Tutorials: Aging Gracelessly


In 1924 Professor Ralph B. Perry submitted a report on the decade-old tutorial program to the Faculty, hailing it as "the next great experiment in American education." He assumed the experiment would succeed.

Most educational leaders at Harvard at the time shared Perry's conviction. President Lowell announced the same year that "it seemed clear" Harvard's tutorial program would "instill a desire" in undergraduates to attain academic distinction and ever-rising levels of intellectual achievement. Professor A.C. Hanford triumphantly wrote to Perry, "As a result of eight year's experience as a tutor, I am confident that the tutorial system has been responsible for increasing the standard of scholarship and for encouraging men to try for something more than a C mark."

However, the Faculty Council's informal approval this week of reforms demanding that Faculty members accept long-avoided responsibility for tutorial instruction is tantamount to admission that professorial enthusiasm for the great American experiment has lapsed.

The reforms, prepared for the Faculty by Glen W. Bowersock '57, associate dean of the Faculty on undergraduate education, require every full-time Faculty member to teach a minimum of one tutorial each term. In addition, the legislation asks professors to supervise all tutorials taught by graduate students and to offer special seminars in lieu of graduate-taught junior tutorials. The legislation also mandates a student-faculty committee in each department to oversee its tutorial program and recommend changes to the department's head tutor and chairman.

The goal of these reforms--to force Faculty commitment to the tutorial system--is in keeping with the original, commendable spirit of the tutorial concept. But this legislation, which lacks formal methods of enforcement, must falter before a predominantly resistant teaching staff. The history of failed tutorial legislation sadly presages this effort's fate. The 1958 tutorial regulations, which allegedly still guide each department, require that Faculty members teach a minimum of 30% of a department's tutorials and that graduate students teach no more than 30%. However, a 1977 CUE study of tutorial programs in five of Harvard's largest departments--Economics, English, Government, History, and Psychology and Social Relations--revealed that none of these departments even came near these figures. The worst offender--the History Department--had graduate students teaching 91% of its tutorials. Government tutorials ran an inglorious second with 86% graduate student-run tutorials. English showed at 72%.


THERE ARE NO indications that Bower sock's efforts will fare any better. The reform's language alone is hardly compelling. The legislation asks that "normally" full-time faculty members teach a minimum of one tutorial each term, providing a loophole for innumerable abnormal exceptions. The student-faculty committee may only "recommend remedial steps" to the head tutor and chairman. If department heads choose to ignore committee recommendations, so be it. Finally, the reforms humbly beg that "consideration should be given to the possibility" of hiring lecturers for tutorial instruction.

Bowersock has stated "enforcing was a word I never intended to use in connection with these reforms." Persuading, he adds, might be more appropriate. "We can't knock heads together in the university," Bowersock argues. "That's not the way we work." But without a few sharp raps on some professorial pates, the tutorial program can never work.

Because the reforms dodge the issue of enforcement, few head tutors have felt sufficiently unnerved by the reforms to consider revising their tutorials.

Elizabeth McKinsey, head tutor in English, said last week she did not see how the department's limited faculty resources could meet the legislation's requirements. This year only one English professor teaches a sophomore tutorial. McKinsey contends the department can't increase professors' participation in tutorials, without reducing the number of lecture courses offered--a sacrifice the department is unwilling to make.

Donald B. Wells, head tutor in Economics, doesn't forsee any changes in his tutorial program, although Economics does not meet the requirements of the reforms. As for the special junior seminars which the reforms propose, Walls called them "an excellent idea in principle," but observed that in the past his department has had "limited success in freeing up Faculty time."

Worse, many head tutors said last week not only would they not change their tutorial programs, they were not even familiar with the reforms or how they might effect their departments. Thomas G. Ricketts, head tutor in Philosophy, said last week he hadn't "looked at the legislation yet or discussed it with Faculty Council members." He explained he did not think the legislation applied to a small department like Philosophy where student-faculty contact occurs informally. Consequently, Ricketts said he does not plan to set up the required student-faculty committee nor press each Philosophy professor to teach a tutorial.

Bowersock refuted the widely held contention that these reforms apply only to large departments, stating that while the reforms "take into account larger departments, they are meant for all departments." Faculty ignorance of the reforms is a dangerous harbinger for the future of any reform attempt.

FURTHERMORE, the legislation exhorts the Faculty to acknowledge the individualized student-professor relationship as the ideal tutorial goal. Again head tutors are less than obliging. McKinsey said she thinks graduate students make up for their lack of experience with their youthful verve. Besides, she reasons, "You can get the wisdom of the old gray heads in lectures." McKinsey perhaps has a point. But more pertinent is the irritating freedom with which she and others permit their personal opinion to take precedence over Faculty-wide directives. By such retorts these head tutors flout not only the goals of this latest set of tutorial reforms, but the aims of all legislation passed on the subject since the tutorial system began. The earliest report on tutorials in 1924 recognized that professors were best suited to lead individualized discussions. A 1920s reviewing board--known mysteriously as Committee G (because no one could remember its real title: The Committee on Methods of increasing the Intellectual Interest and Raising the Intellectual Standards of Undergraduates)--declared that the rank of tutor and lecturer should not be separated because "There is a growing belief that mere lecturing is not teaching, and every professor will, therefore, wish to have such personal contact with his students as the tutorial method implies." Apparently professors today suffer no such yearnings.

In 1969 tutorial instruction was again given a once over--this time by Ernest R. May, then acting associate dean of the Faculty. May concluded: "Since tutorial represents one-third to one-half of the departmental course work required of honors students and since most of the tutorial courses are managed exclusively by teaching fellows, we appear to be violating our principle on a grand scale."

This violation appears even grander when the criteria for appointing teaching fellows is examined. In many cases, as May observed, the major departments make these appointments simply on the basis of their graduate students' financial needs. Reflecting on the University policy for hiring graduate students, May drily commented: "One is reminded of Melbourne's remark about the Order of the Garter--that there is no damned nonsense about merit."