Monday, 13 February 2012

The Tutorial; or, The Temper (I)

...which sounds like the title of one of the 'Days' in John Gay's hilarious 1714 pastoral parody,The Shepherd's Week. The third pastoral---about a shepherdess contemplating suicide---is called 'Wednesday; or, The Dumps', on which word Gay gives us a helpful note:

"Dumps," or "Dumbs," made use of to express a fit of the Sullens. Some have pretended that it is derived from Dumops a King of Egypt, that built a Pyramid and dy'd of Melancholy. So Mopes after the same Manner is thought to have come from Merops, another Egyptian King who dy'd of the same Distemper; but our English Antiquaries have conjectured that Dumps, which is, a grievous Heaviness of Spirits, comes from the Word Dumplin, the heaviest kind of Pudding that is eaten in this Country, much used in Norfolk, and other Counties of England.

I know how the poor girl feels. We're now entering 'fifth week', in Oxbridge parlance, which is a kind of termly hump-day when everyone is proverbially depressed or ill. I'm neither---just fit for the knacker's van to come and take me away sharpish. The reason for this glassy-eyed state is the relentless demands placed on the importunate academic by the tutorial system, Oxbridge's particular glory.

There is some mystery or glamour about the tutorial to those outside the system, based partly on the fact that they tend to be so personal and variable. Once a week, you, or you and a 'tute partner', rock up to some don's room and usually sit on a sofa while said don faces you from an armchair. Often one or other of you reads out your essay, but this is done more often in Oxford than in Cambridge and increasingly less in either. A dialogue or a three-way discussion them develops, in which your arguments get tested to destruction and/or ways are suggested in which they might be bolstered or finessed.

The Oxbridge tutorial is both very rewarding and a remarkably good teaching tool. There's nowhere to hide; if you say something ridiculous or wrong your tutor will tell you so, and they will also probe deliberately to see where your reading and thinking breakdown into bullshit. As I said, there is variation, as you are broadly allowed to teach tutorials in your own way. Some people will offer students coffee (I usually do when in a good mood and when I've remembered to buy milk), and many will take work in the night before and return it marked at the end of the tutorial, glancing at the essays on his or her lap as the material around which to frame the discussion and thus leaving the whole hour for dialogue. My own preferred method is: [two students + 55 minute hour + coffee all round + one 2,500 word essay read aloud], partly because---with the exception of the coffee---that is how I was usually taught. Students who have the misfortune to have a tutorial with me in the late afternoon of the very last day of term get given a glass of wine as compensation, because I'm basically benign.

I have one bad habit with tutorial teaching, though, which is that I talk too much and tend to turn tutorials into mini-lectures. I do respond in detail to students' work in comments on the essays, but I often spend the tutorial hour conveying to them exactly what I think is important about the text(s) we are looking at and what I feel should be brought to bear in a range of exam essays. This is not to say the essays are less than excellent: certainly by the second term of the first year most Oxford students are writing at a sophisticated level, simply because we make them write so much. But I always have to fight my own tendency to feel that I should be like a petrol-pump attendant, topping the students up. I'm sure this will come with time.

My own first term at Oxford in 1998 (engraved on my memory) involved twelve essays in eight weeks---eight on English literature 1509-1600 and four on Latin literature of the 1st century BC. They were as follows:


Wk 1: 'Where there is no private business, every man zealously pursues the public business' (THOMAS MORE). Discuss More's engagement with public life. Read A Dialogue of Comfort, Utopia, and A History of King Richard III.

Wk 2: To what degree was John Skelton a conservative, for all his linguistic innovations?

Was there such a thing as the "Callimachean aesthetic"? Write with regard to Catullus 64, and Virgil, Eclogues 4 & 6.

Wk 3: What kind of programmatic statement is Spenser's The Shepheardes Calender?

Wk 4: 'To fashion a gentlemen or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline' (EDMUND SPENSER, Letter to Raleigh). To what degree do you think The Faerie Queene fulfils this role?

How political are Virgil's Eclogues?

Wk 5: '"O wretched state of man in self-division!" (PHILIP SIDNEY). How does Sidney represent the self, with reference to Astrophil and Stella and The Old Arcadia?

Wk 6: Consider the representation of heroism OR sexuality OR intelligence in Marlowe.

'In the Pro Caelio, we see Cicero at ease, confident of victory and therefore free to give his wit free rein.' Discuss.

Wk 7: Does the period's inability to untangle the etymology of 'satire' (satyr/satura) account for the moral confusion of Elizabethan verse satire?

Wk 8: Justice, like rank and honour, is deeply problematic in The Spanish Tragedy. Discuss.

'More lasting than bronze' (aere perennius): how far do Horace's Odes live up to his own description?


Each essay has to be 2000-3000 words, so this really is a substantial amount of work, especially when one takes secondary reading, lectures and so on, into account. Most other UK universities will demand only three or four essays of that scale in a whole twelve week semester. (To my shame, I remember simply not believing this fact when I was told it as an 18 year old by a friend's hapless brother who was at Keele.) But the point is, it is simultaneously a tremendous privilege and absolutely mind-buggering to teach like this. The students have one or two tutorials a week but I regularly teach ten to twelve of the things a week, across several languages and literatures. It is a kind of mental pentathlon, and at the end of a week I---and most people I know in similar positions---often feel exhausted and lightheaded, as though we've actually given blood. 'Fifth week blues' all round!

More to come in the week----including an explanation of the (humorous) 'Temper' in the title of this post.

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