Gaudino Scholar: Lois Banta - At What Cost?

Lois Banta, the current Gaudino Scholar.
Lois Banta, the current Gaudino Scholar.

Before President Adam Falk announced that Lois Banta — Associate Professor of Biology, Chair of Public Health — will become the next Gaudino Scholar, starting in the fall of 2014, Prof. Banta prepared a memo outlining her thoughts about the role of the scholar, and what she might do in the post. Here are some excerpts:

As I reflected on the journey that started with my own undergraduate training, I recognized that intellectual risk-taking has been a consistent thread since earlier in my career. Although the paths I have chosen have not always been smooth, they have been empowering, and there is very little I would do differently given a second chance.  To me, a primary goal for the Gaudino Scholar as a teacher and mentor is to challenge both students and faculty to take more risks.

Although many of the courses I have taught both here and at Haverford are “hard core” molecular biology, biochemistry, and microbiology, I feel very fortunate to have had so many chances to explore so broadly at the interfaces between disciplines.  I suspect that many Williams faculty members were attracted to liberal arts college careers precisely because they enjoyed crossing intellectual boundaries. Yet teaching in an area that is well outside your areas of expertise can be intimidating for faculty members who are used to being in control in their classroom. In my experience, one way to foster uncomfortable learning and risk-taking in the classroom/lab is to model it for the students, by designing courses that incorporate disciplines at or beyond the edge of your own (and the students’) comfort zone.  For me, that has happened both in co-teaching with an economist and in being forced to learn enough about bioethics, computer science and statistics to lead my own classes in these areas.

If I were the Gaudino Scholar, one of my initiatives would be a call for proposals from individual faculty members or groups of faculty for support to explore disciplines well outside their own areas of expertise.  This might involve one faculty member attending a course such as the bioethics courses that so markedly expanded my intellectual horizons, or it might mean facilitating partnerships among faculty with intersecting interests.  One example of such a faculty development project was a summer retreat that led to the development of our introduction to public health course.  With funding from the Dean of Faculty’s Office and the Interdepartmental Program for Experimental and Cross-Disciplinary Studies, 11 faculty members, the pre-health advisor, and a retired epidemiologist alumnus participated in a three-day-long curricular design workshop in June, 2008.  The goals of this workshop were to educate each other about our various areas of public health expertise, and to use that accumulated knowledge to develop both an outline and some detailed content material for the introductory course. The resulting course has been co-taught by a philosopher and an economist.  More recently, monthly discussions by a group of science faculty (under the rubric of “Advances in Science Education”) have uncovered support among faculty from several departments for cross-disciplinary curricular initiatives that would incorporate more quantitative skills in disciplines such as biology that traditionally attract more math-phobic students.  A third example might be a broadly interdisciplinary working group interested in developing an environmental studies course that explores global climate change from a variety of perspectives.

A second major initiative would center on a theme that I have come to think of as “At What Cost?”  The genesis for this idea was an invitation from Professor Emeritus Stuart Crampton to lead an informal dinner discussion in a series he was organizing on “big questions” that faculty members were wrestling with.  I thought at that time that some future Gaudino Scholar should challenge students to consider the big question that was foremost on my mind: “What are you willing to give up for success at Williams?”
In the four years since then, I have thought repeatedly of the many formulations this question takes.  At the personal level, the notion of “effortless perfection” has entered our college discourse, but underlying that fallacy are other questions: Why do we work so hard at what we do (whether academics or athletics, teaching the perfect class or service to the college)?  What would happen to the college if we didn’t all work so hard?  What opportunities are we missing?  What uncomfortable truths are we trying to shut out?

One facet of the “At What Cost?” initiative would center on witnessing, i.e. truly hearing the stories of those whose experiences reflect costs borne, but also bringing those stories back to Williams so that they can impact the lives of more listeners.  I envision this programming taking two forms: one- to two-week long residencies by authors and artists whose professional work embodies witnessing; and enhanced opportunities for students to hear and experience lives very different from their own and to share the stories that captured their hearts and minds with others on campus.