Oakley discusses origins of tutorial program

In the United States, tutorials are an academic experience unique to the College. This is the first installment in a two-part series on tutorials, which will examine both the origins of the tutorial at the College and contemporary opinion on the program.

“The ideal college,” then future President of the United States James Garfield 1856 remarked at an alumni dinner in New York one evening in 1871, “is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.” At the time, Garfield offered the remark as a testament to the dedicated stewardship of Hopkins as president of the College and the quality of the young minds that found their way into the Purple Valley. Little did Garfield know that his comment of praise would someday capture the spirit of one of the College’s most distinguished and singular academic offerings: the tutorial program.

The tutorial is, along with lecture, seminar and studio, one of the means through which the College’s faculty offers instruction to its students. Tutorial courses generally consist of no more than 10 students. The professor divides up these students into pairs of two. From there, each pair meets with the professor once a week for an hour. In a humanities or social science tutorial, both students take on a considerable load of reading for the week, generally at least a full book,  and write in preparation for their meeting with the professor, borrowing from a tradition from British higher education, particularly the University of Oxford. One student each week writes “the main paper,” a five to seven page response to the prescribed reading where he or she is expected to critically engage and analyze the text. This paper is due to the student’s partner and his or her professor generally 24 hours before the tutorial meeting. The other student in the pairing then has until the time the tutorial meets to write a two to three page critique of his or her partner’s work, offering commentary on points in the main paper he or she disagrees with.

The pair meets with their professor, normally in the faculty member’s office, and each partner reads his or her writing aloud. Following these readings, the two students engage in a dialogue with each other about the text they have examined, using their respective essays as a jumping off point for further discussion. The professor is expected to intervene in the discourse only if absolutely necessary in the first 20 or 30 minutes of the meeting, before joining the pair as a third participant in the conversation. The next week, the student who had just written the main paper will instead write the critique and vice versa.

In math and science tutorials offered at the College, the structure works differently, but still strives to honor the Oxford tradition. Rather than tackling reading and essay writing, the students enrolled in Division III tutorial courses generally work on problem sets throughout the week prior to their meeting. The pair then meets with their professor to discuss the approaches they each individually employed for solving each problem and have the opportunity to collaborate on resolving any trouble spots in the assignment. For the 2015-16 academic year, the College offered 15 tutorials in the maths and sciences, with choices ranging from “Dangerous Exposures: Infectious Diseases” in the biology department to “Planets and Moons” in the astronomy department.

The tutorial program began  in the fall of 1987, following the launch of the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford (WEPO) in fall 1985, an opportunity specific to students at the College to study as fully matriculated visiting students at Exeter College of the University of Oxford. “You really have to go back to the Oxford program,” Professor of History and President Emeritus Francis Oakley said. Oakley, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oxford, worked to convince his colleagues that, while studying abroad in England, students ought to engage in the academic traditions of Oxford, including tutorial study. “I saw little point in sending our students to Oxford if they did not have something like the Oxford experience … to go onto the Oxford calendar of three terms and go the tutorial route.” Despite some initial resistance from the faculty, Oakley’s colleagues proved persuadable; the participants in WEPO would exclusively take tutorial courses instead of enrolling in seminar-style classes as originally planned. Though Oakley initially fostered some hopes of serving as its first director, his election as president of the College would take his career in a different direction.

The idea of offering tutorial courses at the College grew from the establishment of WEPO into the review of the curriculum Oakley initiated in the fall of 1985. Oakley cites two primary actors as leading the charge for tutorials based at the College in the spring of 1987: Tom Perkins ’87, a senior at the time who was part of WEPO’s inaugural class, and Richard Sabot, an economics professor at the College, who completed his doctorate at Oxford and taught tutorials as a graduate student while there.

“I thought it was a wonderful idea and pledged to add three full-time members to the faculty to help [offer tutorials.] They are very labor-intensive,” Oakley said. He also hoped to convince his colleagues that this type of instruction would not just serve “as an added burden” to their work commitments. Nevertheless, skeptics did emerge amongst the faculty. Oakley recalls one of his fellow professors referring to the proposal as “a romantic idea doomed to failure.” The measure ultimately passed, with well over 60 percent of faculty voting in favor of the change.

The next logistical hurdle for the installation of tutorials was funding the program. “The College was not as well-off financially then as it is now,” Oakley said, referencing how the endowment had less than one fifth the real value it maintains contemporarily. “My idea originally was to make [tutorials] part of every student’s experience. It was impossible financially.” The College did, however, get to offer 30 tutorials in their inaugural year, allowing a minimum of 300 students to engage in this unique learning opportunity from its stateside inception.

Oakley found that students almost exclusively offered praise for the initial tutorials. “Never has any curricular thing had its tires kicked more frequently. Several committees had sounded out students who had taken tutorials … and they were getting very positive feedback,” Oakley said. “I am delighted that they have taken off. They have become a signature feature of Williams.”

Though the College designed the tutorial program such that each department would offer at least one, faculty originally intended that they be primarily for upperclassmen. “I think [tutorials] impose a greater burden upon the student [than other courses],” Oakley said. “It is a self-selecting thing. Students who do not want to take on the extra load just do not take them. You know you are going to get people who are really interested.” 

In 2001, under the leadership of then President Morton Schapiro, the faculty voted over-whelmingly to double the amount of tutorials offered at the College annually to 60 (the total available each year now ranges between 70 and 75) and extend more opportunities to underclassmen to enroll in a tutorial course. Now, roughly 40 percent of tutorials are listed as 100- or 200-level courses. Oakley welcomes the increase, recalling how in his “Medieval Political Thought” tutorial offered a few years back, a pair of first-years were among his strongest performers in a class otherwise dominated by upperclassmen. “They were really keen. One of them said he came to [the College] because of tutorials. If you had just walked into [their meeting,] you would not know they were [first-years,]” Oakley said.

Part II of this Closer Look will examine the role of tutorials on campus contemporarily to see if students and professors at the College today are as enthusiastic about the program as the Oxford-educated former president of the College. 

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