From My Perspective – Tutors

April 9, 2003

I will be continuing my perspective of “being single” in next week’s Voice, but this week I simply had to write a response to last week’s Voice Sounding Off topic regarding tutors. I do realize that the nature of the column is intended to allow students to “vent”, but I was disappointed that the comments printed seemed so negative overall regarding tutors. I know there are students who have had bad experiences with tutors, it’s like that in any university. It’s also unfortunately true that the negative experiences tend to remain strongly entrenched in our mind, while we forget the positive ones. However, I don’t think the Sounding Off writers had enough good to say about our AU tutors and I wanted to present some thoughts from the other side.

As an AU student who has completed some 35 courses, I’ve had a lot of tutors. I also sit on various committees with tutor reps, I’ve attended tutor conferences, and have worked closely with the tutor’s union on several issues, for example the Bryon Paege Scholarship, and most recently the proposed course extension policy proposal. Out of the 35 tutors I’ve had the pleasure of working with as a student – I have NEVER had a bad experience. Without exception my tutors have been helpful, supportive, responsive, and highly adaptable. No one has ever complained when I dump all my assignments on them all at once in the last week – they patiently mark and return them as quickly as they can. When I’ve needed to contact them outside of tutor hours due to my own scheduling conflicts, I’ve never had a tutor refuse to accommodate me with an alternate time or arrangement. I’ve never had a tutor not respond or take overly long to do so. Have I been lucky? Maybe. But maybe part of it is the way I look at things, and my perspective in dealing with tutors. The tutor-student relationship is two-way, and I think it is important to never lose sight of that. Tutors are also human – they are just like us, except they have their degree already! And for every difficult tutor – there is probably an equally difficult student.

Some of the Sounding Off comments expressed unhappiness with tutors who don’t accept email assignments. I generally ask my tutors what format they would prefer that I submit assignments in – I don’t believe it is my right as a student to dictate this to my teacher – instead I think it is my responsibility to conform to what they require of me as a student. Yes, its true that we are an electronic university, but tutors have preferences, and not all of them find email a comfortable medium for assignments. Some prefer email, some prefer hard copy, some will take either. There may be valid reasons for not accepting assignments by email. I know from talking to tutors, that many students do not properly submit email attachments, creating problems. To assume that tutors should be able to print up the email attachments and mark the hard copy, also depends on every student submitting a properly-formatted document of reasonable length – something that does not always occur. I’ve also heard a rumour that AU is “encouraging” tutors to not print up any assignments at all, but to do all their marking in an electronic format. While this may sound like a great idea, I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it would be to have to read dozens of assignments and write electronic notes without having the option of being able to thumb through hard copy pages. From a student perspective I could not prepare an assignment without being able to work back and forth between both electronic and paper resource – let alone try to mark a paper this way. I always print up a hard copy of my final assignment to review even when submitting it via email – it looks different and I often only find things I’ve missed when viewing it in hard copy. There is value in both methods, and its only fair that tutors have the option of choosing the one they are more comfortable with in order to maximize the value of the input they can provide.

I did have one tutor who did not respond to my email questions. At first I was rather irritated, but decided to be direct, and I asked her why she had not responded. She apologized and did her best to answer my questions. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered (from another source), that she was uncomfortable explaining things via email, and did not know how best to respond to my questions in writing – yet had I called her she would have had no difficulty doing so verbally. I can understand that – just because a tutor is not comfortable explaining things in written form does not mean they are not a good tutor! I’ve often found myself halfway through writing an email, then abandoning it and picking up the phone because its just too difficult to get my point across in writing. Even when the course has telephone quizzes, I’ve found most of my tutors extremely accommodating in allowing me to submit an alternate written quiz if we can’t connect by phone. Most ask me how I prefer to receive my marks in return as well, and its up to me if I want the marks by email, mailed, or by telephone. For me the key is asking in advance how the tutor prefers that I submit assignments, and then working out a compromise. I’m just thankful that I have options and flexibility – on-campus students often don’t!

I know from my discussions with tutor reps that the vast majority are caring educators who want to do their best for the students, even if it means putting in extra unpaid hours. Even if a tutor appears to be indifferent or uncaring – there could be all kinds of other factors to blame. Tutors do not have the option of calling in sick when it is their regular tutor hours, yet most of them have lives and family responsibilities too. What if a tutor has to unexpectedly deal with a sick child during their scheduled tutor hours? Should I be angry when they are unavailable to answer my call? As a parent of teenagers, I would also be very hesitant to judge a tutor because their teenager answered the phone rudely. Teenagers are unpredictable and they don’t always obey the rules, particularly if they are mad at you for some reason. I recall one occasion when I was expecting an important business call, a reporter from the Globe and Mail. I had just finished having a confrontation with one of my teenagers over some house rules and was heading up the stairs when the phone rang. She angrily grabbed it, and then called me by screaming “MAAAAM!!!” loudly in the poor man’s ear! I was very embarrassed and took her to task about it later, but I would sincerely hope the reporter did not judge me for my child’s momentary lapse in good manners. The same goes for small children. I don’t expect my tutor to be sitting unmoving beside the telephone for a two or three hour period spanning their tutor hours – if they are forced to take a bathroom break and a child picks up the phone, does this mean we should lose confidence in that tutor? If anything, it should inspire us to know that our tutors are like us, struggling to balance home, family and work.

Another thing to consider is that because of AU’s open enrolment policy, there are many students new to university-level studies who take up disproportionate amounts of tutor time. I’ve had many tutors comment that they have a small handful of students who consistently use up all their available tutor time, leaving the tutor rushed and stressed when dealing with the rest of their students. So when you keep calling your tutor only to receive a busy signal – perhaps that tutor is trapped on a call and just as eager to get off the phone with a difficult student as you are to get through to them! Perhaps an even better way of looking at it is to consider the tutors with constant busy signals as tutors who really care about students and are good at their job. I used to have a wonderful doctor, who I no longer use, because I got tired of spending so much time in his waiting room. But the reason I spent so much time in the waiting room is because this doctor really cared about his patients – and once it was your turn, you knew he would take however long necessary to get at the root of whatever your problem was, regardless of how many people were waiting. I don’t think its any different with tutors. And because AU does not have dated assignments, it is not uncommon for tutors to go weeks at a time with no assignments to mark, then receive dozens of assignments all at once – with each student expecting an immediate and detailed response!

Don’t forget the issue of perception, either. Some time ago I wrote a Voice article about saying thanks. I recounted a situation I had with a tutor who I found to be absolutely wonderful. She had explained all kinds of background detail and really excited my interest in the course. Some time later in conversation with a faculty head, I had spoken of how highly I regarded this tutor, only to be told that most students did not like her and she no longer worked for AU as a result. I was shocked! So just because you personally may not find a particular tutor very helpful, does not mean that this is the case with every student. Nor does every student want the same type of feedback on their work. Personally I like minimal, pointed comments and get impatient when tutors give me too much feedback. Other students want lots of detail. Is one method better than another? No. It’s all about perception.

As a group, the tutors also work to improve things for the students. The tutor’s union has recently taken an active role in working with AUSU to help find a better proposal for the upcoming change to the course extension policy. Tutors also communicate with AU to request course changes when they notice that students are having difficulty – something that we as students don’t often realize. I attended a call centre session at a tutor conference and heard tutors passionately argue against any system that hampered their ability to easily communicate directly with their students. I’ve heard countless tutors express the wish that they could spend more time talking with students and meeting their educational needs, and I’ve heard many express frustration with the communication difficulties inherent in learning at a distance – and this includes not always being able to easily communicate what an assignment requires or being able to give detailed feedback.

I’ve also had tutors comment to me that in some ways they feel as helpless as the students – caught in the middle of an administrative bureaucracy that does not always take into account individual needs. Most of our tutors come from a campus environment where student-tutor interactions are very different. Some AU faculties are better than others at preparing their tutors, and I’ve heard of cases where tutors are not oriented properly and are left somewhat unclear regarding what their obligations are to students. I had one tutor, when I asked if she would accept email assignments in place of telephone quizzes, respond that she was not sure. After we discussed the matter, she realized that there was no hard and fast rule for that course and that the decision was up to her whether to accept them. It was a simple case of her not having enough information and being new at the job and we resolved it – yet I could have turned the situation into a cause for complaint.

Yes, there are occasionally tutors who may not be the greatest. And if a tutor is causing significant problems for a student, they should speak out. There are a few isolated tutor problems that need to be fixed, and it’s in everyone’s interests: students, tutors, and AU; that these be brought to the attention of AU administration. But by and large the tutors at AU are excellent. We are privileged to have one-on-one contact with our tutors, to have them available by phone and email to discuss our questions and problems – students at other universities often never even have an opportunity to speak to their professor at all. We are able to ask for feedback and suggestions on assignments – students at other universities often have their assignments marked by a TA, with no professor feedback whatsoever. I think we have it pretty good at AU overall when it comes to our tutors, so I’d prefer to look at the positives and say a big “thank you” to AU tutors.

What better way to say thank you than nominate your favourite tutor for an award? AU is currently accepting nominations for Tutoring/Mentoring Excellence. If you have a tutor you would like to see honoured, please contact Joyce Loxam, Coordinator, Staff Development, Human Resources, by April 23. Email: joycel@athabascau.ca; Phone: (780) 675-6139.

[For more information on nominating AU tutors or staff for excellence awards, see this week’s News and Announcements section.]

Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students Union.

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