Depth over breadth

I think it’s safe to say that I chose a liberal arts college for the same reasons as most of you. I wanted to be taught to think creatively and expansively by professors who truly enjoy teaching undergraduates. I wanted to realize my full potential as a well-rounded and employable individual by taking the diverse panoply of classes required and to use words like “panoply” in normal settings without getting weird looks. Frankly, I just didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life, let alone what I wanted to take to fulfill my Exploring Diversity Initiative class. I just knew that I wanted to be in a place where I could study Whitman and Watson or Kafka and Crick side-by-side.

Williams has been everything I wanted and more. Many of my professors have been friendly and insightful, and they have brought enthusiasm to their subjects that I find truly inspiring. I have definitely enjoyed the curricular freedom. Taking social psychology simultaneously with anthropology was fascinating, since each subject approaches humanity’s quirks and flaws from a totally different perspective. If one way of looking at things doesn’t make sense, Williams has taught me that there are many other ways, both academic and practical, to think about them. I have also come to enjoy and respect the company of my peers. Nothing rivals the 3 a.m. conversations about life and love that I’ve had here. I also like that we are allowed, even encouraged, to constantly challenge things here, including the very nature of the education we are receiving. That’s why I think it is worth bringing up a recent frustration that I have had with the liberal arts education.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s great that we get to take “niche” classes, such as “Religious Life of Southeast Asia” or “Aristotle’s Metaphysics.” My complaint is that the classes, particularly humanities classes, are not as “niche” as they should be. By offering these classes that are so narrow in their subject matter, Williams is theoretically promoting depth over breadth. However, I have found that even with seemingly specific and focused topics, the curricula are designed with an inordinate amount of material, particularly reading, packed into each semester. It is hard to achieve depth when the ratio of class time to material is so low, especially with the introductory-level classes. Many of the College’s humanity classes assign too much reading, and the effects of this can be quite detrimental.

It is not uncommon for hundreds of pages of reading to be assigned before each 75 minutes class. The most obvious problem is that there is not nearly enough time to discuss all of it, and students rarely know what sections or concepts on which they should focus. I would love to do a careful and critical reading of every article that I am assigned, but it is simply impossible most of the time, especially for a slow reader like me.

It can even be frustrating. I recently had to read a book and review it for a history class. I actually liked the novel and would have enjoyed spending a long time mulling the ideas over in my head. However, the professor also assigned hundreds of pages of dense primary source readings at the same time, on which I was also expected to thoughtfully comment. I was torn between my intellectual curiosity and my desire for sleep that week. This sort of pattern in class syllabi is unfortunate: Students develop the habit of skimming everything and learning nothing from a lot of the reading assignments – at least learning much less than they could. It doesn’t help that discussions are often unfocused and highly theoretical.

I’ve had this conversation with several students in the form of rants or as civil, Williams-esque debates. Some have said that it is important for students to develop skills like skimming to find the important points quickly. However, I have begun to feel that I am not learning very much, especially in classes that should be content-based, like humanities courses. I could learn much more in a class that covered much less. We could spend the same amount of time carefully reading and discussing 20 pages as we do skimming and offering vague opinions on 100 pages. It would not jeopardize our elite liberal arts education; it would enrich it.

Perhaps this is just the opinion of a prospective biology major who enjoys spending more time intensely focused on a genetics problem set than frantically skimming the entirety of a 19th-century missionary travelogue at 1 a.m. When I sign up for an intriguing class about a subject that can’t be studied anywhere else, I want to go into considerable depth and come away from the class having learned something other than how to scan a bunch of pages to find one quote or idea to post on Glow. I do not think that an emphasis on content would hurt the integrity of a humanities class. Depth over breadth is something we should strive for.

Sierra Mcdonald ’16 is from Whately, Mass. She lives in Garfield.