Students, faculty discuss merits of tutorial program

November 4, 2015 by Jack Greenberg, Sports Editor

This is the second installment in a two-part series on tutorials. The first part examined the origins of the tutorial at the College, and this part focuses on contemporary opinion on the program.

The tutorial program, brought stateside by former President of the College Francis Oakley in the mid-1980s, and expanded by one of his successors, then President Morton Schapiro, in the early 2000s, today serves as a fundamental component of the College’s academic offerings and one of its distinguishing features when compared to other liberal arts institutions.

Prior to reviewing applications for the Class of 2019, the Office of Admission changed its supplemental essay prompt to ask prospective students who they would want as their ideal tutorial partner. The College’s current capital campaign seeks to secure the financial support needed to “sustain and build upon … tutorials, enabling faculty to engage in this special form of teaching and providing them with the resources they need to continue to develop new tutorials.” While it is clear that tutorials are central to the College’s identity and are often viewed positively by those inside and outside of the community, over the years, there have been varying student and faculty responses to the benefits and drawbacks of the structure of this unique program.

Students and faculty who have enrolled in and taught tutorial courses during their time at the College speak uniformly in support of the deep intellectual engagement this style of instruction offers to undergraduates and professors alike. “The individualized attention of tutorials allowed me to tailor discussions to things I found most interesting,” Cleo Nevakivi-Callanan ’16, who has taken three tutorials, said. “It also forced me to do the readings very carefully and ensured that I had absorbed them completely. I loved getting to know my professors and learning in a more relaxed atmosphere.”

Gabriella Kallas ’16, who is currently enrolled in the tutorial “Interpretations of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” and has taken the tutorial “Latina Writing: Literature by U.S. Hispanics,” expressed similar sentiments. “[The tutorial format] really allows you to explore ideas much more fully, since you’re forced to write about works every week,” she said. “In addition, you participate in intense hour-plus-long discussions about these works where, if you are comfortable, you can take risks and play with different ideas to strengthen your own sense of the topic you’re learning about.”

Faculty who have led these tutorials see the same value. “The tutorial session is a safe and conducive space for students to explore complicated and rich topics with a fellow student and really dig deep,” Professor of History Magnus Bernhardsson, who teaches the Israel-Palestine tutorial in which Kallas is enrolled, along with other tutorial offerings, said. “I see a tutorial as more of a partnership between students and the faculty and an opportunity for the faculty member to learn from their students.”

Professor of English Stephen Tifft, who has taught such a great number of tutorial courses during his tenure at the College that he does not recall all of those he has offered, added that “one of the most important things to teach students at Williams – whether extremely good or just average students – is how to improve their argumentation so that it is more searching, drives deeper into its central issue, avoids basing papers on routine or so-so theses and merely using the paper to package such a thesis with its evidence.” Tifft explained how “the tutorial provides the best teaching format for doing this,” saying that “the session is less about the subject of the paper and whether the paper defends a given viewpoint adequately, than about how the three of us together might dismantle and re-imagine the argument more searchingly, arriving at a … re-thinking of the paper’s crucial issue and the ways that issue might best be probed.”

Professor of Philosophy Bojana Mladenovic, who has taught four tutorial courses and currently serves as director of tutorials, is delighted by the level of support this type of instruction earns at the College. “When you think about it, once you leave this place nobody is going to direct you how to learn,” Mladenovic said. “So tutorials are wonderful preparation … It is enormously important to learn how to choose your own questions … [and] find things you want to write about. You really are an independent thinker.” Mladenovic embraces the virtues of “guided independence” that form the basis of the tutorial program’s construction and recognizes that its success ultimately depends on student performance.

The program, in spite of its successes, is not without certain drawbacks. The primary struggle students and faculty face who are invested in tutorial instruction is the underlying reality that a professor can only take so many students for these types of courses and cannot accommodate all who wish to enroll. Caroline White-Nockleby ’16, a veteran of two tutorial courses, grappled with this issue: “Tutorials are so size-limited. I signed up for two different tutorials, and have since tried to enroll in another that I did not get into, before I was finally accepted into one,” White-Nockleby said. “It is tough because some professors prefer students who have already taken classes with them, or majors, or people in a specific class year. This can make it especially difficult to be able to take a tutorial in an unfamiliar area – which can be quite valuable.”

Faculty expressed concerns about enrollment as well. Professor of Computer Science Jeannie Albrecht said that her only regret in offering “The Socio Techno Web” was that she “had to cap [the course].” Whereas tutorials generally admit only 10 students whom the professor then divides up into five pairs, Albrecht allowed 12 students to enroll in her course and created six pairs. As a result, Albrecht had to lead an extra meeting and grade up to another 10 pages of student writing each week.

Other professors have pursued similar remedies to address overenrollment. Bernhardsson allowed 15 students into his Israel-Palestine tutorial and split the group into five sets of three participants and Oakley, when he taught at the College, would teach up to nine pairs of two students.

Mladenovic, who has offered tutorials that have been overenrolled by about 40 students, laments that some students who wish to take these courses cannot. However, she does not see this issue as specific to tutorial instruction or one that the College can address without hiring more faculty. “As director of the tutorial program, one of my goals is to expand the tutorial experience to all of the student population,” Mladenovic said. “I’m advising all of my first-year advisees to take a tutorial as soon as possible [to bolster their chances of getting into tutorial courses later in their collegiate careers] and I would like to see tutorial-like work being present in normal classes so that even those students who do not get into a normal tutorial have something of a tutorial experience.” Mladenovic cited a class she co-taught with Professor of Philosophy Jana Sawicki several years ago, where six weeks of the course were instructed in tutorial format and the remainder were conducted in seminar style, as an example of how this system could function successfully.

Another issue stems from the fact that, in spite of efforts to gear 40 percent of tutorial courses towards first-years and sophomores, underclassmen may experience hesitations about taking on the rigorous workload of a tutorial course early in their careers at the College. “I wish more first-year students would be able to take a tutorial in their very first semester at Williams,” Bernhardsson said, whose tutorial this spring, “The Veil,” is offered at the 100-level. “Perhaps we should send a much stronger message, especially to incoming first-years, that they take a tutorial early on in their careers.”

Mladenovic, in addition to seeing first-year advising as a mechanism for getting younger students excited about taking tutorials, raised the potential for Junior Advisors to encourage the first-years in their entries to enroll in this type of course.

Any issues aside, the tutorial style of instruction receives strong praise within the community and achieves recognition as an emblem of what the College hopes to achieve with liberal arts education. “There are a number of excellent liberal arts colleges here in the United States,” Bernhardsson said. “All of these schools can claim small classes, a conducive community for learning, labs, summer research opportunities, nice athletic facilities … but what makes Williams truly unique is the tutorial system. This is what makes us different.”

Molly Bodurtha ’17, who is taking six tutorials this year as a participant in the Williams Exeter Programme at Oxford and enrolled in three over her first two years at the College, exudes the same enthusiasm. “I honestly think the tutorial system is one of the ways Williams demonstrates its investment in each student on its campus in its commitment to give any student who demonstrates interest complete and focused attention,” she said.

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