Behind closed doors: discovering and articulating the essence of the personal tutor's practice
Huyton, Jan Louise
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Personal tutoring is a term commonly used in the policy and practice of higher education. Extant literature utilizes the term, but there is no common understanding of its ethos within the higher education profession. Consequently the tacit nature, purpose and outcomes of one-to-one interactions between tutors and students, which have been at the heart of UK higher education since medieval times, risk invasion by policy imperatives such as employability and student retention, or risk marginalization as off-stage activities that occur in invisible space at the periphery of higher education practice. The thesis begins by exploring research and literature on the social and institutional contexts of activities which involve personal, supportive interaction between tutors and students, alongside literature on emotion work and emotional labour, counselling supervision and therapy culture, using a theoretical lens of critical social interactionism. This produced themes which were used to frame part of the data production and analysis. The purpose of the research is to explore the essence of the personal tutorial from the tutor’s practice perspective, and to locate this in its social and institutional contexts, enabling tutors to illuminate the essence of practice that takes place behind closed doors. The focus of data production is the reflective accounts of tutors participating in the study. Ten participants from a range of UK universities produced brief written reflections about one-to-one interactions with students, followed by an individual interaction between researcher and participant, based on exploring the written reflection. These methods are underpinned by critical theory which relates to the emancipatory, transformative outcomes of facilitated critical reflective practice. Participants revealed critical reflection is unlikely to occur in the absence of facilitation. The opportunity for tutors to take part in facilitated, critical reflective practice to explore personal interactions with students produced awareness of what shapes the nature and outcomes of personal tutoring, often resulting in transformation and articulation of practice. Contextualization by participants tended to be limited to institutional and personal factors, there was less engagement with wider social policy issues. There was little evidence that participants were aware of literature and practice models relating to personal tutoring, and little evidence of professional development opportunities in this area. Practice generally occurred in invisible space and time, and tended to be based on personal judgement rather than practice ethos. If personal tutoring is to become established as an essential practice at the heart of higher education, action will be needed to recognize and value its ethos, including social and pedagogical purpose.