Exploring major and minor interests

There are always things to do on our campus. Among the performances, science seminars, math colloquiums, debates and talks, the administration does a successful job of providing us with many opportunities. Yet how many students actually take advantage of such great resources? Unfortunately, far fewer than you would guess, even when considering the stereotypically engaged Williams student. This deficit is not due to lack of interest or an inability to uphold that stereotype, however. It is, in fact, because of that need to engage and fully commit that we are lacking in extracurricular academic growth.

On average, we want to do the best that we can in all respects, which subsequently means that we will push ourselves too far to get that paper written, read until our eyes blur and type until we no longer can (on weekdays, at least). We do this because it’s what we expect from ourselves and it’s the standard we hold our peers to. But if we totaled the hours necessary to read our 80 pages of Utopian America critical articles, 60 pages of organic chemistry textbook (including all of the practice problems and problem sets, of course), geoscience textbook reading and our econ problem set, the bare minimum number of hours needed to complete these tasks is impossible. Not to mention our other commitments required to achieve a dynamic life, including teams, clubs, organizations and jobs.

In a realistic world, those 80-plus pages get skimmed or selectively read. We want to go to that colloquium on “The Right to Freedom in Thought,” and God knows I would love to hike in the woods and learn from an expert about the tree barks of New England trees. But I, and the rest of our student body, frankly can’t. We fundamentally don’t have time to explore our extraneous and metonymic interests because we are so completely entwined in the workload upon us. Once a week I find it a small victory if I can attend the biology colloquiums held on Fridays, as it means that I’m stable and relaxed enough to not be panicking about a problem set or so exhausted that I need to sleep or go out immediately. Yet this is a truly dynamic, applicable experience that would thoroughly enrich my learning in many regards. Further, biology is one of my majors. So getting to a colloquium is amazing, but not particularly exploratory. The popular consensus is that if students can manage to skimp on our assigned work (and knowingly take a hit on our grades or even our comprehension, which is what the work is truly for) then we do it only to attend the presentations in our specialty.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with attending the programming in your department – of course we should do this. And some teachers offer incentive for that, which is great; providing extra credit for attending a colloquium allows students to feel justified in adding one more thing to their load. But what about the tenants of a liberal arts college? We should be using this time at a prestigious academic institution to attend not only a single talk by someone inspiring in our specialty, but to wander into a seminar in Griffin and be taken by the dynamics of Middle Eastern politics. In an ever increasingly interdisciplinary world, now more than ever we need to find a balance between becoming experts in our classes through the homework and reading we do and maintaining an air of academic excitement and liberal arts open-mindedness.

The lack of time we have isn’t a single-solution issue. We are overwhelmed with things to do not only because of the extreme work we have (much of which is justified – I truly think that organic chemistry is best learned through problem sets, and so despite the time, I respect the practice), but also because of the clubs, teams and groups in which we find ourselves involved. It’s hard to tell a professor that items in his or her course are not critical to growth, but if we aren’t fully appreciating these items, are they even achieving their goal? Critically, it all comes back to balance and how we as students can manage to develop a specialty, remain curious beyond it and maybe even relax and have fun once in a while. Maybe if our loads weren’t so heavy, if that one last article was dropped, we could do each thing a little bit better and experience a little bit more in exchange for that time spent reading.

Lily Gaddis ’15 is a biology and geoscience double major from Lake Oswego, Ore. She lives in Prospect.


  • The Student


    The problem is that Williams is living in the past, and not in the 20th century.
    While students at some other schools can have a student-life balance that really enables them to pursue ECs to the fullest, you are unlikely to do that at Williams, because if you do, you will be doomed by a falling GPA.

    I have friends in other schools who join robotics competitions, green energy competitions, etc. that takes them sometimes a week out of the college. One of my former colleagues from the West coast joined a group of students that went to Washington D.C. for a competition and assembled an entire house there. Yes, we do not have Engineering here, but we do have Computer Science and Environmental Science studies, so we could be doing something like that. Try to stay out of Williams for a week, though, and see what happens.

    I also know folks who are students at some of the top private schools and they can, for instance, really engage in the Debate circuit and be nationally competitive. Professors there understand. They allow students to combine the preparation for a competition with their studies. Try this here…

    Another example is singing. While students at, say Yale, can tour the country and even go overseas while still being able to manage their studies, we are out of look here.

    Perhaps an alternative could independent study/tutorial classes that are EC related. So one could take an independent study in, say Environmental Science, and use the time to dedicate to a project. I do not see preparing a full blown Environmental Science project that you are interested as less academically deserving, and less capable of fostering learning, than writing papers for a tutorial.

    Wake up Williams. It is not just about text books and lectures anymore.