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Williams Reads Recommendations?

As we all returned back to campus from a (hopefully warm!) spring break, Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom sent out a survey to all students asking for recommendations for this coming academic year’s Williams Reads.

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Do EphBlog readers (looking at you, alumni!) have any suggestions? I know at least 10 more of my classmates read EphBlog now, and I know we’d all be interested in what you think! What should we read next?

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Williams Reads Breakout Sessions

After the ’62 Center event during First Days, the class of 2019 broke into discussion groups. Kudos to the Eph faculty and staff who volunteered (?) to devote Labor Day to this event! The more intellectual engagement brought to First Days, the better. Recall this Record op-ed from last spring:

For decades, the College has sought, somewhat unsuccessfully, to mold student character and to improve the campus community. The College would prefer that students drink less (and especially less to excess); that students be more intellectual, spending more time outside of class on great books and less time on Netflix; that students be kinder to each other, especially to those most outside the mainstream of College life; and that students be more involved in the community, more likely to volunteer at the local elementary school or retirement home. How can the College make its students more sober, intellectual, kind and charitable (than they already are)? Simple: Expand the First Days program into First Month, and focus that month on character development and community commitment.

Shaping character and nurturing community are difficult problems, so we should look for inspiration to those with a track record of success. The most relevant examples are military and religious organizations like the Marine Corps and the Mormon Church. What lessons do they have for us?

First: Start early. The reason that service in the Marine Corps begins with a 13-week boot camp is that the best time to change the perceptions of 18-year-olds is at the start of their enlistments. In boot camp, Marine recruits are cut off from the world they knew before, presented with a new set of community standards for what is best and challenged to live up to those standards. The College will have much more success in changing the values and choices of first-years in August than it ever will in altering those of juniors and seniors.

Second: Separate. Many new Ephs drank too much in high school. We want them to (want to) drink less at the College. We need to distance them from their old habits, their old friends and routines. A First Month program, starting in early August, provides just such an opportunity. The reason that Mormons, and most other religious groups, favor retreats is that a departure from the secular allows the sacred to flourish. During First Month, athletes won’t practice with their sports teams, they will play pick-up games with their classmates. The first and most important commitment that new Ephs make is to their class. They are purple first.

Third: Introduce. Every student in each of the first-year dorms will have at least one meal with each resident of his dorm. All students will learn the names of at least half of their classmates by playing all the wonderfully awkward name-learning games common to religious retreats. The more that students are introduced to their classmates, slowly and repeatedly, over many hours, days and weeks, the less likely that any individual is to end up isolated from the College and detached from the Ephs around him. For most Ephs, the College community is as tight-knit as it could be. They always have someone to sit with when they go to the dining hall on their own. But for hundreds of students, often students from non-traditional backgrounds or with non-mainstream interests, the College fails. Rescuing those students, enmeshing them completely in a network of friends and friendly acquaintances, would change their experience at the College from bearable to wonderful.

Fourth: Inspire. The best way to convince teenagers that Behavior X is cool is to surround them with slightly older Ephs whom they admire and who, by word and deed, illustrate that X is cool. The fewer sports captains and Junior Advisors (JAs) who are heavy drinkers, the fewer first-years who will follow in their footsteps. During First Month, every activity is designed to model the behavior that we want to see more of among students at the College. On Day Two, everyone reads one of Plato’s dialogues and discusses it at lunch and dinner at a small table with a faculty member. On Day Six, everyone spends a day on community service – anything from cleaning up trash along the banks of the Green River to talking with residents at Sweetwood. On Day 10, everyone hikes up Pine Cobble. All of these events are led by the very best people – students, faculty, staff and local residents – at the College.

Read the whole thing.

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Williams Reads One Idea

Professor Nate Kornell tweeted a link to this article:

Saying that such a dialogue was essential to the college’s academic mission, Williams College president Adam Falk confirmed Monday that the school encourages a lively exchange of one idea. “As an institution of higher learning, we recognize that it’s inevitable that certain contentious topics will come up from time to time, and when they do, we want to create an atmosphere where both students and faculty feel comfortable voicing a single homogeneous opinion,” said Falk, adding that no matter the subject, anyone on campus is always welcome to add their support to the accepted consensus.

This year, the one idea will center around the benefits of unrestricted illegal immigration, especially by poorly educated, unskilled migrants from backward countries. The College will explore this one idea through a required reading of Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario ’82, via the Williams Reads program.

Developed by the Committee on Diversity and Community (CDC), Williams Reads is an initiative offered as an opportunity for us to explore a book together that will help us to celebrate and deepen our appreciation of diversity.

Dean of the College Sarah Bolton noted that “Although we appreciate diversity quite deeply at Williams, we can never appreciated diversity enough. Every day, every month, every year, we must work harder to deepen our appreciation. This is all the more true in the aftermath of last year’s Taco Six incident, in which 6 undergraduates failed to demonstrate sufficient depth to their appreciation of Mexican Culture.”

“Whether it’s a discussion of a national political issue or a concern here on campus, an open forum in which one argument is uniformly reinforced is crucial for maintaining the exceptional learning environment we have cultivated here,” continued Falk. He also told reporters that counseling resources were available for any student made uncomfortable by the viewpoint.

The Williams Reads program kicks off today at 1:30 PM in the ’62 Center. If any EphBlog readers attend, please tell it what the event is like. Is more than one side of the issue presented? Or is the only acknowledged viewpoint pro-Enrique and his family? Will anyone mention Donald Trump’s shocking lead in presidential polls, driven almost entirely by his position against illegal immigration?

Here at EphBlog, we have been praising Enrique’s Journey for more than a decade. Too cheap to buy the book? Nazario won the Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper articles that form the core of the story. Read them here for free.

Highly recommended.

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Sherman Alexie, Faulkner Award Finalist

Okay, okay…

I know…this isn’t high finance, and it isn’t dramatic, and it might get zero comments, but nonetheless, it is Eph related. Sherman Alexie, the author of the last Williams Reads, is a finalist for the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award. Now, granted, this isn’t even for the same book that Williams Reads chose, but, nonetheless, I do remember there was a lot of discussion about Alexie as an author choice, and so, I thought I’d post this.

For what it’s worth, one of the other nominees, is Barbara Kingsolver for The Lacuna. I happened to just finish reading her book and highly recommend it. As the quip in the quip says, it’s about “art, McCarthyism and post World War II America”, but in my opinion, is equally rich in how it deals with gender issues and love, in all it’s guises. In fact, I’d like to see it considered for the next Williams Reads.

Anyway, a hearty congrats to Sherman Alexie.  And, it would be nice to get some feedback from Williams Read(ers).

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Williams Reads Selects “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”

Junot_wao_coverFrom the Daily Messages (hat tip to Parent ’12):

Williams Reads Book Selected: Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer-winning novel

Join us this January in reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Developed by the Committee on Diversity and Community (CDC), Williams Reads aims to celebrate and deepen our appreciation of diversity through a common reading experience. A calendar of January events will be available soon. from Wendy Raymond, Committee on Diversity and Community

From Wikipedia:

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) is a best-selling novel written by Dominican-American author Junot Díaz. Although a work of fiction, the novel is set in New Jersey where Díaz was raised and deals explicitly with his ancestral homeland’s experience under dictator Rafael Trujillo. It has received numerous positive reviews from critics and went on to win numerous prestigious awards in 2008, such as the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The title is a nod to Hemingway’s short story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” and to the Irish writer Oscar Wilde.

The novel is an epic story narrated by Yunior de Las Casas and chronicles not just the “brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao,” an overweight Dominican boy growing up in Paterson, New Jersey and obsessed with science fiction and fantasy novels, with comic books and role-playing games and with falling in love, but also the curse of the “fukú” that has plagued Oscar’s family for generations and the Caribbean (and perhaps the entire world) since colonization and slavery.

The middle sections of the novel center on the lives of Oscar’s runaway sister, Lola, his mother, Hypatia Belicia Cabral, and his grandfather, Abelard, under the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo. Rife with footnotes, science fiction and fantasy references, comic book analogies, various Spanish dialects and hip-hop inflected urban English, the novel is also a meditation on story-telling, the Dominican diaspora and identity, masculinity, the contours of authoritarian power and the long horrifying history of slavery in the New World.

Hmmm. I don’t know whether I am going to love this book or hate it. Have any EphBlog folks read it? What did you think? My comments on Williams Reads are the same this year as in the past.

1) I like the idea of Williams Reads, of bringing the larger community together in a shared intellectual event, a Mountain Day for the mind. Who came up with the idea? That Eph deserves some praise.

2) I worry that Williams Reads, instead of being just a shared book event, also tries to be centered around diversity issues. It’s as if the College required that Mountain Day feature a reading of “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” There is nothing wrong with knapsacks, invisible or otherwise, but it would be unhelpful to conflate Mountain Day with political issues.

3) There is nothing wrong with having any given Williams Reads use a diversity-related book. The problem is that, as best I can tell, Williams Reads requires the use of such a book. We have had three Williams Reads, featuring three non-white authors writing about three non-white protagonists. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the politics are fairly obvious and, in my opinion, off-putting.

The Williams Reads webpage now makes it obvious that this is a diversity event, first and foremost.

Williams Reads aims to foster new connections among students, staff, faculty, and community members by exploring diversity through a common reading experience. Developed by the Committee on Diversity and Community (CDC), Williams Reads is an initiative offered each January as an opportunity for us to explore a book together that will help us to celebrate and deepen our appreciation of diversity. It is a goal of the CDC to select a book that will stimulate community engagement and challenging conversation.

A truly “challenging conversation” is probably the last thing that the folks on the CDC are looking for . . .

mad-eye-moodyI thought last year’s discussion on this topic was fruitful. Ben Fleming wrote:

Yeah, but this is pretty ridiculous. You’ve got to be staring pretty hard so see three (3!) non-white authors in a row as “fairly obvious” evidence of anything. Maybe it’s one of those Magic Eye things that I could never get.

Didn’t I tell you? I do have a Magic Eye! That is why I am the Mad Eye Moody of Williams. Want to bet that Williams Reads will choose a non-white author writing about a non-white protagonist next year?

UPDATE: The WSO announcement (posted by Professor Wendy Raymond) makes the goal of Williams Reads fairly clear:

The 2010 Williams Reads Book is Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Developed by the Committee on Diversity and Community (CDC), Williams Reads aims to celebrate and deepen our appreciation of diversity through a common reading experience during Winter Study. Think about getting the book at your local public library and reading it during vacation! A calendar of January events will be available soon.

“[C]elebrate and deepen our appreciation of diversity?” Paging George Orwell!

We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul.

Comparing Williams with 1984 is, obviously, over-the-top. But what do you think that Professor Raymond would say to Williams students (or alumni!) who don’t appreciate (her version of) diversity?

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Williams Reads Suggestions

Williams Reads is looking for suggestions.

The Williams Reads committee is looking for student input in choosing next years book. All of your book suggestions are welcome. To familiarize yourself with what kind of a book we are looking for, here are a few excerpts from the Williams Reads mission statement:

“to foster new connections among students, staff, faculty, and community members by exploring diversity through a common reading experience.”

“explore a book together that will help us to celebrate and deepen our appreciation of diversity.”

“select a book that will stimulate community engagement and challenging conversation.”

This is your chance to really challenge and provoke the Williams community by choosing a book that will make us think.

My comments are the same as usual.

1) I like the idea of Williams Reads, of bringing the larger community together in a shared intellectual event, a Mountain Day for the mind. Who came up with the idea? That Eph deserves some praise.

2) I worry that Williams Reads, instead of being just a shared book event, also tries to be centered around diversity issues. It’s as if the College required that Mountain Day feature a reading of “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” There is nothing wrong with knapsacks, invisible or otherwise, but it would be unhelpful to conflate Mountain Day with political issues.

3) There is nothing wrong with having any given Williams Reads use a diversity-related book. The problem is that, as best I can tell, Williams Reads requires the use of such a book. We have had three Williams Reads, featuring three non-white authors writing about three non-white protagonists.

But enough about me. What book would you recommend?

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Absolutely True Faculty Panel

Did anyone attend this event?

Faculty Panel on Williams Reads Book

Professors Vincent Schleitwiler (English), Guillaume Aubert (History) and Karen Swann (English) discuss The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Williams Reads 2009 book).

Kudos to Professors Schleitwiler, Aubert and Swann for taking the time to participate. How many people attended? How did the event go?

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Cookies

Williams Reads opens tonight.

Please join us for the Opening Night of Williams Reads as we gather to hear community members read from Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and other works. Cookies and hot chocolate will be served.

I asked the 7 students in my Winter Study seminar if they were participating. Six of them had no idea what I was talking about. My comments and questions are the same as they have been for the last three years.

1) I like the idea of Williams Reads, of bringing the larger community together in a shared intellectual event, a Mountain Day for the mind. Who came up with the idea? That Eph deserves some praise.

2) I worry that Williams Reads, instead of being just a shared book event, also tries to be centered around diversity issues. It’s as if the College required that Mountain Day feature a reading of “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” There is nothing wrong with knapsacks, invisible or otherwise, but it would be unhelpful to conflate Mountain Day with political issues.

3) There is nothing wrong with having any given Williams Reads use a diversity-related book. The problem is that, as best I can tell, Williams Reads requires the use of such a book. We have had three Williams Reads, featuring three non-white authors writing about three non-white protagonists. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the politics are fairly obvious and, in my opinion, off-putting. Note that, unlike past years, the Williams Reads webpage does not mention (?) that the program is diversity-related. Is that an oversight or an attempt to make the program less political?

4) How popular is Williams Reads? This is what I am most curious about. If hundreds of students read the book, then ignore all my criticisms. The people in charge of Williams Reads obviously know students much better than I do. But, how can it be that hundreds of students read the book when 6 out of 7 of my students (none first years) were completely unaware of the program? (Selection bias, perhaps.) Two years ago, I was skeptical.

Again, I am a fan of the idea behind Williams Reads and hope that the program continues for 50 years. But 500 copies! Color me skeptical. Are there really 500+ students/faculty/staff at Williams willing to take hours of time to read and discuss The Namesake? I doubt it. (The test will come if even half of these diligent readers come to one of the discussion sections during 1/16 to 1/19. I would be shocked to see 250 people show up for these events.)

Diana reported that I was wrong.

People really liked it. I talked to a first-year on my team that had picked it up and had read almost the whole book in the first day of winter study. It was not sitting in unread piles; people were asking their friends to share the book with them after they were done reading it. This was a much better choice than a book about the election.

While the orchestrated discussions may not have been a big success, that’s not necessarily the point. I saw the book on my professor’s desk and we began a conversation about it. This would never have happened otherwise, because the chance that we both had read the book on his desk would be too small.

I am most interested in the empirical facts. How many people will attend the event tonight? How many books will be distributed? How many will be read? How many will attend the various events? Three years ago, the Williams Reads folks thought that there would be enough interest to justify an aggressive schedule of events:

Other community events will follow in the month of January. From Tuesday, January 16 – Friday, January 19, open community book discussions will be held daily at noon and at 4:00 p.m. Locations will be posted here at a later date.

I suspect that these were sparsely attended, if at all. There seem to be only two similar discussions scheduled for this year. I will try to attend one and report back.

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Junior Reader

Williams Reads 2009 will use The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, a winner of the National Book Award. I am open-minded on the Williams Reads idea. Yet I can’t help noting that Amazon classifies this book as being for either children or teens. Not that there is anything wrong with that!

I have bought my copy. Conventiently enough, I think that this book will be assigned in my daughter’s English class next year. She’ll be in the 8th grade.

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Choose Education’s End

The Williams Reads program needs your help.

The Williams Reads initiative aims to foster new connections among students, staff, faculty, and community members by exploring diversity and community through a common reading experience. Williams Reads is offered during Winter Study as an opportunity for us to explore a book together that will help us to celebrate and deepen our appreciation of varying viewpoints and experiences. It is a goal of the CDC to select a book that will stimulate community engagement and challenging conversation. In addition, the college offers related discussions, movies, performances, and presentations. In 2007, 700 free copies of the chosen book are made available during the first week of Winter Study, with the intent that these copies will continue to circulate throughout the community.

How about Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life as the book selection? (Previous EphBlog discussion of this book here and of Williams Reads here and here.)

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Did Williams Read?

Although I approved of its goals, I was skeptical about the popularity of Williams Reads. I e-mailed AB ’07, who was scheduled to lead the January 16th discussion section. He didn’t reply, but my guess is that the exercise largely failed, meaning that almost no one not directly involved in planning the project showed up for the 4 discussion sections. To repeat a comment I made in the EphBlog thread about the claim that 500 copies of the book had been distributed.

Again, I am a fan of the idea behind Williams Reads and hope that the program continues for 50 years. But 500 copies! Color me skeptical. Are there really 500+ students/faculty/staff at Williams willing to take hours of time to read and discuss The Namesake? I doubt it. (The test will come if even half of these diligent readers come to one of the discussion sections during 1/16 to 1/19. I would be shocked to see 250 people show up for these events.)

An empirical question! How many people showed up? How interesting was the discussions? And how did the distribution of the next 200 (!) copies go?

Even though I suspect that very, very few people actually read the book or were interested enough to attend a discussion, I am still a fan of the idea. Better next year to 1) Have an on-line presence of some kind; 2) Involve alumni and 3) Pick a book of wider interest. In January 2008, something related to Presidential elections might work.

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Williams Reads

An interesting idea.

We invite the Williams Community to join us this January in our campus’s first “Williams Reads” program, in which students, faculty, and staff read, consider, and discuss The Namesake, a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri received a Williams honorary degree in 2005 and won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for her collection of short stories Interpreter of Maladies. In The Namesake, she explores issues of cultural and social identity through the experiences of a Bengali family settling in New England. Intergenerational tensions and other coming-of-age themes are richly evoked.

Comments:

1) Kudos to all involved for trying something new and different. I especially like the fact that they chose an author with an Eph connection, albeit a tenuous one.

2) It is too bad that no attempt whatsoever was made to involve alumni.

3) Was this book a good choice? I am not clear on how much of the purpose here is to touch on issues of diversity. If that is key, then, obviously, the book is a reasonable choice. If the main purpose is to generate wide interest in the Williams community for reading a book together, I would have suggested something either more topical (on the Iraq War?) or timeless.

4) Speaking as someone who has organized not-for-credit winter study classes for three years, I fear that the organizers may have dramatically overestimated the amount of student/faculty/staff interest in a project like this. The first meeting is tonight. If more than 25 people show up (other than the organizers), I would declare victory.

5) Who gets credit for the idea? Again, I (obviously) am a huge fan of bring students/faculty/alumni/staff together for non-traditional intellectual interaction.

Other community events will follow in the month of January. From Tuesday, January 16 – Friday, January 19, open community book discussions will be held daily at noon and at 4:00 p.m. Locations will be posted here at a later date.

Will more than a dozen show up to these meetings? I have my doubts. But, again, kudos entering the arena.

Groups of students, staff, and faculty are encouraged to discuss the book independently of these open community events. To encourage such group discussions, modest funds for refreshments are available; click here for more details

We look forward to participating in and learning from the many conversations catalyzed by “Williams Reads.” We hope you will join us.

Morton Owen Schapiro, President
Michael Reed, Vice President for Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity
Wendy Raymond, Chair, Committee on Diversity and Community

Modest funds, eh? My rugby-playing roommates would already have had their application in by now.

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