The reckonings of a University Tutor

The end of semester is here and with it comes the final breaths of my tutoring for the year. I have now tutored four units over three semesters in sociology, drama, and mass communications. Over this time I have gotten to know well over a hundred students by name, developed friendships, been dazzled by some and quite distressed by others. Through all of this I can sit here today and say that tutoring is well and truly the best job I have ever had. Indeed, I can say in all honesty that there are times when I would happily pay to do what I do – the fact that I am being payed instead has instilled in me a deep gratitude for life’s beautiful absurdity. That said, be warned that this will be a somewhat personal post, full of uncertainty, worries, and reflections on what I have learned these last twelve months, both professionally and personally. Whatever I say here should thus be treated as the at times trembling, at times sure footed wandering of a young man still finding his footing along his career path. I do not wish to offend with what follows, I just wish to document my very own ‘ness as this point in time.

First, on becoming a tutor. The university I work at gave me no training on how to conduct a tutorial, how to interact with students, or how to grade assignments. No workshop or brief was offered to me, beyond that of a small paper back magazine that could be read cover to cover over lunch. This is a fascinating institutional characteristic. While teachers in other educational sectors receive extensive training, many university tutors (who, yes, I consider to be teachers and, if not that, ring leaders of the tutorial learning circus) are instead bought a coffee by the unit coordinator, given a reader and unit guide, and a time and place. I am not suggesting that this is a bad thing, in fact, I worry about the administrative claws of ‘quality assurance’ that will no doubt increasingly press their nails into the heart of university tutoring in the name of standardisation. That said, I imagine that the ‘straight into the wilderness’ approach that is currently in place plays a major role in the professional development of many tutors, who learn about what they know by having to develop their own way of sharing it with others – an opportunity that I am extremely grateful for.

For instance, in each unit I have presented myself differently in an attempt to discover what works. If you ever meet me you’ll likely notice that I express myself in quite a particular way that some people find confusing (funnily enough, perhaps the most relaxed and authentic presentation was in an external unit where the students did not know my age, what I looked like, or how excitedly I can speak), to say the least the main trial was exploring how much of my own ‘ness I can responsibly convey to compliment my teaching method to the benefit of my students and my own self esteem. In some units I have tried to be more serious than I usually am, and then warmer, more assertive, and then less assertive. Now, after this most recent unit, I feel like I am finally coming close to fitting into the role as though it were my own skin – a development I chalk up mostly to experience. At any rate, I was granted this teething period by an institution that trusted me to tutor others, which reaffirms the feeling in my heart that this is one of the places I could flourish in.

On the institutionalisation of my judgement: I often forget how arbitrary many of the habits encouraged at university are. There are particular ways to write that are legitimate, and others that must be changed if they are to be accepted (often when people try to defend these silly rules they do so by appealing to tradition or formal rules, which is a problem for another time). I forget this arbitrariness when in the role of tutor, whereby the difference between a student passing or failing a unit can come down to their work being more than 10% outside of the word limit, an over dependence on unsubstantiated claims, or some other obstruction to, or slight distraction from, the point. Some of these rules are more arbitrary than others (not being able to tell the difference between 1,500 and 2,000 words is different to claiming that all humans naturally desire peace), but they are all significant, given that a fail can result in another six months being added to a degree. Thus, I have reflected a lot (maybe too much – giving students up to 600 words feedback to explain their grade can steal a week from you in no time) on how to be fair.

I justify the way I mark by appealing to formal rationality: the instructions for an assignment are laid out clearly in a couple of short paragraphs on the unit guide, and if a student does not bother to read these paragraphs carefully then they are careless. Simple. I mean, why would you pour however many hours into an assignment only to fail because you auto-piloted over the essay question? In other words, this way of grading is justified because it’s my job. I work at an institution with certain standards and instructions that the student is expected to oblige by. If I ignored them I would not be doing my job, and I’d be better liked by students that will leave university without learning that sometimes you should just read what you’re expected to do before you do it.

In case you’re already thinking it, yes, I know that makes me a square. The contract students enter into by attending university and work integrity aside, the fact is that many students don’t follow these instructions. A tutor who marks down based on something like a missing reference list, word count, or some other black and white instruction is more likely to be seen as petty than diligent, or unsympathetic than critical by some. I base this on the fact that all the way through my undergraduate degree, I heard such things as: ‘they don’t want you to be a free thinker. They want you to jump through hoops’. I even encouraged my friends in their criticisms at the time, because I was an intellectually dishonest, enabling and good friend. I don’t expect that humanities students have changed that much in two years. And, of course, they’re right in some regard, it does suck that your wings can be clipped if you fly through the hoop wrong due simply to some arbitrary rule. I totally get it. However, now that I’ve marked hundreds of assignments I’ve seen something of a bigger picture and, to say the least, I’m worried.

I’m worried because I see students three years into their degree who haven’t learnt anything, or massively misunderstand important ideas because someone treated what they did wrong as being right. I see what Richard Hil describes as a ‘the customer is always right’ culture, in which higher education shifts from a collaborative and challenging learning environment into a business where students are customers, good grades the product, and tutors the checkout. Too often I have seen this culture turn tutors from fellow thinkers to converse with into scratching poles to distract from the student’s inability to get off facebook. What’s worse, I see the most irresponsible (and therefore, quite liked) tutors being treated as the standard against which other tutors are judged – which is incredibly disheartening. To wax lyrical for a moment, the whole thing reminds me of the instances that abound in the world around us of people selling out the future for simplicity in the present. This isn’t global warming or some other horrible catastrophe; it’s the boosting of a fail to a pass and a pass to a credit, as students increasingly know less and less and demand more and more.

And yet… I feel bad every time I fail a student.
Every. Time.
It upsets me.
Call it growing pains.

On cold waters: The key example from these last six months is a shy student who showed time and time again, through visits to my office and dozens of emails, that he was committed to the unit. However, he came from a degree that had next to no essay writing and, as a result, did not have the writing skills required to succeed in a second year unit, let alone the third year unit I was tutoring him in. His first essay did not come close to passing, and his second assignment failed too, making him unable to pass the unit before the semester was even half way through. If he failed the unit he’d have to come back next semester, rather than graduating this year. He was clearly dedicated and well meaning, not a slacker or some other example of ‘don’t-care-anymore-itis’. So what to do? Were I to give him another shot? Other students who had come from degrees with essay writing had failed, what about them? Is a student’s dedication reason enough to pass them, regardless of (even in spite of) the quality of their work? How would I navigate this situation? A gut wrenching situation to say the least. In the end I worked together with the unit coordinator to come to a decision, which I shan’t reveal here. The point I want to make is that the context of students and the wrenching of guts does play a role in the the grading process, no matter what you’ve heard. Integrity, decency, and consistency can each mean very different things in the personal and professional realms. In fact, at times it can seem that all they have in common are sleepless nights.

I’ve prattled on long enough, this place is going to close and my battery is making death threats. I’m exhausted and ready. For now, let me tie it up by saying that with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Reference correctly.

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