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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

"EAG-L-LEGO" groupphoto


In other ivory towers…

One wonders if Schapiro is starting to miss Williams…

Schapiro “disappointed” by sex toy demonstration

Northwestern President Morton Schapiro said he was “troubled and disappointed” upon hearing that Weinberg professor John Michael Bailey allowed a non-student presenter to be voluntarily masturbated with a sex toy during an optional after-class demonstration.

The full statement follows below:

I have recently learned of the after-class activity associated with Prof. Michael Bailey’s Human Sexuality class, and I am troubled and disappointed by what occurred.

Although the incident took place in an after-class session that students were not required to attend and students were advised in advance, several times, of the explicit nature of the activity, I feel it represented extremely poor judgment on the part of our faculty member. I simply do not believe this was appropriate, necessary or in keeping with Northwestern University’s academic mission.

Northwestern faculty members engage in teaching and research on a wide variety of topics, some of them controversial. That is the nature of a university. However, in this instance, I have directed that we investigate fully the specifics of this incident, and also clarify what constitutes appropriate pedagogy, both in this instance and in the future.

Many members of the Northwestern community are disturbed by what took place on our campus. So am I.

More to come.

More from the Daily Northwestern:

Update 2: University spokesman Al Cubbage has released the following statement regarding the incident:

“Northwestern University faculty members engage in teaching and research on a wide variety of topics, some of them controversial and at the leading edge of their respective disciplines. The university supports the efforts of its faculty to further the advancement of knowledge.”

Update: Prof. John Michael Bailey has released a statement regarding the demonstration. Read it here.

Northwestern students and administrators are defending an explicit after-class demonstration involving a woman being publicly penetrated by a sex toy on stage in the popular Human Sexuality course last week.

The optional presentation last Monday, attended by about 120 students, featured a naked non-student woman being repeatedly sexually stimulated to the point of orgasm by the sex toy, referred to as a “fucksaw.” The device is essentially a motorized phallus.

The 600-person course, taught by psychology Prof. John Michael Bailey, is one of the largest at NU. The after-class events, which range from a question-and-answer session with swingers to a panel of convicted sex offenders, are a popular feature of the class. But they’re optional and none of the material is included on exams.

Last Wednesday, Bailey devoted six minutes of his lecture to addressing mounting controversy regarding the incident and articulating his educational intent. He told the class he feared the demonstration would impact the after-class events, which are sponsored by the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and he explained the educational purpose of the events.

“I think that these after-class events are quite valuable. Why? One reason is that I think it helps us understand sexual diversity,” he said, according to an audio file obtained by The Daily.

“Sticks and stones may break your bones, but watching naked people on stage doing pleasurable things will never hurt you,” he said to loud applause at the end of his speech.

Thanks to Brandi for sending the link.



Music as a tool in science education

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

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

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

OK, enough of this. Thanks for humoring me.


Satterthwaite’s contract not renewed?!

I have just received the following news about Sheafe Satterthwaite, beloved eccentric lecturer in art history:

Sheafe’s contract has not been renewed for the coming year. Sheafe is 71 and has taught at Williams for over 40 years. He has always been a Lecturer on a four-year, renewable contract. This year, citing low student evaluations, he was told in late November that his contract would not be renewed.

For those who aren’t familiar with him, Sheafe is independently wealthy (at least, is rumored to be — ed.) and teaches because he enjoys teaching. All of his courses include a once-weekly “field seminar,” where he drives the class around in a large van to areas of interest in the countryside around Williams, and lectures while driving. He also takes all of his students out to dinner (in groups) at least once, and often invites them to his house. Rumor has it that he is paid something like $1 for the four-year contract, and Williams throws in free lunches at Driscoll (this last part is true; Sheafe told me).

Would you please consider writing a letter to the Dean of Faculty, Prof. William Wagner? His email is I think a lot of us never expected we would need to write such a letter — perhaps we thought we might show our appreciation at a retirement party someday. But we do need to write now and explain how Sheafe has influenced our lives, our teaching, our careers, our ways of understanding the world. We need to tell the administration about the gifts Sheafe gave us and continues to give students at Williams.

This missive comes from Mark Livingston ’72 and Belle Zars ’76. Full message from Zars below the break.

Sheafe’s classes are certainly some of the most unique at Williams, and when I look back at the experiences in class that I remember most from college, Sheafe’s class was certainly one of the most memorable. Please consider writing in on his behalf.
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Rephsearch #4: purple chemistry goes green (Dave Vosburg ’97)

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

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

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

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

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

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


Second Round of Course Evaluations

Arjun Narayan ’10 worked for me three summer ago. He sent this lovely e-mail.

Now that it is coming to that time of the year where I look back fondly on my 4 years at Williams and ponder about what went right/what went wrong/simply being nostalgic, I thought for a while about my internship at Kane Cap, and had some things I wanted to share with you. I think this is reasonable, also because I wish Williams asked for a second round of course evaluations at graduation (and another one 5 years hence! And another one 20 years hence! I have so much more appreciation for some classes now that I had earlier complained about as bitter drudgery.) I will probably write to some of my favorite professors anyway, but this sort of information really should be collected.

Indeed. Although the teaching at Williams is wonderful, it could be better. And the first step in making it better is to collect better data. Why not ask seniors to report their 3 favorite professors or the one professor who they think is most underrated by other students, perhaps in conjunction with the awarding of Ephraim Williams Teaching Awards?

Arjun offers further thoughts in my internship below the break. I appreciate his comments and agree with many of his suggestions.

But, even better, Arjun is sending similar e-mails to his Williams professors. If you are a senior, you should do the same.

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History Through Film

Some time ago I mentioned a couple of classes that I am teaching that drew interest from some readers here at Ephblog. One of these classes is “American History Since 1945 Through Film,” which I am offering in our truncated Maymester term. Generally speaking I know Maymester (and summer classes generally) can be of limited utility, especially for history classes where reading and writing is so central. But when I have taught Maymester classes rather than adapt one of my regular courses, I have designed classes specific to the format — four hours of class four days a week for three weeks.

A history through film class fits especially well into this format. My plan is going to be to lecture for a half hour to an hour at the beginning of each class to provide the historical context. Then we will watch the film. Then after a quick break we will discuss the film within its historical context, trying to draw out both the historical questions being raised as well considering the film on its own terms as a movie. Here is a snapshot of what the class will look like: Read more


Teaching Loads

Alexander Woo asks:

Any discussions about putting teaching loads back at 5 a year?

1) No. Or at least I have heard zero discussion of this issue. Anyone else?

2) This would not save meaningful amounts of money because the College would still need to pay all its current faculty. One might argue that this would reduce the need for visiting professors but a) those have already been cut to the bone and b) the remaining ones are driven by sabbaticals/leaves in smaller departments.

3) I would like to see more of a focus on teaching at Williams and less on research. Increasing teaching loads is one way to achieve that. But there are probably better ways to go. Summary: Change the measure of faculty work from the class to the student. Instead of being required to teach 4 or 5 classes, professors ought to be required to have a meaningful intellectual relationship with 40 students per semester. Yet that is a rant for another day.

4) Wouldn’t the faculty go nuts if the Administration/Trustees ever suggested this?

5) Background from the Record here and here. Great to have the Record archives back on-line!

Williams professors will teach a lighter courseload beginning in the fall of 2002 due to a workload reallocation plan currently being developed by the department chairs and the dean of the faculty. The plan, which is intended to help Williams compete more effectively in the market for new faculty, is the result of a study performed by the faculty Steering Committee (SC) that suggested that it would be in the College’s best interests to reduce faculty workloads.

The current teaching load follows a 3-0-2/2-1-2 calendar, meaning that each professor teaches two courses each semester with one three-course semester and one Winter Study course in alternating years. The department chairs met on Nov. 8 to discuss ways to reduce faculty workloads, whether by having faculty teach fewer courses or through other adjustments.

Tom Wintner, associate dean of the faculty, said that the majority of the departments will reduce faculty course loads by eliminating the three-course semester. The Winter Study requirement will be maintained by most departments under the new system.

By the way, “compete more effectively in the market for new faculty” is 90% lie and 10% truth. The vast majority of professors that Williams has hired since this change would have come to Williams even if the course reduction had not happened. Always remember: Williams is run by the faculty. When they want X, you are likely to see X unless someone more powerful stops them.


How to “measure” teaching skill?

One of the spin-offs from the some of the recent discussions about Bernard Moore was a “debate” about how good or bad he was as a teacher. One student said that he was terrific, several others were quite critical. Without trying to rehash Mr. Moore’s specific talents, I thought the debate raised an interesting question.

Most (all?) of us believe that one of the qualities that makes Williams a great educational institution and distinct from major research universities like Stanford, Cornell, or Yale, is the fact that the professors are expected to and do teach undergraduates. This fact is assumed to attract professors to Williams who are interested in teaching (as opposed to simply being interested in research) and, hopefully, are good at it (whatever that means). During the evaluation process for professors, I understand that teaching ability is an important factor.

But how can we measure or evaluate teaching ability? This, of course, is a problem at all educational levels. At the primary and secondary school level, we can evaluate teachers in part by how much their students learn, typically measured through testing. Good teachers should teach their students more than bad teachers. Is anything similar done at the college level? If so, I am not aware of it.

I think teaching ability is largely measured by student surveys, supplemented by occasional observations. I think its unfortunate, if true, that only the numeric scores from those surveys are shared with the professor’s department, and that student comments are not shared with the department. I think these comments, when viewed as a whole could be very useful. Are the comments only made available to the professor in question? If so, why would that be?

If teaching evaluations are based primarily (almost exclusively) on numerical aggregations of student survey data, I think that is a little troubling, simply because that process is so subjective and subject to the vagaries of sample size, who shows up/bothers to fill out the surveys, etc. I am of the view that great teaching is like obscenity (i.e. you know it when you see it), but is there a good (better?) way of determining who good teachers are?

Input from the many academics here at EphBlog would be appreciated.



There was an interesting piece on today’s Washington Post website entitled “Do we need Ivy-League Teachers?” The thrust of the piece was the following: Read more


Debunking the Learning Styles Myth

One hears it all the time: “Oh, I’m a visual learner.” Education theorists have promulgated this idea, and students have embraced it because, generally speaking, students like built-in excuses. Leaving aside the fact that reading is a visual learning style (at least it starts with the eyes) that these theorists always exempt from these discussions (from what I can tell “visual learning” means watching videos and the affront to humanity that is PowerPoint).

But I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that this argument is nonsense, that delineating the different styles of learning into separate categories is both a fool’s errand and obfuscutory. Thankfully, I now have a pretty heavy hitter to back me up. University of Virginia (Wahoos!) cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham has done a pretty good job of debunking “the learning styles myth” in, among other places, his new book, Why Don’t Students Like School?


Real Constructive Criticism at Williams

. . . Education is partly a game which we agree to play, in which grades serve as tokens. . . . Most teachers (maybe all?) function as both “coaches” and “referees” in the game. As “coaches”, we think about grades, at least in part, as motivational tools. I think this is fine — so long as we also remain fair referees. If the referee is not perceived as fair, the game is undermined. . . .

We’ve recently been having a couple of discussions on Ephblog on good pedagogy, specifically how to criticize student work. Unfortunately, these have been less discussions than a not-unusual pitched battle between David Kane and the world, where David’s hastily-expressed prickly good intentions take on the more-hastily-expressed senses of discretion and decency of his readers.

We owe this topic a better effort if we want to not just read about, but talk about, what works and doesn’t work at Williams, and why. And though I believe Kane’s honest attempt at good criticism could have sparked a good discussion, I believe the sample of real criticism I can provide can be an even better touchstone.

Below the break is two long quotes, an exchange between myself and a professor over some work I’d produced. It is a real sample of real teaching through criticism at Williams, and his permission has been obtained to post his words here. I consider it the best I’ve received. It is both excellent criticism in itself as well as, most fortunately for us, a small treatise on pedagogical criticism.

I have personally benefited greatly from the thinking it conveyed to me. I hope it will inspire students to seek equally good exchanges, inspire professors whom I know think daily and deeply about how best to criticize, and spark among us a constructive discussion.

Read more


Writing Jerkshop

Evan Miller ’06 has a fun pdf on how not to be a jerk as a writing tutor.

Marissa told you last week how the Workshop has had some problems with being seen as a bunch of jerks. Fortunately, one of those problems graduated in June. (It’s progress.) There is still work to be done to improve the Workshop’s public image. For example, one of my friends continues to call us the Writing Jerkshop. He is probably just bitter. In any event, Marissa doesn’t like this state of affairs, and so she called on me to explain to the workshop why and how not to be a jerk. Those of you who know me may be second-guessing her choice of speaker for this particular task. They say you learn best by teaching.

Indeed you do.

Hmmm. What writing-better-than-thou-elitists do we know who graduated in 2004? ;-)


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