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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
As the Harvard tutorial program chalked up its 65th birthday this year, it seems to be limping toward retirement. The idea of an intellectual challenge shared by a single student and his Faculty tutor is fading into oblivion. Tutorial instruction is now largely the duty of graduate teaching fellows, particularly in the larger departments, where professors spend more time in research and less time in individualized instruction with students. Most Faculty members now slip out of their tutorial responsibilities by advising a senior writing a thesis or--less frequently--reviewing a teaching fellow's reading list.
Like Temperance Leaguers, Faculty members occasionally launch campaigns to reform tutorials. This year's effort--marshalled by Glen W. Bowersock '57, associate dean of the Faculty on undergraduate education, joins a long history of changes all directed at the same goal: increased Faculty involvement in tutorials. Sadly, all share the same weakness which dooms their potential for effectiveness: no method of enforcement.
Although the professors who have to teach tutorials are the same professors who vote on legislation condemning departments' reliance on teaching-fellow-run tutorials, Faculty members are generally reluctant to follow up their votes with action. No professor claims to oppose the principle of teaching tutorials, and most would agree that professors are the best possible tutorial leaders, but research commitments and understaffed departments make Faculty-taught tutorials a rare commodity. Bowersock notes that the '60s brought a flood of graduate students to the campus, and as a result, some Faculty members view the phenomenon of a professor-led tutorial as "an abnormal practice."
Bowersock sought to revive Faculty commitment to the tutorial and devised a plan, to take effect next fall, which will require every Faculty member to take part in tutorials, either by teaching an individual or group tutorial, advising a senior thesis or teaching a special seminar. Departments with predominantly teaching fellow-taught tutorials must offer these special seminars--all run by full-time professors but containing more students than a tutorial--which sophomore and junior concentrators may take for one term in lieu of tutorial. In addition, the legislation mandates a student-Faculty committee in each department to oversee its tutorial program and recommend changes to the department's head tutor and chairman. If the department heads fail to respond the committee may appeal to Bowersock's office. Finally, Bowersock proposed that departments which lack a sufficient number of Faculty members to teach tutorials should consider hiring annual lecturers or teaching assistants whose sole responsibility would be to lead tutorials.
Bowersock's plan reflects the same faith in the supremacy of Faculty members as tutorial leaders that characterized past tutorial legislation. The earliest report on tutorials, in 1924, declared that professors were best suited in the teaching staff to lead individualized discussions. The report assumed that "every professor will wish to have such personal contact with his students as the tutorial method implies." But the legislation made no provisions for those professors who harbored no such wishes. Since 1924 the ranks of this disaffected group have enlarged dramatically.
By 1958 it was time for the Faculty to demand some minimum standard of involvement, and they settled on legislation which required Faculty members to teach at least 30 per cent of a department's tutorials. However, a 1976-77 CUE study of tutorial programs in five of Harvard's largest departments--History, English, Economics, Government, and Psychology and Social Relations--revealed that none of these departments ever complied with the requirement. The worst offender--the History Department--had graduate students teaching 91 per cent of its tutorials. No Faculty members taught sophomore tutorials in English, History and Psychology and Social Relations, although the record was better for junior tutorials.
The most recent review of tutorials in 1969 by Ernest R. May, then acting associate dean of the Faculty, beat the same old bushes with a similar lack of success. May viewed the Faculty's negligence with not a little exasperation: "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 out principle on a grand scale."
Eloquent statements of purpose have not in the past moved departments to comply with tutorial legislation, and Bowersock's plan carries no more weighty method of enforcement. Bowersock defends his policy, explaining that, "enforcing was a word I never intended to use in connection with these reforms." Persuading, he adds, is a more appropriate approach. "We can't knock heads together in this University; that's not the way we work."
Initial department reaction to Bowersock's plan indicates that persuasion has once again failed to compel departments to rejuvenate substantially Faculty involvement in tutorial instruction. In History--the department with the longest record of tutorial legislation violations--department members discussed tutorials at their last meeting this May. They agreed that Patrice L.R. Higonnet, head tutor in History, should "ask" History professors to "involve" themselves at some level in tutorials, perhaps nothing more than reviewing a teaching fellow's tutorial reading list and "occasionally" sitting in on his tutorials if the tutor has no objections, Higonnet says. "Nobody," Higonnet stressed, "will be made to teach a tutorial." Higonnet sent out a letter to departmental professors several weeks ago, urging them to participate in the tutorial program. Several responded, expressing support for the plan, but only two demonstrated that support by offering to teach tutorials.
Higonnet points out that many professors will agree to direct a senior thesis, because it "does not require constant effort," but will not teach a sophomore or junior tutorial, because "it involves rearranging their schedule and not teaching a course that term."
Elizabeth McKinsey, head tutor in the English Department, plans to take a similar approach. She also says she will "invite" her colleagues to teach tutorials next year, but cannot predict how many professors will actually come forward. The English Department will not offer any special seminars next year, even though Bowersock's reforms mandate that all students who take tutorials "shall have the option in one term of their sophomore or junior year" to take a special professor-run seminar. McKinsey states simply, "We don't feel we need to do it."
Also required by the reforms is regular Faculty supervision of tutorials taught by teaching fellows. But all department head tutors contacted said their departments would not designate Faculty supervisors and the head tutors would continue to oversee tutorial instruction on their own as in the past.
Not all departments perceive tutorial instruction as strictly teaching-fellow territory. Visual and Environmental Studies provides individual tutorial instruction by senior professors for each concentrator. Arthur Loeb, head tutor in Visual and Environmental Studies, said this week that the department only allows teaching fellows to serve as readers on theses. Sophomore and junior tutorials are not compulsory in the department, so the demand on Faculty time is not as heavy as it would be if larger departments adopted the same system.
But for most departments, what Bowersock called the "ideal tutorial situation"--one full-time Faculty member with one student--remains, like most ideals, unrealized. Higonnet says he will try "diplomatically" to maneuver Faculty members into participating in tutorials. If diplomacy fails, then he said he guesses he will "get more insistent." How insistent? Here Higonnet stops guessing, only stressing that in reforming tutorials it is important to "keep everybody happy."
"Everybody," one History major this week wistfully observed, "should include the students."
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