Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Tutoring Gone Awry

I've been tutoring for a long time. Well, not a very long time, but since January 2004, at any rate, and that means I know what I'm doing (at least somewhat). But I've recently had a student come in whom I had real difficulty with, proof, I suppose, that sometimes people just don't want to learn - or don't know how to ask for help. I've had students who were quiet, but this particular student was the quietest I've ever seen.

Our first session was a bust. Whomever had set her up with me hadn't put the requisite notice in my mailbox, nor had I ever received a phone call (save for the voicemail I discovered a few hours later telling me that she was waiting for me); I didn't know I was to tutor her until after I walked in an hour or so later. Clearly this was an accidental mix-up, but I felt bad, so I e-mailed the student to apologize, and told her that if she had had a paper she had wanted to work on, that she should absolutely e-mail it to me and I would get it back to her as soon as I could. I never got a reply.

Last week, then, was our first "real" session. She arrived about 25 minutes late, and although she had brought in her assignment - Mazel Tov! - but had not done any of it because she did not understand it. (The draft had been due the day before.) Admittedly, it was a very dense assignment, but she had not brought the related readings to our session. The page-long assignment was about gender and nature-vs.-nurture (from what I can remember), and while she said she understood the readings, she could not remember what they were about. (I asked her what they were about; she said, "Gender.") We didn't make it through the first paragraph because I had to explain the nature-vs.-nurture issue and the difference between "gender" and "sex" as concepts. However, I don't think she really grasped my explanations.

I tried backtracking, hoping maybe I could explain a related concept based on what classes she liked. I asked what her major was (which I had asked her last week but had forgotten); she's "undecided." I asked her which classes she liked; she shrugged a bit and said she didn't know. I asked her what her hobbies her; again, she shrugged, and I had to pull out of her what she liked, but I couldn't find a correlation between gender and tennis.

I tried every manner of personality I could think of: I tried cajoling; teasing; admonishment; tough love; a bit of lecturing. Nothing got a response. She barely made eye contact. I would not speak until she had answered questions. In several cases I let several minutes pass until I got some form of acknowledgement. Nothing seemed to work. I finally let her go, and even though she said she was late for class and ran out, I suspect even if she hadn't been late for class she would have run out. I didn't expect her back this morning.

But I shall give her credit, because return she did. I greeted her with a cheerful hello, and asked her how things were going. (Nothing.) I said that perhaps she was looking forward to the break. She said (and this is a direct quote), "It doesn't matter." I asked her what she had to work on today; she replied, "Nothing." I asked what she had coming up; she said, "Nothing." As gently as I could, I asked if I could ask her a question - why was she coming in for tutoring? (We have a program here on campus that requires students to come in for tutoring, but she doesn't seem to be associated with it.) She just stared at the floor. I really wanted an answer - I was very curious and I couldn't think of any way to actually get her to talk. I should have asked her how last week's draft went; I could have asked her what prompted her to come for tutoring to begin with. (She was either dropped from or chose herself to drop another previously scheduled tutoring session.) I suggested, as gently as I could, that perhaps walk-in tutoring would suit her better, that there were other students perhaps that I could help, and how did that sound? That sounded fine, so we went to the front desk and dropped her.

The fact that I couldn't crack her (if you will) is both irritating and curious. I can get nearly anyone to talk in this setting.

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