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(From the Williams College commencement newspaper, On Campus, June 2006)

By Mark E. Rondeau

The Williams Tutorial Program offers students a distinctive and often memorable opportunity to take heightened responsibility for their intellectual development.

“The tutorial program at Williams ... has been one of the defining characteristics of my Williams education,” says Michael Gnozzio ’07, a computer science major. “I’ve taken several tutorials in the sciences and humanities and no two have been alike, save that they’ve been extremely rewarding. While the basic format remains more or less fixed, each tutorial I’ve taken has exposed me to new ideas and new ways of learning.”

More common in older universities in Britain, the tutorial format is rare in U.S. higher education.

How a tutorial course is conducted does vary, but usually 10 students will be enrolled. At the beginning of the term, the instructor divides the students into five pairs. Each pair meets with the instructor each week for about an hour. At these weekly meetings, one student will deliver a prepared essay or presentation about the assignment for that week. The other student and the instructor offer a critique. The following week the students switch roles.

Professor William G. Wagner, chair of the history department is coordinator of the tutorial program at Williams. He also taught a tutorial during the spring — Fin-de-Siecle Russia: Cultural Splendor, Imperial Decay.

“It’s wonderful. It’s great to work with the students. It’s more work for the students and in some ways it’s more work for me as well. But it’s rewarding.”

Student course evaluations for tutorials are very high – generally significantly higher than for other courses at comparable levels. In a survey of alumni from 1989 through 1996 who had taken at least one tutorial, more than 80 percent indicated that their tutorial was “the most valuable of my courses” at Williams.

“Enrollments have been strong, so if that’s an indication from the students’ side certainly there seems to be a lot of satisfaction,” Wagner said.

He took a conventional (five pairs of students alternating roles) approach in his tutorial. "It's a different kind of teaching. I enjoy the interchange with the students and watching the students developing their own ideas. I can work more closely with every student individually," he said. "Even in a seminar that's going well, there are some students who are more reluctant to participate even when they have great ideas."

"Those students can't get away with not participating when they're in a tutorial," he said with a laugh. "Every other week they're writing a paper which they have to present and defend."

The tutorial process develops a number of skills in students. “On an intellectual level it hones their ability to write an expository argument and do it in an efficient and effective manner. They have to produce six papers in the course of the semester. And they’re being critiqued by me and by the other student. I have a little form and a sheet that I use to respond to every essay, and the students do the same thing.”

The tutorial format also encourages the development of responsibility and maturity. “You can’t be late with your papers; everyone is depending on them,” Wagner said. “You can’t be late with your critique. You have to read it, so you have to do the reading in order to write the paper and also to respond to the other’s paper.”

Getting the tutorial pair right is a very important part of the tutorial process. Wagner and other professors try various ways to match students so their abilities and interests are either comparable or complementary.

“For example in this course we’re looking at the interconnection between artistic and literary developments and architecture, on the one hand, and political conflict and social conflict on the other. That drew a number of students who have an art history background,” he said. “So what I did was – and they tended to break down pretty easily between the sort of social science-oriented group and the art history-oriented group – I mixed them up. And it was great because they looked at things differently, they looked at pictures differently. Their interests were complementary to one another.”

In the first year of the Tutorial Program, 1988-89, the college offered 29 tutorial courses. In 2005-06, the college offered 60, the number the college wants to maintain.

Initially, tutorials at Williams stuck pretty close to the classic Oxford format, which was more difficult to fit to certain disciplines than others. “But over time that’s loosened up,” Wagner said. “The faculty are tremendously innovative and creative in adapting the basic format to their disciplines and objectives.”

This has led to tutorials becoming more popular in math and the sciences, though the faculty teaching these subjects were a bit resistant to the idea at first.

“They’ve been very, very creative in the way that they’ve made this work in the Williams environment, and now sciences and math are the strongest supporters [of] the program,” Wagner said.

Machine Learning

One example of this enthusiasm and creativity could be found in the Machine Learning Tutorial offered last fall by Andrea Danyluk, associate professor of computer science. This tutorial examines the design, implementation, and analysis of machine learning algorithms.

Danyluk said she met with her students in pairs once a week. Each week the students had to read an original research paper in the field and write a paper reacting to it. This usually resulted in more of a discussion than in one student presenting and the other critiquing.

“Since what they had to do was learn all the background in order to be able to understand the paper, they also had chapters [to read] from various books which gave them the basic fundamentals. They also worked through problems to help them understand that material,” she said. “They also had to do mathematical proofs, which helped them understand the theory underlying the method or to be able to extend it in various ways.”

About four weeks into the semester, the students had to implement the method they were studying that week through writing a program to better understand how the method works.

“The biggest advantage was that the students were never able to put anything off. They were always having to be ‘on’ at all moments,” Danyluk said. “I may have covered less material than I would have covered in a lecture. But I threw a tremendous amount at the students, really a tremendous amount, and they handled it extraordinarily well.”

Bartolome Tablante ’07, a computer science major, said the Machine Learning tutorial was the most educational as well as the most challenging course he has taken at Williams. “I wouldn’t have traded that experience for anything. I think the tutorials are a good idea. The only problem is you don’t really know what you’re getting into until halfway through the semester.”

Michael Gnozzio, quoted at the beginning of this article, said the tutorial format was perfect for covering the material in Machine Learning. “While it was definitely helpful to have a textbook to refer to, the fact that our weekly assignments almost always required us to read and review an actual research paper made concrete to me the actual challenges with which researchers are struggling,” he said. “In turn, understanding the problems on the frontiers of the discipline caused me to think more critically about the foundations of the discipline and to start thinking about questions I might have glossed over.”

Between Art and Cinema

At the other end of the liberal arts spectrum, Liza Johnson, assistant professor of art, taught a video-centered tutorial, Between Art and Cinema, during the spring semester.

“The focus of the class is on new forms of media art that have a lot in common with cinema, but that also are spatialized in a gallery like sculpture and architecture would be,” Johnson said, “so all of the assignments are related to media.”

There were 11 students in the course. Johnson met with them for an hour once a week in groups of two, with one group of three. The class met as a group to receive feedback and go over technical matters, for a mid-term critique, and to go on a field trip to New York.

Some of the videos students made for the course were meant to be watched from beginning to end. Other works were designed to be displayed in a gallery; others could be realized in three-dimensional space with a special computer program.

“Every week the students watched examples and read about film studies or in art theory. One person every week was responsible for making a piece which responded to critical issues raised by those readings or by the films they watched,” Johnson said. “And then, in the tutorial session, one person showed his or her work and the other was responsible for leading a discussion on the work and about the readings: how does the work relate to the theory?”

The tutorial course teaches critical thinking in several different ways. “First, all of their projects were related to the critical practice of looking at other people’s films and thinking about them through critical reading.”

“You really have to develop a vocabulary for saying why a certain kind of camera motion or a certain structure, for example, leads to meaning...or interpretation,” she said. “I think the tutorial actually puts more emphasis on that than a seminar because every week one person really has to talk a lot.”

“The students have to bear a lot of the burden for their own work, as opposed to me doing a little show for them every week,” Johnson said.

Julia Sergeon ’06, an art major, took Between Art and Cinema in the spring. “Tutorials are kind of a fun and a different way to take a class,” she said. “You are forced to do more work and are put on the spot by having to comment on other people’s work.”

Another student, also an art major, took Between Art and Cinema as a junior. She said the smaller tutorial format helped her master the technology she needed. “In big classes, some people learn really well from having the instructor up there showing them how to do things, but some people learn better by doing,” she said. “What I liked about the tutorial is that it was like: ‘Go shoot a video, just go do it, and learn it that way.’ That was fun for me, I really enjoyed it.”

Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature

Joseph Cruz, assistant professor of philosophy, taught a tutorial in the spring on Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature. A graduate of Williams, he has positive memories of the tutorials he took here. One was on The History of American Pragmatism in Philosophy with Professor (now emeritus) Daniel O’Connor. The other was in the geosciences with Markes Johnson, professor of natural science.

“What I found in those tutorials was the burden and liberation of constructing the curriculum yourself in collaboration with the other student in the tutorial. That was a powerful experience,” Cruz said. “Typically, in a small class students are guided by the syllabus; they still expect some lectures, they feed off one another in conversation. It isn’t the same element of crafting the conversation oneself from one’s own work. That’s a quite different experience.”

In addition to improving writing, analytical, and argumentative skills, the tutorial process helps a student reach “a kind of comfort with ideas, a kind of comfort with one’s own ideas and the notion that one can be a contributor to this unfolding intellectual enterprise.

“It doesn’t always feel that way, though. I think if you sit in a class, even with 15 students, it doesn’t feel like you’re contributing to the conversation that has now lasted, at least in philosophy, for thousands of years,” he said. “One gets that sense in a tutorial, and I enjoy that, both in my recollections as a student in a tutorial and now as a faculty member watching students in a tutorial.”

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