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Tutorial and the English Department


In one of the most curious decrees since the Faculty legislation on "tutorial for all" last spring, the English Department has decided to limit Junior tutorial for credit to students in Groups I and II. It is conceivable that the Department has done so because of a discovery that the large number of English concentrators has placed too heavy a burden on its teaching staff. If indeed this is the case, the Department ought to say so--something it has yet to do.

But it is likely that the reason for the change is actually not that English cannot supply itself with the necessary number of competent tutors. If this is so, the Department's announcement takes on a darker air not so easily understood. For of all the departments that must occasionally concern themselves with undergraduates it has shown itself to be the least capable of expoiting the extraordinary educational possibilities of the tutorial system. More specifically because of especially cumbersome internal machinery, it has been unable to administer with much effectiveness the "Gill program" that was designed to open junior tutorial to any qualified student irrespective of whether he was a candidate for Honors.

It is true enough that the Gill plan does not require departments to provide tutorial for credit; the choice between credit and non-credit programs is left to the departments. At the same time, the spirit of the legislation is perfectly clear. "The presumption," reads an explanatory note offered by the Committee on Educational Policy, "remains that in most departments a student would take tutorial for credit in his Junior year."

The presumption hardly lacks justification. There are obvious reasons why unofficial tutorials which demand a student's time yet withhold credit toward the degree and do not provide course reduction cannot expect very much of his commitment. But still more serious consequences are attached to these programs. In English, which has just tossed all its Group III concentrators into the non-credit stew, they are particularly severe. The Department, for example, has promised to continue "individual" tutorial for all Juniors. Yet in the past the practice of many non-credit tutors has been to lump individual tutees together in groups and to teach them simultaneously. Since it is evident that the best tutors have been cultivating Dean's List tutees, the lot of the crowded remaining students is scarcely utopian.

In short, the English Department continues to live in the grand era of Harvard education when it was supposed that under graduates not in Honors were lazy, stupid, and clearly undeserving of a good (not to say liberal) education. Yet the entire set of attitudes underlying the manner in which English is dealt with in the College is not nearly so simple. For it depends very heavily on what the Department considers the purpose of tutorial, and the purpose of teaching English to undergraduates.

Any discipline, of course, is to some extent a comprehensive body of material to be absorbed, digested, and returned with varying degrees of subtlety to a grasping and rapacious bluebook. For this reason English very properly requires of its concentrators three half courses in literature before 1700. Yet a field asking of its undergraduate followers nothing more creative than a thorough knowledge of its informational content is a dead field, and the College cannot afford the intellectual death of its students.

A tutorial, in fact, has no business imparting factual knowledge, even as implicit preparation for generals. Its function is clear: there is no other way to give students the tough sort of personal confrontation with Faculty that appears absolutely necessary to the imaginative formation of approaches to a given subject. You cannot do this through a House system; you must do it somewhere.

A few departments have showed amazing ingenuity in adapting themselves to performing precisely this function. Others, like English and Economics, have been notable failures. Economics 98 is in effect a lecture course, and why that Department cannot offer ordinary lectures in micro-and macro-economics as requirements for the degree and give tutorial also is difficult to imagine. It is a complicated undertaking to revise the teaching load regulations under which teaching fellows labor, but it is probably a necessary one.

Yet the teaching of English, as is no secret, contains problems peculiar to itself. Members of the Department like Reuben Brower, or Monroe Engel, have tended to feel that undergraduate instruction ought, through the study of literature, to stress the development of critical tools--in large part to examine what is being written now. As a whole, the Department has leaned rather to the reverse, to concern itself more and more deeply with the content of the literature itself. In Honors or non-Honors, the effect has often been to engulf the student in as many nice, scholarly distinctions as the teacher feels his Group standing can bear.

If one assumes that education need not lose its rigor merely by becoming less Germanic, it is evident enough that a good tutorial program can at least attempt to deal with a vast number of these problems. At the moment, perhaps, nothing can be done; the departure for England of a Chairman who expects to resume his post next fall has left the Department in limbo. Yet the announcement restricting tutorial, while it is not a central issue, has fallen on this community with unusual force. Perhaps it can help to persuade the Faculty that the Gill program and the tutorial system itself can be absurdly ineffective if departments are unwilling to live by the spirit of their intent.

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