Truthfully, it’s no surprise or joke how hard Williams academics can be, however much it may seem like one sometimes. I know I can’t be the only student to do an occasional double take while reading over a class syllabus: Sometimes the turnover time from one exam or paper to the next is less than ideal. Then there’s the fact that we take four (or five!) separate classes at once and the mysterious phenomenon of every professor conspiratorially assigning all of our work at the same time, a concept we know defies all logic and reason but that we persist in believing and complaining about to our fellow students.
One thing I have observed is that there is a blurred line between complaining and bragging about our work. I don’t really think anyone likes the six-hour marathon in Schow, yet getting “nerd-belled” is considered a rite of passage. Complaining about staying up late working on three problems sets, two lab reports, 100 pages of reading and a 500-word Glow post has become a way to show off how hard we work. However, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Since everyone is doing it, it becomes more of a way to foster camaraderie than a way to assert superiority over others or stratify the intellectual culture. Hands down, my favorite part of the Williams academic experience has been the collaboration that comes of such camaraderie.
There is definitely the sense, at least for me, that we are all in this together. Sometimes the only way to conquer the “nerd bell” is to help each other. It makes a huge difference that the professors not only allow this, but also encourage it. It has made the academic culture decidedly non-competitive. I definitely don’t get the sense that any other students want me to do worse so that they can do better. Help can come from anywhere: people you run into in line for bagels at Goodrich (side note: Goodrich breakfast may rival this academic collaboration as my favorite thing at Williams), housemates you meet in the laundry room or friendly upperclassmen at 1 a.m. in Eco Café. Feel free to call me crazy, but I think that there is actually something fun about going to the Math and Science Resource C at 11 p.m. the night before the problem set is due and finding people with whom to struggle through it. There is an undeniable esprit de corps about it.
My best example of this to date has been the slightly infamous Fly Lab report for “Genetics.” For a lot of us, it was the first “big” lab report we have to write (though I know that it now seems short to the upperclassmen). When I started to work on this assignment, it was extremely daunting. I’m not ashamed to say that I felt completely overwhelmed and lost. Then the next day, I had a conversation with my lab partner about it. She gave me a few helpful hints, and my thinking about the report totally changed. By the end of another night working on it, I was actually excited about the material. This trend continued with the study hall office hours we had (for which I am very thankful – thank you to Lecturer in Biology Derek Dean and Visiting Instructor in Biology Janis Bravo).
Over the course of the week spent on it, I probably collaborated with dozens of students in one way or another. I always smiled to myself when I saw clusters of people working on it in Schow. Having other people off whom to bounce ideas was invaluable with this type of work. The ingenuity of my fellow students was quite impressive (not that I should be at all surprised by this). The best moment in all of this was when I went to turn in my report at the end of the week. As I was walking down the hallway, someone I didn’t know walked past and said, “Feels so good, right?” The look said it all: In that moment, we could instantly share the emotional experience of the whole week. This was only made possible by the collaboration that Williams encourages.
I know that this isn’t limited to the math and science classes. I’ve given and received help on many an English or history paper as well, and studying for tests in groups is almost always better than studying alone. Williams is incredibly challenging, as it should be, but it’s made so much better by my classmates. Nothing unifies us as much as our drive to constantly work harder. We work together to push ourselves, and I can’t imagine surviving Williams any other way.
I am eternally grateful to everyone who answered my questions and listened to my ideas about the Fly Lab (especially at 1:30 a.m. in Schow). Here’s to two-and-a-half more years together!
Sierra McDonald ’16 is from Whately, Mass. She lives in Garfield.