Cultivating an Academic Culture

As the College community looks for ways to integrate intellectual conversations into discussion outside the confines of the classroom, the proposed expansion of the Williams Reads program may provide the common thread needed to spark academic dialogue on campus. By adding an academic component to first-year orientation, the College is moving to open minds from the minute students arrive on campus. The Record applauds the program’s goal to engage rather than assess and hopes that students and other members of the community will participate. While the addition of this summer reading may change the nature of First Days, detracting from the ‘Camp Williams’ atmosphere we all enjoyed before academic pressures first set in, the new Williams Reads programming holds such great potential that it is worth sacrificing a few extra hours in the sun.

Though the book for next academic year has already been chosen, the means by which the committee selected it is concerning. Given that the entire community is invited to read the book and participate in related events, we think that the entire community should be given a say in the book’s selection. The Williams Reads program – at least as it currently operates in the selection of Winter Study reading – is neither transparent enough nor democratic enough to adequately represent the interests and beliefs of the College community in its selection of books. Options for the Williams Reads book should be vetted by a committee comprised of students and faculty, and a final decision should be made by an all-campus vote. This combination of an institutional committee and a student vote will ensure that the ultimate selection is both appropriate and intellectually stimulating for the majority of interested students.

Under the proposed Williams Reads model, an informal conversation in the entry will kick off a year of events. While initial conversation about politically charged subject matter may be stilted by first-impression jitters and overall hesitance between near-strangers, the entry is still an advantageous starting point for sparking sustained dialogue. While it may be unrealistic, and perhaps unfair, to expect JAs to foster a book club-type discussion within the entry, the presence of a faculty member will help to facilitate productive discussion. First Days is already a taxing, stressful time for JAs, and the burden of organizing an academic event may seem overwhelming or could fall by the wayside in light of other crucial discussions that take place during this time.

The proposed program has tremendous opportunities for positive impact if done correctly. Capitalizing on pre-move-in enthusiasm may be the most effective way to get first-years to do the assignment. Certainly, it introduces academic discussion as part of life at the College early on, something that can make similar conversations easier down the road. Having all read the same book, first-years will have a patch of common ground on which to perch during those first intimidating meals. A successful discussion on meaningful themes in the text can also embolden first-year students, sending them into classes more confident in their opinions and their right to voice them.

While we recognize the value of events specifically for first-years, we also believe that the program could have equal, if not greater, influence if it takes place on the first weekend after First Days, enabling upperclassmen to participate and relieving some of the congestion common to orientation. Regardless of whether or not upperclassmen are involved in the first event, their participation, as well as that of the faculty, is imperative if this program is to become a College tradition. Obviously the success of the Williams Reads program has and will continue to hinge on the participation of community members, but as the scope of the program expands, so should the level of involvement from faculty and students. Faculty involvement in Williams Reads will provide faculty the same common ground that it will provide students, helping to not only facilitate a closer community but also to better student-faculty relations.

However, the College’s decision to send the book out via e-mail as a link or PDF to students may compromise the level of engagement needed to spark this kind of all-campus involvement, as the prospect of reading hundreds of pages off a screen is not particularly inviting. While we understand the economic value of this technology, it will almost certainly result in the book reaching fewer readers. If this program is to be successful, the College must find a way to provide students with a physical copy of the assigned book as the current Williams Reads program does.

In setting the tone for its first semester at the College, this program should seek to forge connections between first-years and their classmates and professors. With time left on the clock to finalize plans for this year, the committee should acquire a broader perspective and make its goals and purpose clearer. This reading program could grow to become a functional and positive first-year introduction to a vital and growing academic culture on campus. Its success and relevance hinges, of course, on student involvement; and, if we can harness the kind of excitement our campus has for institutions such as Mountain Day or Claiming Williams, this project can give academics and intellectual discourse that much-needed final push out from behind classroom doors and into social and personal spheres.

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