“Oxford Tutorial” reveals insights on individualized instruction

Radhika Garland

In following with this year’s theme of individualized learning, Professor Henry Mayr-Harting was invited to Lawrence by President Beck to lecture on the “Oxford Tutorial.”
Professor Mayr-Harting delivered his speech Thursday, Nov. 9 in the Wriston auditorium.
Mayr-Harting is Emeritus Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford University, where he taught approximately 8,000 tutorials in his long tenure there.
In his speech, plentifully dotted with military analogies, he shared his insights as a teacher and also an observer.
His dissertation focused on three main points: the interdependence of the liberal arts education and the tutorial, the dual role of tutor and colleague, and the importance of flexibility in the tutorial relationship.
Mayr-Harting began his lecture humorously by recounting how he decided to write his speech instead of improvising on the podium. He was told that Beck would write a speech, and “What was good enough for President Jill Beck would certainly be good enough for me.”
He then began to outline the basic premise of the tutorial, and discuss how it has changed throughout history.
A tutorial is defined as a “one-on-one class” or a “one-on-two class,” but no more than two students – otherwise it is no longer a tutorial. It is also Mayr-Harting’s opinion that each student should not have more than one tutorial week.
Oxford and Cambridge have had a tutorial system since the medieval age. During this time, teachers vigilantly monitored the studies of their students by always eating and sleeping in the same room as them.
The liberal arts curriculum consisted then of seven years in the study of many diverse subjects including logic, astronomy and the classics. After graduating, the greater number of these students continued their studies in theology.
The study of the liberal arts was valued because it enabled students to challenge themselves in all fields, thereby training them how to problem-solve in the future.
According to Mayr-Harting, this ability is equally useful today in any white-collar occupation. In a world increasingly focused on specialization of academic study, the liberal arts teach students to adapt quickly to rapid change “like a medieval army than can wheel around quickly to face another rank.”
In the tutorial system, a student’s work is constantly under scrutiny and discussion, thus refining his judgment and mental flexibility.
Mayr-Harting believes that the effectiveness of the tutorial is based on two axioms. First, that the discussion is meant to focus on the student’s own work, not “the agenda of the teacher.”
Second, the tutorial should teach students to think for themselves. A serious student, he noted, seeks coaching from the professor himself. Sometimes the professor can betray that trust, in a spirit of showiness, by giving his student a range of books and essays that is too broad.
A student learns best when he is given carefully selected material that will guide his study and develop his interests. In a model situation, the professor would develop the structure of his student’s writing through persistent, “finely-tuned” coaching from week to week.
The diverse needs of the student develop the dual role of a professor as “tutor/colleague.” In this close relationship, students and teachers are often mutually edified through vigorous discussion.
Mayr-Harting points out the differences between knowledge and mutual respect as the bases of the tutor and student relationship. If mutual respect is the foundation of this relationship, he argues, misunderstandings and conceit will not factor into discussion.
For example, the Socratic method of questioning stipulates that the student must be pushed into the role of teacher.
This method allows the professor to continue asking his student questions until the student arrives at what he thinks is the right answer. Such questions can be dangerously “brainwashing, inquisitorial, and shameful” and according to Mayr-Harting, this teaching method would be a reflection of the “second Socratic Method” that “droned on” regardless of having the agreement of the students.
Mayr-Harting’s ideal tutorial professor would be like a colleague of his at Oxford. This man could deliver inspired monologues, had a charismatic personality, referred to points made by his students in his lectures, and had a transparent kindness towards his pupils.
Students “are in an adult partnership with their professor,” yet they also need someone to believe in them “in order to reach their true potential.”
Two disclaimers concluded the lecture: first, that the tutorial is certainly not universally the best system, and second, that the sciences might have felt excluded in the context of his lecture.
The danger of the tutorial is that it is not good training pluralistic examiners, but “here at Lawrence University there are none of those.”
In discussions with science professors, he noticed that their work is very involved with the student’s writing, like in any humanities field. Thus, science professors and English professors alike must nurture the symbiotic relationship in teaching and research.
The tutorial system has an intrinsic value that Mayr-Harting believes “will not be corrupted or fall by the wayside.”
He finished his lecture full of confidence in the younger generation’s ability to be both adaptable and resilient, trusting that future students will fit the tutorial tradition to fit their needs.