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Professor At Williams

A recurrent debate in academia is: How much should standardize test scores count in admissions? This debate occurs at Williams, but the College, like almost all its elite peers, decided long ago that the answer would be: A lot! Graduate school admissions, on the other hand, are more varied. Some schools/programs prefer not to weight GRE scores that heavily, sometimes justifying this stance by noting that such scores don’t predict success in graduate school that well. Of course, most of the time this lack of success is due to a restriction of range. Math GRE scores don’t predict success in the Harvard Physics PhD program because all the students in the program have 800s.

In this context, Taylor Rabon, a biology post-doc at Indiana, tweeted:


1) Exactly right! Standardized test scores probably help the student from U Mass in her competition with the student from Williams.

2) Always nice to see Williams used to mean privileged. This is part of our brand!

3) I have heard that Williams professors do an excellent job, on average, in their recommendation letters. True? The Physics Department, for example, has an amazing track record in terms of getting its students into top graduate programs.


Grade Distribution for 2013–2014

An anonymous professor provided this Williams grade distribution (pdf) for 2013-2014. Comments:

1) Williams should be more transparent, especially with information like this that is available to hundreds of Ephs. (I believe that all members of the faculty are e-mailed a copy.)

2) Summary:


Key question: Has grade inflation at Williams (almost) stopped? Recall this discussion from 8 years ago which quotes a Record article from 2000:

The most frequently given grade in 1999 was an A- and the mean grade hovered just above a B+ at 3.34.

If the average grade since 2000 has only increased from 3.34 to 3.41 then grade inflation, while still a problem, has at least slowed down significantly. The overall average in 2008–2009 was 3.39. Again, the thing I find most embarrassing (and what we need current data about) is the hundreds of A+ grades handed out.

3) The results by Division are consistent with the standard stereotypes.


The most distressing aspect of the differences across Divisions (and across departments) is the bad signals that it sends to students. If a student gets a B+ in an intro Computer Science class but an A in Theatre, she might thing that this means she is “better” at theatre than computer science. Isn’t this one way that Williams guides her on choosing a major that matches her abilities? But, of course, the College is lying to her. She is an average student in computer science and in theatre. Lax grading by the latter is misleading her.

There is much more here. Worth a week to discuss?


Course Advice

Fall classes start on Thursday. What courses should you take? See our previous discussions.

1) Any tutorial. The more tutorials you take, the better your Williams education will be. There are few plausible excuses for not taking a tutorial every semester. Although many tutorials are now filled, others are not. Recommended:

MATH 102: Foundations in Quantitative Skills with Mihai Stoiciu. This course is, obviously, designed for students with a limited math background, but, if you are in that category, you would be a fool to pass up the chance to learn from one of the best professors at Williams.

PSCI 219: Women in National Politics with Joy James. Too many first years take a big intro class because they think they “should.” They shouldn’t! Even a “bad” tutorial at Williams is better than almost all intro courses.

SOC 248: Altering States: Postsoviet Paradoxes of Identity and Difference with Olga Shevchenko. It does not matter if you care about Russia. As always, choose the professor, not the class. If you are a first year and you don’t take a tutorial like this, you are doing it wrong.

By the way, where can we find data about how popular tutorials are? For example, do most/all tutorials end up filled? How many students attempted to enroll in each one? More transparency!

2) STAT 201 (if you enter Williams with Math/Reading SAT scores below 1300, you might start with STAT 101). No topic is more helpful in starting your career, no matter your area of interest, than statistics. Students who take several statistics courses are much more likely to get the best summer internships and jobs after Williams. Also, the new Statistics major is amazing.

3) CSCI 135: Diving into the Deluge of Data (if you enter Williams with Math/Reading SAT scores below 1300, you might start with CSCI 134). Being able to get the computer to do what you want it to do is much more important, to your future career, than most things, including, for example, the ability to write well. Taking CSCI 136 is also highly recommended.

4) PHIL 394: Topics Mind & Cognition with Joe Cruz, former EphBlogger and all around great guy. And don’t worry about the silly prerequisites. Just tell Joe that EphBlog sent you!

Here are some thoughts from 9 years ago about course selections for a career in finance.

What courses would you recommend? What was the best class you took at Williams?


Bailey Thesis Students

One of the many ways you can know that Duane Bailey is everything a Williams professor should be is because he brags about his thesis students. Why don’t more Williams professors do the same? Because they care more about promoting their own work than they care about promoting the work of their students.

But what is worse is that Williams does not care (as much) as it should . . .


Grade Inflation


Imagine that Professor Kornell wants to do something about this. What advice do you have for him?

Start with transparency. What is the distribution of grades at Williams today? How has it changed over time? How does it vary by department? There is no good reason to keep this a secret, other than shame. Here is the data from 2008–2009. Here is recent data for Middlebury.


Student Theses

Kudos to the Williams library for putting so many senior theses on-line! There is a lot of great stuff here. Start with “Do H-1B Visas Affect Natives’ Wages?” by Michael Navarrete ’16. Highly relevant in the age of Trump.

I am embarrassed to note that some theses are not available. One example is “An analysis of the water quality and its effect on the Williams College Class of ʹ66 Environmental Center” by Stephen Mayfield ’16. Any Williams thesis which is not publicly available causes knowledgeable observers to think that its quality is low and/or that the advisers (Professors Dethier and Thoman) are foolish. Perhaps this is connected to the backward nature of chemistry as an academic field and the debate we had a decade ago but which I can not find a link to?

Should we spend a week browsing through the archive? Recall our previous discussions about excellent senior theses like Doleac ’03, Taylor ’05 and Nurnberg ’09.


Mellon Mays / Allison Davis Research Fellows


Background info:

The Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF) and the Allison Davis Research Fellowship (ADRF) work to increase racial and socio-economic diversity in higher education by preparing students from underrepresented groups for academic careers.

Both the MMUF and the ADRF fellowships provide opportunities for faculty-mentored research, preparation for graduate school, and individualized support from the Office of Special Academic Programs.

The more summer research opportunities that the College provides for its students, the better. Summer in Williamstown is magical! Here is a picture of (last summer’s?) fellows:


Is this program one of those no-Asians-nor-whites need apply?


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!


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.)



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.


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?


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.


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?


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!


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: 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?


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.


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.


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:

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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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!


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 . . .


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?


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.


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.


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

"EAG-L-LEGO" groupphoto


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?


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.


Black Male Graduation Rate Below 70%


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%.


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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