Williams requires stronger area studies programs

With the recent debate about a possible Latino Studies concentration, I am going to throw another ball in the court and suggest that Williams should build up a strong area studies program focusing on previously unexposed parts of the world. While Williams does have a respectable number of high quality professors specializing in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Europe and South Africa, other areas of the world are out of the picture.

Of particular concern to me is the absolute lack of exposure to South Asian studies in the Williams curriculum. Apart from a few art history and religion courses, Williams does not do enough credit to the Indian subcontinent. There are other courses, such as post-colonial literature, that partially deal with the subcontinent, but they are not sufficient for a region of more than a billion people.

As a matter of fact, India is on the way to outstripping China in terms of overall population (not that it is something to be proud of). The Indian movie industry, affectionately called Bollywood, produces more movies than any other movie industry in the world (once again, quantity and quality are distinctly separate, yet still it is an interesting statistic).

Thanks to rather heated heads, Kashmir, the disputed territory between India and Pakistan, is considered the world’s biggest nuclear flashpoint. In this context, Williams would do very well to appoint a professor dealing in South Asian history and politics. This is an area that has gained in prominence due to the recent nuclear tests in the subcontinent and the unhealthy prospect of an arms race and political instability.

A view at the African and Middle Eastern Studies concentration reveals similar deficiencies. This year, Williams has no courses on present day African politics or history. This creates an uncomfortable position for some of us who wish to go abroad in our junior years, only to discover that courses that we really wish to explore in depth will be available during our years away. Williams has an excellent development economics program, and appointing professors in these areas will complement the curriculum.

One of the major obstacles facing science students when considering a study abroad program is the lack of credits they can receive from Williams departments. The attitude of the science departments at Williams is perfectly understandable: they cannot be assured of the quality of the programs offered by other universities. While a humanities and social science course is more malleable, a science course would have to meet certain specific criteria that vary from institution to institution.

This leaves many junior science majors in a rut. Some really do want to travel, like their classmates in the social sciences and the humanities. Rather than bemoaning this fact, Williams should do something to remedy the situation. One concern for Williams science students is the lack of laboratory space they have access to at foreign colleges. In addition, many universities abroad are state-supported and do not have the huge endowments of Williams. This means laboratory space, even when available, might not be first-rate.

To remedy the situation, Williams should develop an exchange program with a reputed science school abroad, on the condition that Williams’s students are treated equally to the students of the host institution. Many reputable institutions spring to mind, like the Imperial College of Science in England, where Williams’ departments can be assured that Ephs are getting a solid science education. Currently, Williams has exchange programs within the United States with the California Institute of Technology and Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering for students wishing to study off campus. This arrangement could be extended abroad with great benefit to Williams students.

To make the best of a bad situation, Williams could collaborate with peer institutions to create a science study abroad program in Spain, Italy or wherever. Members of the 12-college consortium should not dislike the idea of creating a science study away home, with adequate laboratories and facilities in a foreign country. These 12 institutions presumably share a similar philosophy in the education of scientific disciplines, so the courses taught at such a place would be similar in content and quality to the home institution’s courses.