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Drifting Away From the Architect's Vision

The Tutorial System at Harvard

By Dhananjai Shivakumar

When Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell instituted the House system more than 60 years ago, he radically transformed life at the College.

For the first time, Harvard students and faculty members would eat, sleep and study together in an intellectual yet relaxed atmosphere, much like at Oxford and Cambridge. And tutorials--the interaction of students and resident academics in small groups--was to form the cornerstone of life in the Houses.

But today, more than a half-century later, tutorials have become very different from Lowell's original conception of them.

For one thing, students and tutors--frequently from different houses--rarely meet outside of class. And more importantly, the leisurely atmosphere of tutorials has changed as the pressure on tutors to do research that will get them future jobs has intensified.

Presently, administrators are studying Harvard's complex tutorial system, making an effort to assess how they work, and ultimately, how they should work.

Mountains of data collected from a general curriculum review launched last fall are now being studied, says Associate Dean of Undergraduate Education David Pilbeam, who headed the curriculum review. Among the data collected, though not yet tabulated, is information about the size, composition and content of tutorials across Harvard's 42 departments.

The curriculum review came as part of Dean of the Faculty A. Michael Spence's desire to collect through statistics on each department before offering a detailed plan for expanding the faculty.

The results will throw light on Harvard's tutorial system, which is varied and has been subject to little centralized review, Pilbeam says.

"There's a great deal of variability in the system from no tutorials to non-credit tutrorials, from departments who only have sophomore tutorials to junior seminars and junior tutorials--there's a whole range," says Pilbeam.

Tutorials Then and Now

Tutorials have long been a topic of campus debate. In October 1931, back when the house plan was incomplete and tutorials were offered in only a few subjects, a student council committee report praised the idea of tutorials and recommended that they be offered in more departments.

But the report also said that Harvard was tenuring good scholars without enough regard to their tutoring skills.

And an October 10, 1931 editoral in The Harvard Crimson said, "it is hardly necessary to state that a personable tutor, one who has the ability to interest his individual pupil, will develop into a more human, more understanding professor, than a young Ph.D. who has advanced to the stage of an occasional lecturer, but who cares only for his own scholastic advancement."

Ultimately, however, the tenure process became only more intense and research-oriented.

With the arrival of James Bryant Conant to the presidency, a scientist who disliked the College's leisurely pace, Harvard began to move away from Lowell's ideals. Conant admired the intense, research-oriented German colleges, and introduced the "up or out" system, which gave junior faculty approximately eight years before they were either tenured or dismissed. The system has existed ever since.

"Before Conant came, there was no tenure pressure, so people could be tutors indefinitely," says David Riesman '31, who has studied the development of education at Harvard. "Conant saw this as too cozy, too inert."

Ever since Conant's time, Riesman says, the concept of tutorials as being housed-based interactions between students and young Ph.D.s has gradually disappeared, together with menus and waiters.

"The houses made tutorials a presence," Reisman says. "But he [Conant] wanted faculty to get on with scholarly work. He was not there to create gentlemen who were good at conversation."

Today, tutorials mix elements of Lowell and Conant: they provide more personal interaction, not for the sake of intelligent converasation, but rather as serious preparation for research within a concentration.

"The function of junior tutorials is to prepare students for writing a senior thesis--an original piece of research," says Pilbeam. "Beginning in sophomore year, it [tutorial] introduces them to the structure of creative thinking in their field."

Just as it was in 1931, the issue of who should teach a tutorial is the source of campus-wide debate.

Tutorials, especially in the sophomore year, are taught mostly by graduate students, with professors usually restricting themselves to senior thesis advising. However, it appears that students are not complaining.

"We used to have far greater faculty involvement than we have now," says Professor of History and former Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Steven Ozment. "Students seem to like this, though. You can't argue with success--but I'm pleased there seems to be some action."

But members of the History Department, who are currently reevaluating the department's tutorial structure, say that faculty participation is nonetheless a critical issue in their discussion. And according to Ozment, sophomore tutorials are the major problem.

"The sophomore tutorial is the most demanding" and is taught by third year graduate students, Ozment says. "They're just beginning their teaching careers and they're teaching the most demanding tutorial."

Junior Seminars--A Compromise

The Government Department has now become somewhat of a model through its junior seminars, which are a compromise between large lecture courses and intimate tutorials.

"I think I myself find the government department model of the faculty-taught seminars a very positive one," says Susan G. Pedersen, head tutor of the History Department.

Led by then-department head Robert D. Putnam, Government changed its tutorial structure seven years ago to allow for more faculty involvement. Today, juniors can opt for either junior tutorials led by graduate students limited to eight students or faculty-led seminars limited to 15.

Pilbeam also says he likes government's junior seminars. "It's a chance for real interaction," he says. "I would like to encourage more of the big departments to begin to think about it."

"A large amount of coursework is being done in courses of enormous size," says Mark A. Peterson, head tutor of the Government Department. "The junior seminar is the one time when we can guarantee every student a small discussion seminar with a faculty member including senior faculty members."

But while its junior seminars have been lauded, Government is facing a crunch caused by a 45 percent increase in concentrators over the past three years and difficulties in finding new faculty, Peterson said.

While the department currently runs no more than 34 junior seminars a year, Peterson says that ideally, the total number for next year should be 44.

"We hope to have 36 or 37 junior seminars and as many tutorials as get approved next year," says Peterson. "That's not as many as we're going to need, but that's about as much as we can squeeze out of the faculty. For the juniors we need to have ideally, 44 seminars."

But department members say they will continue to offer junior seminars despite increasing demands on faculty, who will be forced to teach more students.

"Probably the average number of people in the seminars will go up and the percentage who get into their first choice [of seminar] will go down," Peterson says. Peterson added that if the government faculty did teach 44 junior seminars, they would be able to teach far fewer undergraduate courses.

In response to the current shortage of senior thesis advisors, the Government Department recently created a grade point restriction for honors candidiates wishing to write a senior thesis. Now, students who have less than an 11.5 departmental grade point average will have to petition to write a thesis.

Teaching in the Core

Exacerbating the shortage of faculty for tutorials in such large departments as History and Government are the demands imposed on faculty by the Core Curriculum.

As more and more students fulfill concentration requirements by less rigorous, large Core classes, it becomes more important to keep tutorials well taught and challenging, Ozment says.

"Some faculty are concerned that if your department's involved in the Core, it hurts your concentration curriculum," Ozment says. By teaching less rigorous Core classes, "some of the muscle of the department is being atrophied."

"It is important that the tutorials be very rigorous. The Core has been such a sacred cow that we have really not been asking...what the impact of the Core has been on course offerings," Ozment says.

Ultimately, faculty members say, the only way to increase faculty involvement in tutorial teaching College-wide is to enlarge the faculty in all departments. Faculty members say they hope that the results of the extensive curriculum review will make a strong case for an expansion of the Faculty that Spence has lobbied for from the start of his tenure as dean of FAS.

Peterson says that Harvard will have to contend with the national drought of young academics if it decides to expand the Faculty.

"The problem is a long time-lag in grad schools," Peterson says "Four to ten years ago, the market was terrible, and graduate schools were unpopular. Now it's hard to get junior faculty."

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