I love my professors. They’re smart, they communicate well and, as a political science major, they make sure I know how and why certain things are happening in the world. Unfortunately, the knowledge I get is largely a product of the proximity my major gives me, a closeness that others don’t have with my professors and I don’t have with theirs. Because professors here operate on a student-initiated code of interaction, everyone will always be out of the loop. For the College, this is a problem.
Being that this is a liberal arts college with only a small graduate presence, it’s a safe bet to assume that most professors here came to teach students what they’re passionate about, and most students came here to get that kind of attention. Following from that, it’s surprising to me that discussions about interesting topics will happen between friends casually or in classes formally, but never together. When professors speak to students outside of an academic setting, there’s still a tinge of structure to it: Lyceum Dinners require formal attire, talks on upcoming books or projects are mini-lectures, etc. This rigidity of interaction, or at least the directness of engagement that it requires, turns away those who are interested, but might be intimidated by the topics. Insofar as it’s a practice tacitly acceded to by all involved, it’s also a problem people don’t talk about. Academic spheres in the student body are kept separate by divisions of ignorance, and when you combine what a serious undertaking stepping outside your division is with the fact that many take pride in their seclusion, it’s clear that the causes are mutually reinforcing.
Yale has a good solution to this problem. Its “Master’s Teas” are informal talks in which a guest speaker comes, speaks a little bit about what they do or what’s relevant to them and then engages in a general question-and-answer period with those who attend. This kind of casual space outside of academic expectations or prior knowledge provides a unique place for people across disciplines and divisions to come learn about things they would otherwise never touch. Bringing Master’s Teas to the College might result in something like monthly meetings in small classrooms for each department, with topics ranging from “A brief introduction to GMOs” to “What exactly is postmodernism?”
Nobody expects these talks to be anything more than an intellectual tasting, but a taste is all that matters. The College claims in its mission statement to “place great emphasis on the learning that takes place in the creation of a functioning community” and thinks that “from this holistic immersion, students learn more than they will ever know.” Without the ability to interact with professors as members of an intellectual environment rather than an academic business – without an informal way to learn – the mission of the College becomes a false promise. There will always be the division-crossing double majors, but the College also ought to look out for the science students wondering who the hell Heidegger was.
There’s no way that any professor, no matter how talented, can convey all the nuance in his or her topic within a small timeframe, and there’s no way students would get more out of a meeting than a full-fledged class. However, the ability to talk conversationally about something and apply it to real-world questions and histories is engaging in itself; if the mission of the College is indeed holistic immersion, then giving students a chance to get their feet wet in a topic may very well encourage them to jump into a department they wouldn’t have previously considered.
Luckily, students seem to be taking the initiative on getting these kinds of conversations started. The Williams College Debating Union is planning to sponsor public debates with professors on current issues this year, the attendance at mathematics and statistics student colloquia is a great example of students choosing to attend strictly academic meetings because peers make everything less intimidating and groups that bring in speakers work to make sure everyone can come and see that what their subject has to say is relevant.
The College has a wealth of extremely intelligent people whose job it is to be smart and talk about things they know. If already so many people benefit when we go to them, imagine how much more stands to be gained when they start to come to us.
Morry Kolman ’18 is from New York, N.Y. He lives in Carter.