A Professor By Any Other Name:

[In]Accurate Educational Terminology THE VOICE September 11, 2002

Many factors led to my decision to attend a distance university rather than the traditional Calgary choice – the U of C. Overall I’m very pleased with the level of education that I’m receiving from AU, but one thing has always bugged me about our school: Tutors.

No, I’m not referring to the instructors themselves. While AU tutors certainly run the gamut from excellent to abysmal – I’ve found that the great tutors greatly outnumber the poor ones, and I have had many tutors who have been a tremendous asset to my education. So it is not the tutors, per se, who are the problem, but rather that ridiculous word.

Tutor. I don’t know about other people, but for me that word brings to mind a very low level academic assistant. A tutor might be a senior high-school girl who helps out junior students with their math homework. It is a non-specific term denoting no particular level of education, respect or authority. People call themselves tutors with no license to teach, and no significant academic credentials. I imagine that some of those non-academic correspondence trade schools might use this term for their academic assistants, but certainly not a university.

Tutor is a word which does not adequately describe the function of AU’s academic staff. When I have mentioned to my family members or friends that I’m waiting for a call from my “?tutor’, I have been asked – “Oh? Are you having trouble with your studies?” I assure them that I am not, so they then ask – “Why do you need a tutor?”

It’s a fair question. “?Tutors’ are usually people you hire when regular school instruction has failed to suffice. “?Tutors’ provide additional assistance, on top of what the school provides. If you are flunking out, you need a tutor. Conversely, good students never require tutors. This is how most people see it.

Etymologically, the word is correct – if you prefer the dictionary definition to the common public perception. According to the Canadian College Dictionary, a tutor is “?a private teacher’, “?a college teacher who gives individual instruction,’ or a college official entrusted to the tutelage and care of undergraduates assigned to him [sic].’ In law, it refers to a guardian of a minor or a woman. I don’t quite understand that one, but any term that suggests women require guardians irks me a little.

What is at issue here is the common public perception of the term. With so much disdain focused on distance universities, it is vital that institutions like AU lead the way in making open distance education as respected as traditional education. The use of a term like “?tutor’ separates AU from other universities, and gives the appearance that AU has no “?real’ instructors or professors. On the contrary – often a course tutor is also the course professor obscured behind that unflattering epithet.

Tutors sound like instructors from a school that only aspires to be a university. Those not familiar with AU might [understandably] assume that AU uses the term because its instructors do not have the credentials to be called professors. Already too many people refer to AU as a “?community college’ or a “?trade school.’ The term “?tutor’ is one more reason to lump AU in with the dubious schools like International Correspondence Schools [you know, the one Sally Struthers ebulliently recommends].

The term “?tutor’ adds to the perception that we are not taking real university courses – universities have professors, by common understanding. I understand that AU may have chosen this term in order to demonstrate the greater level of academic support that tutors provide compared to traditional professors, but the term is too detrimental to be properly descriptive of this important position.

AU has made a big deal about changing other terms that are no longer accurate. For example, the term “?Home Study’ was recently replaced with “?Individualized Study.’ Ok, fair enough, but is it much of a difference? Yes, the latter term better encompasses the varied methods of at-home course delivery, but it still does not seem like a very important change, and it is one that led to much confusion when it first occurred.

I feel comfortable telling people that I’m taking a home-study course, but I often feel embarrassed to say that I have to call my tutor. I often say “?instructor’ or “?professor’ to better describe the function of the individual. Am I the only one that feels this way? Drop me a line and let me know: tamra@gmx.net

Tamra lives in Calgary with her husband and two cats. A fulltime AU student, she splits her free time between her duties as an AUSU councillor, writing her first novel, and editing written work by other students and friends.

For further information, please contact ausu@ausu.org, or call 1-800-788-9041, ext. 3413.