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Williams People: Web Pages for the Masses

Veteran reader Paresky Lawnbowler points out Williams People:

Anyone with a Williams account can get a web site here โ€“ simply log in at the right using your regular Williams username and password.

1) Good stuff! Is genius WordPress maven Chris Warren ’96 behind this effort?

2) My alumni login does not work. Does yours? Is this intended for alumni use? It ought to be!

3) Recall our discussion of Williams Blogs from three years (!) ago. Read more

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After-School Fun

Good to see an idea from Williams infiltrate the University of North Carolina:

Last year, graduate student and teaching assistant David Ticehurst had a few students from his Astronomy 101 class over for dinner.

Ticehurst went out and got barbecue, and he and his students discussed the stars until late in the evening.

He thought it was such a good idea that now he is trying to secure funding so professors and TAs can host similar events without taking money out of their own pockets.

Ticehurst, who spent his undergraduate years at Williams College, a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts, said his former school has a similar program that helped shape his undergraduate experience.

“I think it’s a really good idea,” he said. “It gives the students a chance to see the real world outside of the classroom.”

Ticehurst still needs funds for the program. Last year he sought $5,000 for the program from the Graduate and Professional Student Federation in addition to a matching contribution from the provost’s office.

“It’s like the University was just waiting for someone to come along with this idea,” he said. “They are always talking about developing a more intellectual climate, and that’s what this does.”

He said he is planning on designing a Web site where instructors can submit proposals and share stories about programs.

He also wants to make a presentation in front of the Faculty Council to get them excited about the program, which initially evolved out of class discussions.

Having the students over for barbecue was something Ticehurst, who is a certified barbecue judge, had talked about with his students all semester, he said.

When it came time to host a pilot event, he thought that would be the perfect time to try it.

Michael Johnston, a sophomore who was in Ticehurst’s astronomy lab, signed up to help Ticehurst after enjoying the first program.

“It was funny at first because you’re seeing all of these faces you’re used to seeing at 8 a.m. when nobody is awake,” Johnston said. “It was awkward at first, but we found enough to keep the conversation going.”

Johnston also said seeing the instructor outside of the classroom setting makes him or her more approachable.

It makes it seem like you have some sort of connection to this person that’s teaching you,” Johnston said. “Instead of just seeing this giant brain at the front, you see a little more of a person.”

I have no doubt that the evenings I spent drinking wine and chatting with professors till late at night were more valuable to me than a good many of my classes. I only regret that I did not do it more often.

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Ephtown

Want to know about the future of Ephs on-line? Go to Ephtown. Here’s how WSO alumnus and class speaker Evan Miller ’06 describes it.

I’m interested in making a sort of WSO for alumni. I didn’t appreciate the need for one until I graduated, but I’ve since come to believe that community in America is either dead or in a coma and it’s damn well difficult to solve life’s big problems without it (work that affects one’s friends and relations, love that doesn’t start in a bar). Anyway, I’m not writing you to preach, but to ask your help in establishing a site where Ephs can meet and help out other Ephs, discuss the issues of the day, and relish the small enjoyable things of life and of Williams.

Amazing stuff. The rest of the e-mail is below the break. Read it all. Twice.

Evan has now joined EphBlog as an author, the better to bring news of Ephtown to a wider audience. Our readers want to know more. (I wonder if the College will refuse to tell people about Ephtown in the same way that it never mentions EphBlog in any official communication.) Comments:

0) Know much about open source software? Start here and here. (Previous EphBlog discussion here.) Because I am involved with some open source projects, I am midway through Producing Open Source Software by Karl Fogel. In many ways, Evan is creating an open source version of Williams. You read it here first.

1) Williams College — the insular, technologically-backward and bureaucratic institution that we all love so well — needs to wake up! When someone as smart and talented as Evan Miller decides that he wants to make a site that Eph alumni will want to use as their homepage, then official college sites (e.g., here or here) are in big trouble. No matter how many thousands of dollars worth of checks you write to (incompetent) Harris Connect, your time has run out.

2) Evan was kind enough to listen to my hour-long rant about what Ephtown should be. I threw out a dozen crazy ideas. With luck, Evan will figure out which one of them was valuable and implement that one. Evan and I disagree about a lot of things, but we agree that there is a need for a single on-line location which brings together the community of Ephs. If the College refuses to make that location a reality, then we will do it for them.

3) I don’t want to be mean, but isn’t it a bit pathetic to imagine the Executive Committee of the Society of Alumni meeting this week-end, trapped in a cold and rainy Williamstown, learning about the latest “progress on our online communications strategies?” What progress? EphBlog has done orders of magnitude more for online communication among Ephs than everything that the alumni office has ever done. And now, Evan Miller (10 times smarter than me) is going to tackle this problem. The alumni office’s “online communications strategies” will soon be about as relevant as their ridiculous question of the day.

Now, I know, I know. The Executive Committee is made up of good people, dedicated to the betterment of Williams. I have many friends hard at work, everyday, in the alumni office. Shouldn’t I be nicer to them? Try to work with them? Try to explain how this whole internets thing works?

Yeah, I should. I should be a better person. But I have tried and tried and tried. And so have people like Ken Thomas and DeWitt Clinton and Evan Miller and so many others. At the end of the day, the College is a bureaucracy and the insiders selected for alumni leadership positions are unlikely to make trouble. The College is unable to make an online world worthy of Ephraim Williams and so we will make it ourselves.

4) How will history judge these efforts? We need look no further than Fred Rudolphs’s description of alumni efforts from page 207 of Mark Hopkins and the Log.

It would be incorrect to accuse the alumni of infiltration, for they had subscribed to the cult so well that they had not the slightest doubt that the college belonged to them. They were proud to be sons of Williams and sought, by demanding a role in controlling her destiny, to do their part in preserving her health, taking care of her in her old age, and seeing that her neighbors did not outdistance her. It was well that they thought as they did. The General Court in 1859 and 1860 passed legislation designed to test their manliness. Could the sons of Williams College manifest sufficient perseverance, devotion, and energy to send $100,000 home to Alma Mater to match the sums allotted by the Court? That was the test, and it was successfully met.

Those attempts to secure state funding almost 150 years ago seem far removed from the Williams of today. Yet the principle is the same. Too often, the College does not know what is best. We do. Following in the footsteps of David Dudley Field ‘1825, we will force the College to acknowledge and then embrace an online presence worthy of all the best that is Williams. Surely you know what Field accomplished, how he forced an insular College to recognize the importance of alumni, how he bent the leadership of the College to his will? Field is the patron saint of alumni trouble-makers.

Reading this from the alumni office on a sleepy Monday morning? Don’t know much about David Dudley Field, class of 1825? Time to learn some history. Those lessons will serve you well.

Read more

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EC Meeting

The executive committee of the Society of Alumni is meeting this week-end in Williamstown. The agenda?

Highlights of our meeting include a session with Mike Reed ’75, vice president for Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity, lunch with Brandi Brown ’07 who will talk about her winter study project on ‘Eph-ailure,’ and a discussion with John Noble, director of Career Counseling and several students about career-based affinity groups. We’ll continue our subcommittee discussions on issues of inclusion and volunteerism and be updated on The Williams Campaign and progress on our online communications strategies.

1) Kudos to the alumni office for making public this agenda. The more transparent the process, the more successful the outcome.

2) But we need more details! Mike Reed will probably have an interesting handout and/or informative slides. Can we see them? Why not? There are, perhaps, a few sensitive pieces of data that should not be widely distributed. Fine. Leave those out. But tell us everything else. Indeed, why not podcast Mike’s presentation?

3) “career-based affinity groups” are a type of Eph-COI. Go ahead and use our terminology. We don’t mind! Note that “career-based” is misleading. The OCC Finance blog is not just for those who make their careers in finance. It is also for those who find finance interesting, even if they are doctors or lawyers or professors. We need to get the alumni office involved with these groups.

4) Who are these “several students” and why aren’t I in touch with them? If you know them, please pass along a link to our listing of Eph-COI posts.

5) How might the members of the EC get involved? Easy. They should be bloggers! Joining EphBlog, for example, would get the word out about “inclusion and volunteerism” better than any other option. It would be great fun to have an EC member who, say once a week, wrote a post about volunteer work going on at Williams or among the alumni groups.

6) John Noble should also try to recruit a couple of EC members for his OCC blogs. The great challenge he will soon confront is the production of content. If you want to matter in the on-line world, you need readers. If you want readers, you need content (at least one new thing each weekday). Now, few we be as productive (?) as we here at EphBlog are, but the more different voices included at the OCC blogs, the better. Even if EC members don’t feel like writing posts, John should still be able to cajole/shame them into reading and, occasionally, commenting.

In any event, I am a fan of the EC. I applied for a space this year but was turned down. No worries! There is always next year. And every person on the EC that I know personally is a high quality individual. The more that Williams can harness their talent and dedication, the better.

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Blogress

An update on Williams Blogs. Chris Warren reports:

I talked with our Office of Career Counseling and our Alumni Office about setting up blogs on our new server. They were definitely interested. More importantly, it got the ball rolling on building a blogging policy. We’re still in the early discussion stage, but there are enough people with enough interest that I think we’ll get somewhere.

One of the big questions to be resolved is blog ownership / authorship. We aren’t establishing just a general blogging service here, we’re setting up Williams blogs: departments, offices, student groups, etc. That means that the college brand and identity will at least somewhat be tied to them. On the other hand, the blog authors aren’t there just to be a mouthpiece for the college. Sanctioning official blogs means giving up a certain amount of control, which is scary from an administrative perspective.

Interesting times. Once we hash out something I’ll post some kind of summary here (but don’t hold your breath).

Ridiculous. Does anyone in authority have even the faintest clue about the operation and culture of web life? To be clear, I do not think that this is Chris Warren’s fault. He can only provide good tools for people to use. He can’t make them use those tools.

But the whole concept of “official” Williams blogs is ridiculous because there is an unavoidable continuum of connectedness with Williams. The “brand and identity” of the College is associated with every Eph, near and far. Just because a blog sits on a Williams server or has the name “Williams College” on it or has Williams employees as authors does not provide it with meaningfully more or less status as an “official” blog. I worry that even Chris may not quite get this when he writes:

The difficulty arises when the blog authors aren’t directly a part of the institution. For example, the Office of Career Counseling wants to have blogs about a particular job sectors, with alumni from those sectors writing blog entries. The blogs are official Williams blogs and reflect that way on the college, but the authors are associated only by having gone there. We need either to limit what sorts of things the authors can say, or find a way to make it clear that the opinions expressed by the authors aren’t necessarily related to any opinion / position held by the college.

An important distinction here is that we’re talking about official college blogs. Anybody associated with the college is certainly welcome (encouraged, even) to blog on their own as an individual rather than as a representative of the college (and in such a case we would point them towards some independent hosting system).

It is ludicrous to talk about anyone (other than, perhaps Morty or Jim Kolesar) as being a “representative of the college” in a fashion that would impede or enhance their blogging or even their writing. Consider some concrete examples.

The Anthropology/Sociology Department maintains a lovely website and publishes a regular newsletter. Oh, no! The College does not have a “policy” for that! Quick! Stop everything! We need a policy about what is allowed and is not allowed on that website. We need rules about who is allowed and not allowed to contribute to that newsletter. Can alumni contribute? Can they write anything that they want to write? What happens if they wrote something, you know, bad? What happens if the Department insists on publishing that bad thing? Chaos!

Professor Marc Lynch writes an excellent blog. Although the blog itself is not hosted by a Williams computer, Marc uses a Williams computer in his office to update the blog; he uses Williams computers (I think) to host other files which are linked to from the blog; he blogs during the work day; he mentions the blog to his students, many of whom read it. Any promotions that he gets from the College will (correctly!) cite the blog as one of his most excellent contributions to his academic field. Where is the Williams “policy” on Lynch’s blogging? What is he allowed to say or not say?

Do I need to go on? WSO provides blogs for any Williams student or alum. Those blogs are hosted on Williams computers, their contents distributed via Williams-provided bandwidth. Where are the policies? Where are the standards? Stop everything! We need a committee meeting!

Enough with the rant. There is no need to make a distinction between the blogs that Chris is working to provide via Lyceum and any other blogging/writing that is associated with Williams — created on the College’s computers or hosted on its servers or written by its employees. No policy is needed. Just two rules.

1) Provide a link to a handy disclaimer just as we do at EphBlog (at the request of Jim Kolesar).

(I actually think that even this is a waste of time. There are no such disclaimers at the Anth/Soc website. Oh, no! Someone might think that anything written there is the official policy of Williams College. We wouldn’t want that!)

2) Trust the judgment of the people who work at Williams. You think that John Noble is so stupid that he would allow alumni to post ridiculous things at the OCC blogs? You worry that Dick Nesbitt would let inflammatory text remain on an Admissions blog? Get a grip! The senior folks at Williams have good judgment. You have no more reason to worry about what goes on at the OCC blogs than you have to worry about what gets written in the Anth/Soc newsletter.

There will, as always, be teething pains and even scandals. But that is part of the learning process. Just start slow. Set up one OCC blog and see how it works. Get some experience. At that point, you can, if you need to, promulgate some official rules. Odds are, however, that you won’t need to.

Guidelines on the best way to create a successful Williams Blogs program are available here.

We need progress, not blogress.

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EphCOI Version 2

The SoA is talking in Portland about on-line communities. Comments:

1) Williams needs EphCOI: Williams-connected Communities of Interest. If on-line communities involving alumni (and students/faculty/staff/parents) are ever going to work, it will only be in the context of shared interests of some sort. My thoughts now are more or less the same as two years ago. The main change is that a blog with new content every weekday is clearly the best way to start. Sign up one staff member to help (read: ensure that at least one new item appears each day) and then find one or two alumni and students to lead the effort. These will be the first authors.

2) Start small. There is no need to create 15 of these from the start. Prove that the concept is a workable one with just one or two sites. I will ensure that an Ephs in Finance blog will succeed. Perhaps Dan Blatt ’85 could be recruited for Ephs in Entertainment. Why not our own Ben Fleming ’04 for Ephs in Journalism? Jen Doleac ’03 for Ephs in Policy? When I took DeWitt Clinton ’98 out to dinner in San Francisco, he was filled with big talk about organizing an Ephs in Technology group of some sort, perhaps with Evan Miller ’05. Recruit them. But first demonstrate the potential (and Williams’s commitment) with a working example.

3) Be open. There must be no logins or passwords (except for authors, obviously). Anyone from anywhere must be able to read these blogs. Anything less will lead to failure. I, for one, certainly wouldn’t bother to participate. There is an argument, perhaps, for keeping some things hidden. For example, no outsider can see my internship posting on the internal OCC site. If it makes the powers-that-be nervous, fine. Hide stuff. Yet, for the most part, this is stupid. Hidden stuff will never be a common point of interest within any EphCOI because most readers won’t, obviously, be able to see it. In addition, I actually hate the fact that I can’t (easily) check to confirm that my listing is correct on the OCC site. There is no real reason for hiding this material. If OCC didn’t want too many outsiders to see it, they could just ask Google to not index that information (DeWitt Clinton can tell you how). But anything that is clearly labeled as “For Williams Students Only” is, obviously, not going to draw a lot of attention from non-Ephs.

3) Be friendly. A blog-savvy person from OIT, like Chris Warren, can help ensure that the blogs have all the standard feeds and options. Older readers will appreciate the ability to easily print things, especially long threads (something that might be nice for EphBlog). Younger participants will insist on RSS and the like. It might even be nice to include options to sign up for a (week) daily or weekly e-mail summary with embedded links. The key is that the EphCOI must make it easy for Ephs to participate in whatever manner they prefer with a minimum of hassle.

4) Start simple. Although there might be a case in the future for advanced tools like forums, there is no need for that now. A blog with comments will be enough. Note, also, that you must simplify the lives of the authors as much as possible. For example, you should handle spam deletion. Authors should have no other responsibility beyond posting and commenting.

5) Start now. The natural partners for this effort are OCC and SoA. John Noble, head of OCC, is an impressive individual who clearly grasps the importance of bringing alumni and students together. The more involved that alumni are with undergraduates, the more successful that OCC will be in its primary mission. SoA is — how to put this kindly? — technologically backward and inward looking. That will change with time. Perhaps the EC could force that change. But, as best I can tell, they have no idea how to create an on-line community that alumni will actually participate in. Nor do they have much inclination for learning from those who do. So, OCC should invite SoA to participate but press on without them if (when?) they decline to do so.

6) Be tolerant. The College and SoA find wide-ranging discussion scary. What if someone posting on Ephs in Finance says something like this, this or this? Won’t powerful people be offended? Perhaps. But (polite) free discussion and debate is the only thing that will cause people to participate. Censorship means failure.

7) Be polite. Although you can not (and should not) prevent Ephs from discussing and debating controversial topics in finance, nothing prevents you from ensuring that those debates are civilized, that participants are polite and that abusive commentators are banned. Do those things. Give all authors the ability to delete and edit posts and comments. Because Ephs are sensible, they will use this power wisely. But keep an eye on them just in case.

My forecast: I think that John Noble and Chris Warren have the perfect combination of technical skills and creative vision to make EphCOI a reality. By the end of Spring Break, I think that we will have an Ephs in Finance blog with several authors (me, some students, Robin Meyer for OCC? an alum working at SoA? John Noble?). I think that this blog will have new material each weekday and that this material will be interesting. I think that, each week, there will be scores of readers, both alumni and students. Some of the material will just be posts about finance Ephs in the news. Some will be information on finance-related job openings and internships offered through OCC. Yet the very best material will arise from the interaction of students and alumni. Students have questions about life in finance and alumni have answers. Williams just needs to bring the two groups together.

Once everyone sees the success of an Ephs in Finance blog, we will soon have an Ephs in Entertainment blog, an Ephs in Education blog, and so on.

Full Disclosure: I am an excessively relentless and unrealistic optimist.

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EphCOI

Williams needs to facilitate the formation and maintenance of EphCOI (rhymes with thief-boy), Williams-connected Communities of Interest.

Basic idea is that there are large numbers of Ephs (students, alumni, professors and staff) with interests in specific fields and endeavors. One example is Ephs in Entertainment.

It began as a happy accident. In March 2002, screenwriter B. Daniel Blatt ’85 organized a dinner for Ephs after a New England Small Colleges function for Los Angeles-area alumni trying to break into show business. When nearly two dozen Williams alumni and friends crammed around a long table at a North Hollywood restaurant and stayed until closing to exchange e-mail addresses and business leads, Blatt knew he was on to something. Thus began Ephs in Entertainment, a drinking club with a networking problem.

The whole article makes for a fun read. The problem, though, is that there is no way for Ephs who don’t live in LA to participate. While there is a lot to be said for getting together over dinner, there should also be an EphCOI devoted to the entertainment business that would feature links to news articles, discussion of current events, advice for job-seekers, internship opportunities and so on. The same applies for Ephs in Finance, Ephs in the Law, Ephs in Football, Ephs in Cartooning, Ephs in et cetera.

Now, it is true that the College tries to facilitate some of this via alumni communities of various sorts, but, as best I can tell, these aren’t very successful. Does anyone use them? The main problem, I suspect, is that no one is going to bother with a resource that requires a login and password. (What percentage of alumni ever login to any part of the Alumni Society’s site?) Moreover, as best I can tell, all the alumni resources are essentially cut off from the worlds of current undergraduates. The real value (and fun) of something like Ephs in Finance would come from the interactions between alumni and students.

It would also be helpful to get faculty involved. Perhaps the single most famous and successful example of Eph networking is the famous Art History Mafia, which was centered around Williams faculty.

Another natural realm for such a community involves academic advising.

Simple outline is to create department centered teams of people who would gather information about that department, provide a FAQ and answer questions. For the most part, one students plus one alum would be all that you really need. There can’t be more than a few thousand words worth of things that students need to know about, say, the Political Science department.

These posts could all be categorized to make it easy for someone to pull up the collected wisdom of the participants about, say, Art History.

The College (as well as the Gargoyles) have recently worked on academic advising, just as they worked on it 20 years ago. None of the proposed solutions seem that useful. None use technology that wasn’t available when my father was at Williams five decade ago. Unless and until the collective wisdom of Ephdom is gathered together and made accessible (and interactive), academic advising will be sub-optimal.

What sort of tools do EphCOI require? Nothing fancy. Everything could be done with a blog, even within EphBlog, but it would be nice for someone else to take on the leadership role here. What is Gargoyle working on in 2005-2006? I suspect that the nice folks at WSO would be willing to help out. Even the College itself, perhaps under the leadership of OCC or the Alumni Society, will provide a rallying point.

But whatever the details, I would recommend that certain principals apply. First, the site (blog, webpage, wiki, whatever) must be open. People can’t be bothered to login. Second, the site must solicit feedback and material from both undergraduates and alums and, ideally, faculty. Third, specific volunteers will need to take responsibility for their EphCOI. I would certainly be happy enough to volunteer to help with Ephs in Finance and academic advising in Economics. And there are hundreds of alums like me who would be just as eager to participate.

EphCOI. You read it here first.

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