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Phi Beta Kappa History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Another Christmas Song

Need help getting into the holiday spirit? Be sure check out Stephen Colbert’s Another Christmas Song … co-written by very clever Eph Adam Schlesinger ’89. The Christmas album won a Grammy for best comedy album:

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'A Colbert Christmas: Another Christmas Song
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> Video Archive

One Possible Explanation for our Economic Woes …

[Featuring Eph “Julianna McKannis” ’81]:

Report: Economy Failing Because U.S. Built On Ancient Indian Burial Grounds


Classic Colbert: Mark Udall

There is no greater honor in American society today than a guest appearance on the Colbert Report.  Accordingly, any Eph who makes such an appearance deserves, at the very least, to be featured on Ephblog.  One we missed from a number of years ago: Senator (then Congressman) Mark Udall ’72, who was one of the first members of the House to brave Colbert’s brilliant “Better Know a District” segment.  If you’d like to see an Eph challenged to “disagree” with the statement “I hate Nazis,” this is your chance to do so.  No doubt, Udall attributes his subsequent political rise to this segment.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Better Know a District – Colorado’s 2nd – Mark Udall
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog Video Archive

Looking to Procrastinate? Browse Ephblog Humor

There is now a sizable (and growing) group of humorous posts tagged under “humor.” Since the tag is fairly new, I’ve gone back and retroactively applied it to some of the past posts that qualify. I’m sure I’ve missed quite a few, so if you’ve posted something funny, please apply the tag! Even in the tag’s current nascent state, you can spend hours procrastinating watching Ephs on the Daily Show and Colbert, “Julianna McKannis” Onion videos, and writing from humorous (or in the case of yours truly, attempting-to-be-humorous) Ephs.  Of course, Ephblog is far from a comprehensive source — for example, we’ve missed quite a few Daily Show appearances by Eph Michael Beschloss.

As a special bonus, here is one from the humor archive never before posted on Ephblog, a Daily Show panel discussion featuring Eph Edward Larson ’74 who, incredibly, still believes in some crazy thing called “evolution.” [And by the way, Jon Stewart has a point about the scrotum.]:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Evolution, Schmevolution – Panel: Edward J. Larson, William A. Dembski, Ellie Crystal
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> The Daily Show on Facebook

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.


Colbert on Mika on Palin

First rule of Ephblog: anytime an Eph appears on, or is mentioned by, Stephen Colbert, it must be shared on Ephblog.  Why?  Because Colbert = God.  Here, Colbert reacts to Mika’s (understandable) exasperation at having to play yet another clip of Palin babbling about herself.  And by the way, Colbert pretty much sums up Palin’s current relevance in his brilliant-as-usual riff.  Enjoy. [Oh, and for those who missed it, Mika herself appeared on Colbert about a year ago].

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'Mika Brzezinski Experiences Palin Fatigue
The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> Video Archive

Tips from the top …

You can always learn from the masters! Starbucks is dropping the words “Starbucks Coffee” from their logo in order to more accurately represent their broad line of product offerings.

Given the discussions of funding, endowments, budget management, teacher retension, competitive position, etc. being discussed below, who can really say that E. Williams and his pension from the French and Indian Wars represent the true state of the college offerings today?

More is less. Less is more!

Here is the Reuters story:


Fall Into a Stupor (a Counterargument)

What is the real purpose of Winter Study, especially for lazy undergraduates?

The real purpose of Winter Study is to fall into a food, beer, and videogame-induced stupor.

You will never, ever be surrounded by as many continuous deadline-free hours as you are right now.  Life after college, is, comparatively, a job-having, bill-paying, house-fixing, kids-to-care-for, stress-filled wasteland.  Of course, as you pass into the great beyond, you will have three-day weekends and even the occasional sick day, but you’ll probably waste those days waiting around for cable guys and plumbers, caring for kids with the flu, or trying to work off your fast-advancing waistline.  More importantly, even your twelve annual vacation days will primarily be spent contemplating how you can possibly keep pace with the various responsibilities of adulthood.  Exiting Williams without having sixteen weeks of pure, unadulterated, hedonistic bliss to be nostalgic for is not necessarily a one way ticket to an unhappy life, but it is not a smart way to play the odds.  The odds favor leisure now.

It isn’t that your classes and papers, your theses and sports teams, are unimportant.  (Well, actually, to be honest, they are).  But enjoying 12 hours per day of sleep for the last time in your life, being able to drink without suffering debilitating 24 hour hangovers, playing four hours of hoops without your body requiring a three day recovery window, and eating endless amounts of subs and pizza and gaining nary a pound (I’d add guilt-free sex with peers in their physical prime, but let’s be real, this is Williams after all) — this is much more important than falling in love or learning to juggle.

So, stop reading this blog, chug two beers, place an order with Hot Tomatoes, and take a three hour nap with an empty pizza box as your blanket.  I did the same 14 (and 15, and 16, and 17) years ago, and have never regretted it since.


The Social-Financial Complex …

“The Military-Industrial Complex” just seems so analog!

In case you missed the story:


Stephen Sondheim — Greatest Interview in the history of interviews

Enjoy! This could be the greatest interview ever in journalism and, Go Williams.

My favorite journalistic question of all time had been Edward R. Murrow asking Louis Armstrong, “What’s a cat, Louis?” To which Satchmo replied, “You’re a cat, Ed.”

Colbert has at least tied that one with, “Where are the clowns anyway?”

If this link fails, just Google “Stephen Colbert, Stephen Sondheim.”


AA Ruining Lives, with Julianna McKannis

AA Destroying The Social Lives Of Thousands Of Once-Fun Americans


Eph Gives Nuns the Finger …

… among other indignities suffered by Jennifer Dorr White ’81, aka Julianna McKannis, in her latest appearance on the Onion News Network:

Has Obama Failed To Reduce Hostility Toward Obnoxious Americans Abroad?


Alumni Fund Email Seminar

A few days ago, I received the most important email that I have received from Adam Falk in the past two weeks.  Today is part one of a year-long seminar in which I discuss the hidden implications of this email, which are readily apparent to me, even if lesser mortals lack my divination abilities.  And so it begins:

Dear Jeff,

Note the use of the informal “Jeff” instead of “Jeffrey” or “Mr. Zeeman.”  (Sort of like Larry David takes the “tu liberty” … but that’s crazy, wacky, mixed-up President Falk).  By choosing “Jeff,” Falk is establishing that he is the kind of President I’d want to drink a beer with, as opposed to a guy who might try to get me to audit one of his classes.  I enjoy drinking Boddingtons.  Conclusion: Falk’s favorite beer is Boddingtons.

In my first six months at your alma mater, I have grown to appreciate the profound importance of Alumni Fund giving to what matters most at Williams.

“What matters most at Williams”appears to be a reference to Winter Study.  All classes will henceforth be pass-fail.  Alternative interpretation: “what matters most at Williams” is a reference to Mountain Day.  Every day will now be Mountain Day, and the faculty will all be retrained as mountain sherpas.  [Although I seriously doubt Falk trusts anyone on the current faculty to be head sherpa — that role will be outsourced to someone with specialized sherpa training].

Last year,

“Last year” was 2009.  20 – 9 = 11.  2 + 0 + 0 + 9 also = 11.  President Falk’s tenure will last eleven years.

alumni contributed $9 million through the Alumni Fund, 6 percent of our entire operating revenue.  In tough economic times, such generosity is as essential as it is impressive, because we employ these gifts to sustain the values at the core of the Williams enterprise.

This one is facially obvious.  “Core values” =  U2 will be performing the national anthem at the next Williams-Amherst game, thanks to your alumni dollars.

Stay tuned for Part Two, where I provide an in-depth analysis of the meaning underlying President Falk’s font choice.  [Hint: Times New Roman indicates certain pedagogical priorities].


McKannis on Falling Truck Disasters

From earlier this summer, another Onion News Network video featuring Julianna McKannis (aka Jennifer Dorr White ’81).  Be sure to watch through the end, because the pitch-perfect parody of scare TV journalism starting at 2:12 is fantastic:

Truck Accident That Killed Rafters in Canyon Sparks Truck-Canyon-Rafter Reform Debate


Let the Bodies Hit the Floor

Check out this awesome entry from the E.P.H.S. series.  I bet that the prospectives on this tour were all super-pumped about Williams.  Either that, or terrified to attend.  The group responsible, the Waterstreeters, are a in a close battle with the Springstreakers for the award of best new campus group of the past decade. I think that the Waterstreeters should organize an annual admissions tour prank, only escalating the level of absurdity each time, a la Improv Everywhere (for those unfamiliar with that group, start with Where’s Rob?, Frozen Grand Central, and their Spontaneous Musicals). We all need more bizarre, unexpected improvisation events in our life, right???


No “Athletic Training” Major

Will Slack rightly criticizes the methodology (but not the result) behind the Forbes #1 ranking for Williams: 

The average salary of graduates is, in itself, not an accurate ranking of professional success within one’s field, but instead dependent on the fields that grads enter. A college with a lot of pre-Med and pre-finance students, like Williams, will do well here because of the kind of students who come here, not because we educate them especially better. 

Presumably creating a finance major, as outlined by David and supported bycommenters, including arjun and 19 mph can help us maintain our strength in that aspect of the Forbes rankings in the future. But maybe we’re already gaming the rankings through those majors we’re excluding. Consider this list of the “20 Worst-Paying College Degrees in 2010“:

1. Child and Family Studies    

2. Elementary Education        

 3. Social Work                    

4. Athletic Training            

5. Culinary Arts                         

6. Horticulture                         

7. Paralegal Studies/Law

8. Theology

9. Recreation & Leisure

10. Special Education

11. Dietetics

12. Religious Studies

13. Art

14. Education

15. Interdisciplinary Studies

16. Interior Design

17. Nutrition

18. Graphic Design

19. Music

20. Art History

Williams majors are pretty much absent from the top ten — and I’d bet given the examples of museum directors recently profiled in the New York Times, the Williams Art Mafia is doing its part to ensure that #20 isn’t dragging us down!

I did expect “Athletic Training” to finish a little better, though — isn’t that pretty much what every NFL player “majored in” during their “studies”?


The Moor, The Marrier

Seth Brown ’01:

Anyway, while thinking about love, I came to a conclusion about myself which I felt was an solid little Facebook update status. “Seth Brown loves very wisely, but not well enough.” And then I realized that while some people would understand my intent to present a reversal of Othello’s quote as an explanation that I feel I have chosen very excellent friends indeed even if I sometimes do not show my appreciation sufficiently, on Facebook it would probably sound to most people like, “Seth Brown likes awesome girls but is bad in bed.”***

Not that there is anything wrong with that! See the full post for more on the marrier.


U.S. Moat

This video (featuring Eph “Julianna McKannis”) is from a few years back, but is timely during a week when a few actual, real life, non-fictional Senators are pressing for repeal of the 14th Amendment. At what point did we become a parody of ourselves?

In The Know: The U.S. Moat


Julianna McKannis on Torture

I missed this great “news” report featuring The Onion’s Julianna McKannis (aka Jennifer Dorr White ’81), posted in late 2009.  More from McKannis here, here and here.

Is Using A Minotaur To Gore Detainees A Form Of Torture?


“Live-Blogging” Game 5 of the 1976 ALCS. Yankees v. Royals

I really wasn’t going to do another one of these.

Simply really. The last one got a lot of positive feedback and, frankly, in a lot of ways, I’ve moved away from baseball (and most other professional sports) to soccer and college athletics, so why not quit while I was ahead? But the death of George Steinbrenner has made me want to “live blog” this particular game: Game 5 of the 1976 American League Championship Series between the Kansas City Royals and the New York Yankees, October 14, 1976. For George, this was his first real triumph as Yankees owner: the first time the Yankees had been to post season in twelve years. For me, it was a watershed game. This was the first Royals team I followed avidly, and the amount of civic pride in their accomplishment was just insane. This particular game started my life lessons that, no matter how much a nine year old wants to believe, sometimes his heroes don’t win. And so, off we go to a chilly October night in the Bronx….

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Breaking News: Lebron Chooses Williams!

Although most of the speculation of late has centered on Lebron James forming a supergroup in Miami with D.Wade and Chris Bosh, sources inside of the Williams athletics department have confirmed that, this evening on ESPN, Lebron James will announce his intention* to suit up next season for Coach Maker.  In explaining his shocking choice, Lebron will cite to his promise to earn a college degree, his understanding that the best basketball education consists of “John Wooden on one end of the bench, and a player on the other,” a desire for clear skies after seven years in Cleveland, the vibrant Billsville nightlife, and a lifelong hatred for Amherst College.  In anticipation of this announcement, Lebron’s Akron posse has already rented out The Orchards for the next four years, and Mount Hope Farm has been converted into first year housing.  More details to come as the story develops …

[For more on Lebron’s decision, check out Sam Sommers’ latest blog entry]. 

*Pending approval from the Admissions Office.


How to Break Up with William’s College

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., June 3, 2010 —

When I first met William, five years ago on a blustery April afternoon, I knew I had found something special.

“I’ve got a lot to offer,” he said, as I listened with the impressionable eagerness of an overachieving high school student, “and I can’t help noticing that you are rather well-rounded.”

Our courtship was typical: a protracted flirtation in which backgrounds were dissected and attributes appraised. I read his guidebooks, his blogs; he read my personal essay, my recommendations. He was certainly my type: preppy, athletic, a small town intellectual who liked the outdoors and was attractive in the most charmingly pastoral manner. He was financially generous, and, rumor had it, extremely well endowed.
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Quick Links

  • An excellent proposal for the future of social networking, from Miles Klee ’07:

    The Problems: Software cannot compensate for multivalence of human language or extract opinion from complex syntax. User-provided information insufficient to form 100% accurate/effective ad mosaic. Social networking still dominated by non-commercial data, i.e., quotidian/creative user content.

    With Miles’ plan, we can finally extinguish non-commercial content.

  • Steve O’Grady ’97 has a good post on the commodification of journalism and the future of news:

    Reporting as the art of regurgitating the traditional who, what, where and when’s demise probably began with the rise of TV, maybe even the radio. Today, everybody knows everything. Fast.[…]

    What everybody doesn’t know, however, is what it means. What’s the significance? What’s the context? And so on. I honestly could care less who was first had the news that the healthcare bill had passed, but I’ll put a premium on someone with the ability to put the enormous bill in context, whether that’s for me or in the historical sense.

    Context is king.

  • Ariel Ramchandani is looking forward to civet-poop coffee becoming trendy.
  • Stephen Rose ’58 optimistically thinks that the venting season may be over.
  • Peter Nunns ’08 on the conceptual and political impossibility of the term “slums”

McKannis “Reports” on the EZ-Go Juicer

In The Know: Should More Americans Get In On The EZ-Go Juicer Craze?

More McKannis videos here and here.


Ephblog Shortcut Keys

For posters too busy to write out responses to some of the more annoying rhetorical techniques commonly employed on this blog, I present these handy shortcut keys.  Updated with several additions since a prior version of this post …

  • The instant classic, iterating to agreement.
  • Two options for the frequently-needed beating a dead horse.
  • The strawman, and his cousin, the red herring.
  • To keep David in check, this is handy when Ephblog threatens to transform into KaneBlog, and this, for when it devolves into a Page Six-style gossip rag.
  • Of course, we need a troll icon.
  • Another Ephblog favorite: moving the goalposts.
  • When we need to rant at another poster, who better than Pacino [warning: NSFW].
  • Uncomfortable learning, courtesy of Dick Swart.
  • The false dilemma.
  • David found this one: appropriate when someone gets out of line and needs to be bounced.
  • For responding to comments so incredibly dumb that a substantive rejoinder is pointless.
  • When we want to thank someone for pointing out the obvious.
  • The only acceptable response to excessive self-pity … unless Steve Buscemi happens to be in the room, as his version is way better.
  • For those with an obsessive need to correct false claims.
  • To register displeasure at impenetrable writing.
  • For response to commentators with a well-established, reflexive, irrational animus, consider the source.
  • And finally, reserved for those special moments when we just can’t take it anymore, I present this classic.

More from Julianna McKannis …

Another video featuring Eph “Julianna McKannis” from The Onion.

How Will The End Of Print Journalism Affect Old Loons Who Hoard Newspapers?


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