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“Surprise” Endowment Aids Benjamin ’86

Brent-BenjaminCollege development officers and museum executives alike know the fundraising challenges that face even the most successful institutions, so what awaited Brent Benjamin (MA ’86) at a recent meeting must have been a very pleasant surprise:

Barbara Taylor was at one of her last meetings as president of the art museum Board of Commissioners, the government body that runs the museum, when she stepped up to the podium and announced the [$21 million] donation, with little fanfare.

“In hindsight, I can tell you it was planned by Barbara,” Benjamin said. “But it was a shock and surprise to everyone in the room. It was a pretty exciting moment.

“I was speechless.”

Benjamin is the Director of the St. Louis Art Museum. More properly, because the gift is intended to fund his directorship, he is now, the Barbara B. Taylor Director of the museum. Taylor is an important St. Louis area philanthropist. Her husband is the executive chairman of Enterprise Holdings, the parent company of Enterprise Rent-a-Car.

The gift appears to be more than sufficient to cover Benjamin’s current $640,000 in total compensation, and will allow the museum greater flexibility in hiring Benjamin’s successor in the future. For now,

[t]he museum will annually take a percentage, depending on market earnings, to pay for the director’s salary and benefits. This year, the museum plans to harvest 4.5 percent, or about $945,000. The excess will go toward museum operations.

Benjamin said the news came so late in the year that the museum couldn’t budget for the money. But he imagines the dollars once spent on his position can now be “redeployed for other purposes.” He figured the total saving at about $1 million a year, making some things possible, he said, that would not have been possible before.

For instance, the museum would like a larger “virtual presence” online, he said. “And that comes at a price.”

Benjamin has been at the museum since 1999, and has had an impressive tenure, presiding over a large expansion that opened earlier this decade, and securing a number of terrific acquisitions and gifts, including the 2014 bequest of a $50M, 225-piece collection from the estate of the longtime publisher of The Sporting News. Benjamin has made the museum — along with Frank Uible III ’85’s ventures — must-dos for visitors to the Gateway to the West.


Son of Hummon ’84 Poised for Breakthrough

Marcus Hummon ’84 has long been renowned as one of the finest – and most successful – Eph musicians. 2016 could be the year that Marcus’s son, Levi, emerges as a musical force in his own right. The Huffington Post recently named Levi Hummon as one of the “Top 20 Country Artists to Watch in 2016,” and Billboard Magazine likewise featured him in a recent list of “Nashville’s Future Stars.”

Levi and Marcus have already co-written songs together and performed together. Levi anticipates having his first radio single in 2016, as the lead-in to his first album release. Per Billboard, “they have written some songs together that he loves and that are likely to make his first album.”

Levi Hummon adds: “You’re going to have different stories. The main thing is just to tell your own story.”

Sadly, Levi’s story doesn’t include Williams, running instead through St. Petersburg, Florida, and Nashville’s Belmont University. But as a member of the Eph family, we can still celebrate his music.


Bringing Back the Barber Pole

Credit: Doyle Murphy, via Riverfront Times

Credit: Doyle Murphy, via Riverfront Times

Eph entrepreneur Frank Uible (III) ’85 is already renowned for the award-winning, cornmeal-crust deep-dish pizza served at his St. Louis-based restaurant chain, Pi Pizzeria. Besides delicious pizza, Uible’s Pi locations are known for a refreshing selection of beers, and Uible has expanded his empire into another venue where Ephs might enjoy a cold one:

Frank Uible, the co-founder of Pi Pizzeria, has partnered with the owner of a tattoo shop and, yes, a barber to open a new spot on the edge of Soulard. The trio is selling the idea of a throwback barbershop as lounge and neighborhood hangout. Union Barbershop (1264 Gravois Avenue, 314-328-2411) has Playboy magazines on the coffee table, a pool table around the corner and cold beer in the refrigerator.

“Barbershops rivaled saloons for men’s interest and attention,” Uible says. “It was a social club.”

A beer and a haircut, two bits? Sounds pretty good. Especially if I can get a deep-dish pizza to go. Although I’m not sure anyone plans to still be reading Playboy…

As Uible explains, Union Barbershop is a spinoff of tanother millennial-oriented business, Knife & Flag:

The two-year-old company now sells heavy-duty work wear to a growing number of tattoo artists, craftsmen, welders and restaurant workers across the world. Locally, the servers at Old Standard can be seen sporting a Carhartt-looking version as they sling fried chicken in Botanical Heights.

Knife & Flag has also begun to expand, selling leather goods (the Yannigan bag is said to be inspired by a lumberjack’s rucksack) and a line of hair-care products. The barbershop is a natural spinoff, given the hair-care venture and the aprons’ popularity with pros wielding shears from here to Japan, Uible says…

[T]he companies are betting on millennials’ movement away from a culture of mass-produced goods and 20-minute haircuts.

“Handcrafted is what binds us all together,” Uible says — a philosophy that goes all the way back to his work at Pi.

If you’re in St. Louis, Union Barbershop is already open, and you can visit 9-7 on weekdays, or 8-5 on Saturdays.


Read About Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Williams

King - record The Williams College Libraries conveniently maintain a PDF of the Williams Record coverage of Dr. King’s 1961 visit to Williams College.

John Kifner ’63 did the reporting for the Record. He would go on to receive the Williams Bicentennial Medal in 2002 after a storied career as a New York Times reporter at home and abroad, and in his reporting on Dr. King’s visit, readers can see a preview of his later reportage:

“Life at its best and as it should be lived is complete on all sides,” came the deep, vibrant voice from the pulpit.

A free chapel cut last Sunday brought the irony of the first [standing room only] audience at chapel within recent memory, with WMS piping the sermon to a large overflow in Baxter Hall…

The curious came away satisfied, for Dr. King is a vigorous and compelling speaker. After chapel, another overflow crowd awaited in Jesup Hall for a question and answer session on civil rights. Many had already attended his talk on the philosophy of non-violent resistance at the WCC dinner.

The reference to the “free chapel cut” is a reminder that — although students began to protest against mandatory religious worship even in the late 19th century — chapel remained compulsory at Williams College almost until the College became coeducational. By the 1960s, even the clergy were suggesting a change. Here’s Rev. Nicholas B. Phelps ’56, assistant rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church, later in 1961 (also in the Record):

“A religious service is designed as an expression of the life of a community. The college chapel uses it as a means of education, which is fundamentally treacherous to the tradition to which you are trying to expose people.”

Back to Dr. King’s visit. In contrast to the usual newspaper format where the lead article would provide the facts of Dr. King’s visit, the longer of Kifner’s two Record articles is really an overview on Dr. King, the civil rights movement, and non-violent civil disobedience, leaving an account of Dr. King’s speech and activities to the brief sidebar, quoted above. That article gives only the briefest description of the substance of Dr. King’s sermon:

At chapel, King spoke on the “Three Dimension of the Complete Man.” The first dimension, length, he defined as the development of a rational and healthy self-interest. “Before we can love others adequately, we must love ourselves properly,” he stated.

Breadth, he defined as “concern for others . . . the ability to rise above individual concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” He cited the Good Samaritan as one who “projected the I into the Thou . . . . God, he said, is interested in the freedom of the whole human race.

The last dimension, height, is the ability to rise above the mere sensate of life, to grope for God and Faith…

Surprisingly, the Record ran no follow-up commentary to Dr. King’s visit, although in February, 1962, it did identify his speech as one of the four most newsworthy Williams moments of 1961 (alongside President Sawyer’s installation, an upset win over Amherst in football, and a run of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” at the AMT). And over time, it proved an occasion long remembered at Williams, one worth remembering as we celebrate Dr. King’s birthday and legacy.


Throwback Thursday: Class of 1916


One hundred years ago, these men made up the Class of 1916 at Williams College. Not a very diverse group in appearance — or in ideology. As seniors, 70% identified as Republicans; just 10%, as Democrats. There were famous names, such as James A. Garfield, grandson of the American President and nephew of the then-College president, and Ferris M. Angevine, whose brother Jay’s name would forever be associated with the end of Williams fraternities.

The Class of 1916 was the last sophomore class to experience the Cane Rush, the class that sought abolition of the Gargoyle Society alongside establishment of student government, and was the last class to graduate Williams before the United States’ entry into the First World War.

I hope to present further snapshots (figuratively, as well as photographically) of the class of 1916 in the year ahead.


Monroe ’90 on careers

CMonroeIf you follow EphBlog’s annual advice to “Fall in Love” over Winter Study and ultimately marry an Eph (or even if you don’t), you’re likely to someday face the challenge of balancing your career with that of your spouse.

That’s especially true if, like Courteney Freedman Monroe ’90, you marry into the Marine Corps. In a recent profile in the Hollywood Reporter, Monroe, shared her experience “surviving ‘career suicide'” when it became time to let her spouse’s professional opportunities force a move:

He was ready for a different professional challenge, and he was interested in raising our kids outside of New York. There was a job opportunity in particular [an intelligence officer at the Department of Defense] that he wanted to pursue and, well, I went along with it. He’d moved to New York for me, and it was his turn professionally to drive the decisions in the family. But honestly, I don’t think at that moment I ever thought it was really going to happen. And then things start to progress…

I commuted back and forth [from Washington, DC] for a little less than two years. They would’ve allowed me to continue doing it, but I just felt like I wasn’t doing anything well enough. Being a full-time working mom is hard enough under the best of circumstances, but when that full-time job is actually in a different city than the one in which you live, it adds a complicating layer…

I began to realize as important as my job was to me, and as much of a huge part of my identity it was, family came first. So I made the decision to step away.

Monroe is now the CEO of National Geographic Global Networks, but when she left HBO, her path forward was far from clear:

At that point, I had not had one exploratory conversation in D.C. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do for a living. And I was sure I was never going to be able to replicate that experience that I had worked so hard for or for so long. Now that I’ve gotten this opportunity to run the networks at National Geographic, I know that’s not true. But even for the first two and a half years when I was running marketing here, I never regretted my choice because every night I was going home to have dinner with my family, and that’s what it was about.

Those who have heard Monroe speak about her business career will find it unsurprising that she was able to take the long view of her career. She likes to tell the story of her first summer job, which was as a sales clerk at Laura Ashley. There, even entry-level staff were required to wear the brand’s (expensive) clothing. Even with an employee discount, her clothing cost her more that summer than she was paid for working.


Catsam ’93 to return to Rhodes U.

As with American institutions affected by what Politico recently labeled “The Great Renaming of Craze of 2015,” South Africa’s Rhodes University has seen recent protests about the propriety of continuing to honor its namesake:

The momentum to transform Rhodes University is gathering pace and moving with urgency, including its possible renaming, vice-chancellor Sizwe Mabizela says.

The university’s student representative council (SRC) has led the drive for both institutional transformation and the name change. Students who embarked on protests this year at the Grahamstown-based university called for the name change because Cecil John Rhodes stood for racism, colonialism, pillaging and black people’s oppression.

More so even than the figures at the center of controversy in the United States — historical leaders such as Woodrow Wilson and Andrew Jackson — the question of whether Rhodes’s name is educationally appropriate is an intellectual challenge. Cecil Rhodes is not only the now-reviled architect of South African segregation and a colonialist ideologue, but also the provider of land and funds for the University of Capetown and Rhodes University (and Oriel College at Oxford), as well as the revered enabler of a liberal (even, arguably, progressive) education for individuals from Cory Booker to Bobby Jindal (not to mention Bill Clinton and Bill Bradley).

EphBlog regular Derek Catsam ’93 is not only a renowned historian with an expertise in race, history, politics, and Africa, but a former Rhodes University student. And now, he’s headed back to Grahamstown, where Rhodes is located:

University of Texas of the Permian Basin history professor Derek Catsam will be making what he terms a “grand return” to Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, on a Hugh le May Fellowship.

Catsam has made many trips to South Africa over the years and plans to spend from February to about mid-June in the country. The Hugh le May Fellowship is available in alternate years to senior scholars who wish to devote themselves to advanced work in one of the following subjects: Philosophy, classics and a variety of history and languages.

“It’ll really be a great experience,” Catsam said.

He added that he’s currently juggling two book projects, both of which are relevant to South Africa and the United States, but he’s going to focus on the 1981 visit to America by the national South African rugby team nicknamed the Springboks. The team came to this country to share their greatness and help improve American rugby, Catsam said.

Catsam is no fan of Rhodes or colonialism (and has offered useful, critical commentary on Rhodes Scholars at EphBlog in the past), but I don’t recall him expressing any views on the #RhodesMustFall campaign last year during his visit to Capetown. It will be interesting to see if he becomes involved in the renaming question during his fellowship. And even more interesting to see what he writes about rugby. You can follow him on Twitter @dcatafrica. Congrats on the fellowship!


Star Wars Week: Episode 5

And here’s the final Episode of EphBlog’s Star Wars Week as pop culture stops in anticipation of the release of Episode VII. But who are we kidding? If you’re interested in these posts, you’re probably at the theater right now!

Steven Miller isn’t the only Star Wars fan lurking around the Williams Science Quad. Perhaps not surprisingly, game developer and computer graphics designer Morgan McGuire is one as well. According to a tipster, McGuire regularly cites to Star Wars films in class, “likes” Star Wars media online, and even uses examples in his coursework. Thus, students in McGuire’s CSCI 374, Computational Graphics, learned about how George Lucas drew upon World War II dogfight footage as the baseline from which outer-space fighter scenes were scripted and created.

And back in his student days, McGuire wrote about the computer graphics techniques employed in Episode II, based on a graphics conference presentation:

One of the highlights of Star Wars Episode II was the “Yoda fight” where the 800 year old little green Jedi trades in his cane for a light saber and takes on the villainous Count Dooku. A team from ILM: Dawn Yamada, Rob Coleman, Geoff Campbell, Zoran Kacic-Alesic, Sebastian Marino, and James Tooley, presented a behind-the-scenes look at the techniques used to animate and render the Yoda fight. When George Lucas revealed the script to the team just two days before shooting began, they were horrified. At the time, the team was still reviled by Star Wars fans for bringing the unpopular animated character Jar Jar Binks to life in Star Wars Episode I. Now they were expected to take Yoda, the sagacious fan favorite, and turn him into what George Lucas himself described as a combination of “an evil little frog jumping around… the Tasmanian devil… and something we’ve never seen before.” The scene obviously required a computer generated model because no puppet could perform such a sword fight. Their challenge was to somehow make the completely CG Yoda as loveable as the puppet while having his spry fighting style still seem reasonable.

They began by creating a super-realistic animated model of Yoda based on footage from Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back. This model is so detailed that its eyes dilate when it blinks and it models physical ear-wiggling and face squishing properties of the original Yoda model. Interestingly, puppeteer Frank Oz disliked the foam-rubber character of the original model and wanted the animators to use a more natural skin model, but Lucas insisted on matching the original, endearing flaws and all. To develop a fighting style for master swordsman Yoda, the animators watched Hong Kong martial arts movies both old and new. Clips from these movies were incorporated directly into the animatics—early moving storyboards of test renders and footage from other movies used to preview how a scene will look. The SIGGRAPH audience had the rare treat of seeing these animatics, which will never be released to the public. The Yoda fight animatic was a sci-fi fan’s ultimate dream: the ILM team took Michelle Yeoh’s Yu Shu Lien character from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and inserted her into the Yoda fight scene in place of the Jedi. In the animatic, a scaled down Michelle Yeoh crossed swords and battled Count Dooku using the exact moves and motions that Yoda does in the final movie.

Also earning shout-outs before Star Wars week wraps up:

Biology lecturer Derek Dean (favorite soundtrack: The Empire Strikes Back)

History Professor Karen Merrill, in whose tenure the Savvy Spender’s Guide to Williams was published, featuring wisdom from Yoda himself.

And then there’s Fred Wiseman ’51, the great documentary filmmaker. As the Boston Globe described him a few years ago:

Frederick Wiseman looks rather like Yoda. He’s a small man whose ears stick out and whose face narrows as it descends from a vast forehead. His skin is wrinkled and his eyes, like Yoda’s, have seen it all.

His dwindling hair can flare, in the tradition of Einstein and David Ben-Gurion. His clothes are an afterthought — a red shirt under a blue sweater, rumpled gray khakis, and comfortable slip-ons. The man has other priorities.

Is that true? You be the judge:

Photo by Suzanna Kreiter, in the Boston Globe

Photo by Suzanna Kreiter, in the Boston Globe


Star Wars Week: Episode 4

For our fourth installment of Star Wars Week at EphBlog, we look at some of the expertise and opportunities at Williams to study, well, not Star Wars, but its influences.

Williams is well-supplied not only with expertise in Star Wars matters, but in the influences that helped shape Star Wars as well.

If you’re a Star Wars fan, you probably know that R2-D2 and C-3PO owe their existence and role in the story to Akira Kurosawa’s film The Hidden Fortress. And for those with an interest in Kurosawa, Professor of Comparative and Japanese Literature Christopher Bolton teaches COMP/JAPN 153: Japanese Film, which was offered to Williams students this fall. (A 200-level version of this class has been offered previously). Or, for students on campus for Winter Study, Robert Kent ’84 has taught a series of Winter Study classes based on Aikido. Some of these courses, such as 2013’s PSCI 16, Aikido & The Art of Persuasive Political Speech, have featured a Kurosawa component. And in the not-too-distant past (most recently, Spring 2011?), English Professor Lynda Buntzen taught ENGL 404, Auteur Cinema and the Very Long Film. One presumes that the film viewing took place outside of class! And then there’s John Sayles ’72, who was, in part, set on the course to his storied directorial career under the guidance of English Professor Charles T. Samuels. Professor Samuels reportedly introduced Sayles to international film, including Kurosawa.

Another great influence on George Lucas was The Searchers, the underpinning of Luke’s journey in Star Wars. This film was centrally featured in the Spring of 2015 in Professor Mark Reinhardt’s syllabus for American Studies 201: Becoming and Unbecoming Americans: An Introduction to American Studies. The film kicked off one of the course’s three units: “Cartographies of Citizenship,” serving as an appropriate gateway to, among other things, Frederick Jackson Turner, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Kanye West. Relatedly, before entering journalism and then embarking on a series of perhaps-fictional adventures around the globe, Adam Bloch ’06 authored an honors thesis on Revisionist Westerns and U.S. History, under the guidance of Karen Merrill, in which he analyzed The Searchers (and other great, revisionist Westerns) with remarkable insight. And director John Ford’s work is featured as an influence in ARTS 315, Realisms.

Finally, in building the mythological structure of the Star Wars universe, Lucas drew heavily on the work of Joseph Campbell, the American mythologist. Evans Lansing Smith ’73, chair of the Mythological Studies department at Pacifica Graduate Institute, is one of the preeminent scholarly experts in Campbell, and editor of the recent Campbell collection Romance of the Grail. Another Eph who has written about Campbell is Samira Martinhago Custodia ’13, whose honors thesis, Dystopia Dreaming: Examining Gender and Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Literature, places its analysis in the context of Campbell’s hero and myth archetypes.

Addendum: It’s well-known that Lawrence of Arabia was also a major influence on Star Wars (all that sand!), but I don’t have anything to write about from an Eph perspective. If anyone has any ideas, let me know in the comments!


Star Wars Week: Answers to Episode 3

As we covered in Episode 3 of EphBlog’s Star Wars Week, questions from the Star Wars universe have featured heavily in Williams Trivia matchups over the years. Here are the answers to yesterday’s highlighted questions:

Question: Luke Skywalker did a dip in this healing substance in The Empire Strikes Back. A war for control of the production of this substance was a major part of the struggle between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. What is it?
Answer: Bacta.

Question: When Ben saw side-by-side footprints, how did he know the tracks were NOT made by sandpeople?
Answer: Sandpeople always travel single file to conceal their numbers.

Question: This particular military unit in the Star Wars expanded universe played an integral part in the fall of the Imperial capital Coruscant. It also features in its own video games.
Answer: Rogue Squadron.

Question: Near the beginning of Star Wars, Luke is seen playing with a model. What is it a model of?
Answer: A T-16 Skyhopper.

How well do you know your dialogue? Either give the response or describe the situation for the following quotes:

Han: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” and “I have a really bad feeling about this.” (situations)
Answer 1: In the original, Star Wars movie, as the walls of the trash compactor are about to close in
Answer 2: In Return of the Jedi, as the Ewoks prepare to roast him over an open flame.

Situation: Luke and Han shooting at fighters from the Falcon. Luke makes his first hit and is jubilant. Give Han’s response.
Answer: “Great, Kid. Don’t Get Cocky!”

Han: “Never tell me the odds.” (situation)
Answer: In The Empire Strikes Back, chased by TIE fighters into an asteroid field, C-3PO tells him “Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1.”

Han: “I’m out of it for a little while, and everyone gets delusions of grandeur.” (what news prompted this response?)

Answer: Return of the Jedi, after being informed that Luke is now a Jedi Knight.

Situation: “Jedi.” Awaiting clearance by Death Star to proceed to moon of Endor. Han: “Keep your distance, Chewie, but don’t look like you’re trying to keep your distance.” Chewie (one assumes) asks how to do this. Give Han’s response.
Answer: “I don’t know. Fly casual.”


Star Wars Week: Episode 3

Links to Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.


Trivia time! Anyone who has played Williams Trivia knows that Star Wars questions often feature heavily. Here’s a quick helping of past questions (answers will follow tomorrow).

Luke Skywalker did a dip in this healing substance in The Empire Strikes Back. A war for control of the production of this substance was a major part of the struggle between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. What is it?

When Ben saw side-by-side footprints, how did he know the tracks were NOT made by sandpeople?

This particular military unit in the Star Wars expanded universe played an integral part in the fall of the Imperial capital Coruscant. It also features in its own video games.

Near the beginning of Star Wars, Luke is seen playing with a model. What is it a model of?

How well do you know your dialogue? Either give the response or describe the situation for the following quotes:

Han: “I have a bad feeling about this,” and “I have a really bad feeling about this.” (situations)

Situation: Luke and Han shooting at fighters from the Falcon. Luke makes his first hit and is jubilant. Give Han’s response.

Han: “Never tell me the odds.” (situation)

Han: “I’m out of it for a little while, and everyone gets delusions of grandeur.” (what news prompted this response?)

Situation: “Jedi.” Awaiting clearance by Death Star to proceed to moon of Endor. Han: “Keep your distance, Chewie, but don’t look like you’re trying to keep your distance.” Chewie (one assumes) asks how to do this. Give Han’s response.

Video bonus: The submissions in response to the following January, 2014 Trivia question: Now that Disney owns the Star Wars franchise, we’d like you to act out a possible plot summary for the next Star Wars film, using only characters from other non-Star Wars related Disney properties.


Star Wars Week: Episode 2

Part 1 of the series here.


“Star Wars” takes place “a long time ago in a galaxy far away,” but is produced by Hollywood in the here and now. Who is the most prominent Eph connected to Star Wars? Likely Jonathan Headley ’89, recently named as Treasurer of the Walt Disney Company, which purchased LucasFilm and the associated Star Wars properties back in 2012. In contrast to the press release linked above, Ephs might appreciate the unofficial take of fanblogger John Frost, however:

In his new role, Headley will be responsible for picking up Bob Iger’s laundry, walking Pluto twice a day, replacing Oxford commas, and repairing holes in the Storybook Circus tents at Walt Disney World.

As a freshman at Williams, Headley’s entry was Williams D (just before asbestos removal, and midway between the 1970s and 1990s renovations), along with future IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman ’89. Here’s Headley’s freshman facebook photo:

Headley Freshman Facebook



While at Williams, Headley double-majored in Computer Science and Economics — the perfect preview for his future career at Disney (and where he no doubt rubbed shoulders with many other Force-heads).  Outside of class, he was a part of one of Williams’ notable Men’s crew teams, spending many hours commuting to and from Lake Onota. As a senior, racing in this boat at the Head of the Charles, Headley was involved in a long-remembered collision at the Weeks Footbridge:

Williams College Club Eight Entry, Head of the Charles Regatta, 1989, via Sport Graphics

Williams College Club Eight Entry, Head of the Charles Regatta, 1989, via Sport Graphics

I know Headley was back at Williams as recently as last year for reunion, his 25th. If “Episode VII” is the success that Disney hopes, perhaps he’ll be stepping off the shuttle at his next visit with a flourish of trumpets and his own Star Wars theme playing in the background.


Star Wars Week: Episode 1

Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in theaters on Friday and is rapidly consuming the cultural oxygen. EphBlog is not a Force-free zone, and so we’re featuring a series of Williams College/Star Wars crossover posts.

Let’s start with EphBlog contributor and Associate Professor of Mathematics Steven Miller. As part of the Winter Study course Mathematics of Legos, Prof. Miller has spearheaded the world-record construction of a Lego model of a Super Star Destroyer, bringing the record into Eph hands last January:

A team of 59 Williams College math students and about 10 Williamstown Elementary School students managed to assemble a 3,152-piece LEGO Star Wars model — the Super Star Destroyer — in 9 minutes and 31 seconds…

It was compressed pandemonium. In the center of each table there seemed to be a spinning tumbleweed of a dozen hands slapping small plastic bricks together again and again.

After 9 minutes, 31 seconds, the universe’s most dangerous Imperial battle cruiser was intact and ready for flight.

Williams College freshman Kent Blaeser, of Boxford, said he heard about last year’s attempt before he had even applied to Williams, and it helped attract him to the school.

“It’s a college where they do cool stuff and projects like this are a prime example,” he said. “I’m glad I go to be part of this, and that we got to break the record this year.”

“And who doesn’t want to break a world record,” added Williams freshman Jack Lee, of Larchmont, N.Y.

Assembly of the Super Star Destroyer.  Credit: Record Photo Editor Christian Ruhl.

Assembly of the Super Star Destroyer. Credit: Record Photo Editor Christian Ruhl.

Prof. Miller’s Mathematics of Legos page also features this X-Wing, that he describes as having been built “from the bucket of LEGO bricks I saved from my childhood.”

X Wing

Prof. Miller’s course highlights the wonderful nature of Winter Study. It’s true that a full semester mathematics course on combinatorics could incorporate a Star Wars themed speed-build project, but that would be an unlikely main goal. And a full semester course couldn’t use the lure of Lego construction as effectively to engage students from outside the Mathematics and Statistics department — something that can be done during Winter Study.

As Prof. Miller explained:

The Winter Study class “is a chance to reach a different audience and teach students something they might not have thought of earlier,” says Miller, who runs a popular math riddle website ( and works with the SMALL Undergraduate Research Project, a nine-week summer program at Williams that brings together undergraduates from around the globe to investigate open research problems in mathematics. “I want students to be exposed to some types of thinking that are not on their radar screens. Some things, in the real world, nobody would do the way they’re taught in books.”

But back to Star Wars. Just how big is that “real-world” Super Star Destroyer that they built the model of?
People obsessed with Star Wars put a lot of time into questions exactly like that. One good estimate is from a blogger at, which pegs it at about 13.5km in length. So if you set the nose down on the Williams Inn, facing west, and laid the Super Star Destroyer more or less along Route 2, the tail would be about 1000 meters past the Hairpin Turn, overlooking North Adams.

Anyone have some Photoshop skills to illustrate that?


A Glimpse of Homecoming ’72

Homecoming 2015 is this weekend, marking the first visit by Amherst to the new Farley-Lamb Field. In the Williams of today, I hope there’s no need for advertisements like the top right one, published in the Williams RecordAdvocate during Homecoming Week in 1972:

1972 was still early in the coed transition at Williams, with the first female graduates walking the stage in 1971. Women would have been concentrated in the underclasses, making up about one-quarter of the freshmen and sophomore classes, and a lower proportion of the student body as a whole.

Do we have any readers who remember this ad (or maybe even someone on the “Ad Hoc Committee to promote social interaction”, and the social sense that triggered it? Perhaps dating patterns for Williams men were changing too sluggishly to accommodate the influx of women?

Eph men who got to know the first-year women of the class of 1972 met some remarkable (and lovely) Eph women. Among them, Susan Schwab ’76 and Carla Craig ’76, pictured below in the 1976 Gulielmensian.



Cook ’08 Brings Comp-Sci Opportunities to Underprivileged SF Students

Stevon Cook '08 Twitter avatar (@stevoncook)

Stevon Cook ’08 Twitter avatar (@stevoncook)

MissionBit is a San Francisco nonprofit that teaches computer programming and other computer science skills to public school students in San Francisco, in an effort to bridge the gap between schools and the booming technology industry centered in Silicon Valley. And it has a new CEO, Stevon Cook ’08, whose orientation is towards extending opportunities to the disadvantaged. As TechCrunch recently reported:

Cook has since re-organized MissionBit to bring more students of color into its classes. Today, 23 percent of its students are African American, 25 percent are Latino and 40 percent speak a language other than English at home. For nine out of 10 of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever written code before.

Cook may be familiar to Ephs from his bid for school board a year ago: Born and raised in public housing in San Francisco’s Bay View region, Cook struggled to find his way in a world set against him. He was educated in failing public schools, saw drugs and alcohol break apart families of friends and loved ones, and watched as many of his childhood peers lost hope for a better future.

“I didn’t necessarily plan on running for school board,” [Cook explained,] “but I knew that I wanted to do more to help schools. I decided that this was going to be my life’s work.”

By mid-July, Cook’s campaign had raised nearly $50,000, much of which came from classmates who had gotten the banking and consulting jobs that had once eluded him. “I talk to consultants who contribute to my campaign and they say, ‘I want you to use this money because I don’t feel like I’m really helping people.’” Those people secured jobs long before graduating, never worried about making rent payments or paying off credit cards, and are on a path towards financial success. Despite that, most are envious of Cook. He doesn’t have a 4.0 GPA or prestigious lines on his résumé. He’s dealt with failure and rejection. But, at the end of the day, he’s happy in his work and making a difference in his community.

In his new gig at MissionBit, Cook is arguably having a greater influence than he could have hoped to achieve through public office:

Cook is also re-organizing MissionBit to be more self-sustaining by having the schools and the district chip in funding for the classes. San Francisco Unified recently passed a resolution to expand computer science education to all grades from pre-school through 12th. But it will take several years given budgetary constraints; California is in the lower half of the rankings for statewide education spending per student. He has a three-year goal of teaching 10,000 students through workshops and courses in campuses and across the entire Bay Area region.

Next up, Cook is also building a six-month programming course for the city’s public housing residents in partnership with Hack Reactor.

“If you can give people the skills to stay in the city and take advantage of all it has to offer, they can escape that generational trap,” Cook said. “When young people get experiences like this, their whole perception of self and their sense of agency is changed. We need to build schools that achieve these things and that help people and their communities advance so they can work for whatever company they want to.”

“If we can give people better educational and work opportunities and give them possibilities to move up within companies, all of this is worth getting someone out of the projects,” Cook said of his upcoming public housing computer science program. “When you see all of the negative social and emotional risk factors associated with living in those units, you’ll see poorer educational outcomes and higher risks for health issues.”

Getting those educational opportunities means overcoming huge discrepancies in access that exist even in the wealthiest of cities like San Francisco. Last year, only 800 kids out of 17,000 high school students were enrolled in computer science classes.

Cook is looking for more funding to support his $400,000 annual budget and to grow the program. He also needs volunteer instructors. Interested? Find him through the Alumni Directory, or contact him at


Bronfman Science Center as a “Dubious” Proposition

50 Years Ago in the Williams Record, an editorial:

“The Smallness of Bigness”

With the Karl E. Weston Language Center, the Roper Public Opinion Center, the Van Rensselaer Public Affairs Center [and] the soon-to-be-constructed Bronfman Science Center . . . Williams College is running the risk of fragmenting the academic life of its students — much as the fraternities were criticized for fragmenting the student body and for mitigating against intergroup communication.

This is not to say that any of these centers is detracting from the general educational process. But there is, nevertheless, the possibility that Williams may soon offer programs as specialized as those offered in larger universities. The Bronfman Science Center, especially, seems dubious by the very fact that so few undergraduates will reap the benefits of its multi-million dollar facilities.

Williams must never sacrifice humanistic scope in favor of specialized obscurity. Already it has begun to succumb to the pressures of “bigness” and the need for fragmentation so apparent in contemporary educational trends… We certainly do not need a Berkshire Berkeley.

How has this critique held up today? Bronfman is coming down in 2018, to be replaced by an upgraded facility that will complement the equally-specialized Morley Science Laboratories, and, as foreseen, we have an array of ever more specialized buildings. Arguably, it is the humanities that have strayed into “specialized obscurity.” But the liberal-arts ideal seems has survived at Williams — the physical separation of academic spaces across majors and programs not imposing a boundary of academic experience.


Charitable Profile of Bill Oberndorf ’75

oberndorfA recent profile in “Inside Philanthropy” takes a look at Oberndorf Philanthropy, the charitable vehicle of hedge fund investor William Oberndorf ’75. Remembered by his Williams College classmates as a track star, Oberndorf is best known to Ephs these days as a former trustee of the College as well as for the retirement party he hosted (along with Tom Krens ’69) last year for legendary Art History professor Eva Grudin.

With his wife, Oberndorf has created the Bill and Susan Oberndorf Foundation, which Inside Philanthropy reports has about $80 million in assets and gave away approximately $8 million in the most recently reported tax year:

The couple has a big interest in education reform and the Oberndorfs are deep into school choice. In the early 1990s, Oberndorf helped found American Education Reform Foundation. The outfit has worked to “bring about systemic and sustainable reform by promoting broad-based parental choice that aids low-income families.” Oberndorf also serves as chairman emeritus and board member of the Alliance for School Choice, an organization he co-founded. At a 2011 panel in Washington D.C., according to Education Week, Oberndorf was credited as having financed school choice with “tens of millions” of dollars. Oberndorf also said that charter schools and voucher programs inject “competition into the equation.”

Recent education philanthropy by the couple has involved quite a number of outfits including Foundation for Excellence in Education (a $100,000 grant in 2013), Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, “an American education reform organization headquartered in Indianapolis,” and SF School Choice Alliance. Support has also gone to charters such as KIPP Bay Area Schools, which received a $10,000 grant in 2013 and Gateway Public Schools. The couple tends to make a lot of grants in the Bay Area, but their education philanthropy is especially national.

Apart from K-12 education, funds have also gone to colleges and universities. Recent funds have gone to schools such as Marquette University, Williams College, and various outfits associated with the University of San Francisco including the UCSF Foundation, which received around $3.3 million in 2013, and around $4.3 million in 2012. Oberndorf is chairman of the University of California San Francisco Foundation. A steady stream of money has also gone to Stanford, from where both Oberndorf and Susan both graduated. In 2010, more than $2 million went to Stanford.

A recent Marquette giving report lists the Oberndorf Foundation at the relatively modest giving level of $10,000 to $25,000. Not sure what the Oberndorf’s connection to the school is, but it may relate to Milwaukee’s status as the home of one of the largest school voucher programs in the United States.

Another interest of the couple is health and the forces are at least in part personal. One of Oberndorf’s late business partners William J. Patterson passed away from a brain tumor a few years ago. The couple has recently supported outfits such as Breast Cancer Research Foundation, Gladstone Institutes, “an independent and nonprofit biomedical research organization whose focus is to better understand, prevent, treat and cure cardiovascular, viral and neurological conditions,” UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Stanford School of Medicine, and Cancer Prevention Institute of California.

Liberals will find some philanthropy to like as well:

Recent grantmaking has also involved the environment, with funds going to Environmental Defense Fund (more than $250,000 in 2013), California Trout, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and the Lange Foundation, “a nonprofit organization in Southern California dedicated to saving impounded companion animals.”

The couple’s arts and culture grantmaking has a Bay Area focus and millions have streamed to California Academy of Sciences. Again Oberndorf’s late business partner William J. Patterson may play a role and Patterson once chaired California Academy of Sciences. In 2013, Oberndorfs gave California Academy of Sciences around $1.3 million. In 2012, the outfit received $1.75 million. Other recent support includes grants to San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Oberndorf’s interest in school choice and education reform is longstanding. He was a leading supporter of California’s (failed) Proposition 32, an effort to reform the political influence of teacher’s unions, and Oberndorf features in the 1999 book, The Politics of School Choice. In 2003, he explained his views to the Philanthropy Roundtable:

It seems a great injustice to me that only certain members of society–determined primarily by their economic status–are able to choose schools of quality for their children, while others–primarily the urban poor–are forced to send their children to schools that all too frequently destine them to lives of failure. And so in 1993 I helped establish the American Education Reform Foundation, which I chair. Its purpose is to promote, through legislative action, the granting of publicly funded scholarships that will allow primarily low-income parents to opt out of the public school system if it is not working for their children.

America is now behind virtually every developed country in science, math, and other core competencies. During the last two decades, all sorts of well-intentioned people like you and me have spent literally hundreds of millions of our philanthropic dollars to address this problem. And despite all our good intentions, we have not been able to improve educational outcomes in any meaningful, measurable way.

A survey of recent high school graduation rates across the country found only 51 percent of high school students graduated in Newark, 47 percent in Chicago, 43 percent in Milwaukee and Oakland, and 28 percent in Cleveland. While some are quick to claim the culprits are large class sizes and a lack of financial resources, in reality we are spending, on a per pupil basis, amounts in these cities ranging from $7,600 in Oakland to an astounding $14,900 in Newark.

By the time I became involved in the education reform movement, a growing group of individuals, including myself, had become convinced that unless a truly competitive alternative was established to traditional public schools, the educational establishment was simply incapable of systemic and sustainable reform from within. I focus upon the words systemic and sustainable because, unless we spend our philanthropic dollars in a way that is systemic—i.e., having broad impact—and in a way that is sustainable—i.e., not requiring our continuing financial and political support—we are not going to move the needle of education reform in any significant way.


Smartest Apostate in the Room

Don Beyer '72, in his Alexandria, VA home.  Photo by Andre Chung in a Washington Post article

Don Beyer ’72, in his Alexandria, VA home. Photo by Andre Chung in a Washington Post article

Congressman Don Beyer ’72, who represents a large swath of Northern Virginia in its 8th Congressional District, is not only the best-educated Member of Congress, but the best speller as well. Politico reports:

Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) won the National Press Club’s “Politicians vs. Press” spelling bee on Wednesday night, narrowly ekeing out a victory over Karoun Demirjian of the Washington Post.

The winning word? Apostasy. Along the way, however, he missed on words such as “bergamot” and “lutefisk” — Ephs such as Arne Carlson ’57 and Eric Dayton ’03 will be disappointed, particularly when they learn he had no such difficulty with “Wisconsinite.” But his misspellings were hardly among the ugliest: Fellow member of the Virginia delegation, Sen. Tim Kaine, missed out on “veterinarian,” Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy erred on “knish,” and both Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer and the Politico staff reporting on the spelling bee managed to misspell “doctrinaire”:


A bonus for Beyer: to win the Politicians vs. Press Bee, he didn’t have to square off against Sen. Chris Murphy ’96 or Washington Post writer Greg Jaffe ’91 to secure his spelling title, unlike in his 2014 election faceoff with Micah Edmond ’96.


Venker Re-Invited, Has “No Plans to Accept”

Venker's website, via the Huffington Post

Venker’s website, via the Huffington Post

Notwithstanding EphBlog’s defense of the disinvitation of Suzanne Venker, the student organizers of the “Uncomfortable Learning” series appear to have quickly backtracked. In a post at Reason’s “Hit&Run” blog on Friday, reporter Robby Soave shared an email from Zach Wood ’18:

“Suzanne Venker has been re-invited to Williams . . . However, she has yet to confirm whether or not she’d like to come this spring.”

Unfortunately, Venker does not appear enthusiastic (although the reinvitation has received some positive press coverage, such as at

“No plans to accept since my speech has just been published, and the students can effectively see what I was going to say,” she said in an email to Reason. “Plus I can’t muster writing another speech anytime soon. As I say, it’s no small thing and I’m already behind on a book I’m writing.”

Venker’s speech is indeed posted at, and it’s hard to fault her for being reluctant to reschedule after how this controversy unfolded. It’s asking a lot of Venker to check her pride at the door and speak now.

That said, EphBlog believes Venker should accept the re-invitation. Sure, the cancellation and reinvitation is awkward, but it has an obvious upside. Presumably she believes that the message in her “Uncomfortable Learning” talk is an important one for Williams students in their too-often protected cocoon. In light of the cancellation controversy, exposure for her remarks (both at Williams and beyond) is likely to be much greater than it otherwise would have been. More listeners = more value.

Moreover, as EphBlog has noted before, the students organizing “Uncomfortable Learning” deserve to be rewarded: they are taking on a difficult task in the face of immense peer pressure, pressure that keeps “uncomfortable” voices almost entirely excluded from campuses other than Williams that lack the tradition of a Gaudino. “One strike and you’re out” is a perfectly reasonable lesson to teach them, but so is “apologize, fix things, and do the right thing in the end.” And this is particularly true given the subject matter here: conservative speakers (especially those with experiential, rather than academic, credentials, as in the case of Venker) are heard so infrequently in liberal/academic environments that it should be a cardinal rule for conservatives: NEVER decline an invitation to speak
on campus.

Her reason for not speaking seems particularly flimsy. Although it’s true that students can “see what [she] was going to say,” how many students is she really going to reach that way. is hardly a must-read for college students — and voluntarily searching out “uncomfortable reading” isn’t generally the way of the Internet. If she thinks what she originally had to say was interesting and valuable for students to hear, she should go ahead and deliver the same speech – perhaps tweaked to include mention (or rebuke?) of the disinvitation.

On this issue, as with his earlier post on the cancellation, the usually-reliable Glenn Reynolds, law professor at Tennessee, gets it wrong at Instapundit:

Reynolds on reinvite

Another question — what caused the organizers to change their mind and reinvite Venker? So far, there’s no public statement on that decision. Maybe it was feedback like this critique at the Williams Alternative from (former EphBlog regular) Will Slack ’11:

Nothing about this piece suggests that you learned something new about the invited speaker between the issuing of the invitation and the cancellation. Nothing I’ve read has suggested any coercement from any party – not other students, nor the administration, nor alumni. Nothing has provided evidence that anyone is being silenced here. If that did happen, then I will stand up and defend your freedom to invite controversial speakers, in good faith.

On the contrary, your choice is the worst of all worlds – and displays bad faith. You do a disservice to the invited speaker by rendering her preparation useless with a last-minute change. You do a disservice to your fellow students by inviting a controversy about ideas than preventing them from being aired. You do a disservice to the College and its alumni community by being so vague in your messages to the speaker that you inspire misleading articles like this one: [Venker’s column].

Slack cuts right to the heart of the issue, which bears on Venker’s decision as well. Unlike the “Uncomfortable Learning” organizers, Venker does have new information on which to decide. But EphBlog is hoping she’ll do the right thing, and gracefully accept.


Eph-curated “Jewel City” opens at the DeYoung


Jim Ganz (MA ’88) is familiar to a generation of Ephs as a longtime curator at the Clark, who helped build the Clark’s photography collection and helped Williams College expand the photography offerings in the Art History program. Ganz is now in San Francisco as a curator of the Fine Arts Museums (i.e. the Legion of Honor and the de Young), where his new exhibit, “Jewel City,” has just opened to favorable reviewsand will run through January 10, 2016.

“Jewel City” revisits “one of the most ambitious art exhibitions ever presented in the United States, encompassing more than 11,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, and photographs,” which took place one hundred years ago in San Francisco as part of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a 1915 World’s Fair that marked the re-emergence of San Francisco following the devastating 1906 earthquake (much as the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 did following that city’s Great Fire).

In an interview for the exhibit’s opening, Ganz explains:

We’re trying to recapture in a way the feeling of seeing the art of the fair, something of the visitors’ experience. Putting people in front of the same works of art 100 years later is going to be kind of amazing.

Included among the 200+ works Ganz has reassembled for the de Young are artists such as Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, Edvard Munch, and John Singer Sargent (“The Sketchers,” pictured here). Another particularly notable item is 50-foot-long mural — one of six displayed at the exhibition — entitled “Atlantic and Pacific,” which hasn’t been displayed in the ensuing century.


If you live in San Francisco or will be visiting anytime soon, put “Jewel City” on your cultural to-do list.


Suzanne Venker disinvited from “Uncomfortable Learning”

Just weeks after EphBlog discussed the activities of the “Uncomfortable Learning” organization at Williams College, the group is in the headlines — and not in a good way. Suzanne Venker has an opinion piece posted online titled: “Williams College dropped me from its ‘Uncomfortable Learning’ speaker series. Why?” In it, she writes:

For the past two months, I’ve been preparing a speech for my upcoming visit to Williams College in Massachusetts. I was invited to speak at the university on behalf of its ‘Uncomfortable Learning’ Speaker Series…

[M]y talk was cancelled several days prior to the event. “Thank you for agreeing to speak,” read the email, “but we’re not going to be able to host this event.”

Though my contact didn’t give a reason, the day before he’d sent me this email: “Dear Ms. Venker, A quick heads up…We’ve been advertising the event, and it’s already stirring a lot of angry reactions among students on campus. We just wanted to make you aware of the current state of students before your presentation…”

When I pressed further as to why the event was being cancelled (though of course I knew why), he conceded that Williams College “has never experienced this kind of resistance” to a campus speaker.

Venker is the author of “The Flipside of Feminism” and “How to Choose a Husband and Make Peace With Marriage,” and is an iconoclast critic of modern feminism. According to her article, she planned to share her critique of feminism, framing it around the idea of uncomfortable subjects, as appropriate for the series:

My goal for you all, my purpose in being here today, is to inspire you to think for yourselves. Do not be swayed by groupthink no matter what your friends, your family or the culture believe. Do not be afraid to ask yourself questions that may make you uncomfortable. And do not be afraid of the answers…

Imagine the possibilities if students at Williams College and elsewhere were exposed to a completely different worldview. Something positive. Something uplifting. Something, dare I say it, empowering?

We can hope that there’s another side to the story of the cancellation of Venker’s scheduled speech, but at a time when the toxic atmosphere for intellectual disagreement on college campuses has drawn widespread attention — with even President Obama weighing in to encourage universities to host more ideological diversity — this disinvitation is not reflecting well on Williams.


Shevinsky ’01 on Williams


A recent EphBlog post reviewed “Lean Out,” the book by Elissa Shevinsky ’01 that is currently burnishing her reputation as one of the tech industries’ feminist thought leaders.

Shevinsky’s career has taken her through stops around the world, including New York, Tel Aviv, and Silicon Valley, and she presently maintains an itinerant existence with a number of home bases. Since this is EphBlog, we’re as interested in her time at Williams as we are in where she is now, and one of her own essays in “Lean Out,” titled, “The Pipeline Isn’t the Problem,” delivers on that subject.

The first part of “Pipeline” recounts key elements of Shevinsky’s career: from her first startup job, at Williams-incubated to her most recent product, Glimpse (an online dating app designed for women, by women). Then, she tells the story of her real introduction to tech as a freshman at Williams:

It was 1997 and I was taking CSCI 105: “The Web: Technologies and Techniques,” the Computer Science department’s most introductory class. It seemed like a lightweight way for a humanities major like me to fulfill the college’s science requirement.

Let’s hear it for divisional requirements — they’re not just how we turn biology majors into museum directors!

Led by Professor Tom Murtagh, the class covered the architecture of the Internet, along with html and Java programming. My teaching assistants were nerdy white guys (who I totally admired) but the class was mostly gender balanced. In 1997 we didn’t know that programming was for boys.

Computer Science 105 was more challenging than I had anticipated . . . I was so frustrated that a program could work on my machine and not work correctly on my website. At one point, the teaching assistant was confused as well! I’ve since learned that frustration is a basic part of software development. The best developers are persistent as well as smart, and simply don’t stop until the code works. Sometimes it takes days or weeks. At the time, I just thought that I didn’t have an aptitude for programming. But Professor Murtagh (aka “Tom”) was a warm and easy-going professor and the class was incredibly fun.

With Professors Danyluk and Bruce, “Tom” would go on to publish the valuable “Java: An Eventful Approach,” an influential redesign of curriculum structure for teaching Java.

Nerds were so uncool at Williams College that the section of campus where we lived was known as “The Odd Quad.” … We would get together on Wednesday nights for hot cocoa spiked with liquor, and play “Magic: The Gathering.” It was a gender balanced group. Actually, it was nearly equally men and women… My college memories are mostly of hanging out with this group of wonderful nerdy gamer coders. This included some college grads who were working at Tripod.

The Williams students choosing in the late 90s to live in row houses instead of Prospect might have chosen differently, if they’d known the opportunities on which they were missing out:

I got internships and job offers everywhere that I applied, ultimately working for Ethan Zuckerman [’93]’s startup Geekcorps… I remember being offered a programming job at twenty-one. I would have had to drop out of school, which wasn’t that interesting to me at the time. I turned the job down.

Probably a wise choice, given how her career – and her new book – have turned out. In a recent interview, she brushed off credit for the high caliber of her publishing debut:
“I was definitely really new to making books,” praising her editor as incredibly helpful in turning out a polished final product. Still, she acknowledges, “I had an intuition for what would be a good book,” and reading “Lean Out,” it’s hard to resist crediting her (and her Williams education) for the result.


Book Review: Lean Out

ES01Elissa Shevinsky ’01 has not only been an EphBlog favorite of late, but was recently featured on the cover of the Williams Alumni Review (pictured above is her Twitter avatar, drawn from that cover illustration). Shevinsky is a serial entrepreneur with a focus on cyber-security; her current company is JeKuDo, which is “building the very best easy to use privacy tools.”

Shevinsky is also now the author/editor of the recently-published “Lean Out,” available from Or Books and (naturally) for your Kindle or Nook. The collection of essays and perspectives from women working in Silicon Valley includes an introduction and commentary from Shevinsky along with a couple of her own essays. Full disclosure: Shevinsky and I are what she might call “introvert friends” on Twitter and regularly “favorite” each other’s tweets.

“Lean Out” tackles a popular and sensitive subject: the overwhelming male representation in Silicon Valley and the larger tech industry, one of the highest-value and highest growth areas of the economy. In “Lean In,” Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg advocated for women to be more proactive in challenging this norm by doing more to be accepted into existing power dynamics and transform the “system” from within.  Relatedly, many tech companies have claimed that there is a purported “pipeline” problem — a shortage of women with STEM and computer science backgrounds, coding skills, or even video game experience that translates to a subsequent shortage of women interested in the industry.

Many critics — including several of the writers collected in “Lean Out” — have challenged these claims.  Many women, particularly those coming from diverse backgrounds, object that Sandberg’s perspective as one that requires women in the tech industry to adapt to the system, rather than building a new system for women and by women.  Others, including Shevinsky, believe that the focus on a “pipeline” is a diversion, little more than a marketing effort by big tech companies to  transfer attention from culture (hard to measure) to an issue that can be quantified and to which they can dedicate eye-catching amounts of spending.  In this view, the claim that there aren’t sufficient women in the hiring pool is akin to the implausible suggestion that there aren’t enough actors in Hollywood.

Taken individually, the essays in “Lean Out” might read as a collection of diversity-oriented polemics: interesting as descriptions of individual experiences, identities, and related challenges, but many would be ultimately unsatisfying (the identities of authors include a well-balanced mix of sexual, gender, racial, and ethnic identities). One exception: Katherine Cross’s essay, “Fictive Ethnicity and Nerds,” an analysis of why the dominant Silicon Valley nerd culture is resistant to criticism from feminists. Agree or disagree, her analysis gives good insight into why individuals and groups can simultaneously be privileged and marginalized, although readers will recognize she might not agree with that characterization.

It is taken together that the greatest value in “Lean Out” is revealed as Shevinsky’s selection and structuring of the whole. Each writer adds a piece to our understanding of the culture of the technology industry — and each person brings their own view regarding how best to tackle the problems they see as creating an environment of exclusion. The juxtaposition of their suggestions, moreover, reveals that many approaches, taken alone, risk undercutting precisely the parts of the system that make others feel included, at least at times. Far from the simple solutions proposed in the polemics of online fora, “Lean Out” reveals a thorny knot that even Alexander might be unable to cut.

Take, for example, the concerns laid out in “Lean Out” about a brogrammer culture that makes outings for drinking cheap beer an integral part of many companies’ cultures.  Participating in these outings – which fuel interrelated cultural problems like unwanted sexual advances (and worse) and fart jokes (and worse) – may be a cultural and career necessity for many who would otherwise not participate.  But not only are they irreplaceable to the individual and team identity of their enthusiasts, but more than one writer in “Lean Out” recounts an instance when participating was an inclusionary experience, at least at the time or for a while.  So the answer can’t be just to replace alcohol fueled bar hopping with estrogen fueled coed outings to the ski slope or the bookstore.  And while doing so might make the introduction of sexist apps at major conferences less acceptable, would that really even matter to the presence of women at the partner level of venture capital funds or, ultimately, to investments in diversely-led startups?

Where does that leave Shevinsky and the “Lean Out” reader? Certainly with a lot to think about. But the structure of her book provides a clue that there’s more in her mind than merely provoking discussion or repeating the demands of others that people change their sexist ways. “Lean Out” opens and closes with passages by FAKEGRIMLOCK, the startup robot dinosaur. (Yes, this is a thing). Both are calls to action: not meant to provoke some centrally-led reform effort or even a social movement by the many, but for an individual action by the entrepreneur, “You”: “You Belong in Tech” and “You Must Start Up.” And then there’s the essay “Build a Business, Not an Exit Strategy,” by Melanie Moore, also near the end of “Lean Out.” Her simple present-value analysis of startups seeking an IPO home run vs. those seeking to grow on a human scale — and the explanation of why VCs are in the business of finding home runs and not the latter, presents one “Out” approach. It’s clearly one that serial entrepreneur Shevinsky is comfortable with. And it’s a reminder that what the tech industry may most need to create a set of spaces where the authors in “Lean Out” (and millions of others, men and women alike) can thrive is a different sort of diversity: a diversity of vision that yields a true variety of opportunities.

Elements of Shevinsky’s experience at Williams appear in one of her own essays, “The Pipeline Isn’t the Problem,” and I’ll excerpt a few details in a subsequent post.


Good Advice from Amherst(!!)

From the Amherst Student and its editorial board, on “Studying at Home”:

It’s common wisdom among college graduates and seniors who think they know better that if you don’t study abroad, you’ll regret it. “Are you going to study abroad?” is a common question among Amherst sophomores and juniors. If the answer is yes, no one thinks twice. But if a student decides to stay at Amherst for both semesters, he’s consistently told that it’s the wrong decision, that he’ll regret losing an opportunity he’ll never have again. While studying abroad is certainly a fantastic opportunity, so is each of our semesters at Amherst.

As cheesy as it may sound, Amherst becomes a new place every single year. For one thing, you’d be hard pressed to find an academic experience abroad that beats Amherst classes. With just four short years here, there’s no shortage of incredibly transformative classes you can take that you’ll never have access to again. Furthermore, the growing number of clubs, sports teams and opportunities allow us to make this campus a better place, cultivate meaningful friendships and embed ourselves deeper in the community we call home for four years.

If traveling or living abroad is something you want to pursue, but you don’t think study abroad is right for you, ask the fellowship and career offices to learn about the myriad of opportunities available after graduation. Spending a gap year after college doing meaningful academic or volunteer work while traveling or living in another country is a fantastic way to transition into the terrifying “real world.” Amherst also has a lot of money devoted to internal fellowships; it just takes a bit of searching to find the right opportunity.

True at Amherst, and even truer at Williams. Indeed, the experience of being at Williams is unparalleled among undergraduate institutions – even better than Amherst. And for Ephs, Winter Study provides an opportunity to leave Williamstown without missing out on months of your time in paradise (although you will miss an ideal time to Fall in Love).

Many students arrive at Williams intending to take a semester abroad, have that inclination reinforced by general acceptance (as described at Amherst above), and fail (even if majoring in economics) to consider the opportunity cost involved.

Does that mean “don’t go”? Of course not. But put as much care into the decision of


to go as you would


to go.


McLean ’92 on Productivity

Worth the diversion on social media: a recent essay by Bethany McLean ’92, author of “The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “All the Devils are Here,” on LinkedIn. She writes “In Praise of Being Unproductive.”

A subject after EphBlog’s own heart!

Whenever I read something about the glories of productivity, I wince.

I am not productive. In fact, sometimes I waste entire days. I talk to people for hours, and not one thing from that conversation makes it into anything I am writing now — or will ever write in the future. I expend tons of emotional energy mustering up the nerve to call people who do not call me back. I work on stories that die a deserved death. Sometimes — may the gods of productivity forgive me — I even take an extended online shopping break because I’ve decided that my attempts to make sense of something are resulting in nonsense. I read things that have nothing to do with my work. I daydream. A lot.

Never afraid to tell the truth, McLean uses this opening to rail on journalism’s business pretensions and the idea that writing is an industry in which productivity can be measured:

I’m not sure journalism is meant to be quantifiably productive. You need to call everyone … need to spend hours talking to people because it’s as important to understand what you don’t use and why you don’t use it as it is to understand what you do use… [and] be able to chase a story and be honest about the fact that it isn’t working… The best story is not necessarily the one that gets the most bang for the buck, at least if you think that “best” means something other than cheap click bait.

I read McLean’s essay as somewhat tongue in cheek: even if the activity inputs she describes may not be directly productive, that doesn’t mean a writer’s output can’t be measured in some way.

But it’s a good reminder: in the ideas business, the work of producing ideas is often orthogonal to the objective rather than linear. If you’ve never gone back to read your James Webb Young, put it on your reading list.


The Haystack as a Living Symbol

Snow on the Haystack Monument, captured by Orion Howard via Flickr

Snow on the Haystack Monument, captured by Orion Howard via Flickr

For most Ephs, the Haystack Monument carries nothing more than historic and aesthetic significance.  And it is those things: it serves as a picturesque stop on a snowy campus snowshoe tour and a reminder that Williams College attained national significance far before U.S. News began publishing college rankings, before Mark Hopkins became a renowned educator, even before Henry David Thoreau visited Greylock.  But how many appreciate the Haystack Meeting and the Haystack Monument as a live religious symbol, an inspiration to millions of faithful Christians nationwide?

That’s the Haystack Monument as understood by Ronnie Floyd, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest denomination of Protestant Christians in the United States (approximate membership: 16 million).  Floyd recently drew on the example of Samuel Mills & co. in a powerful address laying out his vision:

We must remember that it really all goes back to the Haystack Prayer Meeting. After praying, these five young men sang a hymn together. It was then that Samuel Mills said loudly over the rain and the wind, “We can do this, if we will!” That moment changed those men forever. Many historians would tell you that all mission organizations trace their history back to the Haystack Prayer Meeting in some way. Yes, these men turned the world upside down. And it all began in a prayer meeting under a haystack.

At the place where this meeting occurred, a monument stands today commemorating this historic God moment. At the top of that monument is the phrase, “THE FIELD IS THE WORLD.” Underneath those words is the following statement: “The Birthplace of American Foreign Missions. 1806.” It all happened from a prayer meeting.

This reminds me of the words written in Acts 4:31: “When they had prayed, the place where they were assembled was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak God’s message with boldness.” Prayer, the power of God, evangelism, and missions all go together. We need to get ourselves back under the haystack!

Over the rain, wind, lightning, and claps of thunder when Samuel Mills declared to the other four young men, “We can do this, if we will!” he saw something before anyone else saw it. He saw that THE FIELD IS THE WORLD.

For Floyd, the Haystack is not just a matter of historical interest, as he actively draws on the example as he makes a call to the faithful to:


Before the awakenings and great movements of God in the past, many times God’s people have prayed as long as a decade or more before God moved mightily among the people. Therefore, I call upon us to return to the haystack!

We need to stop being so content doing ministry without moments under the haystack. We must return to the haystack, calling out to God extraordinarily, experiencing Him supernaturally, and exploding with a robust vision and commitment to advance the Gospel exponentially everywhere…


Sometimes we conduct ourselves like a bunch of theological Universalists who believe it will all work out okay for everyone. We must begin to believe in lostness again.

People need the Gospel of Jesus Christ beginning in our own villages, towns, and cities. Our pastors need to be injected with a vision and strategy to reach their own villages, towns, and cities.

According to missiologists, we live in a nation where three out of four people do not have a personal relationship with Christ. We live in a world with 7.275 billion people. Of these 7.275 billion people, just over 3 billion of these people are unreached. There is an additional 1.25 billion of these people who are engaged nominally. If we even come close to understanding the spiritual condition of our world and the need for the Gospel, we are facing a daunting challenge.

This is why we need to return to the haystack and come out from underneath it with a renewed belief and commitment to the power of God. Without His power, the task is overwhelming. Without His power, our insufficiency is exposed to the world.

It is time we emerge from underneath the haystack again and with the vision: THE FIELD IS THE WORLD. It is time we emerge from the haystack again with convictional, God-inspired leadership that declares as Samuel Mills did in 1806: “We can do this, if we will!”

With God’s power, we can reach America’s villages, towns, and cities. With God’s power, we can reach the world, penetrating the darkness of lostness globally. The field is the world… We can do this, if we will!

Even — or perhaps especially — for those of us who rarely look at this Williams icon through a religious lens, Floyd’s reliance on the legendary encounter among Ephs and God is enlightening. Read the whole thing.


Repost: Advice to Undergraduates: Things to Do…

A few years ago, jeffz compiled this invaluable post, “Things to Do in Billsville When You’re Dead.” Take note, 2019’ers!

(Original here).


[NB: this is a repost from last year, but I think warranted considering the collective thought that went into it.  Moreover, I’m curious if a new crop of Ephs / readers have any additional suggestions.  Apologies for any links that are no longer functional.]

Unless things have changed dramatically since my time at Williams, one of the favorite pastimes of students is to lament (a) the dearth of off-campus social options in Williamstown (b) the lack of area date venues and (c) the repetitiveness of campus social life.  If you are tired of the typical row house party scene and/or desperately need a break from late nights studying in the library, all it takes is a little creativity to find a surprisingly rich panoply of cool things to do.   As highlighted in this previous post by Larry George, the college has already offered a list of 59 alternatives.  [This excellent list appears to have vanished.  Has it just been moved to some other location on the Williams site?]

But this list  just scratches the surface.  So, new and returning students, Ephblog’s gift to you: our collective list of additional recommendations for your four years at Williams, derived from the comments to the previous post, among other sources.  Not all of these will interest all of you, but everyone should find at least a handful of appealing ideas out of the 123 (and counting) suggested to date by the college and by Ephblog readers.  Full list below the break.

(1) Spend a summer in Williamstown.  Get to know some of the famous actors in town for the Williamstown Theater Festival.

(2) Play trivia this Winter Study.

(3) Attend at least one home and one away basketball game vs. Amherst (the away games are especially fun when you can organize a massive crowd to drown out the home fans).  During the trip over, design creative taunts bashing the ‘herst

(4) Get your folks or your friends’ folks to spring for a dinner at Mezze.

(5) Try to make the wall of fame at Jack’s Hot Dogs (NB: prepare to spend next 24 hours in serious discomfort).

(6) Attend at least one home soccer game on a gorgeous fall day: no athletic setting is more amazing.

(7) Visit a local farm. Pick apples. Buy local or Vermont cheese to go with them. If you add a good loaf of bread, you have the makings of an excuse for a hike, bike ride, or cross country ski to go with the picnic. Consult with the Outing Club: Hanging Rock? Monumental Mountain? Broad Brook?

(8) Do the weekly Polar Bear Swim in the Green River with the Outing Club — the colder the better. Extra points if you have to break ice. Infinite extra points on the coolness and Ephness scales at your 50th if you did every swim for a whole academic year.

(9) Break your personal mold and do something wildly different for a Winter Study project (or if something wild enough is not available, design a 99).

(10) Take a Free University class.  Better yet, design and teach one.

(11) Invent a sandwich at Pappa C’s (if you are as lucky / creative as Margaret Howell ’96, you might even get your name in lights …. errr, wood).

(12) Make snow sculpture at Winter Carnival so sweet that people will still reminisce fifty years later.

(13) Practice uncomfortable learning, Gaudino style.

(14) Egg a curmudgeon on into doing something fun.

(15) Explore the steam tunnels.

(16) Stay out late drinking with a professor.

(17) Watch the sun rise on Easter morning from Petersburg Pass.

(18) Do a service trip during spring break.

(19) Sit on a stone bench in the cemetery in the middle of the night talking about life, the universe, and everything.

(20) Play in the rain.

(21) Waste three hours talking to every random acquaintance who comes into the snack bar.  Eat grilled honeybuns while doing so.

(22) Do the Pratt-to-Pratt run (a relay-style, early morning naked run from Williams to Amherst prior to an away football game).

(23) First-years: find out which of your classmates have never seen snow fall.  Throw them a snowperson building and snowball fight party when the first good snowfall comes.

(24) Do a WOOLF trip. Then become a WOOLF leader the next year and then a leader instructor/planner/equipment manager that.

(25) Surprise the whole campus with a well organized, clever prank.

(26) Design a witty Williams-themed t-shirt and donate the proceeds to a local charity.

(27) Write a post on Ephblog.  Or if too cool for that, start a discussion on WSO.

(28) Attend the Williamstown Film Festival at Images.

(29) Fall in love.

(30) Serve on the Junior Adviser Selection Committee.

(31) Take the most interesting conversationalist you know to Hopkins Forest, find a great log, split a six pack of beer, and relive the spirit of Mark Hopkins.

(32) Plan a really cool event at The Log that will get the campus excited about this underutilized venue.

(33) DJ at WCFM, or else hang with your friends when they DJ — especially late at night when hardly anyone is listening and you can do and say anything.

(34) Partake in KAOS.

(35) Attend an event thrown by a cultural group from outside your own background, such as the Moon Festival.

(36) Go to a Williams-student cooked Sabbath dinner at the JRC.

(37) Perform in something you’ve never tried before (a student-directed play, one of the singing / dance groups, etc.).

(38) Invite a professor for a drink at your coop / dorm (or think of another creative way to get to know professors, and get funding from the college to do so).

(39) Drop by office hours to learn how a professor got interested in his/her field.

(40) Stand outside late at night and listen to the silence when it snows.

(41) Tour the various old frat houses and check out all of their “secret” rooms.  (Personal favorite: the Perry goat room …).

(42) Check out the witty and whimsical tombstone inscriptions in the Williams College Cemetery that supposedly gave rise to the comment of a philosophy professor that “they make you worry that faculty meetings never end.”  Two markers of particular note: Michael Davitt Bell’s, and the backside of S. Lane Faison’s.

(43) Play beach volleyball behind Perry House.

(44) Explore the ruins of the Chapin Hall organ.

(45) Buy a Lindt chocolate bar at Hart’s and then spend the evening eating it while reading old magazines in the library stacks (one favorite was Esquire from the 1930’s, but you could do Life in the 1950’s, Time in the 1960’s, etc.).

(46) Take a walk around the non-Spring Street parts of town.  Start with the Cole Avenue area and eat breakfast at Leo’s Luncheonette.

(47) Get to know locals over a drink at the American Legion, Water Street Grill, the 6 House Pub, the Red Herring, or a breakfast at Leo’s (this one’s for you, PTC!).

(48) Volunteer locally.  Some good options: a local school, the Williamstown Youth Center, the Berkshire Food Pantry, Sweetbrook, or the Williamstown Commons.

(49) Read the Alumni review from 10, 25 or 50 years ago and compare it to life at Williams now.

(50) Find random, old-school Williams gear on ebay, impress friends with unique suite decor.

(51) Visit the Williamstown Public Library and the House of Local History.

(52) Get to know someone at the CDE, have lunch with them and their colleagues.

(53) Go to Sawyer Library and find out who certain houses are named for and why.

(54) Go to Pub lunch in the middle of the week in the sunshine and then attempt your afternoon class while slightly altered. (When the Purple Pub finally re-opens…).

(55) Find your way to the Preston Room in the basement of Stetson at night and tell ghost stories.

(56) Attend any event in the old lecture room in Griffin 3 (I think I have that number right) as the late afternoon sun filters in.

(57) Sunbathe on Chapin Beach.

(58) Check out the Williamsiana collection in Chapin Library.

(59) Play snowball tag in the quad of your choice.

(60) Check the performing arts calendar at MassMoca and check out something off the beaten track (while you are there, be sure to check out the Saul Lewitt exhibit, which is sure to impress ANY visitor from out of town).

(61) Play frisbee golf on campus / on the Taconic.

(62) Predict Mountain Day and go for a sunrise hike. At the top of Stone Hill, you can even hear the bells play “The Mountains” as the Sun is coming up.

(63) Visit a local swimming hole, in particular, the Tubs.

(64) Design a creative, original prank for a Williams-Amherst sporting event that will be remembered fondly for years.

And finally, do something certainly iconoclastic, foreseeably not to be permitted by the College for mention on any of its silly ass, sanitary posters and also probably immature and foolish, of which all or almost all of those of authority in your life would strongly disapprove!


Throw Back Thursday: Private Phones Arrive at Williams

In the pre cell-phone days, Williams College students reached their fellow Ephs by dialing their dorm rooms — often from outdoor phone boxes like the one pictured above.

That began fifty years ago this week, when the class of ’69 arrived on campus and benefited from the newest technological improvement to freshmen entries: dorm room phones. Prior to 1965, each entry had a shared phone, but over the summer of 1965, the College spent several thousand dollars to install private phones in every freshmen dorm room, and began charging students $5.28/month for phone service.

As College Business Manager Shane Riorden explained to the Record, the College heoped to “get students used to ‘accepting the responsibility of a private phone’ by introducing the students to them as freshmen.”

All of a sudden, calling up that Vassar student you met at a recent mixer became a much more private affair!


Repost: Things the Williams Freshmen Should Know

Another entry the Class of 2019 should review, from EphBlog’s “Advice to Undergraduates.”

(Original here).


I went back

All that I remember about the day I arrived on campus eighteen years ago this August was that it was hot and that I was not looking forward to two-a-days. Like pretty much every incoming freshmen at pretty much every school, I’m sure I was a volatile mix of anticipation, fear, excitement and a few dozen other emotions endemic to teenagers. But mostly what I remember was that it was hot.

One thing I’m sure of, however, is that there was no note waiting for me from my future self. It’s not clear to me even now that I would have been any more willing to listen to an older version of me than I was, say, my parents. Not listening to anyone is a seventeen year old’s prerogative, I suppose, for better and for worse. Mostly for worse. Whether such a missive would have helped or not, however, it certainly couldn’t have made things worse. My initial year in the Purple Valley was…not strong.

Nothing in my brief history up to that point had prepared me for my performance, which bore an unfortunate resemblance to a slow-moving car crash. I failed. Repeatedly. Even in my strong subjects. I turned things around academically midway through my sophomore year, but my GPA never really recovered from the beating it absorbed prior. Not that that has mattered much, professionally: apart from your first job or graduate school, your grades won’t come up much. Like most Williams students, however, I’m competitive, and I wish that my performance more accurately reflected my abilities, rather than the life lessons I had yet to learn. Lessons that my future self could have passed on to me, were such things possible.

Sadly, they are not. But for you new people, I offer the following with no warranty whatsoever. Mystical wisdom, it is not. These are just a few of the things I wish someone had told me, and which I in turn thought I would offer to you now. As my good friend Sean Bowler ’98, who was taken from us all far too early, did for his students when he said farewell at Salisbury, I will try and keep it short.

And will, predictably, fail.

There is Always Someone Better Than You

This one was easy for me, because I was never King of the Hill in the classroom or on the field of play. It was quite obviously an adjustment for a few of my classmates, however. Accustomed to being the big fish in the small ponds they hailed from, it was jarring for some of them to be second best, or just as often, third or fourth. But that’s what going to a place like Williams is all about. In that one aspect, at least, the campus is exactly like the real world. With the exception of a very small number of us, there’s always going to be someone who’s smarter than you. Or a better athlete. Maybe both.

Where you can’t change this through hard work, you need to acknowledge the situation and then find ways to compete. Because that’s life. The playing field isn’t always going to be even. Or fair. But neither do the best and brightest always win. Show some adaptability and you’ll be fine.

Cole Field Really is the Coldest Place on Earth

If you play sports or go there to watch them, you will think this at some point. Whatever they may teach you at Williams about climate change and meteorology, Cole Field is likely to be, at any given point in time, the single coldest place on earth. It can be pushing a hundred on campus, but down at Cole there will be woolly mammoths walking around, as one of my coaches memorably put it. Prepare all you want; there’s nothing you can do. We tried everything, from long underwear to those awful, burning chemical heating packets, and we still froze. As you will.

There’s nothing I can say to help you here; I just wanted to be able to say I told you so.

It’s Not How You Start, It’s How You Finish

Looking back, it’s borderline shocking that I recovered as much as I did academically, given how horrifying my grades were that first year. And, it must be said, my first semester as a sophomore. But while I accept full responsibility for getting myself into that mess, the credit for my recovery belongs entirely to someone else. Part of it was reducing my athletic workload – and the related social calendar – from one sport to two, part of it was a few significant changes in my social life, but the man who more or less singlehandedly salvaged my tenure at Williams was Professor Thomas Kohut.

Just trust me on this: it is not easy to pick a major when you’re barely holding your head above water in all subjects. How can you ask a professor to be your advisor, when you both know you’re failing? When your professors look on you with a mixture of disdain and disappointment? Not that I blame those who did: I deserved that scorn. Fortunately for me, however, there was one exception. Professor Kohut, for motives of his own, spoke to me honestly but not unkindly. Better, he threw me the rope I desperately needed, agreeing to serve as my advisor. With that came a direct and frank appraisal of where I was failing, and what I needed to correct. Instead of writing me off as a lost cause, he took the time to sit and speak with me about his own experiences, and how he thought that I might improve. It may well have been the first time in my academic career that someone treated me as an adult, one reason it was easy to listen.

His opinion – subsequently confirmed – was that I needed smaller, more interactive classes to hold my interest. The difficulty of the material was not, for the most part, my problem; it was rather my engagement with same. Professor Kohut’s recommendation was simple: I was to take smaller classes on subjects that held some interest for me with professors that would care whether or not I was in class. So what I would tell you, Future Williams Graduate, class of 2014, is this: do not write yourself off. You may think, at times, that you’re an idiot, but the folks that run admissions are most certainly not. If you got in, you can do the work. We all make mistakes, it’s how you recover from them that matters. Seek out the professors that understand this and genuinely care – Kohut and Shanti Singham were two of the best I encountered – and stick to them like glue.

It worked for me.

You Need Math, Especially If You Think You Don’t Need Math

One of the worst things to happen to me at Williams was actually a test I passed. According to the Quantitative Skills Assessment, I had satisfactory math skills and thus was obligated to take exactly zero math courses. Which I promptly did. In retrospect, this was a mistake.

This isn’t about the rise of or Freakonomics. Or at least not entirely. You may never face that time your elementary school teachers warned you about, where the ability to solve a quadratic equation is a life or death affair. But it’s a safe bet that whatever your chosen occupation – brewer, entrepreneur, author, real estate agent, chef, artist, teacher, or, yes, I-banker – the ability to do math is going to be of benefit.

Businesses – most of them, these days – are increasingly about numbers. Whether you think this is a positive or negative development doesn’t, I’m sorry to say, matter much. They’ll go on without you. The fact is that industries that ran themselves for years on intuition and tradition are increasingly functions of algorithms. Baseball is Exhibit A in that department. This means that math, and its first cousins statistics and economics – should be staples of your Williams education. I took neither, largely because I had no idea they would be so important later, and I’m still paying the price.

There’s a reason I had to go and take a statistics course this past spring, and that reason is that I was dumb. Don’t be like me. Take some math.

There Are Lots of Things You Can Do Besides Consulting and Investment Banking

Unless things have changed radically at Williams, you may not realize this, as it’s basically those two industries interviewing on campus. This is not to say, please note, that there’s anything wrong with either profession. I myself was a consultant, and my brother – a Bowdoin grad – was an investment banker, and we’ve done all right. Both professions are, if nothing else, excellent training for jobs that you’ll have later in life, as they can teach you quite a bit about how businesses are run and how they are run into the ground.

It’s important to remember that if you don’t talk with one of the I-banking/consulting firms coming to interview, there are a host of things you can do with yourself. The entirety of which, obviously, I can’t cover here. But look around, and think not just about what you think you should do, but what you want to do.

Beirut is No Substitute for Beer Pong

I understand that they’ve outlawed Beer Pong on campus, and that Beirut – a distinctly inferior game – is ascendant. This is sad, because a better drinking game than Beer Pong has yet to be invented. There was a time when the Slippery B – if it’s even still called that – was the Beer Pong capital of this country. It’s depressing that those days are behind us, and that that elegant game from a more civilized age has faded from the average student’s memory.

The People You Meet Matter

Later, when you consider going to business school, and I’d wager that a lot of you will entertain the notion at some point, one of the Pro’s you write down to weigh the decision will be “networking.” Which is legitimate. Of the friends and former classmates that I know who’ve gone for their MBAs, networking has been at least 50% of the reasoning for shelling out the money and losing the years.

The same principle, though you may not have realized it yet, applies to your Williams education. Maybe you don’t meet the next Mark Zuckerberg, or, in our case, the next Bo Peabody, but given that you’re going to be on campus for four years with some aggressively bright and talented people, you might want to meet a few. Or at least remember who they are, so when you read about them later, you can comment knowledgeably.

Question Everything

I’ll be the first to admit that as a history major, I should have adopted Euripides‘ mantra – “question everything” – far sooner than I did. Nevertheless, you now have the opportunity to grasp this important lesson at a much more profitable age than I.

One of the things you learn as you go along, you see, is that everyone is wrong all the time. We jump to the wrong conclusions, we misread the available data, and sometimes we just want to believe something that’s not true. But when you’re younger, it’s natural to assume that at least the folks older than you – your parents, your professors, even the seniors – have the answers. They don’t.

Sometimes, of course, yours is not to reason why. Socrates questioned everything, after all, and ended up dining on a hemlock milkshake. But where it’s practicable – and particularly where conventional wisdom is concerned – do not forget to employ your critical thinking. Too many do these days; just watch the news.

Learn Everything You Can About Everything

Someone wants to teach you how to knit, gentlemen? Learn. Seriously, I’m not joking. You never know when the ability to knit will come in handy; a good friend of mine was wooed, at least in part, by a knit hat from her now boyfriend. Pick up anything and everything you can. Parkour. Frisbee. Guitar. Japanese. Learn to drive a stick. Whatever. You’re going to be around people who know a great many things you don’t, and even if you don’t master them, you never know when the exposure will be useful later in life.

More to the point, unless you retire early, you’re not likely to have another period in your life where your primary mission in life is to learn. Later, you’ll be distracted by reunions, work, a family, and thousands of weddings. Even if you don’t think you know that many people.

Save Your Papers

The good ones, anyway. Mine are now lost to history, unless they turn up when my parents move. This is not exactly a major loss for history, but there are those that I’d like to have back, if only to reflect on how, even then, I could never use one word when I could use five.

Winter Study is Just as Awesome as it Sounds

When else in your life, after all, are you going to be able to take a course on “Auto Mechanics?” And have it be the only course you’re responsible for? Exactly. Winter study is what college should be. With the exception of the one year a classmate and I spent freezing to death behind the Clark Art Museum hunting for turkeys that were clearly smarter than us, winter study was uniformly outstanding.

College is About More Than the Classroom

The administration probably isn’t going to put me in the Alumni Review for saying this, but this is for you, freshpeople, not them, so remember: there is more to life than class. No, you shouldn’t cut all your classes. Or even some of your classes. Take advantage of the education, because it’s the best you will ever get. And it’s certainly the last undergrad experience you’ll have. But that undergrad experience is also about learning how to live your life outside the classroom, and that portion of it shouldn’t be neglected. Enjoy your friends, your boyfriends and girlfriends, your teammates. Because the time when you all live together, too, shall pass.

I remember playing home run derby down on the women’s softball field with my best friend on a beautiful spring day my senior year as much as I remember any single class I ever took. And there were some memorable ones, believe me.

Reach Out to Alums

Here’s a secret that probably no one will think to tell you: alums love hearing from students. I remember sitting at a table in the OCC as a senior with no idea what I would be doing the following year, leafing through binders of probably out-of-date contact forms for alumni. What could be more intimidating than presuming on the mere shared experience of a Williams education, contacting someone you’ve never met for help?

Logical as that sentiment may be, however, I can assure you that it is misplaced. I have yet to meet an alum who isn’t happy to help a fellow Williams student, myself included. Perhaps it’s a failure on my part, but I speak to far, far too few students. Want to know what it’s like to work in technology? How to go about getting a job? What kinds of things employers are looking for in new hires? I can help, and so can the other alums. There’s an Eph in every industry.

Don’t be shy: I’m not hard to find.

Do What You Love

Life is short. You’ve likely heard that a few thousand times, and at this point in your life that phrase will have effectively no meaning. That’s fine. If you can tentatively accept it as true, however, it’ll make some of your more important decisions easier. Many of you will embark on careers that will make you miserable because of the hours, the content, or both. And there’s nothing wrong with that for a few years; paying your dues is a necessary part of the process in a great many industries. But if you are still unhappy years later, remember what you’ve been told: life is short. Do you want to spend it doing work you hate, or would you prefer to work on something that you enjoy?

That question is easier to answer, obviously, than execute. It’s hard to get paid to do what you love. Paul Graham believes – and I happen to agree – that there are two primary approaches to this:

The organic route: as you become more eminent, gradually to increase the parts of your job that you like at the expense of those you don’t.

The two-job route: to work at things you don’t like to get money to work on things you do.

Which one of those works for you will – assuming that the idea of doing something you love appeals to you – will depend on your passion and your priorities. Being a starving artist sounds romantic until you’re actually starving.

Eventually, however, you will get to a point in your life where you’ll look back on what you’ve accomplished and reflect. If you’ve been punching the clock for ten years, that’s not going to be a fun conversation to have with yourself, so my advice is work on things that matter. Whatever those might be for you.

You Will Miss Williams

I know. Every alum says this. But that, by itself, should tell you something.

Enjoy your next four years. Like life, you’ll only get one crack at it.


Williams & The Civil War: The Wrong Side, Part 4

One of a series of posts, as explained in “Williams & the Civil War: The Wrong Side – Introduction“:

At long last, 150 years after the Union prevailed “with a brave army, and a just cause” in the American Civil War, one of the most visible remaining markers of that conflict is on everyone’s lips and coming down…

Williams College, and most Ephs, reflect on the Civil War through a Union lens — correctly so, from both a moral and historical perspective… [s]o let’s use this occasion to learn more from and about Ephs on the subject of the Civil War and especially on the other side: the Confederacy.

James Garfield, Class of 1856, is necessarily a lodestar in any understanding of the Civil War from an Eph perspective. Not only because Garfield remains the only Eph to attain the White House. Rather, as an abolitionist and politician even before secession, he foresaw the war, fought in the war, and helped lead the re-United States in recover from the war. His insight and experience explains to us, as it did to his contemporaries, the nature of that conflict.

One of Garfield’s most thorough discussions of the Civil War came in a speech to the House of Representatives on February 1, 1866, just six months after the surrender of the final Confederate general (Interesting historical note: that surrender was by Cherokee chief Degataga, English name Stand Watie, leader of the Cherokee Mounted Rifle Regiment, and the only Native American general on either side in the Civil War).

James A. Garfield, on “Restoration of the Rebel States”:

The Rebellion had its origin in two causes; first, the political theory of State Sovereignty, and second, the historical accident of American slavery. The doctrine of State Sovereignty, or State Rights as it has been more mildly designated, was first publicly announced in the Virginia Resolutions of 1798, but was more fully elaborated and enforced by Calhoun in 1830 and 1833. Since that time it has been acknowledged as a fundamental principle in the creed of the Democratic party, and has been affirmed and reaffirmed in some form in nearly all its State and national platforms for the last thirty years.

That doctrine, as stated by Calhoun in 1833, is in substance this: “The Constitution of the United States is a compact to which the people of each State acceded as a separate and sovereign community; therefore it has an equal right to judge for itself as well of the infraction as of the mode and measure of redress.”

The same party identified itself with the interests of American slavery, and, lifting from it the great weight of odium which the fathers of the republic had laid upon it, became its champion and advocate. When the party of freedom had awakened the conscience of the nation, and had gained such strength as to show the Democracy that slavery was forever checked in its progress, and that its ultimate extinction by legislative authority was foredoomed, the Democratic leaders of the South joined in a mad conspiracy to save and perpetuate slavery by destroying the Union.

In the name of State Sovereignty they declared that secession was a constitutional right, and they resolved to enforce it by arms. They declared that, as the Constitution to which each State in its sovereign capacity acceded created no common judge to which a matter of difference could be referred, each State might also in its sovereign capacity secede from the compact, might dissolve the Union, might annihilate the republic. The Democracy of eleven slave States undertook the work. As far as possible, they severed every tie that bound them to the Union.

They withdrew their representatives from every department of the Federal government; they seized all the Federal property within the limits of their States; they abolished all the Federal courts and every other vestige of Federal authority within their reach; they changed all their State constitutions, transferring their allegiance to a government of their own creation, styled the “Confederate States of America”; they assumed sovereign power, and, gathering up every possible element of force, assailed the Union…

Garfield’s remarks on the causes of the Civil War were the mere introduction to his powerful assault on then-President Andrew Johnson, who had quickly revealed himself to be openly hostile to federal action to establish civil rights and a free society in the post-war South. For example, Johnson insisted that voting rights (for freed slaves and others) should be a matter determined by each state individually. He quickly provided amnesty for most southerners, except the wealthiest propertyholders. And he encouraged Congress to seat among its ranks former Confederate leaders, include former second-in-command Alexander Stephens. Garfield was one of the leading voices of outrage:

The Democratic party is composed of all who conspired to destroy the republic, and of all those who fought to make treason triumphant. It broke ten thousand oaths, and to its perjury added murder, starvation, and assassination.

It declared through its mouthpieces in Ohio, in 1861, that if the Union men of Ohio should ever attempt to enter a Southern State to suppress the Rebellion by arms, they must first pass over the dead bodies of two hundred thousand Ohio Democrats.

In the mid-fury of the struggle it declared the war a failure, and demanded a cessation of hostilities. In the Democratic party is enrolled every man who led a Rebel army or voluntarily carried a Rebel musket; every man who resisted the draft, who called the Union soldiers “Lincoln’s hirelings,” “negro worshippers,” or any other vile name. Booth, Wirz, Harold, and Payne were Democrats. Every Rebel guerilla and jayhawker, every man who ran to Canada to avoid the draft, every bounty-jumper, every deserter, every cowardly sneak that ran from danger and disgraced his flag, every man who loves slavery and hates liberty, every man who helped massacre loyal negroes at Fort Pillow, or loyal whites at New Orleans, every Knight of the Golden Circle, every incendiary who helped burn Northern steamboats and Northern hotels, and every villain, of whatever name or crime, who loves power more than justice, slavery more than freedom, is a Democrat and an indorser of Andrew Johnson.


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