Tutorial expansion moves ahead

One of the most popular parts of last year’s Proposal for Curricular Innovation (PCI) was an expansion of the College’s existing tutorial program, which passed with the support of 82 percent of voting faculty. The effort to expand the tutorial program is already underway in the form of increased availability of grants to faculty members for the development of more tutorials in all departments, as well as the creation of specialized tutorials for sophomores.

“The hope expressed last year during the [curricular reform] debates was that we would eventually provide enough tutorials each year so that every student who wanted to take one could do so during their time at Williams,” said Stephen Fix, chair of the English department and director of the tutorial program.

Fix cautioned that he is not yet sure how many tutorial offerings would be necessary to attain that goal. “About 60 to 65 tutorials per year seems like a reasonable guess,” he said.

The College, under the leadership of then-President Francis Oakley, introduced the tutorial program in 1988 in order to provide students with the opportunity to study a topic of interest in an environment dramatically different from that of a traditional class. In tutorials, students meet with the professor once a week in pairs. Each week, one of the pair prepares, delivers and defends an oral presentation of a paper, a set of problems or a laboratory exercise. On their “off” week, the students are expected to comment on and evaluate the other’s work during the meeting. Tutorial courses are typically open to a maximum of 10 students, although the entire class generally meets only twice, at the beginning and at the end of the semester.

According to the Williams College Bulletin, “a tutorial is directly concerned with teaching students about arguments, about arriving at and defending a position, and about responding quickly to suggestions and questions.”

For many students, tutorials also afford an opportunity to work closely with a professor in a manner impossible in most other courses.

Fix mentioned that the number of tutorials offered at Williams had been growing even before the faculty voted to give it a more prominent place in academic life at the College.

“This year we are offering 33 tutorials, up from 26 last year,” Fix said. “A lot of that had to do with the enthusiasm that was being expressed last year in faculty meetings as we debated curricular reform. Many faculty members were standing up and giving testimonials as to how much they like teaching tutorials.”

“There was a number of faculty who have never taught a tutorial before whose interest has been piqued by some of the very favorable comments that people have been making,” he continued.

Part of the effort to make tutorials a more central feature of academics at Williams consists of an increase in the number of grants available to faculty members for the development of tutorial courses. The grants, which are just one part of a larger program of funding for faculty development, consist of a $4,000 stipend awarded for the summer prior to the year in which the tutorial is to be offered.

Fix emphasized that the grant is not a bonus for teaching a tutorial, but rather a compensation for the large amount of time required to prepare an intensive new course. Currently, six stipends are granted each year, a number that Fix hopes will increase to 10 or 12.

In addition to the larger number of grants awarded each year, the College has removed a restriction that currently prevents professors from receiving more than one grant in their careers. However, applicants who have never taught a tutorial before will still be given first priority, and faculty members cannot receive a stipend for tutorials that they have taught in the past.

A second aspect of the expansion of the College’s tutorial offerings is the creation of a sophomore tutorial program. The new program will not require that every sophomore take a tutorial, but is intended to give sophomores the opportunity to explore the fundamental ideas of a field of interest through the tutorial format before their courses of study become too specialized.

“The truth is that virtually all of the tutorials that exist now are 300-level courses, which are essentially conceived for majors,” Fix said. “Part of what we decided in the spring was to introduce some tutorials that are 200-level courses.”

“We would like to get some faculty who have done 300-level tutorials to teach 200-level tutorials, so we can get some experience with them as a faculty,” Fix continued. “We need to learn what is different about [sophomore tutorials], and even to ask a more fundamental question: is this an appropriate teaching method for this level?”

Fix said that while at present no specific timetable is in place for the establishment of the sophomore tutorial program, he has already begun the process of meeting with professors and department chairs to discuss ways in which they could contribute to the program.

By the start of the 2002-03 school year, Fix hopes to have about five or six sophomore-oriented tutorials in place.