrances. Divanillin, a molecule formed by connecting two molecules of vanillin to each other, can enhance many of the flavoring properties of vanillin. There are a variety of ways to produce divanillin, including the use of rather toxic inorganic oxidants. A milder and greener procedure uses the enzyme horseradish peroxidase and dilute hydrogen peroxide. The reaction is performed in water, the only byproduct formed is water, and the product spectacularly crashes out of solution almost instantly. And it smells great, too.

Congrats to Dave for getting both of these papers published, and thanks to him for taking the time to discuss them with me!

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What every Eph golfer needs?

By my reckoning, the catalog of the Williams Shop consists of stuff that nobody needs, but that nonetheless can be useful or cute when paired with small children. Take the golf headcovers, for example. Don’t they just reinforce the old stereotype of Williams being a “country club” school? On the other hand, my 3.5-year-old son really likes them. I think they make golf clubs look more like stuffed animals, and thereby make golf more fun.

Phil Crowther, Class of 2028...

and his weapon of choice.

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