The two students before me were clearly more interested in going to parties than my World Literature class. That was until I began the tutorial. The story we were discussing was Nathanial Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown.” After having worked through some of the typical observations about the story, one of them abruptly stopped and asked me to remind them what it was that we were doing in this hour-long tutorial. I responded that the tutorial was meant for them to explore ideas, that it was focused on what they wanted to focus on, and that they were responsible for what happened. This explanation drew a spark. We proceeded to have an exceptionally stimulating conversation, moving from religion to ethics to the nature of the universe. It was that kind of conversation. They were clearly engaged, and their eyes displayed a new-found keenness. The transformation of these two students showed me that there was definitely something to the tutorial method that I was trying out.
My undergraduate advisor was, I am happy to recall, also a dedicated mentor. Over the years we have had many wonderful and important conversations as she encouraged the blossoming of a rich intellectual life. Like anyone who has had such a mentor, I am deeply grateful. When I started teaching, I wondered how I could give my students what my mentor gave to me. Eventually I found an answer in the Oxford University tutorial system which I adapted for my students. After researching the tutorial systems of two schools, Oxford University and Williams College, I wrote up a plan that fit my teaching load and started up. Since that first semester and the telling transformation of my two students, I have fine-tuned the structure of the tutorial method through continual experimentation. The method goes like this: in a class such as Multi-Ethnic Science Fiction, students write two major essays per semester. For the first essay, tutorials are held around the middle of the course. In these tutorials, two students meet with me for an hour after having read each other’s essay. In turn they present the main argument of their essays followed by critique and discussion. For the second tutorial at the end of the course, my expectation is that they will have developed the ability to take more responsibility during the tutorial. For the sake of continuity, I have students hold tutorials on shorter essays periodically during our class time. I teach specific skills they will need in the tutorials such as how to analyze arguments and how to formulate discussion questions. This modified version of the tutorial system works. It is not as intensive as Oxford’s system where students might have twelve tutorials a semester, but the outcome is similar as students grow in their capability for critical and creative thinking.
I have noticed that after the tutorials, the class dynamic changes. It is common for students to feel closer to each other and to me, I know how they think and what they need to work on, and they see that I care. They report feelings of excitement from the intellectual conversations and often tell me that they could never have imagined such a thing. Students most effectively learn when they put into practice the skills that are taught in the class. The tutorial method makes this possible because the students are asked to defend their own positions and to argue out loud the claims they make silently in their essays. The tutorial system has been invaluable in my teaching at the University of Puerto Rico and at the University of New Mexico, two Hispanic-Serving Institutions, where students are drawn to this personalized style of teaching.