Teaching and tutoring

In the past few years I’ve noticed a little trend that has seemed to accelerate recently, and it’s this: The college students in my classes seem much more likely to respond to not doing well in my class by asking about and seeking out tutors in the subject.

Normally, I just tell them that they might want to try coming to office hours (mine, or my TAs if it’s a class with TAs) and asking questions — after all, like most of my colleagues, my sense is that my office hours (and those of my TAs) are underutilized, and that we often sit there doing other work during those hours since nobody is showing up. I explain that the TAs are better at this than any tutor they’re likely to hire, that I’m the one who designed the course and so know it best, and that we’re all already being paid to spend time helping them.

But most (not all) of them aren’t interested in this. They seem to want to pay somebody to be assistant, coach, and trail guide for them, and whose role as their ally isn’t in any way “compromised” by also having the role of some kind of gatekeeper, evaluator, and grader.

Maybe it’s that they don’t want to “seem dumb” in front of the person who grades their work (although frankly, the idea that asking even a “dumb” question in office hours is going to affect whether they get a 63 or a 74 on the exam is, from my perspective, pretty farfetched). Or maybe they think that as gatekeeper as well as coach, we will somehow “hold back” on what we tell them.

I don’t know. And it’s not even that I think such students are necessarily looking for the “easy way out”. I think that they may well think that this is the natural path of putting in extra work, effort, and resources.

But I have some nagging fear that at least some significant part of this trend (if it is that) is grounded in an anti-egalitarian sense that the appropriate response to a challenge or roadblock — even in the quasi-meritocracy of the academic world — is to spend money and buy the support that will get you a better grade, rather than to put in more time, to make better use of the shared resources (like the instructor and TAs).

02. October 2007 by Ron
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