Gaudino Fund encourages experiential education, innovation

In the winter of 1998, Kevin Russell ’00 spent several weeks living in the remote Zulu village of Mahlabatini in the South Africa province of KwaZulu-Natal. Upon his return to Williamstown, he wrote a paper about conceptual relativism, reflecting on his experiences in light of Donald Davidson’s famous essay “On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme.”

Russell, a double major in astrophysics and philosophy, was one of the charter participants in a Winter Study course entitled “Among Strangers: Taking Theories About the ‘Other’ to Real Cultural Differences.” The course, which funds individual students to travel to developing Asian or African countries and think about radical cultural difference, was designed by associate professor of philosophy Samuel Fleischacker, who was the Gaudino scholar at the time, and the individual projects are funded by the Robert L. Gaudino Memorial Fund.

The Gaudino Fund and its operations through the Gaudino Scholar are unique phenomena at Williams. The Gaudino Scholar is given a two-tenth teaching reduction, control of approximately $30,000 a year from the Gaudino Fund, and the mission of encouraging curricular innovation and experiential learning and being a Socratic gadfly within the institution. Each Gaudino Scholar has interpreted that mission in different and interesting ways, and the list of their achievements is long. The Freshman Residential Seminar (FRS) program began as part of an initiative under Gaudino Scholar Kurt Tauber in the early 1980s. More recently, Williams has seen Winter Study trips to India, the “Among Strangers” course and the weekly Gaudino forums.

The fund’s unique mission, which changes with every new Gaudino scholar, reflects the uniqueness of professor Robert Gaudino, in whose honor the fund is named, and the extraordinary affection and loyalty he inspired in a generation of Williams students.

The Man

Bob Gaudino earned his Ph.D. in political philosophy at the University of Chicago and joined the political science department at Williams in 1955. He was an active member of the faculty who, from the very beginning, was a presence at faculty meetings and within his department. Lecturer in political science emeritus David Booth, a friend and colleague of Gaudino’s and a longtime Trustee of the Gaudino Fund, recalls Gaudino acting as “an ongoing glue and discussion leader among his colleagues,” always engaging them on matters of real intellectual import.

He was, by all accounts, a man who was constantly asking questions. In the classroom, he adopted a Socratic style, insisting that students come to class prepared to be called on at any time. This style could be intimidating. “For a great teacher, his enrollments were not very large,” Booth commented. “You were expected to have done the reading and you were expected to come to class not only prepared to talk about the reading, but to have views about it.”

This spirit of inquiry continued outside of Gaudino’s classroom as well. He never married, and he devoted himself fully to the life of the College. He would often have students and faculty over to his house for discussions, and if he discovered that a student’s parents were in town, he would insist that they come for a visit, where he would quiz them with the same intensity of curiosity that he brought to his classes. For Bob Gaudino, the separation between the classroom and the rest of life was simply a matter of doors and walls. The world was a classroom, and every encounter an opportunity for further examination of fundamental questions about who we are and how we should live.

Fittingly, Gaudino never took off his “game face,” or perhaps he never put it on. He had a strict sense of decorum, calling his students by their last names, and he maintained this at all times. In his classroom and in his living room, he was always “Mr. Gaudino” to his students. He also never stopped his lightly probing questioning, challenging the way his students, colleagues and friends thought.

This mode of interaction imposed a kind of personal distance on Gaudino’s relationships. Students have commented that although they learned a great deal about themselves by talking to him, they learned nothing of Gaudino himself. “No one knew him,” said Dale Riehl ’72, former chair of the Gaudino Fund. “He was this amazing mind, yet he revealed nothing about himself, and nothing about what he thought about things.

“But that means that nothing was prejudiced. He allowed each individual student’s perspective on things to emerge. The thing that made him truly remarkable was the way he could put people at ease and let them learn from each other,” Riehl said.

“He did not believe in trying to change students,” Booth agreed. “The whole purpose was to get them to understand who they were. Whether they changed or not was up to them.” Gaudino would not have wanted students to have a point of view simply because he held it, but rather because they had arrived there themselves.

Underlying Gaudino’s educational philosophy was the belief that true learning was by nature unsettling, and required an honest confrontation of one’s own assumptions. Throughout his life he tried to find ways to encourage this kind of learning, and in the late 1960s he turned to experiential education. He had a great fascination with India, teaching at Agra University in 1960-61 on a Fulbright grant, and serving as director of a training program on the Williams campus for Peace Corps volunteers going to India. These experiences led him to organize the Williams-in-India program during the 1969-1970 academic year.

Williams-in-India was a controversial yearlong program for 15 sophomores and juniors that combined preparatory courses in the fall and Winter Study terms with a five-month stay in India. Williams-in-India was a powerful experience for the participants, but was criticized by some for lacking academic rigor.

Williams-in-India was followed by Williams-at-Home, which took 18 participants across the country to live and work with families in Appalachia, Detroit and Iowa. The purpose of Williams-at-Home, as with Williams-in-India, was to force students to confront real difference, and through that confrontation to learn about themselves.

For the last two years of his life, Gaudino’s activities were increasingly hindered by the advance of the rare and debilitating neurological disorder that would take his life, but he continued teaching, offering classes in his home when he was too ill to come to class. On Nov. 28, 1974, Bob Gaudino died, at the age of 49.

The Legacy

Though few teachers have been more inscrutable than Gaudino, few have inspired a deeper affection or loyalty among his students. It has been said, “He did not have students, but disciples,” and this fall’s Convocation held in honor of Gaudino would seem to lend some support to that claim. Nicholas Tortorello ’71 wrote in the Winter 2000 issue of the Alumni Review that “it is not unusual that Mr. Gaudino through his suffering and debilitating illness should appear, as in Isaiah II, a ‘suffering servant.’ Nor is it unusual that we should therefore be called like Apostles to give them an impression of who he is.”

Yet Riehl insists that “disciple” is the wrong word to describe the alumni who donate to the Gaudino Fund and who returned last fall to remember their old teacher. “When people see the word ‘disciple,’ it makes some people think of someone who was a crowd-pleaser. And he was not. When you went into his classroom, you went challenged every time,” he said.

Whatever you choose to call them, the Gaudino alumni are extremely loyal, and have given generously over the past 25 years. There was a feeling among Gaudino’s students that an endowed chair would be too passive a memorial for a man they had known to be always challenging established ideas and assumptions, but it was not until 1981 that the Gaudino Fund truly began to find its way. The process began with a lengthy memorandum written by Richard Herzog ’60, outlining Gaudino’s educational philosophy and suggesting possible uses for the fund. The Gaudino Advisory Committee formally organized as a Trust and established the position of Gaudino Scholar.

The Gaudino scholar is a member of the faculty, appointed by the president at the recommendation of the Gaudino trustees, who serves as a liaison between the administration and the trustees, and who is charged with the mission of continuing to question assumptions and seek new educational initiatives in the spirit of Gaudino. Past Gaudino Scholars include Raymond Baker, Kurt Tauber, William Darrow, Thomas Spear, Olga Beaver, Jennifer Bloxam, Samuel Fleischacker and, most recently, Mark Reinhardt.

Throughout the years, the fund has sought to encourage experiential learning, international experience and programs that break down the barriers between classroom learning and life experience. It was in this spirit that the Gaudino Committee, initiated by Kurt Tauber, recommended FRS to the administration, and that Raymond Baker began the now-defunct Williams-in-Cairo program.


Recently, Gaudino scholars like Fleischacker and Reinhardt have divided their attentions between encouraging experiential programs abroad and supporting programs on campus designed to generate dialogue and a closer examination of our values and assumptions.

Fleischacker and his colleague, assistant professor of philosophy Rachana Kamtekar, each led Winter Study trips to India in the winter of 1998. Fleischacker’s trip explored modernist architecture in India, and Kamtekar’s studied the Contemporary Women’s Movement in India. Fleischacker also established the Gaudino forum as a weekly discussion with faculty speakers and created the “Among Strangers” Winter Study course.

Reinhardt has chosen to continue the weekly Gaudino forums and the Winter Study grants, and has looked for new ways to carry out the goals of Gaudino Scholar. On campus, Reinhardt has supported student initiatives that encourage dialogue and challenge student complacency, contributing a substantial amount of money to the “Whose Responsibility Is It?” project and supporting the incipient real deal as it sought College Council funding. He has also been involved in recent discussions about the College’s investment policies and hopes to continue this involvement in the future.

Reinhardt also hopes to raise awareness of what he calls “careerism” on campus. “Williams sometimes functions as something of a funnel in which people of all interests and aptitudes come out all wanting to do the same thing,” Reinhardt said. He wondered why so many students feel pressure to get a job as early as possible in their senior year, especially when the job market is as strong as it is. “I’m a little humbled by how difficult the problem seems to be,” he admitted.

The “Among Strangers” course, which funded seven individual projects this year, directly addresses another area of concern for Reinhardt: the cost of travel Winter Study programs. The Gaudino-sponsored travel grants promise to meet the full financial need of students on financial aid, but this is unique among travel Winter Study courses. In most cases, financial aid will cover one half of the cost of a travel Winter Study course, but the courses are often still quite expensive, and some students are therefore excluded because of cost. “It bothers me a great deal that it’s something that only some people can afford,” said Reinhardt. “We certainly wouldn’t pick some section of courses [during the semester] and say, ‘We’ll put them up to the highest bidder.’”

Reinhardt has circulated a memo to the faculty and administration about Winter Study courses, and is currently planning a trip to Guatemala for the 2001 Winter Study term that will study “recent politics and human rights issues as they pertain to the indigenous population,” and be partly subsidized by the Gaudino Fund.

The issue of travel Winter Study costs is an important one to Reinhardt, especially in light of his views on Winter Study. “I consider [Winter Study] to be an embarrassment to the institution, by and large,” he said. “It’s not here because the faculty believes in its educational value. Its endurance does not express pedagogical conviction.” Reinhardt believes that courses breaking with the traditional format, such as travel courses, are potentially the most successful uses of Winter Study.

“I have been really impressed by what people have been able to do in travel Winter Study,” he said. Too often, this type of course belongs to what Reinhardt calls the “sub-class of courses on our campus that are only available to that section of the populace that can afford to pay for them.”

Challenges and Opportunities

After her return from Fleischacker’s course in India, Rebecca Young ’00 wrote a short piece for the Gaudino Fund newsletter. “[The] central and priceless feelings that I experienced in India force me today to challenge assumptions and beliefs that are easy for me to hold. How can I better treat the use of theory so it does not hinder or exist outside of the way the world lives, but instead provides a closer relationship between ideas and their practice?” she asked.

Young’s question articulated the perennial challenge facing experiential learning, including Gaudino’s own programs: how can theory and experience be combined in a way that remains academically rigorous? On Jan. 21, 1970, shortly before the Williams-in-India students departed for the subcontinent, Gaudino spoke to The Williams Record about the goals and risks of experiential education. “There are great dangers in the way experience is brought into the curriculum,” he said. “The basic danger is in students who want to let it go at their own experience. This can defeat education. But I think more and more we are seeing the need to get perspective on experience. So I don’t see liberal arts moving towards experience. I see it moving towards putting perspective on, criticizing and analyzing experience.”

Thirty years later, Darrow voiced the same concerns. The essence of experiential learning “is most characterized by students saying, ‘Hey, that was really different. That changed me,’” Darrow said. But it is not enough simply to have that experience. “The one thing you have to provide with experiential education is a lot of reflection both during and after,” he said.

Gaudino himself was never completely satisfied with the way students applied theory to their experience. “Gaudino concluded that the Williams-in-India program was a failure,” Riehl said. “The students don’t think that. We had enormous respect for him, but we think he’s wrong. In very specific ways, [our] mental processes have been affected.”

Russell agreed that the relationship between theory and practice was often difficult to discern on his trip to South Africa. “Although I do think it is very valuable for philosophers to do this type of research, and I’m sure my experience will continue to inform my thinking in philosophy, I admittedly was affected much more deeply in non-academic ways,” he wrote in the Feb. 16, 1999 issue of the Record. “I was not thinking about Donald Davidson’s essay ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme” during most of the more exciting events that I experienced. It is simply hard to see philosophy as important in such an environment.” Now, over a year later, Russell has a slightly different view of the experience. “It informs all of my thinking,” he said. “The perspective is so different. I don’t know that it made me change my idea of what’s important in my life, bit it certainly made me question it.”

Encouraging this kind of questioning lies at the center of the mission of the Gaudino Fund, because it is what Gaudino did with his students. Scott Miller ’71 was interviewed for an article about Gaudino in the Summer 1990 Alumni Review. “You could conceivably go through a Williams education today or at any time and come in with certain points of view, your own set of prejudices,” he said. “What Gaudino did was to shake that up and really force you to say what it is you believed, where you were coming from, why you thought a certain way.” Because his students feel so strongly about the value of Gaudino’s method, they have made it the mission of the fund to carry on not simply the Gaudino name, but his ideas about education.

This is the final challenge for the Gaudino Fund. The fund was established through the generosity of alumni who felt a deep personal attachment to Gaudino, who wanted to do something in his honor. Yet the fund sets out to do more than simply honor the name Gaudino. The challenge facing the Fund is finding the proper balance between remembering the man, and trying to push ideas of educational innovation and reform.

This fall’s convocation, held 25 years after Gaudino’s death, showed what a real presence Gaudino continues to be in the minds and lives of his students, as alumni returned to attend seminars and lectures and to honor the man whose teaching influenced them so profoundly. Barnaby Feder ’72 wrote in the Nov. 3, 1999 issue of the New York Times, “As much as what he taught, it was Mr. Gaudino’s skill and single-minded devotion to teaching that was celebrated by those who came [to convocation].”

Still, there seems to be a consensus among the Gaudino Trustees that to properly honor Gaudino, the fund must be a living thing, and must move beyond mere remembrance of a great teacher. “Increasingly, the people who are involved with the fund didn’t know Bob Gaudino at all,” Booth said. “So we’re trying to do things that are in his spirit without trying to slavishly imitate anything he did.”

There has been a conscious effort on the part of the Gaudino Trustees to recruit alumni who never had Gaudino as a professor. “Four of the 12 alumni trustees did not know Mr. Gaudino,” he said. He also stressed that the Trustees cannot tell the Gaudino Scholar what to do with the position. “The scholar decides what he or she does. The Trustees are a sounding board,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s totally under the control of the College.”

Booth sees the next few years as being very important for the direction of the Fund. “These discussions will take place between the Gaudino trustees and the Gaudino scholar, and Gaudino’s name will be invoked, and there will be a conversation,” He said. “And that’s what Gaudino was about, great conversation. That’s what will be left when all of us are gone.”

At the heart of the Gaudino Fund’s mission lies the insight that all great teachers are unique, but the effects of great teaching are frequently the same. There will never be another Bob Gaudino, but the Gaudino alumni hope, through the work of the Fund and the Gaudino Scholars, that his educational legacy – a lifetime of confronting and examining our world and our assumptions – will live for today’s Williams students and into the future.

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