Uncle A Tackles Tutor Troubles

What’s your problem? This week, Uncle A advises a troubled tutor.

Agony Uncle Alex Bower awkward embarrassing Freshers meetings pastoral care problems tutor tutor meeting

Dear A,

I am a little confused. Due to budget cuts, they’ve stopped providing the ‘Basic Social Skills’ and ‘Pastoral Care For Dummies’ packages for tutors. As a result, I think my first set of tutor meetings could have gone better. I found it hard to connect with my students, and I think the last girl misinterpreted things when I tried to give her a hug at the end. I’m glad I do law! I’ve heard that ‘The Tabloid’ is popular with students. Could you give me any tips?

Nervous regards,

Preston T. Wonder

Dear Dr. Wonder,

As you probably know, the Latin for ‘purgatory’ is ‘tutor meeting’, because it involves both evaluation and pain. As a tutor, it will be your job to assess how well your students are doing, and since you don’t want to be there either, you may as well have your fun.

1. Remember that the tutor meeting is mostly about you, otherwise it would be called a ‘tutee meeting’. The tutor meeting is a golden opportunity to talk at someone about something no one else cares about outside the tiny community in your field. You are presented with someone, who, for five minutes, is trapped in a prison of social awkwardness. Exploit this to its full, and regale them with all sorts of banal, disgusting, or better still, terrifying stories, like the one about the time you were trapped in a room with a socially awkward, fifty-five year old virgin who tried to eat you. It will give you a kick when they laugh, however politely. You can be confident that your tutees will laugh; the ones who don’t care what you think of them won’t turn up anyway, and freshers always care.

2. You are a genius- and yet, even though you have a sheet with everyone’s name on it and their corresponding time slot, your tutees will understand if you get their name wrong. Of course, you are really doing this to remind them who they are next to you: a nobody, a tiny minnow in the huge pond of early Serbo-Croat anthropology or Proto-Slavic grammar. At the same time, you’ll need to get some people right. It’ll make them feel loved, and means you can tick the “pastoral care” box. Settle on one name for everybody, but don’t make it too obvious – Tom and Emily are too common. Try James and Charlotte.

3. One of your jobs will be to listen to your tutees’ problems. This is actually a problem for you, as you will almost inevitably not care. A rite of passage for any tutor is being trapped in a room with some absolute nutter who will tell you all and sundry about his or her weird, deviant love life. Learn the prized skill of being able to look at people right in the eye and nod in agreement while filtering out everything they have to say. Practise this by joining the Rotary Club, or talking to your partner’s friends. You will save yourself a lot of grief in the long run. Oddly, you may find your tutees doing the same thing when you try and pin them down about Inuit group behaviour patterns.

4. As a tutor, the answer to the question, “what is the funniest thing in the world you can do?” is, “make everything as awkward as possible”. Staring is hilarious, and never gets old. Your tutees already think you’re socially inept, so will accept it happily. Be impressed by the kind of responses this yields – you will be surprised how many students panic and shout out something intensely personal. Be warned: the strong-willed will fight back and wait for you to speak. But you can break them. Just say something short and non-committal like, “so” to put them on the back foot. Once dialogue is opened, you can turn the tables and hit them with the big guns, like the story about that time you opened a dictionary and there was a page missing, a particular favourite of my DoS. They would be insane not to go crazy for an anecdote like that. Lean back and enjoy the respect.

All the best,


Illustration by Amy Munro-Faure