English Tutorial

Brass Tacks

In February of 1961, the Faculty adopted a broad policy on tutorial instruction and thesis writing for fields in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. Generally called the Gill plan, the policy made it possible for any student performing satisfactory work to advance through his department's Honors tutorial program and eventually try for an Honors degree by writing a thesis. Some departments have complied with the Gill plan more willingly than others. One of the more reluctant has been the English Department, and though it is certainly possible for any student to advance all the way through the English Honors tutorial program, it isn't very easy.

An English concentrator who is on the Dean's list and who receives a B on the Department's junior General Examination is allowed to write a thesis (in other words, enter into the Department's senior Honors tutorial program). He can be in group four if he receives a B-plus on his Generals, but if he makes a Generals grade of C or attains no better group standing than five, the Department will not enroll him in its senior Honors program and will not let him write a thesis.

The relevant section of the Gill plan states that to be eligible for thesis work a student must complete junior tutorial with a grade of C minus or higher and also "satisfactorily fulfill such other requirements as the department may determine for its tutorial program." The English Department's provision calling for competence both in course grades and junior General Examination would clearly come under this heading of "other requirements;" and yet it is not at all clear that this is the sort of provision which the proponents of the Gill plan had in mind.

A note justifying the addition of the "other requirements" clause explained that some fields might want their Honors candidates to take special courses or perform advanced work in foreign languages. Though the English Department does require such advanced work, the Generals-rank-list provision which formally determines thesis eligibility in English has nothing whatever to do with languages or any other special course. And indeed, the Generals-rank-list provision contradicts rather openly one of the other explanatory notes, which emphasized that the condition that a student be doing work of honors quality either within or outside his department would not be used as a criterion for admission to the senior tutorial program.

This difference of opinion on the way to decide which students can write theses is only one aspect of a fundamental difference between the English Department's conception of Honors and tutorial, and the conception held by the original proponents of the Gill plan. Basically, the Gill plan set up two programs--tutorial, and non-tutorial--both of which could lead to either Honors or non-Honors. Most of the students in the tutorial program would write Honors--calibre theses and would consequently receive some sort of Honors degree. But the theses turned in by some students would not be of Honors quality, and these members of the tutorial program would receive degrees without distinction. Most of the students not in the tutorial program would receive degrees without distinction, but some would make high enough grades in their courses to earn a degree with Honors in General Studies.

The English Department, on the other hand, prefers to think of its two programs as "Honors" and "non-Honors." Certainly, there is justification for this terminology; for the classification into tutorial versus non-tutorial makes little sense in a department which, as English does, tutors all its concentrators, regardless of what sort of degree it expects them to receive. More-over, the Department is pretty sure that most of its Honors students will in fact obtain Honors degrees. By the same token it does not expect many non-Honors candidates to get a degree with distinction. In short, the English Department believes in separating the Honors man from his non-Honors counterpart in a way that is as open, honest, and obvious as possible. The Gill plan proponents, who do not like the idea of making half the College into what they call "second-class citizens," prefer to let the students separate themselves into thesis-writers and non-thesis writers, with the final judgment between Honors and non-Honors being put off until June of the senior year.

It is difficult not to side with the Gill plan advocates. Admittedly, most of them are from fields in the Social Sciences and perhaps have no business attempting to tell a Department in another area how to run its internal affairs. The argument that in matters of tutorial English is fundamentally different from the Social Sciences seems especially strong if one remembers that for several years the English Department has been able to offer a useful and successful non-credit, non-Honors tutorial program, something which the Social Science fields, in general, have not been able to do. Nevertheless, the purpose of the Gill plan was not to insure that every student be tutored; the plan was aimed instead at allowing any student performing satisfactory work to make for himself the choice of whether or not to write a thesis. A thesis in any field whatever, no matter whether English or Social Sciences, can be a priceless educational experience. As long as there is even one student on the borderline between Honors and non-Honors who is willing to risk a degree without distinction but would like to put in the hours of work that a thesis requires, the English Department should allow him the option.