Institutional policy

To the Editor:

Establishing vibrant intellectual communities at Williams that might complement or replace those that already thrive here in dance, athletics, faith and community service is a goal expressed by several people who wrote, or were quoted, in last week’s Record. Standing in the way are some institutional impediments, put in place for other purposes but having the effect of preventing anything comparable arising on the academic side of things. This isn’t a consequence of culture, but one of policy.

One is the requirement against early concentration – in academics, not in anything else. Students are not only allowed but encouraged to persevere in areas they have already achieved excellence in when those areas are extra-academic. We restrict prospective philosophers to only a few classes in that discipline over their first two years, though we do not make softball players spend most of their first two years golfing and swimming, nor do we force violinists to cycle through Kusika, Cap and Bells and WCFM. The same rationale applies to both academic and extracurricular specialization, but the same policy does not.

A second college policy that makes bonding on the basis of ideas or books or coursework difficult is the division of the day when combined with the absence of funds for class trips. My international law class has a standing invitation to go to the United Nations, but we do not have or aren’t allowed the time and money to do this, not during class hours nor after class hours, let alone to travel together frequently the way that extracurricular groups often do.

A third institutional practice that stymies community identity around academics is the practice of junior year study abroad – at other colleges, sophomores and early seniors are in fact also allowed to go away – which means that once anyone does manage to declare a major, they are whisked away.

At Williams, arts, sports, religious and volunteer groups are given time (more than two and a half hours a week) and money (more than zero) in which to work together, continue to develop keen skills that the members had already developed before coming to campus and to do this semester after semester, deepening their commitment to the enterprise. Academic groups are prevented from developing along the same lines because the institution has chosen to apply rules to academic progress that have the effect of imposing costs in this area.

-Professor Cheryl Shanks

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