Breadth and depth

Williams prides itself in its favorable staff-to-student ratio, small class sizes and tutorial program. And, indeed, among prospective students, Williams is renowned for its rural, academic environment, perfect for intimate intellectual exchanges. During my college tour, I pictured myself and fellow students going out to lunch with professors regularly; I pictured discussing expansive philosophical ideas in the science quad with other enthusiastic students. Specifically, I pictured leaving my high school, where critical thinking played second fiddle to basic subject-specific knowledge, for an environment with the reverse priority. Upon arriving freshman year, however, I found that my classes were focusing mainly on hard facts, and, for most of the first few years, I was primarily in large lecture-oriented classes. I was not disappointed – I was learning about more diverse subjects than ever before – rather, I was worried that I was missing out on a quintessential “Williams Experience.”

Another reason many prospective students favor Williams is that its liberal arts ethos provides students excited about many subject areas with a chance to explore and experience many different fields of academic study and grow from these diverse experiences. Indeed, one cannot declare a major at all at Williams until the end of sophomore year, a guideline that encourages exploration. There are no core requirements but rather “distribution requirements,” enforcing different modes of learning (the humanities, the arts, the sciences) while retaining some academic flexibility. Coming in freshman year, I assumed I would be a political economy major. After four semesters at Williams and numerous changes of plans, I finally decided to pursue majors in psychology and studio art.

As a senior, I am finally experiencing the academic environment coveted on that pre-frosh tour. I have an independent research study going with one of my professors from last semester, a psychology senior seminar class in which discussion is almost entirely planned and directed by students, and a ridiculously awesome class that involves senior majors team-teaching their subjects to students specialized in other subjects, emphasizing the creativity within and across the disciplines of art, philosophy, music and math. In this class, Exploring Creativity, Professor Ed Burger, is actually a student. I am more intellectually engaged than ever, attending talks, getting in intellectual discussions before and after class, planning a syllabus, meeting with Professor Burger to do our homework, staying up later than ever before and tutoring others in my subject.
This level of intellectual engagement is what I have been missing at Williams all along.

When I realized this, I wondered, why had it taken so long? The answer was obvious and came quickly – I took introductory courses in twelve subject areas. It seems that if I had planned my major earlier or majored in just one area, I might have gotten here sooner.

Upon reflection, however, I know that I would not feel this same sense of intellectual engagement without every one of those classes. Would I cut out economics, history, geology or music? In removing any of them, I would miss something. I find myself using my knowledge of economics constantly, in psychology, philosophy and everyday life. Middle Eastern history, important to understanding current events in addition to elucidating the culture of the Middle East, taught me that I could read 12 rather dry books in a semester. Geology gave me a larger appreciation of history beyond the human version and has helped solidify the concepts of transformation and evolution. What I know now is this: you cannot intellectualize until you have the methods and the facts; the more diverse your knowledge, the greater your intellectual toolbox.

Are small class sizes and the Williams experience of exploring many different areas really compatible? Yes, but each in their own time. For the life-long learner, four years will always be inadequate, and stressing about missing out on “the Williams Academic Experience” will not help. The best we can do, in our short time, is to pursue what interests us most, with as much engagement as possible.

Fiona Worcester ’09 is a psychology and art major from Anchorage, Alaska.