WNY? Vote to keep it

The report presented to the faculty a week and a half ago critiquing the Williams in New York Program (WNY) is not complete. While the WNY Program Review Committee notes both definitive strengths and shortcomings of the Program, the fact that recent WNY participants feel their reflections were inadequately conveyed, or even overlooked, is troubling. The intellectualization of experiential learning, the unique and stimulating fieldwork placements and the wealth of cultural opportunities are just some of the Program’s strengths that WNY alumni point to, and that many feel the current report underestimates. Although the Committee has identified certain flaws worth examining, we hope the faculty who will vote on its future today do not overlook its tremendous potential and the steady improvements it has made. With investment, the Program can become a cornerstone of the Williams study away experience, embodying both the ideals and rigor of a Williams education, while also providing the broadening perspective essential to every quality study away program. We urge the faculty to vote “No” in response to the question of whether or not WNY should be discontinued.

Many of the Committee’s concerns are paradoxical: they express a lack of confidence in the viability of the Program because its pilot has not demonstrated perfection. The problems as posited by the Committee are real, but in some cases can be attributed to the fact of WNY’s existence as a pilot. As the report grants, improvements will require serious investment. But considering the Program’s significant strengths, its popularity among participants and the College’s direct ability to exert a positive influence over improving its weaknesses, it would be a disappointment and a severely missed opportunity to shut down WNY before giving it a chance to become the amazing alternative educational experience that so many participants already believe it is.

Given that experience is a cornerstone of the WNY Program, it is unfortunate and surprising that many people who actually had these experiences were relegated to passing mention in the report, and have been prevented from speaking at today’s faculty meeting. With these voices largely silenced, the faculty cannot fully grasp the reality of WNY: it is unique and of great merit.

Recent WNY participants also believe that their field placements were far more beneficial than the report conveyed. The concern that fieldwork too closely mirrors competitive internships that students should pursue during summer vacations is valid. However, given that each fieldwork placement requires 15 hours of fieldwork per week, five tutorial papers, meetings throughout the semester and three group seminars to discuss work experiences, the level to which students are critically and intellectually engaged speaks for the Program’s alignment with Williams’ educational values.

The mix of fieldwork with analysis and classroom time constitutes an innovative intellectualization of experience. Students apply their prowess with activities like textual exegesis to professional interaction. Suddenly the workplace is a text – suddenly the often vaguely understood applications of the liberal arts experience are writing on the board room wall.

In making its critique of the “curricular coherence” of the fieldwork aspect of WNY with its regular coursework, the Committee fails to take into account the academic experience students are having back at home in Billsville. Indeed this touted curricular coherence doesn’t even exist at Williams itself. But every student – packing up her linear algebra notebook on the way to a discussion on the postmodern sublime, after attending her class on landscape painting and before her botany lab down at the bog – knows that a lack of curricular coherence is not a defamation of Williams’ educational values. What’s more, WNY cashes in on its definitional urban setting by reconstituting students’ academic experience in the context of the urban, the one element that Williamstown cannot offer.

It is a widely held and unfortunate belief – edging on fact – that any study away experience, save the Williams-Exeter Programme in Oxford (WEPO), has no chance of offering the same level of academic rigor that staying on campus can. With WNY, the College has the opportunity to provide another venue for Williams students who want to get away still to maintain the intellectual intensity available in town. The Committee is troubled by what it calls the inconsistency of the academic experience thus far in WNY, but because the Program is 100 percent under the College’s control, there is no reason these inconsistencies cannot be completely addressed. It would be irresponsible for the faculty to choose to further limit the number of intellectually stimulating study away options by discontinuing WNY.

Finally, the Committee’s concern about whether or not the Program would drum up enough student applicants to reach the desired 16-person group each semester or enough faculty interest in holding directorship could be largely mitigated by a serious commitment to recruitment of both groups. As is the current strategy of the Williams-Mystic program, and the former strategy of WEPO, the College can open up WNY to students at other colleges, at least temporarily. Faculty interest in directing would blossom in tandem with increased College investment in the program. WNY is an exciting program, and if the College demonstrates its confidence in it, interest will follow.

The Committee referred to the continuation of the Program as a gamble, but the cards are already on the table: WNY is a young success, and it also contains the potential for expansive improvement along the lines that the report stipulates. It is now up to the faculty to confirm what is already obvious.