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    Michael Ruwe

Psycho-Tutoring: From Tears to Laughter

By Michael Ruwe, University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Learning Center


Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion…
--Kurt Vonnegut

She trudges into the University Learning Center, up to the front desk, and in a small voice says to the receptionist, “I need help with Chem 101.” The receptionist, accustomed to the signs of a frazzled student—circles under the eyes, shrugged shoulders, almost in tears—assures the student and registers her for tutoring.

This potential tutee feels the frustration of adjusting to university-level
learning—of “needing extra help.” Hopefully by the end of her tutoring experience, this crestfallen student will become a confident, inquisitive, and self-disciplined learner. Achieving these tutoring goals will alleviate tears and generated some smiles, if not laughter. But how to get this student from tears to laughter? This complex task falls to the tutor.

Peer tutoring is instruction from a more advanced learner to a novice learner. In a university setting, generally a student is hired as a tutor if he/she has demonstrated excellence in a given subject and shown a desire to help novice learners. My own experience includes three years as a university writing tutor and my current position helping to supervise tutors in the Learning Center at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. In order to acquire a broader viewpoint on the pedagogy of tutoring, I surveyed our current tutors; responses from three of these tutors appear in this article. Because of this background, much of this article will be based on the premise of a weekly one-on-one tutoring relationship in a university learning center setting; however, I believe the information will be valuable to all tutors, no matter the subject matter, the number of tutees in the session, or the tutee’s cognitive level.

New tutors face this reality: The process of becoming an effective tutor is troubling because it is a “task that requires a high level of complexity for processing information at a deep level in order to help others learn” (Reiman qtd. in Pobywajlo 3). Tutors need to have expertise in their subject area, awareness of their own cognitive abilities, and also an understanding of the psychological aspects of tutoring.

It is assumed that the tutor has the necessary expertise in subject content, but according to the University of North Carolina Learning Services Handbook (hereafter “UNCW”), “Helping students succeed is more than helping them master knowledge” (18). Tutors know their subject area, but they must also learn the cognitive and psychological aspects of the tutor/tutee relationship. A deep level of cognitive processing requires effort and awareness: “Many students are…not aware of what they do and do not know” (Hartman 3). This is another area where it is assumed the tutor has achieved some mastery: metacognition. Writer and educator Hope Hartman defines metacognition as “the planning, monitoring, and evaluating (of) one’s processes and products” (3). This process of metacognition includes, among others: study skills, time management, synthesizing, and anticipation of questions. Though metacognition may not be named as such by the tutor or tutee, it is important for the tutor to be aware of this complex cognitive process so as to pass it along to the tutee: “You (the tutor) should be able to offer suggestions (to the tutee) abut how you mastered these skills as well as other ways students might approach these tasks” (UNCW 18).

Just as a potential tutee may be uncomfortable, as in the above example, most tutors begin their tutoring vocation with some discomfort—they must assume and adjust to the tutee’s expectations of the tutor as an authority. However, the goal of the tutoring sessions is for the tutor and tutee to engage in a give-and-take peer relationship: “We commit to being a partner in this process by introducing students to a range of strategies that have proven effective in theory and practice, and creating opportunities for them to be tried and tested” (UNCW 3). In other words, the Learning Center should be non-judgmental; a haven where learning flourishes. This is accomplished through the development of a thoughtful and empathetic tutor/tutee relationship. At the same time, in the process of establishing this tutoring relationship, both the tutor and tutee will confront cognitive and psychological disturbance—their old ways of knowing will be replaced by new cognitive processes; they will learning together. For the tutor, this process is explained by Anna Freud: “Teaching is learning twice: first, one prepares for one’s students, and then one learns from them, as one works with them” (Britzman and Pitt 117; Coles 53). Hopefully this collaborative relationship will bring smiles of recognition—the delight of learning.

Collaboration is much to be desired, but is the tutor/tutee dynamic really a relationship? I follow this question with the definition of “relationship” because of its interesting example for definition number three: “an emotional or other connection between people – ie. the relationship between teachers and students” (“relationship”). One tutor, when asked whether the tutor/tutee dynamic is considered a relationship responded, “I definitely think of this as a relationship. I form bonds with my tutees… (and) as with any kind of relationship, tutoring requires patience, tolerance, and a lot of give and take” (Nunez). These characteristics are, indeed, the hallmarks of a healthy relationship.

Eugene Kennedy, author of On Becoming a Counselor, agrees: “Experience and research have demonstrated that, not matter what school of training or personality theory we choose to follow, two facts of life must be acknowledge by all helpers: First, we must be in relationship to the persons we assist” (4). In other words, it is necessary for tutors and tutees to develop a professional relationship. One student described how she nurtures this bond: “I try very hard from day one to make all of my tutees very comfortable by joking with them, poking fun at myself, and making it (the tutoring session) a fun environment (Butterton). This tutor is making a conscious effort to help the often uneasy tutee feel at ease and to establish a rapport.

Once a tutor/tutee relationship is established, how is it managed? Like any other relationship, the tutor/tutee interaction will be complex. For this reason, and because the emotional and intellectual development of the tutor/tutee bond is of such importance, psychological theories, especially those of Sigmund Freud’s, will serve as models and discussions for the tutoring dynamic.

“However different the Freud biographies may be, they are unanimous on one point: Freud wanted to know” (Verhaeghe 271). Of course, tutees sign up for tutoring in order to learn, to “know,” their problematic subjects, but tutors themselves will also be learning: about their tutees, about themselves, and still more about their content subject. Nevertheless, because the tutor/tutee relationship is so complex, it is also fraught with potential conflict. In fact, Margaret Pobywajlo describes tutoring as “characterized by uncertainty and instability” (231), and if that is the case, then these issues may “generate emotional problems or experiences that are unique to or uniquely configured in them” (Lofland and Lofland qtd. in Pobywajlo 232). For this reason, a psychological view of tutoring will help stabilize the relationship and make both tutor and tutee more confident and comfortable. Despite these insights, let me make clear: in no way am I suggesting that a tutor is an analyst or that a tutee is a patient; however, they are at least alike. Tutors are not qualified psychological counselors, but they are in a position to use counseling theories on a limited basis. For example, because tutoring is often on a one-to-one basis, psychoanalysis, and its emphasis on talking through issues, is a good model: As tutors, “Talking with students about what they know and their ideas is one of the most important things we do” (UNCW 17). It is important because through this communication, tutors come to “know” their tutees and how best to collaborate with them.

Admittedly, while the sincere effort of the tutor to form a bond with the tutee is a positive step, it is also imperative that the tutor maintains the relationship in a professional manner. Pitfalls may be avoided when the tutor notices not only the tutee’s reactions to the tutor, but also the tutor’s own reactions to the tutee. This is where Freud’s concepts of transference and countertransference become relevant. A tutor must realize when transference, “those feelings the person we are helping seems to have toward us in the relationship” (Kennedy 7), is occurring. For example, a math tutee may have had a “bad” math teacher in high school, and if the current tutor is similar in stature and gender to the previous teacher, the tutee may “transfer” previous feelings, good or bad, onto the tutor. Furthermore, the tutor needs to realize that the tutee may not be aware of this process.

The tutor also needs to be aware of his/her feelings toward the tutee, or countertransference: “…teachers’ encounters with students may return them involuntarily and still unconsciously to scenes from their individual biographies” (Britzman and Pitt 118). For example, if a tutor had a history teacher who allowed no questions in class, the tutor may similarly not allow the tutee to ask questions during tutoring. Moreover, because of the often intimate environment of tutoring—working one-on-one, sometimes in close proximity, and on a regular basis—it is only natural for tutors to possibly feel attracted or unattracted to the tutee. This is not simply referring to physical appearance but also personality, background, and attitudes: “Psychologist Elias Porter has suggested that our tendency to evaluate others is so much a part of ourselves that we hardly realize that it is present” (Kennedy 34). There is nothing wrong with these feelings in and of themselves; the problem occurs when tutors ignore their reactions because these reactions disturb, surprise, or shame them. According to Anna Freud: “The heart of the matter…is the ethical obligation teachers have to learn about their own conflicts and to control the reenactment of old conflicts that appear in the guise of new pedagogical encounters” (Britzman and Pitt 118). Therefore, it is necessary for tutors to reserve their own feelings and judgments and let the tutees take their own path.

In addition to the self-awareness necessary to build a professional relationship, the tutor must deal with a tutee’s expectations: “Students see any sort of teacher intervention as authoritative, and they always expect to learn from their teachers” (Bishop 5). This expectation is positive if both the tutor and tutee agree on the definition of “learning.” Initially students’ primary concern is the grade they will receive for their class; indeed, this is a large motivation for them seeking tutoring. On the other hand, tutors cannot guarantee tutees an “A” or spoon-feed them answers. This is often the greatest issue between tutor/tutee. As one tutor put it, tense moments occur in the tutoring relationship when “the tutee gets back an exam and didn’t do particularly well, and I feel they want to blame me for it.” (McGinniss). But it is not the tutor’s role to supply a good grade: “Improvement, not perfection is our (the tutor’s) goal. Greater understanding, not higher GPAs, is our primary objective” (UNCW 17).

Writer and theorist Patrick McGee is speaking of analysts in the following quote, but it very much applies to tutors also: an analyst “is not to answer the subject’s questions…(but) rather takes the speech that has been handed to him or her,…and returns it to the subject…”(670). This is how the tutor/tutee relationship should develop; not as a one-sided lecture from an authority figure giving information to the novice, but as peers involved in discussion. One tutor described the situation this way: “Tutoring is not me teaching, but us (tutor and tutee) working together, and I don’t feel that a tutee should get more out of the relationship than they are putting in” (Nunez). The UNCW handbook agrees: “Allow(ing) the student to do the work - We will not do homework; we will, however, model processes and procedures the student can apply to homework. We will also ‘translate’ information into different forms for greater understanding” (17). This forces the student to become more independent and confident, and in the process, alleviates frustration and anxiety.

Once anxiety is managed and confidence is developed, the tutor needs to inspire the tutee to take the next step: “The student will desire to memorize knowledge for the requirements of a test, but this knowledge will have no effect upon the student’s motives and desires—unless desire and repression operate to make this knowledge something other than inert signification” (Alcorn 3). In other words, a tutor needs to pass on the love of learning. But how does the tutor achieve this?

Wanting to learn is an inherent desire; it is part of the tutor’s task to cultivate this desire. Karen Jensen, referencing Karin Knorr Cetina, describes this craving for knowledge as a “desire to fill out the blanks and make the picture whole…,” a “striving for completeness” (Jensen 492). A tutor may help a tutee fill in the blanks in different ways: suggesting an appropriate formula, encouraging a positive mental approach, modeling time management, demonstrating different approaches to learning, or supporting student involvement. If a tutor can help a tutee achieve some of these goals, they will be accomplishing “quality teaching,” which “provokes in students an insistence—a desire to know” (Felman 31). This achievement produces good feelings for both tutor and tutee. One tutor said, “I love it when the material finally ‘clicks’ with a student. That is the greatest feeling” (Butterton)

According to Paul Verhaeghe, “one learns where one loves” (5). First, it must be clear that the type of “love” between tutor and tutee is one of respect and admiration. In such a context, this is not overstatement. When one reminisces back to their own tutors, mentors, and teachers, there is an aspect of this type of love in the relationship. The tutor admires the tutee for his/her willingness to ask for help, desire to learn, and sincere effort. The tutee admires the tutor for his/her knowledge, preparation, and sincere empathy. This positive learning environment produces good results: “Collaborative learning situations dissolve the feeling that students are lonely individuals struggling to learn in a situation where only the teachers have the ‘right’ answers” (UNCW 18).

As soon as a tutor is aware of their own cognitive abilities and emotional components, it is necessary to discuss pedagogy: “…there are three impossible professions = educating, healing, governing” (Sigmund Freud qtd. in Felman 21). Why is education one of the three “impossible professions”? First of all, “it is impossible for any person to impersonate the truth…for another person, which is precisely what is required by these three professions” (Verhaeghe 273). We all come from different cultural, intellectual, emotional, and socioeconomic backgrounds; therefore, it is indeed impossible for tutors to replicate their own learning for the tutee. In a tutoring session, the tutor may use his/her experience, but cannot expect the tutee to be able to draw on each of these experiences in the exact way. For example, a French tutor whose grandparents spoke French regularly will have had a different experience than the tutee who had limited contact with a native French speaker.

The second reason is because “every true pedagogue is an anti-pedagogue” (Felman 24). It is the task of educators to inspire their students to become autonomous learners: “We like to say that our goal is to tutor ourselves out of a job” (UNCW 4). A successful educator, therefore, is in the business of making himself/herself unnecessary on a singular level. On a broader level, however, there will always be new students and new skills and information to teach. Therefore, a tutor must be willing to constantly adapt to new pedagogical strategies and new advances in content.

The final reason teaching is an impossible profession is that “Teaching, like
analysis, has to deal not so much with lack of knowledge as resistance to knowledge” (Felman 30). This is often an unconscious emotional resistance, making the tutor’s task even more complex. If a tutee does not realize he/she is resisting, that is, clinging to the old knowledge, how can the tutor facilitate new learning?

“True learning…hurts” (Alcorn 175). The psychoanalytic theories about mourning provide insight into student resistance to learning: “when a truly unfamiliar idea is introduced to a student, it can play a role in the structure of subjectivity only if an older idea that has formerly played that given up” (Alcorn 175). In my experience as a writing tutor, I encountered this concept quite a few times, especially with first-year students. Often in high school English class, students are shown the five-paragraph essay model and told to not to deviate from it. So, when they get to the university and are asked to expand or even shrink this model, the students occasionally panic. It is a natural tendency to want to rely on old methods—“if it isn’t broke, why fix it?”—but this equals stagnation. The only way students will become versed in university-level writing is to give up the five-paragraph format and embrace other possibilities. But this is frightening for the tutees: “The work of teaching…is not that of transmitting a new idea, but of managing grief, pain, and anxiety that is released by undoing attachments to old, comfortable ideas” (Alcorn 172). Alcorn goes so far as to compare the mourning process of learning to losing a loved one—the attachment is that strong. Tutors need to recognize this mourning and to have compassion. Tutors should be able to “empathize with student anxieties and apprehensions while showing them that even class assignments…provide opportunities for learning” (UNCW 18).

“Opportunities for learning” means not just earning a grade; it means learning how to learn, developing metacognitive abilities, improving confidence and decision-making, and coming to appreciate learning for its own sake. These are not easy goals to achieve in the short time the tutor/tutee have together; however, if a tutor is aware of his/her own intellectual and psychological capabilities, then the art of tutoring can be successful.

According to Jacques Lacan, the goal of education is truth (McGee 677). This truth is achieved when students “see more in the words of the teacher than the teacher knows” (McGee 677), and when the students “come to understand that the knowledge they seek is neither in the teacher nor themselves but in the common ground that brings teacher and student together…” (McGee 677). Once this seeing and understanding is achieved, tutees can relax and enjoy learning. This does not mean that learning will be easy or that there will not be frustrations; it is simply preferable to facilitate learning through confidence in one’s emotional and intellectual abilities. This acceptance is often a relief and with relief comes the laughter of recognition.

…I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.
--Kurt Vonnegut

At the beginning of this article I described the student who was near tears when requesting tutoring. Hopefully the young lady was guided well by her tutor and they both felt the joy of learning. As I walk the halls of our Learning Center, the sound of laughter coming from the tutoring rooms is a clear indication of a successful tutor/tutee relationship and its achievement: true learning.


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