Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Good tutorial? Bad tutorial?

Socrates - the best tutor ever?
National Archaeological Museum Naples
Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen
Between March and October this year, I did not teach a single tutorial because I was on research leave. A seven month gap is enough to make you worry you’ve forgotten how to do it, but also gives you a refreshed perspective. The tutorial system – a weekly one-hour academic discussion between a tutor and 1-3 students – is always held up as the jewel in Oxford University’s crown. It’s not a lecture, it’s not simply extended and pedantic feedback on a piece of written work, but (in theory) a Socratic conversation, whereby through a skilfully chaired discussion students question their assumptions and gain brilliant new insights into the topic in hand, and maybe the world in general.

The principal thing I’d forgotten was how hard it is to know – in any given tutorial – whether it is going well or not. Although we get plenty of formal feedback from students about their experience of a term's teaching, or their degree in general, these are feedback overviews. From the tutor’s perspective – sitting back in an armchair, a discreet sheet of notes to hand, maybe a comforting cup of herbal tea nearby – it is pretty difficult  to tell whether a specific tutorial is living up to the Socratic ideal, or turning into a purgatorial experience for everyone concerned.

There are some obvious signs that light bulbs are turning on – a palpable rise in the energy level in the room; people sitting up or moving towards the edge of their seats; the  articulation of challenging and vociferous questions; students debating with each other in an animated manner as if the tutor wasn’t there at all. There are also obvious signs that a tutorial is not going well at all – if a student is staring glumly out of the window at people playing Frisbee on the quad, or picking dead skin off the soles of their feet while their tutorial partner talks about early modern Spanish armies. And then there is – much more commonly – the grey inbetween. If students are giving brief, faltering answers to your questions, with extended silences before they speak, does that mean they are ruminating on the issues at a deep and still level? Or that they are revealing a terrible lack of reading? Or that the point you just elucidated has gone right over their heads? Or, alternatively, that it was so blindingly obvious that no-one understands why you bothered to mention it at all?

So that is one of the reasons why tutorial teaching requires you to keep your wits about you. While one part of the tutor’s brain is neurotically concerned with reading body language, glances and silences for evidence of total bafflement or intellectual elation, the rest of it is trying hard to conduct a sensible conversation about the intricacies of Elizabethan court portraiture, or the economy of late 15th century Florence, or pedagogical practice in the Renaissance. But maybe that’s just me.

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