Seeing Double: To Tutorial or Not to Tutorial?

Like many Amherst College students, I frequently wake up in the morning with a happy flutter in my heart, knowing that the value of my Amherst liberal arts education will melt away all the irksome practical realities of life much like the melting snow. Almost immediately, however, my simple tranquility is shattered by a horrible realization: Williams College continues to exist.

Much like an evil twin, Williams holds many similarities to Amherst at face value. We share virtually identical sizes in student population, endowments, faculty and acceptance rates. We both lay equally strong claims to the “rejected from all the Ivies so I guess this will do” student demographic. With so many parallels between the two institutions, even small differences are of paramount importance.

Amherst, as we know, boasts the thriving and scenic metropolis from which it received its name, and is located in the very heart of New England culture, a mere two-hour drive from Boston. Williams, on the other hand, rots in squalor in the hamlet of Williamstown (population 8,000) and must sacrifice an extra hour to reach Boston (although the opportunity cost of that hour is admittedly lower than it would be for Amherst students). Amherst, of course, also benefits from the Five Colleges Consortium, from the dining halls of UMass to the instructive financial example of Hampshire.

Any Amherst student would have just cause to smile with satisfaction at the obvious superiority of their alma mater, but dear reader, I must confess that there is a fly in the ointment, a Bud Light in the jungle juice of our content. Williams offers one benefit that, shamefully, we have not yet matched.

Williams students have access to a unique kind of class: the tutorial program. Up to 10 students can sign up for a tutorial, but instead of convening as an entire class, students meet their professor weekly in pairs. That way, students can enjoy all the benefits of a three-person class without overburdening the student-faculty ratio. Each week, one student from the pair prepares a paper relating to the class’ subject, and the other student critiques the paper while the professor moderates the discussion. The unique structure of Williams’ tutorials allows students to develop skills not present in other class structures. Instead of writing essays that vanish into the void of their professor’s office, Williams students have to defend their work and articulate their views beyond the narrow confines of the page.

I’ve often discussed tutorials with former friends who attend Williams, and they always say (in the barely intelligible grunting that passes as the lingua franca of Williams) that tutorials give them a wonderful sense of academic agency, since the class is centered around a framework of their own making, rather than one chosen by the professor.

Perhaps aware of their deficiencies in other areas, Williams lists its tutorial program as one of its key selling points. Virtually every tour at Williams mentions the tutorials, describing them as a defining feature of the college. As a counter, I propose that Amherst seize the initiative by adopting a similar system.

Since the two colleges are already so similar, Williams’ tutorial system would adapt well to Amherst. Many of our classes, particularly high-level ones, already have a cap at or below 10. Changing these classes to tutorials would elevate the class experience, since direct discussions in a much smaller group provide greater insight and communication. The more intimate academic setting would also discourage the traditional Amherst pursuit of shopping for Canada Goose jackets during class.

A skeptical reader, probably named Brad, might argue that professors wouldn’t be able to keep up with the extra class time tutorials require. But Brad ignores one of the major strengths of tutorials: their flexibility. With only three people involved, scheduling can be done over text, and classes can be at any time convenient for all. Moreover, increased class time is more than made up for by the fact that the students are doing the preparation for class, not the professor. In fact, tutorials are so popular that Williams faculty have consistently pushed for an increase in the number of tutorials offered each year.

Brad might also point out that Amherst already offers special topics courses, where students and a professor can work outside a formal classroom environment, but special topics courses are fundamentally different from tutorials. First, the focus of a tutorial is on discussion with peers, not the professor, as is typical for special topics. Second, only a tiny number of Amherst students take special topics courses every year, always in advanced subjects. Tutorials, on the other hand, are designed to be widely accessible and available in courses of all levels.

Since tutorials work for both students and professors, align with Amherst’s educational mission and don’t place any additional burden on the campus, there’s no good reason why Amherst shouldn’t adopt the system.

Like a drowning man clutching at a straw, Brad might argue that we should let Williams be Williams and focus on our own issues, but let me ask Brad this: what is the point of our rivalry, if not to closely examine ourselves in a mirror, find something that can be fixed and improve ourselves? To teach, we must first learn, and what greater demonstration of our learning ability is there than the challenge of learning from our foe?

Amherst has achieved near complete victory over Williams, but for total victory, we must adopt one more measure. If we “adapted” (academics never steal) Williams’ tutorial system, we would improve the quality of the Amherst education while, more importantly, putting the final nail in the coffin of the worst college in America.