Getting a good seminar tutor shouldn’t be a lucky dip

Published

Illustration of tutor laziness

Credit: Ka Leung

Jennifer Bowey
Writer

The “refer to the course handbook” response is lazy and ignorant

The lucky dip of tutors is something that all university students have to cope with every term. Not knowing whether or not your tutor will be a fair marker or whether their views will be in line with your own can be anxiety-inducing when picking which seminar group to enrol in. This situation is only exacerbated by the negative and discouraging attitudes of some tutors.

Much to my surprise when starting university, I found out that in first and second year the vast majority of tutors holding seminars are not qualified teachers, but rather postgraduate students who are only willing to dedicate a small fraction of their time to assisting students due to their own academic studies.

I recall receiving an angry email from a tutor when I asked a question about the marking of my essay. The tutor stated that they were “not paid to answer emails”, which left me dreading my next seminar with them and also somewhat incredulous. Humorously, or perhaps not, it turned out that my tutor had in fact marked my essay down because she hadn’t bothered to turn to the last page and see that I had, quite obviously, written a bibliography.

The tutors I was exposed to in second year were an improvement on the frankly unprofessional conduct of this tutor. I did, however, find that some of my tutors were more concerned with trying to portray themselves as cool and relatable than actually concentrating on teaching the content of the course (the constant mention of Classical Art Memes from a tutor not much older than myself got somewhat irksome). I distinctly remember one of my tutors announcing that he was “a bit of a prick” at the beginning of the first seminar. The strange conduct of some tutors, however, is the least of most students’ concerns.

Now, in third year, the majority of my tutors are qualified doctors in their subject area. I had been anticipating this since starting first year and was looking forward to benefiting from a more mature and less self-serving approach to teaching. Unfortunately, despite many of my tutors being incredibly encouraging and helpful, I have noticed a pattern in the behaviour of some tutors when asking them for further clarification on tasks. The general response in these situations seems to be “please refer to the course handbook provided.” Not only does this response shut down any possible discourse on the topic, but it discourages students from coming forward with questions in the future. I assume it hadn’t occurred to these tutors that, as an honours student, I may have had the initiative to read the course handbook and was simply asking for an elaboration or clarification. This has happened to me on countless occasions, and, when having waited for a reply to an email for a number of days, it is a disappointing and patronising response.

I believe this issue to be even more pertinent when considering that a large portion of the student population at Glasgow University are fee-paying students. Students who are paying upwards of £9,000 a year undoubtedly hope for a more thoughtful response to their queries, especially when school teachers arguably make more of an effort to actually teach than some tutors at university level. Paying thousands of pounds for weekly lectures and a handful of seminars lead by apathetic postgraduate students seems questionable at best.

Regardless, considering that at honours level all assessments contribute, to some extent, towards the final degree mark, any student’s request for clarification on an assignment should be taken far more seriously than it is currently by a lot of tutors. Students actively taking an interest in their studies and seeking out tutors for further information on tasks is a sign of conscientiousness and enthusiasm to perform well in their studies – it is not symptomatic of laziness or ignorance. If anything, what’s actually symptomatic of laziness or ignorance is the ever-looming “refer to the handbook” response.