The discomfort zone

After the Craig Robinson show a few weeks ago, you might have run into a group of silver-haired alums in Paresky. While alumni groups are nothing unusual (though rare to see at that hour on a Saturday), this particular group had a special connection to Williams College: The new “Gaudino option” that will go into effect next year is the product of the alumni fund they began.

The fund memorializes Robert Gaudino, a unique professor who often hosted students in his house after hours for discussion and donuts. He taught political science at Williams from 1955 until his death in 1974 and was known for his commitment to experiential and uncomfortable learning. He developed quite a following of students, many of whom were in town two weekends ago for panel discussions, student presentations and a documentary of the life of this influential man. He sent students to live in Iowa, Georgia, Detroit, Appalachia and India, with the aim of learning through experience. These were no typical study abroad programs, and did not include any formal classes.

Gaudino died of a progressive neurological disorder while his former students were caring for him. In his memory, they sponsored a professor to act as a “Gaudino Scholar,” whose job would be to encourage risk taking in the academic environment. The Scholar also acts as the point person between students and the Gaudino board of trustees, of which we are members. The Gaudino fund, among other things, sponsors budgets of up to $2500 for Winter Study 99s that demonstrate uncomfortable learning. The fund also sponsors the Refugees in Maine Winter Study trip and is looking towards supporting summer projects.

The oft-cited phrase “effortless perfection” would have found no more strident enemy than Gaudino himself. At one faculty meeting, when a new program that he proposed was going to pass without debate (about the best result one can hope for), he stood up and threatened to withdraw the motion unless there was discussion. Yet this concept remains alive and strong at Williams – even with so many opportunities, we are quick to choose that which is comfortable and familiar. We, as students, sometimes look for ways to get the easier A or A-, especially when fellowships, graduate schools and professional schools are lurking.

Too often, Williams students shy away from risky experiences. We take the final two courses to finish a double major, even when we don’t care about them in the slightest. Having never hiked, we stay inside on Mountain Day, preferring to hear about the climb instead of trying it. We see advertisements for an event that looks neat … but there are more readings to do and cover letters to write.

Yet for most of us, these are our only years to live in these mountains. They are the only days when we’ll have three amazing museums nearby and a wealth of $3 shows of all sizes and styles. If we always shy away from that which is different or uncomfortable, we’ll never find out when we might be wrong – when something is actually a good fit. This is the spirit of the new Gaudino option – it is a chance for those of us worried about our GPA to take a new step and to try something new without fear of ruining our medical school chances. You have 32 courses at Williams – why not turn 3 or 6 percent of them into something new and exciting?

Yes, it won’t always be fun. Of the two of us, Will didn’t enjoy chemistry, but learned skills in lab that will serve him in other areas. Meghan Rose didn’t love each minute spent memorizing names of plants, but enjoys knowing what sort of tree is in the center of science quad (Acer saccharum – Sugar Maple). The confidence learned working in uncomfortable areas will only make you stronger when you are striving in an area that’s more comfortable, akin to the effect of wearing a weight on your wrist for a week, only to feel much stronger and faster once it’s removed. The students who received Gaudino money for their 99 Winter Study projects had difficult experiences – cleaning wounds in a leper colony, or traveling to a foreign country only to discover that their contact had been killed or going so far north that the sun stopped rising – but these experiences will be with them forever.

Why are we writing this? We have inherited Professor Gaudino’s commitment to uncomfortable learning. Education shouldn’t be about how many formulas you can memorize. It shouldn’t be about writing the same essay over and over and over. It shouldn’t be about perpetuating the critical cycle, or gaming the purple bubble at the expense of the world waiting for us. Education should be uncomfortable. It should be about stretching and pushing yourself. And that stretching and pushing can happen at Williams.

Take a Gaudino class. Push your limits. Fail miserably. And learn from it! And if you have any ideas as to how education at Williams can become more beneficially uncomfortable, please come talk to us.