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Issue 25, June 2007  

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The role of the casual tutor in design & delivery of courses: Experiences from teaching Geopolitics in 2006
Sharni Chan, Penny Crossley, Luke Deer,
Diarmuid Maguire, Anna Samson, Anwar Anaid
Anna Samson, Diarmuid Maguire, Shani Chan, and Luke Deer 

"Why aren't we on the Department's list of teachers?" (Sharni)

While some attention is now being focussed on the role of casual research assistants and their place in the research team (Hobson, Gar & Jones, 2005), and there is some literature which focuses specifically on tutors and professional development (Barrington, 1999) and a growing literature on casualisation in universities (see Brown, Goodman & Yasukawa, 2006; Junor, 2004), there is gap when it comes to examining the relationship between lecturers and casual tutors and much less material which positions tutors as an important variable within the teaching process.

This article draws from the experiences of a unit coordinator and five tutors teaching a first year unit with over 500 students. We argue that addressing the "tutor variable" through a more collective and reflective approach to teaching has a positive impact on the coherence of the unit, the satisfaction of the teachers (unit coordinator and the tutors) and the educational experience of the students. In a time when academics are asked to deliver higher quality courses with fewer resources and limited contact with their students, we also argue that there are efficiencies to be gained from renumerating tutors fairly for their engagement in course design and delivery.

The fact that the literature overlooks the importance of the role of casual tutors is surprising, yet not altogether unpredictable when you consider the struggle for tutors to gain recognition more broadly within the academy. Like all teaching staff, tutors confront a long tradition that sees teaching as less important than research. As casual employees they battle the precarity of short term contracts, no paid leave, fluctuating work intensity and substantial periods of unemployment. In many university departments they are the front-line, human face representing the academy, yet they struggle against institutional invisibility and isolation from the academic "community".

The institutional invisibility of casual tutors is reflected in the processes by which tutors become involved in the teaching process. Although a unit may be developed and refined over several years and take up much time and effort on the part of the unit coordinator, the tutors, who will take up a large part of responsibility for its delivery, are brought onboard at the last minute. In some faculties including our own, contracts are typically only made available to tutors on the day they begin teaching for the semester and continue for only 14 weeks. This is partly due to students signing up late for courses but also occurs as a result of administrative practises. Inevitably, this means that tutors are not involved at any time during the planning of the unit and typically there is little paid time allocated for discussion or negotiation amongst the teaching team to develop a common understanding around how they will deliver the unit to students.

This raises a number of issues in terms of the potential for any teaching team to collaborate effectively and for the unit to be delivered in a coherent manner. In our experience, a distinct gap can develop between the lecture program and the tutorial programme because of this lack of fit between the unit coordinator's expectations and the understandings of the tutors. This is further exacerbated by a number of factors, including discontinuity between lectures and tutorials that can develop when tutors are not paid to attend lectures; when the tutorial program is vague or underdeveloped; and when there is no established avenue for communication and reflection between the lecturer and tutors - or indeed amongst tutors themselves. This can create difficulty for tutors in dealing with a lecturer who demands total obedience to a pre-set tutorial program leaving no room for creativity, initiative, and experimentation. This not only limits the professional development opportunities of tutors, but also contributes to poor student experiences.

Equally, it can pose a problem when the unit coordinator provides no guidance for tutorials and leaves tutors to pick the pieces up from lecture slides and the reading kit by themselves. When tutors are teaching in the unit for the first time, they may be unfamiliar with the many unspoken expectations of the new unit coordinator. Many may also come with beliefs established by past experience - for example, "Professor So-and-So set our tutorials (or allowed us complete freedom); this is the way it must be done here". Any of these factors provide ample opportunities for miscommunication between the lecturer and tutors, and between the tutors themselves, and can mean that a well planned, well thought out unit can easily falter because of a failure to factor in the tutor variable.

In our experience these problems do not arise because individual lecturers place little value on the contribution of their tutors. Rather, it is the nature of casualisation that has made the role of tutors more analogous to "seasonal fruit-pickers" than academic staff. Yet tutors provide the "missing link" between the hopes and intentions of the unit coordinator and the unit outcomes. We felt this needed to be overcome through the further engagement of casual tutors, as Kift argues: "Casual staff should be made to feel part of the program into which they teach in both a philosophical and academic sense& but also in an institutional sense" (2003, p.15).

The beginnings of a better way
Before the beginning of first semester at The University of Sydney (February 15, 2006) we had a meeting of a new teaching team in First Year Geopolitics (unit coordinator and five tutors). As we discussed the issues above, we came to the conclusion that there just had to be a better way!

Our first step was to bring together the teaching team before semester started so that we could all make some meaningful contribution to the unit. We were immediately discouraged from this initiative by a set of rules circulated in an email which confirmed our peripheral status. It said: "No-one is to claim for anything except conducting tutorials and marking. We are not paying for tutors to attend lectures. Tutors' preparation time is included in their pay. Nor are we paying for anyone to attend meetings." Other universities in Australia recognise that if attending lectures and meetings is put in the same category as preparing tutorials, doing readings, keeping up administrative requirements and hours of student consultation, then they would be clearly exploiting casual staff. In recognition of this, universities such as UWS pay their casual staff to attend meetings throughout the semester (including one crucial meeting prior to semester starting), as well as lecture attendance, as separate from their weekly "preparation time". In the end our meeting to prepare Geopolitics was paid for out of the unit coordinator's research budget - a less than ideal compromise.

At our first meeting, the unit coordinator presented a draft timetable for teaching with the idea that we could take a collective approach to teaching this unit and that each of us could contribute and take ownership of issues within the course. This involved: a discussion of our various teaching philosophies and our understanding of their effects on students; input into tutorial content and design; agreement to maintain separate diaries to facilitate a critical reflection on our methods; agreement to monitor student attitudes to tutorials and lectures through formal and informal evaluations and professional development opportunities. At that meeting in February 2006, we agreed to write this article collectively, utilising emails, personal reflections and meetings throughout the semester.

Discussion of teaching philosophies
This discussion acknowledged our various approaches that arose from a mixture of experience and individual personality - "otherwise we would hire robots" (Diarmuid). This opened a dialogue around our expectations and an awareness of some of our collective weaknesses:

Typically we come from the top layer of students at the undergraduate level. We have the expectation that everyone behaved the way we did when we were undergrads and are shocked to find that students do not behave as we did in first year. We are prone to a sense of nostalgia, a feeling that in our days standards were higher, and that the market of education has let in poorer students. These feelings are rarely true and merely reflect the fact that we were nerds, trendy nerds perhaps, but nerds nonetheless (Diarmuid).

This also involved a discussion of our role in helping first year students navigate their first experiences of university:

Most students will not understand the substantial pedagogical difference between a lecture and a tutorial, most will not have read the unit outline in its entirety, a majority need to know basic things like where to submit assignments, and a significant section will leave the university after this first experience. We need, in particular, to guard against students at-risk dropping out altogether. (Diarmuid)

That is, we needed to understand that some students simply want to pass the unit, others were highly motivated, the rest fell somewhere in between, but all students needed to overcome fear, particularly in a class of our size. We agreed to bear these factors in mind in applying our teaching philosophy and to reflect on our own starting point.

Input into tutorial content and design
This discussion was prompted by our diverse experiences tutoring in a range of different units. Consistent with some of the literature that identifies casuals as reporting feeling "isolated, peripheral and unsupported" (Coaldrake, 1999; Sheard & Hagan, 1999, cited in Kift 2003, p.15), tutors recounted their experiences of feeling like they were making it up as they went along and of being:

Out there on our own. We aren't paid to go to the lectures - so we are always a step behind. This is especially the case because I am often teaching in units for the first time - the material is new, you don't get a sense of what the overall unit is about until you are half way through, and so I can never be one hundred per cent confident that I'm on the right track. (Sharni)

Other tutors expressed frustration with unit coordinators who exercise complete control over tutorial design: The number of students has risen much faster than number of tenured teaching staff. With over 500 students now crammed into first year units and the lecturer spread over a bigger workload, by and large, lecturers no longer facilitate tutorials. How can you have reflective teaching in that environment? Instead you often get pre-set tutorial programs that look more like mini-lecturers than vehicles for student centred learning. (Luke)

As another tutor pointed out: Each class is different, and "a one size for all" tutorial design does not always work. What is really required is room for a creative approach and a style of teaching that reflects the ambiance of a particular class, the quality of the students and the requirements of the time. (Anwar)

Lack of flexibility in tutorial design had an additional effect on job satisfaction. When unit coordinators dictated exactly how the tutorials were to be run, the potential for autonomy and creativity on the part of tutors was removed to the extent that made some tutors feel patronised: You might think it would make your job easier, just delivering all these pre-laid tutorial plans every week, but it's not. We work hard to be good teachers - this is what we do. (Sharni)

Working in large units also poses particular challenges. There had to be a balance so that we were not all "doing it alone" and "wandering around in the dark" each week but we were not all straitjacketed into a set of pre-determined tutorial plans either. We felt that there were ways we could ensure consistency among the five tutors without sacrificing flexibility, autonomy or creativity. Our solution was to take turns in planning the tutorials amongst the five tutors. In practice this meant that each week a tutor would email their tutorial plan to the rest of the group, including the unit coordinator. In addition, this often involved a face-to-face meeting of the teaching team, not only to discuss the tutorial plans for the week, but to talk about issues that were arising in the course, provide feedback to the unit coordinator about any student concerns about the unit or lecture material, and importantly to offer support to the teaching team. This allowed us to take ownership of the tutorials as a group in a supported context. It also provided a fantastic opportunity to experiment with different activities, receive feedback from the rest of the team, and to learn new ideas from one another. Also, in our teaching team we had individual expertise on China, nationalism, international law, political economy and overseas development, so we saw no point in wasting these valuable resources.

In the end, we managed to turn essentially individual and solitary work into a collegial endeavour and in the process we opened up channels of communication, understanding and feedback not just between tutor and student but between lecturer and tutor, and amongst tutors. One tutor wrote:

During tonight's tutors meeting, the true value of getting our heads together and working collectively on these things was revealed!! Thanks so much for everyone's great feedback and ideas. As a result I have a revised tutorial plan for this week that hopefully incorporates some of the ideas that came out of the meeting tonight. I feel more confident about going into my tutorials tomorrow as a result. (Sharni)

Diary keeping
At our initial meeting we made an agreement to maintain separate diaries to facilitate critical reflection on our methods. Week to week these diary entries were shared with one another via email. This process of debriefing the week's successes and failures "out aloud" amongst colleagues helped us not only to better deal with our own frustrations or anxieties in a constructive manner but we found we could learn a lot from one another's candid entries about what worked and what did not. The diary entries were also an important way to channel feedback on the unit back to the unit coordinator and served to kept them "in the loop with what was happening on the ground" (Diarmuid) and adjust his lecture plans accordingly. Diarmuid also sent tutors his lecture notes in advance of key transitions throughout the course and asked if they met with students' understanding.

Here are two edited examples from tutors' diary entries:

29.03.06 Anna Samson

Hey everyone, even though I committed earlier to only discussing the assignment at the end of class, I decided to get it out of the way at the beginning, which in retrospect I think was a good idea. There were not many questions, thankfully, mostly because the big issues were resolved by the handout and by Diarmuid and Sharni's discussions/correspondence with students (thanks!). The main concerns related to: (a) being worried that the two articles didn't have completely divergent viewpoints; (b) determining how much time to spend analysing each of the articles; (c) using outside sources (I think this was mostly because of earlier inconsistent messages in different classes); and (d) word limit.

All in all, I think they were happy with my responses, but I guess we'll wait and see how their assignments turn out!

As for the substantive bit of the tute: the tutorial plan was really helpful, although there ended up being a bit of a diversion because of how my first activity seemed to take over and encompass all the other issues we had discussed covering in class.

So I began by breaking them up into pairs and getting each pair to volunteer to think about a particular country or group of countries. I made a conscious effort to distribute the history people around the pairs and encouraged them to share their knowledge with non-history people.

Students spent about 5 mins quickly brainstorming what the major concerns and issues confronting their country/ies were during the Cold War period. I emphasised that I was looking for really big picture, broad brushstrokes-type stuff, with the covert aim that they would highlight the major issues raised in our tutorial outline.

When we returned as a group we went over the points raised in pairs and got responses from other pairs as to how they viewed their relationships with other countries or their position on particular issues during that time. This was more of a collaborative exercise than simply each pair trying to "be" their country. In the course of that discussion, all the big issues of the main tute questions were covered.

It was particularly heartening that some of the better students drew links themselves between the work we had done in previous weeks and what we were talking about today.

Ok, that's about it. Hope the rest of your tutes go well!


22.3.06 Sharni Chan

My tuts yesterday turned out pretty well. I survived and managed to enjoy them despite a sleepless night and much trepidation on the way. I always tend to run out of time in the first one (poor things seem to end up being the test dummies) and have the routine pretty snappy by the time I get to the third and then after lunch the fourth one seems to be a bit all over the place again. They seemed to enjoy the material and some found it a fascinating change from the way they had previously thought about it and are starting to get their teeth into it (small victory no.1). I think I have this idea of what I want them to come away from the class with but am not yet asking the right questions ( or enough of the right questions) to get them to that point (challenge no.1). Also, this may have allowed too much room for the history buffs who tended to dominate and want to display their extensive hold on the finer details of world history which was tedious and difficult to manage time-wise.

I think I almost offended one student - he asked a question that I wasn't sure of the answer, so I put it to the class. He responded to this by asking "isn't it a question worth asking?" I paid some extra attention to him throughout the remainder of the tutorial encouraging and affirming him and he seemed to respond positively (small victory no.2)...

Monitoring of student attitudes to tutorials and lectures
In terms of our commitment to reflective teaching we took up the opportunity to seek feedback from students at several points throughout the semester and to share our learning experiences with one another through the kind of diary entries above. This involved informal evaluation methods, for example asking the students to make posters of the ideas they had gained on butcher's paper or through the use of short, anonymous questionnaires.

These informal methods proved to invaluable in eliciting feedback from students and giving tutors some early warning signs of problems and an opportunity to salvage a tutorial turning bad.

Professional development opportunities
One view of casual tutors is that they are like shelf stackers - there to deliver a pre-packaged product to the consumer. Another way of viewing casual tutors is to see them as apprentices to be trained for a future contribution to the academy. As Barrington argues: "catching these young university teachers when they are quite enthusiastic and can see the tangible benefits of such training may augur well for the next generation of academics" (1999, p.10). It was the latter approach that was adopted in this case and so, in our initial meeting, some opportunities for professional development were outlined, for example, each tutor would be given the opportunity to give a 15-20 minute guest lecture. Following on from this, the unit coordinator also offered to come into our tutorials to observe our teaching methods in action. Diarmuid learned a lot about new ways of teaching tutorials from observation and will incorporate these techniques into his own practises. Tutors who took up this opportunity found it was a great affirmation of their efforts and the skills they were developing. Not only did tutors benefit from the encouragement and constructive feedback of a colleague but, as a result of the tutorial observation, the unit coordinator was able to provide a detailed reference attesting to the quality of our work for our teaching portfolios. At the end of the course, every tutor received a personal letter of recommendation from the unit coordinator to help with our professional development.

Tutoring can be both intellectually and emotionally challenging work, even when everything is going to plan. The ups-and-downs of tutoring cannot be negotiated alone. However we are frequently expected to do so with minimal structural support and fewer resources. This is how we decided there had to be a better way! We approached the issue of course design and tutorial content from the point of view of critical reflection on methods, open discussion of philosophical approaches, attempts to find a happy medium between strict instructions versus a lack of support and coordination. We argued that tutors should be involved at the level of design: courses are strengthened by different experiences and backgrounds of teaching staff (lecturer and tutor alike). The course is something which tutors should assist in designing, and this should be reflected through guest lectures, and career-oriented rewards to assist their professional development.

Casual tutors juggle many employers throughout the week: they travel between workplaces and in most cases have no "home base" from which to work from. While we gained much from this process, we must emphasise that resources need to be made available for this collaboration. At a time when there is increasing pressure on academic staff to deliver higher quality courses with fewer resources and reduced face-to-face contact with students, it is clear that tutors need to be paid for collaboration in course development. This is a sound investment that will have immediate and long-term benefits. Such an approach to course delivery not only maximises the efficiency of tutors' time but promotes collegiality and ensures coherence and excellence in teaching.

Many thanks to Amani Bell for help with the literature on teaching and learning.

References Barrington, E. (1999). Catching academic staff at the start: Professional development for university tutors. Paper presented at the 22nd Conference of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia, Melbourne, July 12-15.

Brown, T., Goodman, J., & Yasukawa, K. (2006). Getting the best of you for nothing: Casual voices in an Australian Academy. National Tertiary Education Union. Retrieved March 17, 2007

Burdess, N. (1998). Handbook of Student Skills (2nd Ed.). Sydney: Prentice Hall.

Elwood, J., & Klenownski, V. (2002). Creating Communities of Shared Practise: the Challenges of Assessment Use in Learning and Teaching. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education 27(3), 243-256.

Hobson, J., Jones, G., & Deane, E. (2005). The Research Assistant: Silenced partner in Australia's knowledge production? Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 27(3), 357-366.

Junor, A. (2004). Casual university work: Choice, risk, inequity and the case for regulation. Economic and Labour Relations Review 14(2), 276-304.

Kift, S. (2003). Assuring Quality in the Casualisation of Teaching, Learning and Assessment: Towards Best Practise for the First Year Experience. Retrieved March 17, 2007, from

Watters, J. J. & Weeks, P. (1999). Professional Development of Part-Time or Casual Academic Staff in Universities: A Model for Empowerment. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, April 19-23.

Sharni Chan won the Dean's prize for Excellence in Tutoring in 2006 and is undertaking a PhD at the University of Sydney.

Penny Crossley won the same prize in 2005 and is now a practising lawyer in London.

Anna Samson was nominated for the prize in 2006 and now works in the Law School at the University of Sydney.

Luke Deer and Anwar Anaid are undertaking PhDs at the University of Sydney.

Diarmuid Maguire is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Sydney.

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