The Atlantis Difference - Programs at other Colleges
13- "THE ATLANTIS DIFFERENCE." TUTORIALS AT OTHER COLLEGES; CONSULTANTS; DR. LIGHT'S HARVARD REPORT
By November 1991 it was becoming very evident that, on a world-wide scale, universities and colleges were beginning to suffer from severe financial pressures, resulting in such problems as decline in teaching standards, decrease of research productivity, and increased stress on faculty, administrators and students.
Consequently, I broke off the academic research I was doing at the time and started to investigate ways in which teaching, research, and administration could be carried on with increased efficiency and at lower cost.
Rather to my surprise, I found that the only practical way out seemed to be to cut down on the seemingly cost-efficient large lecture classes and concentrate teaching efforts on fewer classes in the form of small, intensive, tutorials, based loosely on Oxbridge teaching methods.
Having put forward some preliminary ideas on these possibilities in a document that eventually evolved into "The Atlantis Program," I started to investigate the ways in which small-group teaching has been carried out at other colleges and universities.
This document describes a number of visits I made to colleges in North American and Europe that employ tutorial style methods of teaching, in order to see what the "Atlantis Project" planners could learn from their experiences.
Visits to Two Innovative American Colleges, December 1991.
The purpose of these visits was to look at two well-established colleges whose teaching methods include intensive small-group teaching, some types of which have been called "tutorials."
1. Visit to NEW COLLEGE, SARASOTA. [i]
New College, Sarasota, is probably the North American college that can provide the most relevant assistance in the planning of Atlantis. The boldly innovative teaching program, which has been successfully established since 1964, comprises a mix of small classes, tutorials, and independent study, concluding with a senior thesis.
There is a general emphasis on joint student-faculty research, and some departments successfully use undergraduates as tutors.There are also some major differences between New College practice and the Atlantis plan.
Primarily, New College is relatively expensive to run, depending on a solid endowment fund to supplement state funding. It boasts an exhilaratingly beautiful campus, a fine modern library, and first class faculty with a faculty student ratio of 1:10. (Atlantis is designed to function with a ratio of 1:24.)
Secondly, the teaching schedule is, I understand, sufficiently strenuous to make it difficult for the faculty to do much research in term time.
Atlantis, on the other hand, is deliberately set up in such a way as to keep costs to the minimum. It is hoped that, among other things, Atlantis will become a model of inexpensive, world-class, education.
Staff salaries and student bursaries must of course be highly competitive. But a fine campus, however desirable, is not an essential. (At a minimum an Atlantis college could be set up in rented apartment buildings, with the tutorials being held in faculty and student apartments, so long as everyone had a computer and modem, along with a DVD player, and access to a library and personal sports/recreational facilities.)
Secondly, it is essential to the Atlantis plan that the faculty should have more time, energy and opportunity for research than at conventional campuses.
Since Atlantis should be able to function with a faculty-student ratio of 1:24, we would not be able to offer the number of classes normal in New College, and in fact the number of required classes there would seem excessive by Atlantis standards.
So far as Residence Halls are concerned, New College, like St John's, follows the normal North American pattern in confining them to student use, rather than having the halls integrated into colleges accommodating both faculty and students, on the Oxbridge pattern, and as envisaged for Atlantis.
2. Visit to St JOHN'S, ANNAPOLIS.
I gratefully acknowledge the assistance during this visit of Dean Eva Brann and Dr. Dorothy Guyot.
St John's presents much the same contrast to the Atlantis project as New College; in some respects even more so. The faculty- student ratio is scrupulously maintained at a 1:8 level, and the student is expected to spend up to twenty hours a week in various types of class, with, in many cases, additional, semi-formal, extra-curricular academic activities.
The teaching responsibilities of tutors are sufficiently challenging, both in the number of hours and in range of subjects involved, so that the preparation and conducting of tutorials are regarded the faculty's main contribution and "first duty," with research and publication considered as something of an optional extra.
Moreover, although St John's boasts a range of three types of intensive class, the seminar, the "tutorial," and the preceptorial, none of these can exactly function as Oxbridge tutorials in the classic sense, since even the smallest of them, the preceptorial, may contain up to ten students, the other classes ranging from fifteen to twenty in numbers.
Nonetheless, there is much of unique value that Atlantis could learn from St John's. In particular, the college has given much hard thought to the role of the tutor, as reflected in the quite classic statements in the current catalogue (pp. 9, 28-9).
It also bases its examination system on oral examination of essays, in a fashion that is very close to that envisaged for Atlantis. Attendance at class is required, not an option as on most North American campuses.
The quaintly named "Don Rag," (from Oxford slang) similar to Oxford "Collections," brings the students together with their supervisors for periodic discussion of their progress. The visit to St John's also brought up the question of how we define tutorials in the Oxbridge sense. The OED1 Supplement dates the use of "tutorial" as meaning "At Oxford, a period of individual instruction given by a college tutor to pupils, either singly or in small groups" only from the 1920s, though the actual practice of tutorials would seem to date back as far as the foundation of New College, Oxford, in the late fourteenth century.
The Cambridge use of the term "Supervision" for the equivalent function seems to have escaped the lexicographers altogether. The OED definition also seems to lay excessive stress on the tutor as instructing students rather than as essentially responding to their contributions.
St John's provides an example of a college that was organized on uniquely, one might even say ruthlessly innovative principles in 1937, has maintained those principles in a remarkable state of purity, and has moreover managed to sustain the vision and the commitment with an energy and intensity that can be immediately sensed today by even the casual visitor. This is exactly the sort of track record which Atlantis should be capable of.
Visit to OXFORD AND CAMBRIDGE, June-July 1992.
The visit had four purposes. The first was to ascertain to what extent my recollections of Oxford tutorials in the fifties corresponded to the current practices at Oxford and Cambridge.
The second was to ascertain whether there is any past or current discussion on tutorials ("supervisions" in Cambridge) relevant to the Atlantis plans.
The third was to see whether there would be a place for a collective book on the OxBridge tutorials and supervisions, --their history, practices, and influences.
The fourth, more tentative purpose was to sound out the possibilities of instituting a plan by which prospective Atlantis tutors/supervisors would be able to spend a term or year at an OxBridge college, both to study the art of the tutorial and give tutorials/supervisions.
Encouraging progress was made towards all these objectives, although the time available was very limited.
OXFORD, June 22-26 1992.
On this trip, I made contact with and received essential assistance from a number of people: Peter Fullerton, Magdalen College, Secretary of the Development Trust. Mr. Fullerton has long been a supporter of Atlantis as well as an indefatigable consultant and contact person.
Prof. T.J. Reed, of Queens College, the German Language & Literature Editor for the Oxford Magazine. Prof. Reed has offered the possibility of space in the magazine for an Atlantis statement, as well as advice, contacts, and a contribution to the tutorial text.
Dr. Jeremy Catto, of Oriel College and Dr. James McConica, All Souls College. These two historians have contributed to the recent History of the University of Oxford, and have indicated willingness to contribute to the Tutorial volume.
I also made preliminary contact with the Oxford Committee on University Teaching, through Richard Smethurst, Provost of Worcester College.
CAMBRIDGE, June 28-July 2.
Dr. Tess Adkins [Senior Tutor, Kings] and Dr. Saskia Hurt Janssen [Robinson College (Dutch Language and Lit., Medieval Mysticism), and the Cambridge Development Trust] arranged for an extensive interview on the Atlantis project with a senior Cambridge group which included the Vice-Chancellor Sir David Williams, as well as Joyce Wells [Senior Tutor, Newnham], and Christopher Hughes [Senior Tutor, Robinson]. Dr. Hurt Janssen has also offered to act as Cambridge coordinator for Tutorial volume.
We need to appraise further the differences between Oxford tutorials and Cambridge supervisions, particularly in respect of different effect of reading paper to tutor, as opposed to handing it in prior to tutorial to permit more time for discussion.
We also plan to study further the different ways in which the tutorial method has been adapted for use in different faculties, especially in the sciences. To these ends, one should contact members of the Oxford Committee on Teaching as well as the Cambridge University Committee on Training and Undergraduate Development.
Visit to TRENT
A visit (Sep 93) to a Canadian institution practicing tutorial instruction, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, was in some respects the most interesting of all the "field trips" your project coordinator has made.
Trent was founded with the specific notion of following the Oxford-Cambridge modes of undergraduate instruction as far as the North American educational environment would permit.
The majority of the students are accommodated in five residence colleges, in which tutors also have offices, and in some cases, apartments. The strikingly beautiful campus situated along the banks of the Trent river seems idyllic, but discussion with faculty members revealed that there have been problems in maintaining the level of instruction originally envisaged.
Increase in student numbers along with reduction in per capita funding has forced up the enrollment in tutorials, as well as, in some courses, diminishing their sessions to once in every two or three weeks.
At the same time one was very struck with the variety of creative efforts which were being developed to cope with this situation.
In Biology, for instance, although there are no tutorials as such available for first year students, one first year class is limited to 25 and the students meet in groups of four to devise, prepare, and present their own research projects. The labs are similarly limited to 25 students and there always a faculty member on hand for consultation and interaction.
I also learnt of a joint senior class in Canadian Studies and Biology taught by John Wadland and Tom Willens where 18 students work in groups of 4. There is an extensive summer reading list and a paper is required during the first two weeks of classes in the fall.
Field work is based on the ecology - sociology of Haliburton, with strong local participation. This is a continued research project, with papers from previous classes on the reading list. In the four years this class has been functioning, there have been no complaints or problems over summer reading.
A spring meeting with the townsfolk produces suggestions for next year's class work, and student papers are published in a local newspaper. The class thus fosters an integration of science and the humanities.
Trent obviously has a first class campus with many outstanding faculty. But, from an Atlantis point of view, its growth is at present limited, as in other such North American colleges, by the insistence on combining tutorials with a normal five course lecture-type system.
Such a teaching pattern asks too much from the faculty, too little from the students, and in fact inhibits both student and faculty growth by failing to give them space to achieve their potential.
Economically, as elsewhere, the present teaching program evidently overstrains the budget. In my view Trent would be an excellent place to try out a limited (non-threatening) Atlantis-style tutorial experiment.
Over forty people who have offered to assist or consult in some form or other, including two noted authorities on innovation in North American Higher Education, Professors Gerald Grant, author of The Perpetual Dream: Reform and Experiment in the American College, and George Leonard, author of Education and Ecstacy. Around Montreal, Professors Janet Donald, Director of the McGill Center for University Teaching and Learning, and Scot Gardiner of the Loyola Dept. of Communications have, among many others, provided essential advice and support.
Generally speaking, the world of business administration seems to have been moving, during the last several years, in the same direction that we are advocating through the Atlantis project.
Approaches such as "Socio-Tech" call for a less hierarachical structure, with work being done in small teams that seem to function much the same way as Atlantis tutorials. This approach seems to have been particularly favored by well-known and progressive companies that have to take on worldclass competition.
Even more relevant to the Atlantis concept is the "Second Report" (1992) from Professor Richard Light's Harvard Assessment Seminars: Explorations with Students and Faculty about Teaching, Learning, and Student Life. A large scale assessment of student success at Harvard and twentyfour other colleges and universities, directed by Richard J. Light of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Kennedy School of Government, it reads like a prolegomenon to the Atlantis Project.
"The big point" (18) of the reports was "the interpersonal nature of . . . academic success." This translates into the value of small-group interaction, whether with or without an instructor, though such methods are ineffective unless it is ensured that the students are properly prepared.
In fact it reports on exactly the kind of research which justifies the somewhat intuitive and limited experience which actuated the first experiments we carried out in Berkeley and McGill, as well as providing abundant supporting evidence, from a quite different direction, for the principles underlying the successes of those experiments.
(A copy of the report may be obtained gratis by phoning Dr. Light's office at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, 617 495-1183. Mention the Atlantis Project!)
See also Dr Light's massive follow up to the Report: Making the Most of College: Students Speak their Mind., Harvard, 2001, 242pp.This report thus provides major research support for Atlantis principles.
But it also leaves open an interesting lacuna, since it nowhere takes up the question of how a normal college or university could actually fund this kind of effective teaching in small groups.
And so far as we know, Atlantis is the only attempt to answer this question, or develop practical means of implementing his theoretical conclusions.
In February 1994, at the invitation of Lynn Burton, our Ottawa coordinator, I attended a weekend conference to meet and have useful talks with a number of Ottawa educators and administrators.
In respect of major funding Stuart Smith (Chmn, Commission on Post-Secondary Education in Canada) stated that he will strongly recommend Atlantis to his foundation contacts once any Canadian university administration is ready to make a satisfactory endorsement of the project.