Teaching and Scholarship

From the September 2011 Alumni Review

A highlight of my week in the summer involves each Tuesday at noon heading over to the Science Quad. There a couple hundred students and faculty partake of that well-known stimulant to intellectual thought—pizza—before piling into Wege Auditorium for a research talk by a science faculty member.

Few events say more about Williams.

The room crackles: first with good humor (“The math department [students] hereby challenge the physics department to croquet Thursday at 6 on Chapin Lawn!”) and then with intellect, as that week’s faculty member conveys the essence of his or her research, usually followed by insightful student questions.

The students are participants in a variety of programs that engage them in faculty scholarship, especially in the summer. This happens in all three of the academic divisions. You’d be equally impressed catching a performance of the Summer Theatre Lab.

This summer held an added pleasure. On two consecutive Monday evenings, we hosted a series of faculty talks from which we actually had to turn people away. Fortunately neither they, nor you, need to miss them.

These were the first installments of Williams Thinking, a new project designed to capture on video short presentations by our faculty, based loosely on the popular TED talk series and focusing on big questions or ideas in their areas of scholarship. You can see the first offerings at www.williams.edu/williamsthinking.

If this is the level of intellectual vitality here in the summer, you can imagine what it’s like the rest of the year.

Our students are fortunate in so many ways—with an abundance of cultural, athletic and social opportunities—but in no way more than in the intellectual stimulation that’s available to them inside and outside the classroom.

This is true primarily because our faculty are so involved in scholarship. I’m surprised when some commentators set teaching and scholarship as mutually exclusive domains that make rival claims on faculty time. The implication is that the hours spent on scholarship come at the cost of students. I can’t speak for all of higher education—maybe there’s an institution somewhere that has this out of balance—but I know that at Williams the hours devoted to scholarship result in benefits for students.

If education were simply a matter of filling students’ brains with material, then, yes, scholarship reduces the time available to do that. But Williams has long understood that education involves instead the sparking of minds, and this can only be done by another mind that’s fully charged—that is itself curious, eager to learn and ready to engage new ideas and methods.

Conversely, every Williams faculty member can tell you how much they’ve learned from their students through a form of mutual inquiry that is education at its most effective.
This point is both told and shown in the first of the Williams Thinking talks that you can now watch online. Psychologist Susan Engel describes it in her investigation of how best to encourage the natural curiosity of children. (See the article about her work in this issue.) Others exhibit it in the tributes they give to specific contributions students have made to their scholarly understanding.

So it’s not teaching or scholarship but teaching and scholarship. And I’m convinced that no place does this better than Williams.