Two years later, examining the CEP reforms

Two years after the faculty voted to implement most of the Proposals for Curricular Innovation (PCI) presented by the Committee on Educational Policy (CEP), there is little consensus in the community as to how successful or revolutionary the changes have been. The action taken by the faculty in May of 2001 called for four reforms: an expansion of tutorials, new writing and qualitative skills graduation requirements, increased interdisciplinary programs and a new focus on experiential learning, emphasized by the creation of a capstone “Williams in New York” program. Current CEP chair Jane Sawicki told the Record the Committee would soon be evaluating the effects of the curricular reform; this examination must be comprehensive in determining whether the Williams curriculum truly is setting a “new standard of excellence in undergraduate education.”

As Edmund Burke said, “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” With this in mind, it is good that Williams – already among the elite institutions of higher education – was willing to take a year to seriously examine how to teach its undergraduate students better. Yet the lesson to ultimately take from Burke’s teachings is that institutions achieve greatness from years of trial and error. In other words, Williams is a great college because our current style of teaching works. While the College should always be willing to consider new possibilities, we must be vigilant that whatever reform we do embark upon is not simply change for change’s sake.

If any learning experience gets at the heart of the Williams educational philosophy, it is the tutorial – the very essence of the “Mark Hopkins and the log” ideal. The CEP’s recommendation of expanding the tutorial program (the number offered has increased from 21 to 47 over the last few years) is undoubtedly a good idea in theory. Tutorials can be a fantastic teaching tool; however, increasing the number of tutorials offered is not ipso facto a positive change. Offering a tutorial is a major commitment of resources by the College, and the cost to the institution of a tutorial that does not live up to expectations is significantly greater than that of a regular class that fails to do so. As Colin Adams, the chair of the Committee on Priorities and Resources (CPR), has said, “for every tutorial that is offered, some other class that might have been 19.5 [students] has to grow to 31.5 on average. The students in that class have a worse experience because of the tutorial.” Recognizing the relationship between more tutorials and increasing class size, the CEP must exercise ceaseless vigilance in approving and evaluating each tutorial that is offered. Each year, the Committee should ask of every tutorial, “does the quality of the particular experience offered to the 10 students enrolled outweigh the negative impact it has on students’ pedagogical experience in other courses?”

The writing-intensive and qualitative-reasoning graduation requirements are certainly not sea-changes in educational philosophy, but they are positive developments. Williams must make sure, for example, that every student who graduates from the College can write at a level consistent with the quality of our institution; the writing-intensive requirement is a sound way of making sure all students have exposure to a class that will improve their writing. That said, we are concerned that for some members of the faculty – perhaps only a small number, but certainly some – a writing-intensive course is merely a course that requires 20 pages of writing. The best improvement to one’s writing occurs when a paper receives thoughtful feedback. Students and faculty alike need to recognize that the value of a writing-intensive course comes not from the quantity of writing expected, but from the quality of the feedback-revision process. As Bob Bell, professor of English, said a few weeks ago, “a teacher needs to convey to each and every student that he’s taking very seriously every bit of writing a student is doing and is reacting, potentially, to anything and everything in a paper.” On this note, it is both necessary and helpful for professors to offer feedback on end-of-semester papers in all courses. Improvement does not end with the conclusion of a semester, but is a continuous process; too often, it seems, the quality of feedback on these papers is lacking, if present at all.

The one truly radical idea approved by the faculty was the creation of a Williams in New York program, which would give students access to a learning environment that presents opportunities unavailable in Williamstown. It seems Williams in New York is an unfortunate casualty – at least in the near-term – of the College’s shrinking endowment. This is understandable, but the community should keep this program in mind so it may be realized in the future, when the College’s finances are on sounder footing. President Schapiro’s vision of “seeing the program thriving” during his time as Williams president is encouraging, and students and faculty should make sure this vision is realized.

Ultimately, there is little that is truly innovative in the proposals approved by the faculty. We, like Burke, see this as a good thing. What the College’s self-examination in 2001 and the experience of the last few years has shown is that the model Williams has always been based on – “Mark Hopkins and the log” – is the paradigm that will allow us to remain at the pinnacle of higher education. In the end, after all, some change is all that is needed for the conservation of a successful institution.