Personal Tutoring in Higher Education
Ed. Liz Thomas and Paula Hixenbaugh
Stoke-on-Trent, UK, and Sterling, VA: Trentham Books, 2006
When I taught in English higher education I was interested in the role of the “personal tutor,” a role into which I was placed from the beginning. I had a group of about eight students who would come from time to time and we would chat uneasily. I tried to help two of them with some housing issues; another asked me somewhat bitterly, “where are all the lads in this college?” a query I couldn’t help her with. The personal tutor used to be called the moral tutor, and conversations with colleagues reflected that historic role amusingly. One of my younger colleagues told me that she thought we should initiate conversations about gay and lesbian issues with all our tutees; an older man told me he understood we were supposed to talk with them about “the Lord.” I did what I could by functioning as an academic advisor would in an American college.
A new book called Personal Tutoring in Higher Education sheds some interesting light on how personal tutoring works in the UK, and gives an American educator a useful comparative approach. Generally speaking the questions being raised about the personal tutor in English higher education are the familiar ones we ponder about advisors. Should teaching staff do this job, or would special tutors/advisors, hired and trained for that purpose and not required to do any teaching, do it better? How needy are today’s students, and how much and in what ways should tutor/advisors accommodate that neediness? What is the relationship between good advising and student satisfaction and (more importantly for bean-counters) student retention? What are the implications for personal tutoring of the expansion and diversification of the student body? What is our responsibility toward older students, commuters, first-generation college attenders, students from minority populations?
I wonder if the questions are the same at the ancient universities or even the better-established redbrick ones. The editors of this book and their contributors mostly come from “post-1992” institutions—that is, universities that were colleges of higher education or polytechnics 15 years ago—though there are also representatives from the London College of Fashion, the Institute of Nursing and Midwifery of the University of Brighton, and the Hospitality programmes in the School of Services Management at Bournemouth University. The best chapter in the book, Peter Hill’s “Platoons to encourage social cohesion amongst a large and diverse undergraduate population,” lists the characteristics of students likely to drop out--
--and acknowledges that “the intakes of universities lower down the league tables, often post-1992 institutions, probably contain more of the vulnerable type of student . . . “ Hill’s discussion of what he calls “platoons”—a response to student fragmentation and anomie caused by having so few shared classes and finding it hard to assimilate—will be familiar to anyone who’s read about learning communities in the US. Platoons are learning communities, founded as a response to some of the same problems learning communities try to address in this country, and with some of the same successes.
Other chapters provide useful research-based commentary on group tutorials; on how tutors are, or are not, trained to do their jobs; on personal tutoring in the online environment; on what students want from their personal tutors and how their expectations are met or frustrated.
I cannot help objecting, though, to the poor quality of writing and editing in this volume. Some of these authors teach in the catering course, perhaps, but between these covers they are writers. Ponder this sentence: “Students leaving home and coming to any new environment can feel isolated, nervous, unsure and that they really want to belong.” Or this one, not, I think, intended to be funny: “check typing and spelling errors to avoid misunderstanding and of giving an impression of carelessness and incompetence.” They are careful to avoid linguistic sexism in such clunky sentences as “The student may resolve their difficulty,” but not, I was interested to note, in the hypothetical student complaint, “my tutor is never there in his office hours.” In larger structural ways the writing is ponderous. Almost every chapter begins with nearly identical boilerplate about the changing educational environment. One of them, written by Liz Thomas, one of the editors, is entitled “Widening participation and the increased need for personal tutoring.” The second sentence declares that the chapter “begins by outlining some of the implications of widening participation with a mass system of higher education.” The next paragraph has a sub-heading: Widening participation in mass higher education, followed by this text:
Widening participation has taken place in mass higher education; greater student diversity has been accompanied by an expansion in the numbers of students participating in HE. These co-tangent trends have resulted in an increased number of students from a wider range of backgrounds . . .
I don’t know about the students at the Higher Education Academy (where Liz Thomas is the Senior Advisor for . . . wait for it . . . Widening Participation) need the same obvious point made six times in one page, with one of the repeated tautologies being wrongly identified as a result rather than a restatement, but I do not.
This kind of writing is, I’m afraid, one of the reasons so many professors don’t want to read books like these, and it is hard to blame them, but for anybody who is interested in a comparative study of how British academics are responding to changed conditions (much more rapidly changed than anything we’ve had to face, and with less support), this book is worth a read.