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This article is taken from PN Review 171, Volume 33 Number 1, September - October 2006.

Tutorials Alastair Fowler

 In 1927, after a bad essay read by an Australian undergraduate, H.W.B. Joseph said: ‘This won’t do, Mr Robinson.’ Robinson excused himself: ‘Well, Mr Joseph, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride…’ ‘No!’ broke in Joseph: ‘No. Because the wish to ride would be a horse.’

 Teaching at Oxford University used to take the form of ‘tutorials’ (at Cambridge, ‘supervisions’), sessions of about fifty minutes, a don meeting with one undergraduate or a pair, occasionally three. Nowadays, demands on tutors’ time make tutorials increasingly onerous. But they somehow persist, although for centuries their exact purpose has remained undefined, mysterious, or mystified. It is as if the institution were too delicate to examine closely, in case its distinctive informality were lost. Many think of tutorials as formative or enviable: the least oppressive of teaching formats, the best for students of varying abilities.

 Is the tutorial to make the pupil think? To encourage better understanding of the assignment? To provoke new ideas? Or to clarify thought, as in the Joseph tutorial? Tutors’ aims have changed greatly. Before the Second World War, some were content to puff their pipes and wake from the essay with only a very few winged words: ‘That will do for today. Next week, write something on Shackerley Marmion.’ When post-war university expansion began, an academic career was a reasonable hope. Tutors might aim to equip others to tutor, or for fast-track posts in the public sector or the media. Meanwhile, tutorials helped pupils ...

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