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Windows on Williams II

Welcome! We’re spending the week covering Windows on Williams. Today, I’ll be bringing you through the parts of WOW that stuck out to me as memorable:

Welcome Dinner and Introductions

Quite interesting! At the other fly-ins I went to, for the first night, you were handed a meal ticket and pretty much left to shift for yourself at one of the cafeterias. Williams, however, has a whole separate banquet type thing, with catered food and huge tanks of iced apple cider, where student interns in the admissions office mull around and answer any questions that visiting students might have.

I like this quite a bit. It gives the student hosts a break, it gives our visiting students more time in front of admissions office staff, and, it makes for a good venue to conduct introductions from.

Jamboree: Student Performance Showcase

Wretched. Awful. Needs to die, both at Williams and as a convention of the fly-in generally. For one, they almost always schedule the student performances on the first night — when everyone is jet-lagged, and cranky, and really not in the mood to watch a step routine. (And, might I add that attendance is usually mandatory.)

Any charms of the format wear thin by one’s second fly-in, usually. Mostly because there’s no variety between colleges. I visited three schools, hundreds of miles apart, in different athletic conferences and with radically different alleged styles of education; all of them subjected me to three acapela groups, two dance troupes, and some really maudlin, weirdly metered poetry.

Jamboree: Bad, Bad Trivia

What gave me the most hope for student showcase at Williams — the promise of trivia — ended up being the most disappointing. Here are the three of the questions they asked at my WOW: “What war did Col. Ephraim Williams fight in?” ; “Who is the director of admissions at Williams?” and “Williams is the second oldest college in the state of Massachusetts, what school is the oldest?”

Seriously? We, purport to, and in fact have, a very rich trivial tradition at Williams. And this is the best we can do?  I don’t want to put too fine a point on this (because WOW as a whole is great and my specific critiques should be read as footnotes to mountains of praise) but how fun is it to ask students to recall the name of an admissions director they’ve just met? And why the last question? Why are we bothering, even indirectly like this, to compare Williams to Harvard? It seems a slimy way to rub some of the Harvard prestige off on Williams. Why not ask a question about Pres. Garfield, or Leehom Wang? It might teach the youth something.

 Mountain Day

My WOW, the October session, ended up falling on Mountain Day. I couldn’t imagine a better time to be on campus; the idyllic, sexed-up Williams that we ought to be showing prefrosh comes out on Mountain Day. Can we bring future WOW classes to campus during Mountain Day without spoiling the surprise? It’s my hope we can.

Sample Classes

Very good! Surprisingly good, actually. I was worried that, at fifty students apiece, the sample classes would be overcrowded, but, evidently there exist members of the Williams faculty that can teach fifty student seminars. Prof. Leyla Rouhi, in particular, had a sort of rockstar quality; there was a line of people waiting to speak to her after she finished teaching.

Divisions Dinner

I won’t say much about it, because unqualified praise doesn’t need the space. Interestingly, two Ephblog favorites, Prof. Joe Cruz ’91 and Prof. Steven Miller, were both in attendance at the October WOW. Prof. Miller even gave the whole room a neat little demonstration of Benford’s Law.

That concludes our post today! Tomorrow, we return to the usual Ephblog listicle format as well as to reasonable standards of length.

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First They Came for the Fervent Liberals

Consider this comment from ephalum regarding student complaints about Venker being allowed to speak at Williams.

Sorry, Juan, but that comment reads like a self-parody (is it intended to be, perhaps I am missing something?) of the sorts of ridiculous overreaction to speakers whose ideas you might dislike, even find offensive or stupid. Having a speaker appear on campus who no one is under any obligation to listen to in no way causes tangible harm, let alone should be equated to the “dispersal of violent ideologies.” The answer to speech you dislike is more speech. That is fundamental to any discourse, whether political or academic. During my time at Williams we had plenty of speakers far more inherently offensive than this speaker on BOTH sides of the spectrum (Charles Murray, Nation of Islam leader Khalid Muhammed, etc.) but no one claimed to suffer any sort of psychological harm based on their mere presence on campus.

(And in case you don’t know, I am a fervent liberal, but the few extreme voices from the far left trying to shut down discourse due to purported psychological damage are an embarrassment to the rest of us).

Indeed. But where was ephalum four months later when Falk cancelled Derbyshire using, more or less, the exact same reasoning which ephalum mocked here? In particular, is Adam Falk (someone who has successfully “shut down discourse”) an “embarrassment to the rest of us?” And, if not, what distinguishes him from the students who protested against Venker being allowed to speak?

A similar complaint applies to our own Professor Miller who, four months ago, played the “First they came for the Socialists” card, writing:

PBK is dedicated to the principles of freedom of inquiry and liberty of thought and expression. We do not necessarily support the views and opinions of the speakers, but we strongly support the calls made by President Falk, William McGuire III ’17 and others on the importance and value of having civil discussions. There is a great opportunity in such debate, and we encourage all interested members of the community to come to these and other events and be heard. Many of the positions held by students and faculty on our campus today would not have found receptive audiences in the earlier days of Williams; ideas should be refuted by facts, not silenced.

Talk is cheap. If Miller really believes in the “the principles of freedom of inquiry and liberty of thought and expression,” he will stand up to Falk. Tenure serves no useful purpose if it does not encourage professors like Miller to fight the administration about important matters of principal.

Assume that Miller means what he writes. What should he do next?

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Star Wars Week: Episode 1

Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in theaters on Friday and is rapidly consuming the cultural oxygen. EphBlog is not a Force-free zone, and so we’re featuring a series of Williams College/Star Wars crossover posts.

Let’s start with EphBlog contributor and Associate Professor of Mathematics Steven Miller. As part of the Winter Study course Mathematics of Legos, Prof. Miller has spearheaded the world-record construction of a Lego model of a Super Star Destroyer, bringing the record into Eph hands last January:

A team of 59 Williams College math students and about 10 Williamstown Elementary School students managed to assemble a 3,152-piece LEGO Star Wars model — the Super Star Destroyer — in 9 minutes and 31 seconds…

It was compressed pandemonium. In the center of each table there seemed to be a spinning tumbleweed of a dozen hands slapping small plastic bricks together again and again.

After 9 minutes, 31 seconds, the universe’s most dangerous Imperial battle cruiser was intact and ready for flight.

Williams College freshman Kent Blaeser, of Boxford, said he heard about last year’s attempt before he had even applied to Williams, and it helped attract him to the school.

“It’s a college where they do cool stuff and projects like this are a prime example,” he said. “I’m glad I go to be part of this, and that we got to break the record this year.”

“And who doesn’t want to break a world record,” added Williams freshman Jack Lee, of Larchmont, N.Y.

Assembly of the Super Star Destroyer.  Credit: Record Photo Editor Christian Ruhl.

Assembly of the Super Star Destroyer. Credit: Record Photo Editor Christian Ruhl.

Prof. Miller’s Mathematics of Legos page also features this X-Wing, that he describes as having been built “from the bucket of LEGO bricks I saved from my childhood.”

X Wing

Prof. Miller’s course highlights the wonderful nature of Winter Study. It’s true that a full semester mathematics course on combinatorics could incorporate a Star Wars themed speed-build project, but that would be an unlikely main goal. And a full semester course couldn’t use the lure of Lego construction as effectively to engage students from outside the Mathematics and Statistics department — something that can be done during Winter Study.

As Prof. Miller explained:

The Winter Study class “is a chance to reach a different audience and teach students something they might not have thought of earlier,” says Miller, who runs a popular math riddle website (mathriddles.williams.edu) and works with the SMALL Undergraduate Research Project, a nine-week summer program at Williams that brings together undergraduates from around the globe to investigate open research problems in mathematics. “I want students to be exposed to some types of thinking that are not on their radar screens. Some things, in the real world, nobody would do the way they’re taught in books.”

But back to Star Wars. Just how big is that “real-world” Super Star Destroyer that they built the model of?
People obsessed with Star Wars put a lot of time into questions exactly like that. One good estimate is from a blogger at StarWars.com, which pegs it at about 13.5km in length. So if you set the nose down on the Williams Inn, facing west, and laid the Super Star Destroyer more or less along Route 2, the tail would be about 1000 meters past the Hairpin Turn, overlooking North Adams.

Anyone have some Photoshop skills to illustrate that?

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Yale to Williams and Back

I’m an associate professor of mathematics at Williams now, but my academic career began as an undergrad at Yale in the 90’s. This post is parallel to Yale and Missouri, and a sequel to Uncomfortable Posting. For me, one of the purposes of college is to freely and civilly discuss and learn from each other. I am thus worried by recent actions at many schools, including my alma mater, where passions get so heated that this goal appears unattainable. I wanted to share some links as food for thought.

I urge people to read these and related articles, especially the third link which is the article sent to the residents of Silliman, and reflect on the direction our nation’s campuses are moving. If we stay silent, it is other voices that will be heard and viewed as speaking for all.

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Uncomfortable Posting

Greetings. I’m the faculty president of the Williams’ chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest academic honor society. As there has been a lot of discussion about speakers invited to campus by Uncomfortable Learning, I wanted to briefly post why PBK has decided to co-sponsor their next speakers.

PBK is dedicated to the principles of freedom of inquiry and liberty of thought and expression. We do not necessarily support the views and opinions of the speakers, but we strongly support the calls made by President Falk,  William McGuire III ’17 and others on the importance and value of having civil discussions. There is a great opportunity in such debate, and we encourage all interested members of the community to come to these and other events and be heard. Many of the positions held by students and faculty on our campus today would not have found receptive audiences in the earlier days of Williams; ideas should be refuted by facts, not silenced.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out
                     Because I was not a Socialist.

                     Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out
                     Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

                     Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out 
                     Because I was not a Jew.

                    Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for
                    me. — Martin Niemoller

Steven Miller (sjm1@williams.edu), Associate Professor of Mathematics

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Smaller Segments

More highlights Steven Miller’s presentation slides (pdf) about the benefits of recording lectures at Williams.

  • WHO watched WHAT and HOW MUCH?
  • Does watching help students?
  • Should lecture recording be broken into smaller segments?
  • YouTube or not YouTube?

Again, this is all good stuff. Have you watched the whole video? You should!

However, I think that Miller fails to mention the most likely (and best) path forward for most Williams professors: being a curator rather than a creator of lectures. Miller is a fine lecturer, but is he the best lecturer in the world, on every topic in all of mathematics? Unlikely. Better for whom to collect and organize all the best lectures and then direct his students toward them. This frees up his time to do all the things for his students that they can’t get from video, especially working with students on projects.

There are only so many hours in a day, even for someone as productive as Steven Miller. Every hour spent lecturing is an hour that could have been spent working with students either one-on-one or in small groups. That is a Williams education at its finest, that is our comparative advantage.

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Partial Flipping

Another highlight from Steven Miller’s presentation slides (pdf) about the benefits of recording lectures at Williams.

Local Student: Multivariable Calculus
The partial flipping was a successful, interesting twist to c
lass (though I think it worked in large part b/c of Prof Miller’s way of teaching). Your website with many different kinds of practice problems, lecture notes, and additional comments with various links played an influential role to my performance in this class. I watched all the videos you sent via email and on GLOW. I watched some of the optional videos on the webpage when I had time or something I wanted to learn more about.

Most of the time, however, I watched the mandatory videos after class b/c I viewed the online videos as good reviews of the lecture for that
day rather than as previews since I prefer learning new material in
person. Also, I watched all of the lecture videos for that class day
when I got back to my room and took more notes for things I missed
or wanted to emphasize b/c I found them important. You don’t know
how helpful these recordings were since we cover so much material
in such limited time. As a student, I really appreciated this partial
flipping system and the available online resources – it really worked.

All good stuff. Surely there must be another professor at Williams who records her lectures. Or is Miller the only one?

But, again, recording lectures is a second best solution because the best future for Williams is no more lectures.

[T]here would be no better way for Williams to demonstrate to potential applicants that it is a different place, with different values, than by drawing a line at 15 students or so per class. If Williams had no lectures, then there would be less doubt about its educational superiority. The tutorial program already provides Williams with a leadership position in undergraduate education. Abolishing lectures would do even more.

Williams would be better off if every class taught by Steven Miller, and the scores of other excellent professors we have, were 15 students or fewer. There would be no need for recorded lectures if there were no lectures in the first place.

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YouTube University

Did you watch Steven Miller’s video yesterday? No? Bad reader! Here (pdf) are his presentation slides about the benefits of recording lectures at Williams. Highly recommended! One highlight:

What is the purpose of recorded lectures?

  • More material (both at home and in class).
  • Aids absent students / students who want to review.
  • Use material as review / supplement in other classes.
  • Easier to travel.
  • Remote students.

Good stuff. I love it when Williams professors experiment, when they try to push forward the frontiers of pedagogy.

However, I predict that lecture recording is not the future of elite liberal arts colleges. The future is no more lectures.

[Former Williams President] Schapiro claimed that, while discussion sections and tutorials in fields like philosophy and English are wonderful, it would be “stupid” to have discussion-sized sections for introductory classes in economics and the like.

Nothing could be further from the spirit of Mark Hopkins. There are no lectures on the log.

First, lectures are inefficient for students. Anything that a professor says in a lecture, as opposed to a discussion, could just as easily be typed beforehand and read by students at their own convenience. Reading is much quicker than listening and, more importantly, allows different students to focus on the parts that they don’t understand and to skim the parts that they do.

Miller’s recordings are better than live lectures because it allows students who already understand topic X to fast-forward through that part of the lecture while students who have difficulty with X can easily repeat the same portion several times.

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Miller Phi Beta Kappa Talk

My fellow EphBlogger, Professor Steven Miller, gave a talk at the 150th Anniversary of Phi Beta Kappa At Williams.

Watch the whole thing! Is there a professor at Williams more engaged in attempts to improve/rethink undergraduate education than Miller? If so, tell us about her!

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