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Biology Requirement for WGS?

This fascinating history of free speech on campus includes an interesting side note:

In designing any women’s studies program, for example, surely a basic requirement for students should be at least one course in basic biology, so that the role of hormones in human development could be investigated — and rejected, if necessary. But no, both women’s studies and later gender studies evolved without reference to science and have thus ensured that their ideology remains partisan and one-dimensional, stressing the social construction of gender. Any other view is regarded as heresy and virtually never presented to students even as an alternative hypothesis.

1) At Williams, the current name of women’s studies is “Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.”

Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) is an interdisciplinary program designed to encourage students to focus critically on gender and sexuality. Many of our courses investigate how assumptions about gender and/or sexuality operate in society, shaping feminine, masculine, transgender, gay, lesbian, bisexual and queer identities, and how they influence social and political structures. Integral to the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies is the idea of intersectionality- that (amongst other axes of identification) race, ethnicity, class, ability, nationality, and religion are important factors in the any critical understanding of gender and sexuality.

WGSS has existed in some form at Williams for over 30 years. Women’s Studies was formalized into a program in 1983, and name changes over the years have reflected increasing attention in the interdisciplinary field to issues of gender and sexuality studies. We have offered a major since 2002, and have graduated over 300 majors and concentrators since the program was established.

How many name changes have there been? I recall a conversation with a Williams administrator who made fun of WGSS for this schizophrenia.

2) Is there a direct correlation between the rigor of an academic field (or Williams major) and the number of required courses?

The major consists of at least 9 courses. The following are required:

Introduction to Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS 101)
Junior/Senior Seminar in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies

3) I see nothing in the course descriptions (pdf) that teaches anything related to “basic biology.” Has there ever been such a course in WGSS? I doubt it. Do you think there should be? I do!

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A Minor Problem II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A Minor Problem I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Every Eph a Teacher

What is the cheapest way to expand the number of classes that Williams offers? Encourage the many non-faculty members to offer courses in their areas of expertise, first during Winter Study and then, perhaps later, during the regular semester.

As a concrete example, consider longtime friend of EphBlog justin adkins, Assistant Director, Gender, Sexuality and Activism at the Davis Center. justin, using a syllabus along these lines, could give a wonderful course on racial justice next January. It might not be the most popular class during Winter Study, but I have no doubt that a dozen or so students would sign up and have a great experience.

But justin is just one among many Eph administrators who could teach Winter Study classes in their areas of expertise. How about Meg Bossong ’05 on sexual assault or Chris Winters ’95 on data analysis and higher education? None of these folks should be forced to teach a class, of course. But I bet that the vast majority, and a dozen or more others, would jump at the chance if Adam Falk suggested it. Recommended slogan:

Every Eph a Teacher

The benefits of such a program are almost too numerous to mention. There might be some pushback from the more guild-protecting members of the faculty, but nothing that could not be overcome, at least for Winter Study classes. Would any readers be against this idea?

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Grade Inflation

Grade inflation is a problem at Williams, one we have discussed many times in the past. Start here for a good introduction. The most annoying aspect of the debate is the refusal by Williams to make the data public, or at least available to students and alumni.

Here are the grade distributions at Middlebury.

midd

The average grade at Middlebury has increased from 3.32 to 3.53 in 11 years. How much higher will it go in the future?

Why can’t Williams be as transparent as Middlebury when it comes to this important topic?

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More Viewpoint Diversity

Got a New Year’s wish for Williams? Tell us in the comments! Mine is for more viewpoint diversity.

But something alarming has happened to the academy since the 1990s: it has been transformed from an institution that leans to the left, which is not a big problem, into an institution that is entirely on the left, which is a very big problem.

Nowadays there are NO conservatives or libertarians in most academic departments in the humanities and social sciences. The academy has been so focused on attaining diversity by race and gender (which are valuable) that it has created a hostile climate for people who think differently. The American Academy has become a politically orthodox and quasi-religious institution. When everyone shares the same politics and prejudices, the disconfirmation process breaks down. Political orthodoxy is particularly dangerous for the social sciences, which grapple with so many controversial topics (such as race, racism, gender, poverty, immigration, politics, and climate science). America needs innovative and trustworthy research on all these topics, but can a social science that lacks viewpoint diversity produce reliable findings?

Read the whole thing. I believe that there are no public “conservatives or libertarians” in any department at Williams outside of Division III. Counterexamples welcome!

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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!

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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 (mathriddles.williams.edu) 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 StarWars.com, 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?

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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.

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Williams Employs Adjuncts

For my sins, I should spend more time correcting all the nonsense that gets written on EphBlog. Latest is from dcat:

Williams does not have any adjuncts

Of course, Williams has “adjuncts,” as we already reviewed once here. But, for our slower readers, let’s go through it again.

Start with a standard definition for adjunct professor:

a professor employed by a college or university for a specific purpose or length of time and often part-time.

The primary distinction in academia is between those professors who are either already tenured (a majority of the Williams faculty) and junior professors on the tenure track — sometimes this overall group gets labeled as TTT — on one hand and everyone else on the other. The term “adjunct,” as above, is generally applied to everyone who is not TTT. Of course, not all schools use the “adjunct” label, since it, more and more, has a bit of a stench. But whether such jobs are labelled “adjunct” or “lecturer” or “professor of practice” or whatever, the substantive meaning is always the same. You are an employee, hired with a fixed term contract which the college does not have to renew.

Does Williams have adjuncts? Of course it does! Start with Winter Study. The official title for non-faculty members teaching a Winter Study is “Adjunct Instructor.” Given this fact, how can dcat deny that Williams has adjuncts?

But, perhaps more important that Winter Study, are the numerous lecturers that Williams hires. Consider some examples:

English: Senior Lecturers: BARRETT, CLEGHORN, PETHICA, K. SHEPARD. Lecturers: de GOOYER, PARK

Economics: Senior Lecturer: M. SAMSON

None of these teachers have tenure. None are on the tenure track. None have any more legal protections that professors that are officially labeled “adjunct” other institutions, or even than the Williams adjuncts who teach Winter Study classes.

Is this a problem? Not at all! I have no problem with Williams (or other schools) using adjuncts/lecturers/whatever. I believe that, if anything, Williams probably treats its adjuncts/lecturers better than other schools treat theirs. Williams certainly has a much higher percentage of TTT faculty teaching its students than most other institutions.

What I object to is the continuing refusal of people like dcat (and, from that prior thread, people like Adam Falk, Chad Orzel ’93, and crowther) to admit that Williams employs adjuncts.

Another way to see the madness of this claim is to re-word it. Instead of

Williams does not have any adjuncts

How about:

Williams does not have any non-tenured or non-tenure track faculty

Put more baldly, this is obviously false. The only defense that people like dcat/Falk/Orzel/crowther might offer is a claim that, because Williams adjuncts/lectures are treated so nicely, they should be thought of in the same category as TTT faculty, rather than in the nasty category of “adjunct,” a term which should be reserved for the poorly treated part-timers at other, lesser, schools. Perhaps!

But such a claim — that the status of Williams adjuncts/lecturers is, for most practical purposes, indistinguishable from the status of Williams TTT faculty — suggests that, even in a world in which Williams ended tenured, people like dcat would still be correct to claim that “Williams has no adjuncts.” At that seems crazy to me.

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SPEC 21 Experience in the Workplace

Most interesting change in the Williams curriculum over the last decade (other than the addition of the major in statistics)? Perhaps the rise of internships during Winter Study. See SPEC 21 Information Sessions: Experience in the Workplace: an Internship with Williams Alumni/Parents.

Over the years more and more Winter Study courses have been developed to help you understand and gain experience in the world of work. While these immersive experiences require intellectual reflection, research, and writing, they also have substantial field work components that offer wonderful opportunities to gain valuable insight into professional life.

See here for a listing of the available courses. There is a meeting today at 12:30 at OCC to discuss these offerings. Highly recommended! Comments:

1) I think that recently retired OCC Director John Noble was the leading force behind the increase in internships. Does anyone know the full story? Kudos to him! Internships during Winter Study are a great idea.

2) My understanding is that the faculty has been mostly negative to this change, fighting Noble (and others) over every increase, not considering the program to be “academic” enough for course credit. Any faculty member who would prevent students from doing meaningful internships during Winter Study does not really have the best interests of those students at heart.

3) Several EphBlog friends appear in that course listing, including Shamus Brady ’04, Reed M. Wiedower ’00 and David Kane ’88. All are highly recommended! Note, especially:

FINANCE, TECHNOLOGY AND WILLIAMS
WHO: David Kane ’88
David Kane is a quantitative portfolio manager in Boston. Over the last decade, he has hired more than 20 Williams summer interns and published several academic papers and R packages with Williams students and alumni. He has taught a Winter Study course in quantitative methods three times. He is a regular contributor to the Record op-ed page.
WHERE: Boston, MA
WHAT: Programming finance-related projects using R. Or working on some technology project related to Williams. Examples include major additions to the Williams Wikipedia page or significant enhancements to WSO.
APPLICATION REQUIREMENTS: Resume and cover letter. Please give examples of your work using R. If you do not already know R, this is not a good internship. Or a description of the Technology/Williams project you would like to pursue.

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Williams Continues Math Teaching Domination

Professor Devadoss, in a photo by the terrific Scott Barrow

Professor Devadoss, in a photo by the terrific Scott Barrow

The Williams College Mathematics Department is once again home to the Mathematical Association of America’s award-winning top teacher: the MAA has awarded Satyan Devadoss the Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award for Distinguished Teaching of Mathematics.

Five Williams professors have won the award previously: Frank Morgan (1993), Colin Adams (1998), Edward B. Burger (2001), Thomas Garrity (2004) and Susan Loepp (2012). As Professor Morgan explained in the College’s press release:

Devadoss has a visual style of teaching that often combines striking images and artwork with mathematics . . . His courses are also famously difficult, and despite that—or perhaps because of it—the students love him.

Prof. Devadoss’s work linking math and art were featured in a Berlin gallery show this past spring.

In the grand tradition of Eph mathematicians, Prof. Devadoss has demonstrated himself a true master of the liberal arts, in both theory and in practice. As part of Williams College’s “What Sawyer Said” series, Prof. Devadoss explained his view of the liberal arts philosophy:

My charge… is to guide, equip and shape our students to interpret and transform the world around them. And I am convinced this begins with the tearing down of academic walls, an intrinsic feature of the liberal arts education.

I am not deluded into thinking lives are transformed when my students understand the gradient of a function or the eigenvalue of a matrix. Nor am I arrogant in believing that mathematics alone holds the keys to unlocking the future. A true liberal arts education equips us not only to understand mathematical form and structure but also to craft a thoughtful essay, to appreciate a performance or painting, to juggle molecules and matter and, dare I say, to compete on the athletic field. Indeed, the extraordinary gift offered by the liberal arts is the ability to reasonably converse in the languages of all disciplines—to focus on ideas across categories and not just the particulars of one.

Prof. Devadoss has demonstrated this approach in tutorials such as Origami (Math 347) and Phylogenetics (Math 357), and for those who have graduated already, in “The Shape of Nature,” a 36-lecture video course available for streaming, download, and on DVD (sorry, not available in tutorial).

And Prof. Devadoss is also a brilliant photographer who has shared amazing works on his Flickr account. Here’s one of Hopkins Hall:
Hopkins Hall Fall

(Actually, I think many of the other photos Prof. Devadoss has shared on Flickr are superior — but this is EphBlog, and we prefer to feature photos of the College and Ephs). Maybe a future post can highlight some other favorites.

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Evidence: Small College and Science

In a recent EphBlog post, David challenged the conclusion of Eph physicist Chad Orzel ’93 that “Small Colleges are Great for Science Students.” In the post, he asked:

As always, you should think like a statistician. Take 100 high school seniors interested in getting a science Ph.D. Randomly select 50 to attend places like Union/Williams and 50 to attend research universities. Which group will do better in graduate school admissions? Probably (contrary opinions welcome!) the ones who attend research universities…

Sounds terrific. But what if we don’t want to wait half a decade or more for the results? (Just because we can measure the speed of light doesn’t mean every conceivable experiment is a feasible one!).

Let’s look to numbers we do have. Orzel made an effort to do so, highlighting that 1%-1.5% of the attendees at the “research conference in my field” are from Williams. (Question for Orzel: are you submitting those Eph alumni photos you take to the alumni review? Or to EphBlog? We’d love to see them).

According to the Williams College Department of Physics home page, Williams averages about 17 physics and astrophysics majors each year. According to the American Physical Society, the number of undergraduate physics majors in the U.S. since 1980 has averaged somewhere around 5,000 per year. A crude, back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that Ephs are significantly overrepresented at Orzel’s conferences, rather than underrepresented, as David would suppose.

The American Physical Society also gives out an annual award to the two top undergraduate physics students in the United States: the LeRoy Apker Award. In the last two decades, it’s been given to just over 40 students nationwide, 42 in total (in two years, three students received awards). 4 of those 42 were at Williams, including current Assistant Professor of Physics Charlie Doret ’02. Harvard? Only two, and physics is a *strong* department at Harvard in terms of the commitment of faculty to teaching undergraduates (the physics faculty there repeatedly win the College’s award for undergraduate teaching).

Assistant Professor of Physics Charlie Doret '02 as an undergraduate researcher, from the Williams Physics website

Assistant Professor of Physics Charlie Doret '02 as an undergraduate researcher, from the Williams Physics website

Now, the Apker Award doesn’t necessarily speak to the strength of liberal arts students vs. research university students, because the Apker Award rules say:

Two awards may be presented each year, one to a student from a Ph. D. granting institution and one to a student from a non-Ph. D. granting institution.

But it does highlight the advantage of attending a non research university: access to this separate, smaller, pool of candidates for this award. Your odds are better at Williams.

There are other statistics available, that would be great to quantify on a broader scale. For example, the 2013-14 Report of Science at Williams College states that Williams hits well above its weight in National Science Foundation fellowships:

Williams has ranked first among predominantly undergraduate institutions in students receiving NSF pre-doctoral fellowships, averaging about seven per year over the past ten years.

That’s out of approximately 200 math and science majors. In 2015, Harvard had 37 NSF fellowships (data here), and a perusal of Harvard’s data on fields of concentration in its Undergraduate Handbook suggests that’s from a pool of about 1450 science undergraduates. Odds of an NSF Fellowship as a science major at Williams: 30:1. Odds at Harvard: 40:1. Advantage: Williams.

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Predicting Academic Performance via Smart Phone

A group of Dartmouth computer science faculty and students have been using a smartphone app to track student behavior and predict their academic performance:

The StudentLife app that ran on students’ phones automatically measured the following human behaviors 24/7 without any user interaction:
•bed time, wake up time and sleep duration
•the number of conversations and duration of each conversation per day
•physical activity (walking, sitting, running, standing)
•where they were located and who long they stayed there (i.e., dorm, class, party, gym)
•the number of people around a student through the day
•outdoor and indoor (in campus buildings) mobility
•stress level through the day, across the week and term
•positive affect (how good they felt about themselves)
•eating habits (where and when they ate)
•app usage
•in-situ comments on campus and national events: dimension protest, cancelled classes; Boston bombing.

The collected data provides a number of insights into the lives of Dartmouth students — results that I think would be paralleled if a similar study were performed on Williams students. Attracting the most attention (e.g., this NPR story) so far are their findings (both surprising and unsurprising) about GPA, published in “SmartGPA: How Smartphones Can Assess and Predict Academic Performance of College Students,” and to be presented at an upcoming academic conference on ubiquitous computing:

our results suggest that students who change their night time socializing durations later in the term performed better, compared to those who change their night time socializing earlier in the term. Additionally, students who decrease their evening socializing durations during the term perform better, compared to students who increase their evening socializing durations during the term. We suspect that these students may be preparing for their examinations and focusing on other tasks during the evening (e.g., studying), which could contribute to the observed decreases in ambient conversation duration…

[S]tudents with longer average study durations had higher GPAs at the end of the term, compared to students with shorter study durations. This finding is consistent
with research that found academic-related skills (e.g., study skills and habits) to be associated with higher GPAs. Our results extend this work by going beyond self-reported
study habits to show that unobtrusively measured studying habits (e.g., via WiFi and GPS) can also predict student performance. In contrast to previous research, we did not find class attendance to be a significant predictor of performance, and we did not observe simple correlations between class attendance and GPAs as other studies have suggested.

This study has significant limits — the data set is 30 students, over a 10-week period, and the paper doesn’t describe how those students were recruited, and may or may not suffer from problems related to participants’ awareness that their smart phones were tracking their movements, conversations, etc. Yet it’s interesting and novel research that I hope to look at more closely in the future.

If smart phone tracking of student behavior can be used to predict the likelihood of academic success, might Williams and other schools wrestling with how to help at-risk students succeed find a way to use such tracking in real-time? Students would have to be willing to surrender their privacy, but being able to detect changes in behavior and activity for at-risk students could enable early interventions by a support structure, whether peer-based or institutional, that could yield tremendous benefits.

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To read, or not to read…

The Washington Post highlights a new study from the American Coucil of Trustees and Alumni on the absence of a Shakespeare requirement from the English Major at numerous top colleges.  Of 52 top national universities and liberal arts colleges reviewed, only 4 — including Harvard, but not Williams — required English majors to study Shakespeare as a requirement of completing the major.

Chairs of the English departments at Williams, Amherst, Swarthmore, and Yale were given space to respond. Prof. John Limon noted that he personally recommends to his advisees that they take at least one Shakespeare class, and emphasized the breadth of Williams’s offerings and requirements.

 we do have more courses devoted to Shakespeare than any other single author — usually four a year. In addition, we have a literary history requirement of one course before 1800 and another course before 1900…

And there are students who can make good use of the English major for all sorts of purposes, which lead them in many directions but not to a course in Shakespeare [e.g., techniques of cultural analysis]… That may be bad in several ways, but it does not invalidate that use if the major.

Compare the response by Geoffrey Sanborn,  Amherst’s English chair:

Sanborn said it’s important to remember that English is about more than its canon… we conceive of literature as a basic form of expression that’s taken as wild variety of forms, in a range of cultures and across time… We’re trying to create lifelong, engaged, animated readers … [and we] trust students to be adult enough to choose, with help from their advisers, a path through the college.”

57% of the 266 Amherst English grads have taken a Shakespeare course. I wonder what the comparable number, not provided, is for Williams.

Although both chairs raise the “bit we have advisers to steer them” trope, I favor Prof. Limon’s response, which seems more engaged with what makes an English major distinctive in a liberal arts curriculum.  And the authors of the study — who undoubtedly place a high value on the literary canon, are highlighting a very crude statistic. After all, if a student can satisfy a Shakespeare requirement with some course like “Reimagining Shakespeare as a Crypto-Anarchist,” or some such thing, does it really mater that it’s a requirement?

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Predicting Matriculation

Here (pdf) is the academic paper which came out of Peter Nurnberg’s ’09 thesis.

This paper provides an econometric analysis of the matriculation decisions made by students accepted to Williams College, one of the nation’s most highly selective colleges and universities. Using data for the Williams classes of 2008 through 2012 to estimate a yield model, we find that—conditional on the student applying to and being accepted by Williams—applicant quality as measured by standardized tests, high school GPA and the like, the net price a particular student faces (the sticker price minus institutional financial aid), the applicant’s race and geographic origin, plus the student’s artistic, athletic and academic interests, are strong predictors of whether or not the student will matriculate.

1) Kudos to Nurnberg for doing some excellent work. All thesis students should aspire to publish their work in an academic journal. Kudos also to Nurnberg’s advisors: Morton Schapiro and David Zimmerman.

2) Brickbacks to Nurnberg (or should it really be to Schapiro and Zimmerman) for not making the full text of Nurnberg’s thesis available on line. (Prior discussion here.)

3) Want your economics and statistics thesis to be equally successful? Then write about Williams. Professor Steven Miller is eager to supervise thesis students (in math/stat) who want to analyze Williams data.

4) Should I spend a week or two going through the details of this paper? Reader requests are always welcome!

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Harvard or Williams or Princeton

Michelle Hernandez writes:

I would argue that attending a top college is not worthwhile because of the brand name of the institution, but rather because of the resources and opportunities for high level scholarship, access to top professors, alumni networking and motivated classmates. College is about the education, not the job one gets upon graduation.

Granted, matriculating at Harvard or Williams or Princeton will not automatically make you a scholar or lead you to high levels of introspection, but for a student who wants to study a particular academic field at a high level, the opportunities available at top tier colleges are unparalleled for those who are poised to take advantage of them . . .

True.

More importantly, every time the College appears in a phrase like “Harvard or Williams or Princeton,” the power of the Williams brand increases.

Not all graduates of elite colleges continue on to banking and business. Many apply to law school, medical schools and doctoral programs from these colleges. Williams College underscores that they have the highest acceptance rate to medical school of any college.

Really? Cool, if true. Where is the data?

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Study Viking

Here is an interesting presentation of the results/positioning of Viking, the wildly successful hedge fund run by Andreas Halvorsen ’86, Williams trustee and billionaire.

viking

See the link for more details. Comments:

1) The Eph Business Association (EBA) ought to do a better job of forging connections between Williams students and prominent alumni like Halvorsen. (By the way, having talked to some of their leaders, I can confirm that the EBA is an impressive organization. Students with any interest in finance/business ought to join.) One way would be to have a small group that followed each major Eph firm and commented on their public material. EphBlog would be eager to host such a group here.

2) There is a great thesis to be written, in either economics or history, about the rise of Viking, an interesting story in-and-of-itself but also emblematic of the changing landscape of finance over the last 25 years.

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Winter Study, Lego Bricks, Williams and Beyond

I’m a professor in the Math/Stats department, and for the second year in a row I’ve taught Math 12, The Mathematics of Lego Bricks, as a winter study. While we used Lego bricks as a springboard to talk about a lot of interesting math (the lectures and additional comments are available here), the main goal was to successfully build the 3152 piece Superstar Destroyer in under 10 minutes. It was an interesting challenge to divide the work among all the students, and a great way to explore issues in teamwork, efficiency, authority and responsibility, all of which will be useful to students after Williams.

After just missing last year (with a world record best time of 10:21, which was still fast enough to be adding more than 5 bricks per second), we succeeded this year, assembling the Superstar Destroyer in 8:47. One of the items I love most about Williams is how well this place does at building ties between different parts of the community (faculty, staff, students, Williamstown and beyond); our final time for everything was 9:13, as we outsourced building the minifigs to a consortium of elementary school kids (while this increased our time a bit, it was in the spirit of the event and fortunately didn’t cause us to miss our goal!).

Many thanks to all who came to the ’62 Center to cheer us on, and to all the organizations on campus that helped fund the class (including Dining Services, DRFC, EComm, the Alderaan Preservation Society, the Neighborhoods, Williams College, …). Below are some stories on the event.

We’re planning several related events in the future; possibilities include some at WCMA (including possibly a LEGO Chopped, inspired by The Food Network Show), and perhaps a joint Winter Study / Adventures in Learning with the Williamstown Elementary School next year. If you’re interested in either coming to or helping with such events, please email me at sjm1@williams.edu.

"EAG-L-LEGO" groupphoto

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Why Liberal Arts?

Why Liberal Arts? is a Tumblr set up by Williams to discuss the importance of a liberal arts education. It grew out of conversations last year in the Committee on Educational Policy.

At first glance, the material is too sad and embarrassing to spend much time on. Or should I devote two weeks to dissecting it? What do readers want?

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Black Male Graduation Rate Around 90%

Thanks to the wonderful Director of Institutional Research Courtney Wade, we have some better context for yesterday’s discussion of a black male graduation rate of below 70% at Williams.

Your hypothesis that these numbers are based on a small sample size is correct. Keep in mind that IPEDS race and ethnicity categories changed several years back. Under current IPEDS definitions, “Black or African American” excludes people who identify as both Black and Hispanic (they are counted as Hispanic), or Black and any other race (they count as “Two or more races”).

The numbers I’m discussing here are available publicly through the IPEDS data center, which is very data rich, but can be very challenging to navigate.

In the Fall 2006 incoming cohort, we only had 13 Black or African American men, using this definition. Nine of them graduated within 6 years, yielding the 69% graduation rate College Results Online is reporting. Your other hypothesis, that this is likely a local low, is correct. The following year, for the Fall 2007 cohort (these data are available from the IPEDS data center), we reported that 16 of 18, or 89% of the cohort of Black or African American men graduated within 6 years, which is in line with historical averages. We haven’t yet submitted data for the Fall 2008 cohort.

The “ds” values you see on the Education Trust website for many schools stands for “data suppressed.” Their footnotes say that they suppress the data when the cohort includes fewer than 10 students. So it’s not that they’re not reporting the data, rather that College Results Online is suppressing the data.

Thanks to Wade for the clarifications! It is good to know that the 70% figure was a one-time outlier.

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Black Male Graduation Rate Below 70%

grad_rates

The gold standard for information about college graduation rates comes from IPEDS, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. Here is the page for Williams. Unfortunately, I have trouble getting race-by-sex data from this source. (Pointers welcome!) Fortunately, the Education Trust places that data (ultimately, from IPEDS, I assume) in an easier to use format here. This is the source for the screen shot above.

The 6-year graduation rate for black males from Williams College is below 70%.

Comments and questions:

1) Holy disparate impact, Uncle Ephraim! I found this number to be shockingly low. Are you surprised? I can’t find another elite school with such a horrible record.

2) I have never been sure about the exact meaning of this statistic. These students don’t graduate from Williams College in 6 years. But don’t at least some of them graduate from somewhere? If so, where and at what rates?

3) Shouldn’t this be a front page story in The Record?

4) I believe that this is data as of school year 2011-2012. So it is referring to students who started in the fall of 2006, i.e., members of the class of 2010.

5) Fortunately, the data is previous years looks better for Williams: class of 2009 (87%), 2008 (96%), 2007 (88%), 2006 (88%). But why would things get so much worse for the class of 2010? And how are things looking for recent graduating classes?

6) I am suspicious of this data for two reasons.

a) Although misleading the Feds is a bad idea, elite colleges have been painting the best possible picture for years. I am especially suspicious of the fact that many other elite liberal arts colleges fail to report any data at all.

b) There are very few (approximately 25?) African-American males in each Williams class, so the difference between 70% and 90% is only 5 or so students. So, with luck, this is just random variation.

7) Prediction: The data next year will look better, closer to the long term average of 90%. It is unlikely that something important changed for the class of 2010 and subsequent classes. Instead, this is more likely random variation caused by a small sample size.

8) If this prediction is wrong — if extremely low graduation rates from black males continue — then it is likely that Williams changed its admissions policies in 2006, admitted weaker applicants, applicants that it used to reject. Such applicants are, obviously, much less likely to graduate from Williams in 6 years.

UPDATE: Thanks to Directory of Institutional Research Courtney Wade for explaining that 6b and 7 above are correct. This was random variation on a small number of students. Latest data shows the graduation rate back around 90%.

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Hitler Effigy Fight

Read the story (pdf) of the undergraduate fight over a Hitler effigy in 1938.

Adolf Hitler, in brown-shirted effigy, disappeared suddenly from the Williams College campus this evening as a group of pro-fascist conservatives made off with the image of Der Fuehrer which has been prepared for destruction at the stake.

There is a great senior thesis to be written about Williams in the 30’s. Who will write it?

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Eusden, RIP

Professor John Eusden passed away last year.

Rev. Eusden, the Nathan Jackson professor of Christian theology emeritus at Williams, died in Parkview Adventist Medical Center in Brunswick, Maine, on April 27 of complications of an infection. He was 90 and had moved from Williamstown to Brunswick in 2010.

“John was a large presence at Williams in more ways than one,” Adam Falk, president of Williams College, wrote in a message to the campus. “While the tall, former Harvard swim captain and former Marine ­pilot loomed forcefully from the pulpit, he also helped lead the college into engagement with the civil rights movement, ecumenical and interfaith initiatives, international studies, and environmentalism.”

College announcement here. In Eusden’s generation, a majority of faculty had served in the US military. Is there a single veteran on the faculty today?

Minor note: You are not a “pilot” in the Marine Corps. You are a “naval aviator.” Bizarrely, I can’t find any link to justify this claim on the web. But it must be true! Perhaps it was not true in Eusden’s day? Help us out, ex-Marine readers!

Two years after hosting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Williams College campus, the Rev. John Eusden followed his friend to Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 during one of the most hostile times of the civil rights movement.

Far from his chaplaincy at Williams, Rev. Eusden was jailed in Birmingham, where he participated in demonstrations, facing attack dogs, hurled curses, and the fire hoses officials trained on protesters.

“I told him then that if he ­ever needed me, to just give me a call,” Rev. Eusden told the Globe in May 1963, speaking of a promise he made during King’s visit to Williams. “Well, the call came.”

Eusden’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement might not, by itself, merit a senior thesis. But, surely, the story of all the grads of Williams, the parts they played, the stands they took (and failed to take) would.

Rev. Eusden “made the membranes permeable between the religions of the West and the religions of the East by virtue of his intellectual appetite, his scholarly projects, and his practice,” said the Rev. Rick Spalding, the current chaplain at Williams. “He was a very serious meditator.”

He added that through ­social justice work and participation in the civil rights movement, often with the Rev. ­William Sloane Coffin, Rev. Eusden also “deserves credit for helping shape what I would call contemporary college chaplaincy.”

Hmmm. For good or for ill? At EphBlog, we love Rick Spalding, but the changes in the roll of college chaplain over the last 50 years are not good. The most important one is that the chaplain is no longer a member of the faculty. The more that important college offices are filled by faculty members, the better.

At Harvard College, from which he graduated as part of the class of 1944, he was captain of the swim team and managed what was reported then to be the unprecedented feat of lettering in swimming at three universities, when military training took him to Yale and Colgate.

Back in the day, this story was always told with regard to Eusden being the only person to letter at both Harvard and Yale. Colgate was generally left out . . .

During World War II, he was a Marine aviator and afterward spent two semesters at Harvard Law School before leaving for Yale Divinity School, from which he graduated in 1949. He earned a doctorate in religion at Yale in 1954 and began teaching. He was ordained in his ­father’s church in 1949 and the following year married Joanne Reiman, who had lived around the corner during his Newton childhood and became a psycho­therapist.

There is a fair amount of Williams history associated with Newton, Massachusetts. Who will write a thesis with that theme?

A skier who liked to spend at least 100 days on the slopes each year, he called his 70s his “late middle age” and was still competing in bicycle races into his 80s.

“The nice thing about an ‘elder age group’ is that the entries are few – sometimes only me,” he wrote in 1994, “and so to win the age group all I have to do is start!”

This is my hope for blogging awards as well.

Condolences to all.

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Academic Rating Details

I need to do a post in which I bring together everything we know about Williams admissions. Alas, no time today! But I can share this pdf with some details about the College’s Academic Rating system. See here for previous discussion. Comments:

1) The key importance is that, if you are not an AR 1 or 2, Williams automatically rejects you unless you are in one of the special categories, and those special categories do not include “Wrote an amazing essay” or “Best editor of our high school paper in a decade.” There are plenty such applicants with AR 2, many of whom Williams will also reject. So, if you are AR 3 or below, you are toast.

2) The single biggest exception category is the 65 or so athletic tips. Note that this is not the same thing as great high school athlete. You could be a national champion in something like gymnastics or ski jumping and Williams wouldn’t (really) care because Williams does not compete in gymnastics. To be a “tip,” a Williams coach must tell Admissions that she wants you.

3) The second biggest category is racial affirmative action, mainly black/Hispanic. Actually, it could be that this category is even bigger than athletic tips, but I am feeling PC today. It is unclear if Williams, like other elite schools, discriminates against Asian American applicants.

4) The third category, much smaller (I think) than athletics/race, is wealth. Williams does some non-trivial affirmative action for poor students (and/or students whose parents did not attend college) and for extremely rich students (whose parents have given or might be expected to make million dollar donations to the College).

5) I need a good short hand description for these three categories: race/wealth/athletics. Suggestions? Beyond them, there are very few students who are admitted with AR 3 or below. (At least, that is my understanding. Contrary opinions welcome.)

6) Looking closely at the descriptions, it is obvious that some measures are more objective than others. Who can agree on the difference between an “exceptional” essay versus one that is merely “outstanding?” Given that, I would wager that the harder numbers — above 1450 math/verbal SAT, 33 or above ACT, 4’s and 5’s on AP exams — matter most.

7) Always keep in mind that high school quality is very important. Being in the 90th percentile of your class (that is, at the botton of the to 10%) at Andover or Milton or Stuyvesant is better than being the valedictorian at more than half the high schools in the US.

8) To be honest, I can’t recall the source for this pdf. Probably somehow related to Peter Nurnberg’s ’09 thesis. Sorry! Does anyone recognize it?

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Winter Study Course Recommendations

Today is the last day for students to select a course for Winter Study. Here they are. I like this one. Which course would you recommend?

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Hire More Statistics Professors

Williams is hiring two assistant professors in psychology and two in religion. This is a misallocation of resources. Instead, Williams ought to hire 4 statistics professors.

Why?

Roughly speaking, the number of professors in a department should be proportional to student enrollment. Right now, the average professor in Statistics at Williams teaches twice as many students each year as the average professor in the vast majority of departments, including, I think, Psychology and Religion. Check out this course enrollment information for the two junior faculty in statistics:

Brianna C. Heggeseth is teaching 86 students this fall.
Wendy Wang is teaching 60 students this fall.

And their teaching loads won’t fall much, if at all, in the spring. That is nuts! It is unfair to them and unfair to the students who want a Williams-appropriate amount of interactions with their professors.

Perhaps I am misreading this data? Contrary opinions welcome!

And, more importantly, the addition of the Statistics Major will mean a dramatic increase in the enrollment of upper level classes.

Statistics is the future and the sooner that Williams adjusts its hiring to recognize this fact, the better.

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Phi Beta Kappa History

Loved this story:

Who’s the best public speaker at Williams College? It’s a contentious question, but regardless of whom you ask, Professor Steven Fix’s name is likely to be in the mix.

Among his colleagues, he is known for timing his lectures down to the second— literally. He once told a beginning English professor, “That was an excellent lecture, but you’re running twenty-three seconds too long.” Among his students, Fix is known for delivering such moving lectures as to reduce students to tears, even when those lectures concern authors as obscure as Samuel Johnson—one of his personal favorites.

Besides his speaking engagements in the English department, Fix is also the college’s Phi Beta Kappa Chapter Historian, and it falls to him to deliver the history of the Society at Williams each year, on the day before graduation. So, on June 7, 2014, Professor Fix delivered a rousing rendition of the history of Phi Beta Kappa, much to the delight of the audience who, having been awakened for the 8:30 a.m. event, needed some rousing.

“The history of Phi Beta Kappa at Williams is a history filled with jealousy, intrigue, suspicion, and, alternately, triumph!” Fix began, intoning dramatically. The audience laughed along with him, but as his speech continued, it became clear that the history of Phi Beta Kappa at Williams actually was filled with all of those things and more, focused centrally around an educational rivalry between the two oldest colleges in Massachusetts—Harvard and Williams.

According to Fix, Phi Beta Kappa was originally a fraternity. “Unfortunately, Williams College banned fraternities years ago, so as members of Phi Beta Kappa, you’re all expelled,” he said. “That’s it. Congratulations. This ought to significantly shorten tomorrow’s ceremony…”

In all seriousness, though, Phi Beta Kappa was originally formed as a secret society at Williams and Mary, and it had all the attractions of one—rites of initiation, secret signs known only to members, and lots of swearing of oaths. Today, Phi Beta Kappa retains all of these features. However, the initiation is a public one, the sign of membership is the well-known key, and there is but one oath of loyalty, not to a fraternity, but to philosophy—to the love learning and wisdom. Clearly, the mission of Phi Beta Kappa has changed drastically since its inception. “So I suppose you’re all safe,” Fix said.

“At any rate, William and Mary, as the original location of Phi Beta Kappa, was vested with the power to establish new chapters, and the college chose to bestow chapters upon Harvard and Yale, along with the power to approve or veto new charters for schools in their respective states,” Fix said. And that’s where the drama really took off and how it came to be that despite being the second-oldest college in Massachusetts, Williams was the 17th chapter of Phi Beta Kappa to be established.

“Now why would that be?” Fix asked. “Well, we would have had a chapter earlier, but for the jealousy of Harvard…” According to Fix, Harvard was worried about bequests—essentially, about who would get the money left to the state for education. In a successful bid to delay the founding of Williams College, Harvard’s board of overseers wrote to the colonial government, “It cannot be thought that the means of education at another college will be near as good as at our college…”

And so it was that Williams’ founding was delayed until 1792, when the trustees of Williams College struck back at the overseers of Harvard. The Williams trustees petitioned the colonial government for a charter on the grounds that Williamstown, being an “enclosed place,” would not expose students to the kind of “temptations and allurements peculiar to seaport towns [e.g. Boston].” Williamstown was cast as an institution that would civilize the frontier and turn out moral citizens—something that held great weight for a government that was terrified by the news of rebel uprisings, as in the French Revolution and Shay’s Rebellion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the relationship between Williams and Harvard remained prickly after Williams obtained its school charter. Recall now that Harvard controlled which Massachusetts colleges could have Phi Beta Kappa chapters, so in order to found a chapter at Williams College, Williams had to send Harvard an application. Harvard responded predictably—issuing a pocket veto, refusing to vote one way or another, and thereby leaving Williams to wait indefinitely.

Eventually, though, in 1833, the stalemate was broken. Williams’ then-president, Ed Griffin told two students to go over the New York-Massachusetts border to Union College [in Albany, NY] to ask them for a charter instead. Union College replied that they didn’t have the authority to establish a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa outside of their own state, but they could issue other charters, so the Williams students came home with a charter to start a fraternity called “Kappa Alpha.” “The president saw ‘Kappa’ on a piece of paper and heartily congratulated the students on their success,” Fix reported.

But inevitably, the difference was realized, and in 1861, Williams tried again to found a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, reopening negotiations with Harvard. Finally, Harvard relented. “And as the Civil War raged, a society founded in the Revolutionary War had its inauguration at Williams College,” said Fix.

Today, only one remnant of this dramatic power struggle between Harvard and Williams over Phi Beta Kappa remains. It is on the founding document for Williams’ chapter, where the words, “Harvard University,” the chapter-granting authority, appear fourteen times larger than “Williams College.”

“So remember that Williams College struggled to have a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and honor that struggle by taking seriously your commitment to a lifelong love of philosophy,” Fix said, finishing at exactly twenty minutes, on the dot, to resounding applause.

Fleshing out that history would make for a great senior thesis. Who will write it?

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We’re #1!

Good news:

Princeton, Williams College once again take top spots in U.S. News’ rankings for 2014-15

1) Every time that Williams appears in a headline like this with Princeton, the value of the Williams brand improves. It is very important that we maintain this #1 ranking, mainly for admissions, and especially for international students.

2) Kudos to Adam Falk (and everyone else at Williams) for making this happen. US News can be tricky about its methodology and the changes it makes from year-to-year. They would sell more magazines if there were more changes in the top, so maintaining a #1 ranking can be tricky.

3) As I mention each year, there is a great senior thesis to be written about the rankings, similar to this article on the US News law school rankings. If you write such a thesis, hundreds of people around the country will read it.

4) Is anyone a subscriber to the detailed data. All I can see is:

us_news

We need to dive into the details. How far in the lead is Williams and what do we need to do to maintain the lead?

5) Recall my predictions from 5 years ago.

Although the competition is tough, our most serious competitor is Amherst and they will face real headwinds given their financial constraints. Their endowment is in more trouble than ours. Their increase in enrollment will hurt the student:faculty ratio. These ranks are based on data from before the financial crash, so the Williams advantage over Amherst will only continue. Don’t be surprised if/when Amherst falls behind Swarthmore in a year or two. I also suspect that Middlebury’s recent (and deserved) rise may be in danger.

Amherst hasn’t caught us, as predicted, and Middlebury has fallen from 4th to 7th. I still think that Amherst is in danger of falling behind Swarthmore, but we need more detailed data to evaluate that.

6) Below the break are the details of the methodology, which I am saving here for historical purposes.
Read more

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What Pinker Gets Wrong About Harvard (and Williams) Admissions

Steven Pinker’s essay in The New Republic (hat tip Razib Kahn) provides a false description of admissions at places like Harvard and Williams.

At the admissions end, it’s common knowledge that Harvard selects at most 10 percent (some say 5 percent) of its students on the basis of academic merit. … The rest are selected “holistically,” based also on participation in athletics, the arts, charity, activism, travel, and, we inferred (Not in front of the children!), race, donations, and legacy status (since anything can be hidden behind the holistic fig leaf).

This is not true. Summary: More than 80% of admissions at Harvard (and other elite schools like Williams) is determined by academic merit, measured by past success in high school (high grades in the most rigorous classes with the best teacher recommendations and top standardized test scores), all of which best predicts academic success in college.*

First, leave aside athletics for the moment; the preferences there are real and large.

Second, consider the raw data in terms of 25th and 75th percentile SAT scores. (I have taken the latest available data and simply added the Math and Critical Reading scores together.)

Harvard:  1390 -- 1590
Williams: 1330 -- 1540
Cornell:  1320 -- 1520 

A difference of 50 or 60 points may seem small, but this is (back-of-the-envelope) 1/4 to 1/3 a standard deviation.** If we were talking about height, it would be as if the average student at Harvard were an inch or so taller than the average student at Williams or Cornell. There is no way, in a large population, to get this sort of difference unless the selection procedure has a major focus on SAT scores (or their correlates). In particular, there is no way that the top 25% (!) of the Harvard class has almost perfect SAT scores if only 10% (much less 5%!) is selected on the “basis of academic merit.” It is mathematically impossible.

Third, there are no meaningful preferences given for “the arts, charity, activism, travel” and other non-academic, non-sport reasons. Why?

  • Harvard is not that different from Williams and, as Professor of Music David Kechley explained 11 (!) years ago, there is no meaningful preference given for musical talent.
  • There is no need to give preference for things like music and art because academically strong students are often talented in music and art. Go meet some!
  • There is no reason to give preference for music/arts because schools don’t compete with each other on that basis. Imagine that the quality of the arts and music was twice as good at Williams as at Harvard. Would anyone notice? No! No one goes to enough events at both Williams and Harvard to make that judgment. (This is one aspect by which athletics is different.)
  • Even if you wanted to give preference to those students who would go on to be heavily involved in things like, say, student government and charitable work, there is no way for the admissions department to predict which students will do so, as Jen Doleac ’03 demonstrated in her thesis.
  • Harvard does not have the time or money to meaningfully evaluate the artistic ability of applicants. With 14,000 applicants, the logistics are impossible. As books like The Gatekeepers and A is for Admission make clear, admissions officers make some notes about non-academic talents, but these attributes play a de minimus role in the process.
  • “Travel?” Harvard prefers students who have done a grand tour of Europe? Give me a break! The biggest thing that teenage travel correlates with is family income, and Harvard gets plenty of rich kids already. Might Pinker be able to point to Harvard students who traveled a lot? Sure! But he could also find plenty of blond Harvard students. That fact doesn’t mean that the Admissions Office selects by hair color.

Now, every once in a while does something like music help? Sure! If the orchestra conductor calls up the admissions office and begs for some decent drummers, he may get helped out. But, overwhelming, even those drummers will have amazing academic credentials.

Fourth, even affirmative action does not change the basic story because black (and Hispanic) applicants are accepted under the same criteria as white/Asian students. The same process of looking at high school grades, course schedule, teacher comments and standardized test scores applies to everyone. Whatever it is that Harvard is looking for in white/Asian students, it is looking for the exact same thing in black/Hispanic students. Harvard just sets the bar lower for the latter. Being poor is probably an advantage. Being a non-US citizen is probably a disadvantage. But, whatever bucket you are competing in, the key criteria is academic success.

Fifth, legacy is a red herring. Do the math! There are 1,600 Harvard students in the class of 2018. There were around (I think) 1,600 Harvard students in each class in the 80’s. I can’t find good data on fecundity, but, judging from Williams, elite students from the 80’s go on to, at least, achieve replacement levels of fertility. So, there are 1,600 or so legacy students born in 1995/1996 who would love to come to Harvard (or at least be accepted by Harvard) for the class of 2018. But Harvard only enrolls about 200 of them!*** You think the other 1,400 go to Stanford? Ha! It is easy for Harvard, like Williams, to ensure that enrolled legacy students are academically equivalent to non-legacy students because the legacy pool is so strong. Turns out that Harvard parents tend to have academically talented children. Who knew?

Sixth, even in the case of athletics, academics matter because the admissions department insists. See here for some details. But, to the extent that Pinker has a point, he is correct that athletics plays an important part. And so does major wealth. But even if we combine the athletes and the donors, we are still talking about less than 20% of the class.

Big picture, Pinker’s description of Harvard admissions is fundamentally flawed because the vast majority of it (80%?) is, in fact, driven by “academic merit.” Unless you are a recruited varsity athlete or a billionaire’s child, you got in because your classes/grades/scores were better than the other applicants (at least within your race and/or socioeconomic class and/or nationality).

And this is easy to see if you follow the admissions process at your local high school, assuming it is the sort of school that sends lots of students to elite schools. On average, the high school students who get into Harvard have done better — higher grades in tougher classes with better teaching recommendations and standardized test scores — than the students who get into Williams, and then the same down the academic pecking order.

Steven Pinker is a voice of reason in many of the debates surrounding higher education. It is too bad that he is so misleading about Harvard admissions in this essay.

* Of course, it is not clear what scale Pinker is using for his 5% or what scale we should be using for our 80%. The main clarification that applies to the 80% is that, although the academic evaluation system is the same across categories of students, students are mostly competing against peers in their own racial, citizenship, and socio-economic bucket. If you are, say, rich and black, then Harvard admits use on the basis of academic merit in comparison with other rich/black applicants.

My preferred scale is to imagine that the Harvard admissions system is blinded to everything non-academic. All they see is your high school transcript and standardized test scores. Even in this scenario, more than 50% of the students in Harvard today would still have been accepted. Athletics and affirmative action do have a meaningful impact on admissions, but most of what is going on is still Pinker’s “academic merit.”

** Yes, I realize that this is a rough estimate. The standard deviation of individual SAT tests is around 100. I can’t find good estimates of the standard deviation of combined scores. If the scores from the two tests were uncorrelated, then the combined standard deviation would be around 141. But the positive correlation means that this is a lower bound. And, of course, we are talking about the far right tail of the distribution, where all sorts of weird stuff might happen. The larger point stands: it is impossible for Harvard’s combined SAT scores to be 50+ points higher than Williams/Cornell, year after year, without significant focus on SAT scores by the Admissions Department.

*** See our legacy admissions category for various calculations with regard to Williams. I doubt that things are much different at Harvard or any other elite school. Why would they be?

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