Commonality at Williams

The beginning of a Williams career is also the beginning of a concerted effort towards class unity, from class meetings in Chapin, to SPARC workshops, to entry gatherings. As students congregate in the science quad to receive their hard-earned diplomas, the end of each Williams career is again characterized by group gathering, a shared experience. But during the four years in between, the question arises whether Williams students have a common experience, academically or socially.

Administrators indicate there are areas of overlap within the broad range of Williams experiences. President of the College Harry C. Payne has set a goal to increase these areas of overlap.

Williams’ academic curriculum is very unstructured. “Unlike many other schools, we don’t have any specific course requirements,” Registrar Charles Toomajian said. “The only specific requirement we have for graduation is the swim test, so perhaps that’s the common thread that binds Williams together.”

Toomajian said surveys indicate that many Williams students take similar courses. For example, more than 50 percent of the Class of 1997 took Economics 101, English 101, and Psychology 101. More than 25 percent were enrolled in Biology 101 and 102, Art History 101-102, Math 104 and 105, English 201 and Political Science 102/120. The Classes of 1988 to 1996 took the majority of these classes in even greater percentages. “We do know that there are many, many courses that Williams students take before they graduate, and to some extent that provides a common background,” Toomajian said.

Toomajian said the greatest commonalty lies more in the general features of a Williams education. “I think there is a common experience in that we expect by the time you graduate … you will have written some papers and learned to think critically,” he said.

Toomajian also said, “This is a group of extremely bright, high-achieving students who push very hard once they are here and are pushed very hard by our faculty, and that’s a commonality, too.” Thus, Williams students are united through striving for academic excellence.

Dean of the College Peter Murphy spoke of the non-existence of a common social life at Williams. “I don’t think there are single things that all Williams students go to,” he said. For example, even if a popular lecture fills Chapin Hall, the capacity of the building is only 600, so 1400 students are still not there. “Under the new party policy, people say there are fewer big parties and more small parties,” he said. “Williams spends less money on student activities than anywhere else.”

However, other NESCAC schools such as Middlebury and Wesleyan do not offer students much more of a common experience than Williams. Middlebury has a Commons system of “very loosely defined organizations which exist primarily to organize academic and social activities: lectures, workshops, parties, bands,” Student Government Associate President Bryan Stratton said. “They are geographically located but most students make their choices for living arrangements based upon the dorm they want to live in, rather than the commons they would like to be a part of.”

The Wesleyan campus has a similar problem as Williams in that there are not many places on campus that can hold all 2700 students at one time. Wesleyan College Council President Lisa Winegar said the issue has become important on their campus as well. “It’s actually come up this year a lot of times because our film series are attended by a huge percentage of students. We’ve been trying to get the administration to fund it but they’ve been dragging their feet on it. The only event the administration fully funds is orientation.”

Murphy cited recent changes to bring the Williams campus closer together. Payne has contributed more money to student activities, and Murphy that he has worked with student leaders in conceiving more fun activities for students. For example, in February, the Dean’s Office contributed to the cost of the band Third World , whose performance was the centerpiece of Winter Carnival, a weekend designed to unite the social lives of Williams students. “[The concert] is exactly the kind of thing we need to do more of,” Murphy said.

Murphy has high goals for student unity. “I would be happy if we had a way for all of the classes to get together. I haven’t thought of a way yet,” he said. “We’re working on more large events of various kinds with a general interest, not in an idealistic way where everyone loves one thing, but more in terms of bringing the students together,” he said.

A common academic and social experience for students has been identified as one of Williams’ top priorities for the next decade. In his “Self-Study for Reaccreditation,” developed over the academic year 1996-7, Payne stated his goals for a better sense of community. “The general principle must be that we measure all of our major initiatives, in and out of the curriculum, by this standard:…Does it promise to bring us closer together?…If [so], we should be welcoming,” he said.

Currently in the academic realm, Payne said “there is too little commonalty or coherence, except that which the students create by the patterns of their enrollment in certain introductory courses.” Payne identified several areas of concern, such as possible lack of emphasis on foreign languages, obstacles to inter-disciplinary teaching, and the advising system. Payne encouraged further conversation and action on these issues. To Payne, the Williams academic experience should ultimately foster “the capacities to read closely, explore widely, express clearly, research deeply, connect imaginatively, listen empathetically.”

Payne also identified weaknesses and offered solutions for social unity. “Our weekly calendar mirrors our enterprise–rich, exuberant, wide-ranging, diffuse…As a gathering that wishes for more community, we need more commonalty of events,” he said. He recommended bringing lecturers who could spark community discussion and supporting more artistic performances. “We should support student organizations that plan events of large impact, and generally find resources for those enterprises that promise to engage several hundred people at a time,” he said, thoughts similar to Murphy. “I think we have done some good work on this lately, with gatherings around visits of people like Tony Kushner, Mario Cuomo, John Sununu, Betty Carter and others, and new activities such as the Williams Debate Union.”

Payne also prioritized the creation of larger spaces to accommodate more students at one time, such as the forthcoming Goodrich Student Center and the new science atrium. “The physical integrations into the campus of the mutlticultural houses, in conjunction with the science center, is important, as is making the new science library the 24-hour study facility for the whole campus.”

Despite what administrators say and propose, several Williams students said they have shared a common experience. “There are a lot of things on campus that everybody does,” Johana Castro ’00 said. She said, for example, everyone participates in sports, whether students are on a team or take gym class. “Academically, whether your major is in Division I or Division III, everyone still has to stay up late at night, study for mid-terms, and complete a final project. Everyone goes through a rigorous academic program,” she said. Castro said even Winter Study provides a common academic experience because it allows everyone to explore new horizons.

“Socially, for the most part, I think it’s the same. Everybody does the same thing, goes to the same parties, and knows the same people,”
Castro said. “You know people on campus—whether you know their name or just their face. It gives a sense of closeness to the campus,” she said.

“I think there’s something we have in common by being in a remote area at a small college,” Marla Robertson ’98 said. “I think environment is a really big factor, because people stay around,” she said. However, Robertson said there are limits to the congruence of Williams’ students’ lives. “I don’t think having everyone do the same thing would work with the different kinds of people we have at Williams,” she said.

Cara Yoder ’99 said she sees more difference than similarity. “People are so different. There can be one stereotype, but there are so many variations.” She said she is not bothered by the diversity of experiences, though.

“The great task is creating community out of the wonderful intellectual and social diversity we have created in students and faculty,” Payne said. “The answer can’t be homogeneity; indeed we aggressively work against that. We need a model of community, based on conversation, gathering, cooperation within difference.”

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