Extension Tutorials?

On a somewhat related topic to the use of customized writing services. I keep getting emails from a Canadian company that is basically trying to sell themselves as short-term research assistants for hire. I’m not terribly impressed with the company’s web page, and I at least worry that one of the uses to which their services could be put would be by students or researchers trying to fake having done work that was done by someone else. On the other hand, I can see a lot of legitimate uses that people in some fields might have for a service of this kind: a non-fiction writer needing a solid briefing document on some specialized subject, a novelist looking for background, a researcher who needs a quick run-down of canonical research in an unfamiliar field.

For some reason, this company’s services did make me think about another possible business model that I think really could gain traction in higher education, partly in response to a meeting I had here at the college this week. One of the questions at this meeting was, “Is there some way to use information technology to leverage access to specializations or expertise which we can’t afford to support directly through a tenure-track faculty member?”

That’s a familiar question in higher education these days. The answer at many large universities is depressingly not “Sure, let’s use technology”, but instead, “Let’s just hire some more very poorly paid adjuncts!” In one sense, though, I think that answer has it right. The technology in and of itself can’t really solve that problem at all: it’s only a means for facilitating a solution. The solution involves reorganizing academic labor in some fashion.

Let’s suppose that a smaller or more focused college or university has a student who is hitting the limits of what their institution can provide them in one specialized subject area, or there is a student who is carrying out a culminating research project which extends beyond the competency of the tenure-track faculty which the faculty nevertheless agree is an exciting and legitimate project.

You can’t ever hire enough faculty to solve that problem, even if you use low-paid adjuncts, which you shouldn’t. So what I was thinking about was some kind of retainer model for a guided but also auto-didactical experience. Say, where the institution contacts a specialist that matches the student’s needs, offers a fee if the specialist designs a directed reading, “meets” with the student using Skype four times or so in a semester, and then is flown out to have a face-to-face meeting with the student at the end of the semester.

The problem with that model is that if I were asked for the names of colleagues who could do that work for a student I was advising, my first inclination would be to name the people I know best, who are mostly senior enough that I think they’d have no interest in doing that work even if the fee was generous. The people I’d love to name would be ABDs or just-completed Ph.Ds whom I haven’t met yet who might still be on the job market, or under-employed as adjuncts. The problem is finding them.

So here’s a rough business model for doing something like this: a student with the need for an extension tutorial of this kind is identified by faculty. Faculty advisors have a conversation with the student and come up with a specific description of the field or area of interest. Perhaps two months before the next semester, the institution posts a CFP with this description on the relevant area of their institutional website and distributes it to relevant professional associations. In most cases, you’d limit replies to ABDs or Ph.Ds, but there might be fields or interests where you’d have other qualifications. The institution would list the compensation (say, $3,000 per tutorial, something like that?). Make the tutorial count for general education credit but don’t have it assessed for a grade (just credit/no credit) since the whole point is that this is for highly motivated students who develop strong specific subject interests later in their study which aren’t served by the institution: it’s about developing expertise for the sake of the expertise. The business opportunity would come in finding and vetting a qualified pool of institutions capable of answering to these CFPs and matching candidates to queries, in setting up the network that connected students to the people offering the tutorials, though I can see ways to do this that cut the middleman out completely.

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5 Responses to Extension Tutorials?

  1. dmerkow says:

    If higher ed operated more according to a guild/craft union model, especially for non-permanent labor, this would be very easy to facilitate.

  2. carlburkart says:

    This individual tutorial model has been in place since the 1970s at SUNY Empire State College (a mostly adult institution). Experts in a particular field frequently work one on one with students when local faculty lack the expertise. This works financially only because the pay for working with students is low enough to be nominal ($200-$300). People do it because they are interested in working with a particular student or on a particular project rather than as a money making venture.

  3. Daniel Rosenblatt says:

    I’m guessing you are talking about undergrads here? Because at the grad level, the usual solution to this is simply having committee members from other places. At the undergrad level, I’m not this will work, but then, I’m not sure I see the problem. It COULD work, if institutions would really pay $3,000 per tutorial, but since that’s about what most of them pay for designing and teaching a course to 20 students, this seems unlikely.

    But my own experience with very good, very motivated undergrads suggests another solution: if someone wants to do something in my field but outside of my area of expertise, what’s worked is to set up a tutorial where the basic structure is that they learn a subject area and teach it to me. We set up a broad topic, and then they do a lit search (on the basis of which I will poke around to see if there’s anything else that seems interesting), and then we decide what to read first. I usually try to take a look at it before we meet, but the onus is on them to know it well enough to describe and explain it to me. If I’m really trying to figure out what something is about I will press a student with questions about it in a way I never would when I already know about it, and I’ve had some very productive tutorials this way. I think a broad knowledge of a field lets us usefully guide a student even if they end up knowing more about a specific area than we do, as long as the areas are somewhat close. So, for example. while I work on the politics of cultural revival, if a student wanted to study (say) the emergence of consumer culture in Africa, I think we could do a course where they would learn a lot about that even if I would do it differently than you would.

    This is essentially the model of doctoral education, where the student is the expert on the topic, but the advisers can still guide and judge the students work.

  4. G. Weaire says:

    I sort of agree with Daniel Rosenblatt that we should be able to be of use to undergraduates even in areas we don’t know all that well. I think we probably all have had times where we’ve done that with some success – and have had to learn something ourselves, which doesn’t hurt. Insert comments about the need to avoid doing anything that would further narrow overspecialization here.

    But I’m still attracted to the idea. It provides an answer (not a silver bullet, but a start) to all those times that someone has to be discouraged from doing a viable and interesting dissertation on something which will make it harder than usual for them to find a job. As long as a candidate can teach Intro to Surveys, this could mean that an odd, quirky, specialization could actually shed lustre on the department that has such a person around the place.

    It’s not surprising to hear from Carl Burkart that people will do this sort of teaching for nominal pay. (“Will” is not intended to mean “should.”) How often do any of us get to advise a student on exactly what we’re working on ourselves?

  5. hunter says:

    I have had experience with a form of this tutorial, and it worked well, but after graduating from college in language instruction. A tutor of mine from Syria who was ABD gave private lessons and then (out of the kindness of his academic heart) kept up with me via Skype for sometime after I returned to the US.

    I feel that with language instruction specifically– in which communicating clearly and hitting certain stylistic qualities and accents is key– this is a great model. Learning Cairene Arabic in this manner, when the professor at college is an Arab-American or a non-Arab who never lived and learned Egyptian dialect and local sayings, would be the type of situation in which I could see this working. Specific textual study would also work (Qur’anic or Talmudic commentaries)….

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