Williams needs a ‘common intellectual vocabulary’ in the form of EXPR course

In my senior year, I have come to crave the intensity of an intellectual atmosphere run rampant. I can sense that an inspired intellectual community is in its embryonic stages right now at Williams. But, like any fetus-like entity, it needs to be nurtured a bit in order to be brought to a full healthy term. In continuing this metaphor but adding to it the idea of the past, it might be appropriate to speak of this coming community as a reincarnation of days passed; specifically of Mark Hopkins engaging in discourse with a student on the log. Although I do not believe in nor advocate a venture towards a supposed Edenic past, I do believe that Garfield’s image of the perfect education as being Mark Hopkins on one side of a log and a student on the other has something to say to us about our current situation.

To me, this log represents at least three things: 1) The log, being that it is still a log and not yet carved into a desk or chair, represents the continuity of intellectual life and discourse outside of its regular place in the classroom. Teacher and student, and assuredly student and student, can and should pursue the life of the mind together outside the realm of the few weekly hours in the classroom. 2) (Now, this is a stretch, but bear with me…) The log also represents the site that brings the biologist and the English professor together. The log is at once a site and a subject matter where folks from different analytical and methodological perspectives can commingle. It draws us forth from our classrooms, laboratories and studios to sit, ponder and speak about the world from our different positions within the arts, sciences and humanities. 3) Following logically from number two is the idea that the log can become our common vocabulary. There are too many students who pass through Williams not reading any of the same books as some of their fellow students. But having sat on the log together, we then have it as an experience about and through which we can relate with each other.

This hyper-extended metaphor can now become more concrete. As Stephanie Frank ’01 has said, we propose that a new, multidisciplinary course might be a central ingredient to fostering an invigorated intellectual community. I feel that Stephanie has firmly laid out the basic reasoning behind the transformation we both seek, so I will elucidate a difference in our views. I agree with Stephanie that this course should stress a multidisciplinary approach to a certain theme or set of books and bring together a group of three professors, one from each division. In a creative tension of sorts, Stephanie holds the cross-disciplinary nature of the course to be its pulling feature, while I remain obsessed with its potential to eventually become a uniting or common vocabulary. These differences in focus lead to different approaches to the implementation of the class.

Because of my obsession with the creation of a common intellectual vocabulary at Williams, I would like to see a commonality in the reading list for different sections of the class. However, I maintain an aversion to a standard required “Great Books of Western Civilization” course because I believe that, as an idea, it is antiquated, a bit stifling and not cross-disciplinary enough. What I imagine is a course, maybe a yearlong course (i.e. EXPR 101-102), in which Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Darwin’s Origins of the Species and Virgil’s Aeneid can be read in close intellectual proximity, if not in conversation.

In order to create a common reading list (now for saying this I might get dragged behind Eph’s Alley by an angry mob of already over-extended professors) we would ask each department to submit one book to the collective shelf. The difficulty that each department might have in deciding upon one book might actually become a source of creative (albeit potentially incendiary) disagreement. Then, each group of three professors would choose one-half or two-thirds of the books on the collective shelf, some from each division, and formulate a theme or topic that they could use to guide the students through this group of books.

We hope that this course could become something that most sophomores choose to take on. If and when it does, there would be many “pods” of three professors and about 15 sophomore intellectuals, all studying many of the same books through the lenses of different thematic patterns. These “pods” could almost serve, in the same vein as the FRS, as intellectually oriented entries. And throughout the rest of their time at Williams, these students would have at least one book of common intellectual vocabulary with which to communicate to each other.

Although there are many organizational approaches and logistical difficulties still to work out, we think that this class could become one factor in reinvigorating intellectual life at Williams.