Part II: Finding Space
In the Summer of 2003, although totally broke, I was able to spend some time in Barcelona on my way to study in Germany. I was absolutely captivated by La Sagrada Familia. What impressed me was that Gaudi was using this traditional form, the cathedral, and infusing it with organic life. The columns are not these unbending Parthenon columns but rhizomic, nodal, seemingly upside down. The building inspired me, made me realize that you can take your own vision and transform the world.
When I returned to teaching in the Fall, I began to think more about the environment of the university, how classrooms are structured, and how all of this affects students’ learning. I’ll be discussing these general issues in later posts, but for now I want to focus on the environment of the tutorial.
Since tutorials cannot be held in the classroom there must be another location. Over the years I’ve held them in a number of places: cafes, on the campus lawn, library, etc. If there are a number of good options then I will give the students’ the choice. The problem about these public spaces is the noise and intrusions that inevitably happen. It’s important that the students can listen to one another, and while I was at UMASS Amherst at least, I was holding the tutorials in my office. Office tutorials have a number of benefits. I can have coffee and donuts, have long conversations, and no one is bothered. I have all the books I need in case I need to look up a passage or suggest a book. Students learn where my office is and feel comfortable coming to my office when the need arises. They learn where the department is as well, connect to other professors that are around, and in general become more involved in campus life. These are good things.
The space of the tutorials also brings to mind the atmosphere and tone of the tutorials. The atmosphere can at times feel like a test. Although it’s not a test, students feel they are being evaluated in that way simply because that is the system we have. Probably the best way to counteract this is to directly tell them that this is a space for free thinking. The correlative to academic freedom is honesty. It quickly becomes apparent to anyone who uses the tutorial method that the opportunities for plagiarism, simply because it would be so difficult for students to discuss a plagiarized paper for an hour, are enormously reduced. The tutorials not only encourage students to avoid plagiarism, but also to write honestly and to write what they truly think about a topic. In face-to-face meetings such as a tutorial, I can ask students to clarify parts of their writing that are unclear. Very often the lack of clarity is the consequence of not writing what they truly think about a topic because they are uncritically following what they believe the professor wants or what they have habitually thought about a topic. Through the interaction of the tutorial, students then recognize that there is often a gap between what they are thinking and what they are writing. Becoming aware of this gap, students will be more capable of discerning their own thinking for future writing.
The history of the tutorial method can be traced to the probing dialogues of Socrates. Where I diverge from Socrates is in the tenor of the exchange. My tutorials are not only critical and challenging, but also supportive and exploratory. Freedom of thought is of supreme importance in the tutorials. My key term though for understanding what goes in my tutorials is “engagement.” In a tutorial there are just two students, and since the primary discussion is between the students, they are compelled to be engaged. There is no hiding in the classroom crowd. The students must also engage the readings on a deeper level since they know they will be discussing them for a good length of time with their partner. There are always, however, a number of students who for a variety of reasons, may enter a class without the desire to be engaged. They may come from the sciences and have little motivation to read literature. Or, they may experience some other kind of barrier related to gender, race, or disability. I believe that the most important tool in teaching to the diversity of a class is for the students to get to know each other as whole persons, and the tutorials allow this to happen in a distinctive way.
The atmosphere and tone of the tutorial have an effect on the classroom. I have noticed that after the tutorials, the class becomes more of a community. The bonds that students form in the tutorials dominoes out into the class as a whole. It is common for students to feel closer to each other and to me, I know how they think and what they need to work on, and they see that I care.
To stand inside La Sagrada Familia is to imagine infinite possibilities. Hopefully students can get a hint of that infinite potential by how we construct the teaching environment.
So, that’s it for the Time and Space of the tutorial method. Because this is a method that I constantly experiment with, I’ll post updates.