The Tutorial Program offers students a distinctive opportunity to take a heightened form of responsibility for their own intellectual development. No student is required to take a tutorial course, but any student with the appropriate qualifications and interests is invited to do so.
Tutorials place much greater weight than regular courses—or even small seminars—on student participation. They aim to teach students how to develop and present arguments; listen carefully, and then refine their positions in the context of a challenging discussion; and respond quickly and cogently to critiques of their work. Tutorials place particular emphasis on developing analytical skills, writing abilities, and the talents of engaging in rigorous conversation and oral debate.
Since the program’s inception in 1988, students have ranked tutorials among the most demanding—and rewarding—courses they have taken at Williams. While not designed to be more difficult than other courses, tutorials are nonetheless challenging, with frequent writing assignments and the expectation that students will be well prepared to participate actively and effectively in weekly discussions. At the same time, students have consistently placed tutorials among the most enriching and consequential courses they have taken. They have appreciated the close attention to their writing and argumentation skills; the opportunity to be held accountable, in a detailed way, for the extended implications of their ideas; the chance to develop their oral abilities as they engage in debate; and the close intellectual bonds tutorials build between teachers and students, and students with each other. Many students have formed important advising and mentoring relationships with their tutorial teachers.
The ways in which particular tutorials are conducted vary across the disciplines, but here is a description of how most tutorials at Williams are organized:
Tutorials are usually limited to 10 students. At the start of term, the instructor divides the students into pairs. Each pair meets weekly with the instructor for roughly one hour. Many tutorial courses begin and end the term with a group seminar, and in a few departments, instructors hold weekly group meetings of all tutorial members to provide background information designed to facilitate the students’ independent work. But at the heart of every tutorial is the weekly meeting between the instructor and two students. At these weekly meetings, one student delivers a prepared essay or presentation (e.g., an analysis of a text or work of art, a discussion of a problem set, a report on laboratory exercises, etc.) pertaining to the assignment for that week, while the other student—and then the instructor—offer a critique. In the following week, students switch roles. Typically, students write five or six essays (usually in the range of 4-7 pages) during the term, and offer five or six critiques of their partners’ work.
Tutorials at the 100/200 level are designed primarily for first-year students and sophomores; they are usually given enrollment preference, though interested juniors and seniors are often welcome. Tutorials at the 300/400 level are designed primarily for juniors and seniors (and, often, for majors in the discipline); first-year students and sophomores are welcome to apply, but are urged to consult the instructor before registering.
Students pre-register for tutorials as they would for any other course (but should first check the description for prerequisites and to see if permission of the instructor is required). Because of limited enrollments and the special logistical arrangements involved in organizing tutorials, students may not drop a tutorial after 4:00 pm on the day before the first scheduled day of organizational meetings each semester. It is important that students determine, before the start of the term, their interest in and commitment to the course. If they are uncertain whether they wish to take the tutorial, they should consult with the instructor. Tutorials may not be taken on a pass/fail basis.