Pedagogical Reflections: Tutoring For the First Time and/or Outside your Subject Area in Classics & Ancient History

The decreased availability of casual tutoring positions for Australian postgraduate students means that, more than ever, many of us are grasping at roles that we feel we are far from qualified to teach, no longer solely in terms of self-confidence as we straddle the liminal space between undergraduate and faculty, but also in terms of subject and content. On the one hand, we might feel overjoyed to have (somehow?) managed to latch onto a unit, any unit, maybe even an ancient unit, wouldn’t that be wild! On the other, we are faced with the inevitable feeling that we are woefully unequipped to teach, clears throat, *insert scarily broad or scarily niche unit title here*. Often, not only have we been thrown into a new area, but we’re learning exactly how to tutor, and what tutoring entails, at the same time.

For my part, this experience came early in my tutoring career and of the scarily broad variety: first year Introduction to Ancient Greece. To my very Roman, very Latin, very ‘historicising literature’ mind, which had escaped Honours with more teaching experience than many but, of course, not enough to prepare me for tutoring with a capital T, this was a frightening prospect, though I was painfully aware that for many people tutoring such a unit was, and is, a dream. Since, particularly over the past 18 months, I’ve seen friends teach units that make my own semester long dalliance as a student with Greek history look like veritable thesis. I like to think that what was, to my mind, a baptism by fire–albeit a controlled fire thanks to the care, precision, and attentive oversight with which the unit was run–kickstarted my confidence such that by the time I came to teaching, with a sigh of relief, ROMAN history and literature, I was raring to go. But at the time, in the moment, I felt daunted and, more than ever, like I’d somehow ended up in a very ill-fitting pair of shoes, which nobody could see but me. Or, worse, that everybody could see but was too embarrassed on my behalf to comment. 

With nearly five units under my belt, I’ve found my groove and my voice. I also know that I am lucky to have been exposed to the teaching that I have been, and that for many of us this sustained experience is either simply not available, or, impossible to balance with other responsibilities, not least writing a thesis. What I’d like to do, then, is take my experience to share what I wish I could have told my anxious former self (and, more importantly, made myself understand) before my first day on what felt a very alien job. My suggestions likely won’t be universally applicable, and are very much grounded in my own experiences, so please take what is useful and leave what is not. I hope that parts will allow you to walk into your classroom with a little more confidence than you would otherwise. My thanks to all those who lent their eyes and ears to this post, particularly Hon. Assoc. Prof. Lea Beness. Always ask your unit coordinator, individual results may vary. 

You know more than them. Yes, even that guy in the corner who knows every date to every war ever, or precisely what Hannibal’s cavalry did at the Battle of Cannae!  And no. You don’t need to read the textbook a second time just to make sure.

Even when you feel like you’re learning the unit content along with the students, your years of education have set you up in such a way that your contextual backdrop is already woven, even if it patchy. Compare what you knew about the ancient world in first year compared to third year, compared to honours. All those titbits of information come together to form a foundation which your students are only just learning to build. Your years of attending departmental talks, listening to indulgent podcasts, reading friend’s drafts, sitting in on conferences, reading historical fiction, procrastinating ‘productively’, catching up with classmates over coffee, even formatting bibliographies, are all valuable. You just don’t realise because you’re too busy thinking about what you don’t know. 

If you don’t feel like a Professor Emerita ready to give a cutting edge lecture on something very complicated  in your tute, that’s actually a good thing: you’re not a Professor Emerita, and you weren’t hired as such. A key part of being a tutor is facilitating conversation, not dominating it. So, not only do you know more than your students, and more than you think you do, your role isn’t to be a walking jukebox of unit content. I am fortunate to be paid to attend lectures, which helps me to shape my tutorials in relation to the unit content and reinforce connections between ideas for my students. It’s also reassuring to know that, as far as lecture content, we’re at least on the same page. But, as much as it should be, this often this isn’t covered in a casual contract. At any rate, remember that you’ve been hired exactly as you are, with full knowledge of your expertise and limitations. I felt a weight lift once I came to realise this for myself

Play to your strengths

While I was not, am not, a Greek historian, I was able to shine where Greek literature was concerned. Sure, not as much as Latin literature, but I’ll take what I can get. Homeric epithets became my thing, and I’m cool with that. So is owl-eyed Athena. A line I like to whip out is ‘this connects well with [the Roman value of fides], which you might learn more about in [HTC104] next semester.’ Obviously you don’t want to become a flashing advertisement for any unit but your own, however bringing in your own interests and tying in interconnected ideas opens up the ancient world for your students, both in terms of study options available at your university and in terms of relationships over time, geography, and culture. My first-year Ancient Greece students once learned a lot about Roman exile with a promise for a comparison with Greek exile in the following week. Which brings us to:

It’s ok not to know.

Modelling vulnerability is high up on my list of teaching values (which is something I highly recommend working out, by the way. I keep an index card by my computer.) You’re not going to know everything even if you’re tutoring in a unit that you were born to teach, let alone wherever you’ve ended up. ‘I don’t know, I’ll look it up and get back to you next class.’ ‘What an interesting question, I’m not sure, where could you go to find that out?’ ‘Does anybody know …?’ ‘Who’d like to have a google?’ ‘Fascinating, I bet there is some great research out there on that, have a search on JSTOR and let me know next week what you find.’ Or, my personal favourite, ‘Let’s see. Right. Full disclosure, I’m on Wikipedia. Supposedly …’ This extends to normalising extensions: explain the extension process to your students, tell them people need more time for all sorts of reasons, tell them that they’re not a big deal, and tell them that you’ve needed extensions before too. 

As soon as you become a tutor, you become a role model. Another element of the position that has nothing to do with unit content, if you’re keeping count. The tone you set engaging with students, the energy you bring to the room, the questions you ask, all shape the student’s learning experience. Often, this means being enthusiastic about elements of the ancient world you never thought you would be.  Making mistakes, and being honest when you don’t know something, not only builds trust, but builds an academia which I quite frankly want to be in, where we acknowledge our limits and bridge them, not with an inflated ego intended to cover up fault lines, but with the very curiosity which we hope to engender in classics graduates. 

Memorise the unit handbook/syllabus and where to find it.

65% of all questions are due date and word count related. I made up this statistic, but it’s probably close to accurate. Yes you get +/- 10%, yes quotes count, no I won’t tally every word but yes I can tell when essays are too long or too short, no your bibliography and footnotes don’t count towards your word limit (for which my honours thesis is quite thankful, by the way.) I can rattle this off now, but in my first semester these questions were anxiety inducing. 

Have a conversation with your unit coordinator about expectations and responsibilities. 

One of my favourite things about tutoring is becoming the Oprah of extensions. If you can be bothered to contact me in writing me to ask, then you get an extension, and you get an extension, and if you look under your seat you’ll find more extensions! Maybe, though, your unit coordinator wants all requests sent through to them. Maybe they will allow you to grant extensions that meet certain criteria. Just have the chat. I’ve recently come across somebody abusing this for the first time, and, after workshopping the problem with my course coordinator, granted the second extension with the proviso that evidence will need to be supplied for further extensions. 

You’ll also want to be clear on things like marking turnaround times, so that you’re not running around in the dark, and communicating this to your students will help stave off those pesky polite-but-not-polite ‘I was just wondering when’ emails. 

It’s also important to set boundaries for your students in turns of your availability, which is something I think everybody struggles with. You’re simply not employed to answer emails and message board posts as swiftly as Achilles. Setting this expectation early will give you breathing space later on. Bear with me here, but you could even turn off email notifications on your phone over the weekend. I know! If it’s important enough they will email somebody higher up the food chain. In saying this, I (low-key) make myself available in the early evening on the day of assignment submissions, when I know an anxious student or two will need me. It’s a hard balance to find, but you’ll get there over time. Taking care of your well-being benefits everybody – a good friend often reminds me that you can’t give off an empty plate.

 Just wear something that makes you feel like (a neat and respectable version of) yourself.

My first year tutoring I was determined to wear a different outfit each week. I didn’t own a different outfit for each week. I don’t even know where the idea came from, but it had something to do with an abstract and fantastical form of academic professional attire that I had conjured for myself. Now, I have a few outfits which make me feel comfortable and, more importantly, confident. If you’re not a person who obsesses over their clothing and accessories as a way to control some aspect of your life, move right along. 

Don’t over mark. 

Painfully aware of my deficiency of knowledge about Greek naval battles, I decided that I could remedy my failures by giving what often amounted to more words of feedback than the students submitted for assessment. It’s difficult enough to mark to time even when you’re not trying to make up for an imagined lack, so don’t add some heroic notion of redemption into the mix.

You might like to incorporate the student’s name into comments, particularly when it comes to praise. I was taught to (constructively criticise) the assessment, but to commend the student. So while ‘this assessment would benefit from more direct textual analysis’, when it comes to strengths, ‘you’ve done a remarkable job, Rebecca, at drawing on your knowledge of Roman values in support of your argument.’ Make sure to always include a positive comment. I like to end my feedback with a copy-pasted signoff which either congratulates the student on submitting or expresses enthusiasm for reading their next assessment, if applicable. Keep a running word document for each assessment with generic and content specific comments, which you can always adapt if need be: you’ll find that many students have similar areas for improvement across each assessment, and for your sanity there is no need to reinvent the wheel each time you suggest a student read their response out loud to aid in identifying awkward expressions. There’s only so many ways you can put that, believe me, I’ve used them all.

When marking multiple assessments in the same format (eg. 2+ short form reflections or analyses), I signpost from the beginning that the first assessment will have more sustained feedback than those which follow will. I frame this as setting students up to succeed and start the unit strong, but it also means that you aren’t setting a standard of feedback that you feel obliged to keep up every week, fortnight etc. If a student doesn’t listen to your suggestion to do x and y differently the first time around, repeating it each week won’t make a scrap of difference. Those students who want more feedback or further clarification will email, trust me on that one. 

As a student, I was obsessed with rubrics. Many of us, to get to where we are now, were likely in the top of our classes, so I imagine you too have spent some quality time with those perfectly formatted squares. What I didn’t realise as a tutor for a long while was:

  1. most students have no idea where to find the rubric, what its significance is (it just looks like another useless bit of unit admin), not to mention how to read it, and;
  2. it’s not just a tool to work out grades, but is actually a really valuable element of your feedback. 

Before the first assessment is due, take the time to explain to your students how the rubric works and differences between each grade. This puts all students, including those who don’t come from a background where rubrics are an element of education or assessment, on the same page. Encourage them to plot out their assessments for the semester for all their units. This type of organisation is a real difficulty for many first-year students, particularly traditional students straight out of high school where assessment tasks tend to be more coordinated across subjects. Time-management is an important skill and we can help develop this as tutors by passing on these kinds of hints. All of this hard won advice is also (you guessed it) more of that knowledge that has nothing to do with unit content but has everything to do with being an effective tutor. 

I like to tell my tutorial groups that it’s honestly harder to fail an assessment than it is to pass (think about how many fail grades you give compared to passes!) and I mould their expectations from the beginning by circling the credit section of the rubric and saying that many students end up here, which is a really fantastic place to be. This is important because devoted students coming straight from high school might see a 6/10 as a failure, when it is (as we know) anything but. It took a long time for me to be able to assign a Pass without guilt, because I’d empathise with the student and think of how I would feel had I been given that mark. Because we spend all of our time with other postgraduates who are also high-achievers, we might come into tutoring thinking a HD is the norm, a D is a bit of a failure, and a C will evoke an existential crisis. Once you spend some time marking, you come to realise this just isn’t the case. Trust the rubric. 

If you do have to fail an assessment, don’t give it a devastating mark, the fail is likely devastating enough! By the same flip of the coin, don’t give borderline marks (eg. 49% or 64%, depending on your grading system) because students are likely to challenge. Besides, if it really is borderline, particularly for a first-year unit, you might find warmth in your cold, cold heart to bump it up into the next grade. If not, then it probably can sit happily with a mid-range mark. Remember, also, that your course convenor is there to help for sticky assessments or simply for those times when you’re just unsure – there doesn’t need to be a reason, and there is no place for shame. Moderating is a normal part of marking, no matter how experienced a marker you may be. I recently had a student question a mark that I had moderated, and I was very glad that I had discussed it with my unit coordinator already.

Learn student’s names.

This one is something I struggle with, not because I don’t care about the students, but because as soon as someone tells me their name I panic about forgetting it, which means, I immediately forget it. Writing down the names of people in my tutorials, sly glances at notebooks, memorising their self-enforced and unwritten seating plan, and grouping together names by emerging friendships groups, can help. The thing is, a huge part of being a tutor is relationship building. You’re the gateway between the (possibly intimidating) lecturer or unit coordinator, and the student. You have answers to things that students might find difficult, like how to access the textbook and where to submit the assignment, questions which might be ‘too trivial’ to ask of the higher ups. Knowing your students by name helps to show that you care about them as an individual, and is a really small way to make a big difference in your accessibility. It also creates a more inclusive classroom where students know they are appreciated as individual people with individual needs. All of which is another part of being a tutor that has nothing to do with being able to regurgitate a textbook’s worth of encyclopaedic knowledge. 

Something I like to do is arrange students into different groups than they sat down in at the start of the class, and ask whether they’ve all had the chance to meet yet. Chances are at least one person isn’t acquainted with at least one other person. In which case, I start with an enthusiastically awkward ‘hi, I’m Tegan your tutor’, and before you know it you have not only had a refresher course of names but you’ve brought them closer together, making group work much more comfortable and showing a real concern with their interpersonal dynamics in the classroom. This also lets students introduce themselves with their preferred names, which won’t always match those of the university system. Another approach, particularly in large groups, is to use name tags – honestly, make everybody’s life easier, and put everyone on the same page! You can collect and redistribute them after and before every class, lest they vanish into the Mary Poppins-esque depths of a first-year’s bag …

Do a dry run with the technology. 

Boring dad suggestion, I know. But really, do it. Save the IT department’s number in your phone. And suss out the room if you can! In case of disaster, crowd source from you students. Surely somebody, anybody, can make the darn thing work … 

Forward student emails on to the people who are actually paid to reply to them. 

I am lucky in that I have a half hour built into each week to deal with unit admin, but I’m very much aware that this isn’t the norm (as much as it should be.) Even so, there’s only so much one can do in half an hour. Because you’re being such an engaging tutor, and because you’re super relatable, you might find you get lots of emails coming your way that are quite literally above your pay grade. Because you want to be the best and most helpful tutor ever, you might be tempted to reply, but it can set a difficult precedent. A mentor then revealed to me the beauty of forwarding emails. Lifechanging. What I like to do is reply all: ‘Dear Tim, thank you for your email, I’m passing this on to X who will get back to you over the next few days.’ Sometimes I say that I’ve forwarded their email to so-and-so because of their expertise in such-and-such. You’ve done exactly what you should as a tutor­–acted as a mediator between student and lecturer–and it’s taken a minute instead of ten. Which, as you know, adds up. That conversation establishing what falls under your domain will help here also. 

You are competent. You are meant to be here. You deserve to be a tutor. And, you’re surrounded by an entire community with a range of experiences who want to see you succeed. So just ask – one day, you’ll likely be asked in turn. 


Tegan Gleeson | PhD Candidate, UTAS | | @teganjoyy