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MMU Learning and Teaching in Action
Volume 3, Issue 3: Focusing on Students

Published by: Learning and Teaching Unit

Rachel Forsyth

Conceptualising the Student-Tutor relationship
David Webster

Developing and Sharing Best Practice
Della Fazey

Plagiarism: a how NOT to do it guide for students
Bill Johnston

Designing out Plagiarism & supporting Widening Participation
Richard Eskins

Enhancing Feedback to Students
Jonathan Willson

Degrees of Uncertainty or TIPS for Success?
Gill Rice & Karen Duggan

The Employability of History Students
David Nicholls

Diversity and Achievement
Kate Kirk

LT2004 fast-forward: A winning formula
Mike Cole

Faculty Learning and Teaching Reports

Learning and Teaching News from the Library

| View this article as a .pdf file |

David Webster

Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, MMU Cheshire

Conceptualising the Student-Tutor Relationship:
Adventures in Marxist and Realist Analysis


Discussions of learning and teaching are dominated by questions of means and technique: how can we communicate more successfully? This paper is concerned with ends and purpose: why are we trying to communicate? It analyses a number of possible ways of conceptualising the student-tutor relationship: who is this other person and why am I seeking to interact with him or her? The gazing is mutual and dialectical: who I think you are/I am is influenced by whom you think I am/you are. But again the relationship may best be defined outside what either party thinks is going on. From my standpoint, is the student an empty bucket? A free consumer in the market place for my wares? A vulnerable recruit to my politics or religion? An oppressed member of the academic proletariat? The contemplation of such possibilities is leavened by reflection on the author’s own thirty-year career in higher education. This is a reworking of a paper presented to the Second MMU Cheshire Learning and Teaching Conference on September 15 2004.



I begin with the observation that most debate about learning and teaching is confined to technical questions of method. I have no quarrel with such debates and, as a member of the Higher Education Academy, applaud the recent promotion of pedagogy in MMU and the HE sector more generally. My concern is that questions of purpose and end appear to have been marginalised. One of the things that motivates this paper is the apparent contrast between the late 60s/early to mid 70s (when I was being apprenticed to academia) with now. Then, debating the purposes of education was a mainstream activity, as was critiquing the threat to real education that came from institutional processes in schools and universities.

There was a burgeoning literature to fuel these debates: Bruner (1974), Postman and Weingartner (1971), Reimer (1971), Goodman (1962), Freire (1972), Holly (1973), Illich (1973). And then the social phenomenologists (eg. Keddie’s and Young’s contributions to “Knowledge and control” (Young 1971)) and neo-Marxists (eg. Dale, Esland and others contributing to course E202 “Schooling and society”) working out of the Open University and elsewhere.

Some of these were Romantics, who thought that if we could all just be nicer to one another, de-institutionalise our relationships, then liberative true education would surely flow and the world would be a better place. Others had some understanding of the role of schooling in reproducing the social structure, that educational struggles were necessarily part of broader political, economic and ideological struggles against vested interests and oppressive forces.

What united all these disparate writers was the sense that education must always be rescued from the grinding of institutional processes. Schooling is bad, because it is forcing people to conform, to fit in with the status quo, and does violence to people’s potential in the fitting process. Education, real education, stands outside and against such processes. The realisation of each individual’s potential, their distinctive individuality, is precisely the opposite of the incorporation of that individual into the status quo.

In short, it is a conflict rather than a consensus model of the relationship between the individual and society.

Such literature produced damning critiques of schools and other institutions, and offered some kind of alternative vision, based on some vaguely utopian view of the perfectibility of humanity.

Many of these texts may seem naïve now. But at least they provoked genuine thinking about the education game. There seems much less of this today. What is mainstream now is the perfecting of technique, of method. It’s all “how?” not “why?”. Just look at any bookshop “Education” shelf.

We need more adventures of the mind to analyse just what is going on, and how we are positioned in the game.

Meanwhile, one example can give the robust flavour of the elderly texts.

“We have been insisting that the new education is new, not because it offers more of anything, but because it enters into an entirely new ‘business’: fundamentally the crap-detecting and relevance business. As we have commented, there will be some difficulty persuading teachers that this is their rightful business. But then teachers have always been somewhat ambivalent about what it is they do for a living.”

(Postman and Weingartner 1971:86)


Three Models of the Student-Tutor Relationship

I turn now to the heart of the issue: the student-tutor relationship. To simplify, I will portray it as a 1:1 relationship as in a tutorial. But the principles can be applied to the biggest lecture group.

Here I am: the “tutor”. There you are: the “student”. What are you doing here? What do you want? What am I doing here? What do I think I am trying to achieve?

Let us begin with the most basic model: filling. You, the student, are an empty vessel. A bucket or a bottle. You are passive but, hopefully, receptive. I am the tutor, licensed by society to fill you with what counts as worthwhile knowledge like a doctor licensed to vaccinate. My job is to fill as many bottles as full as possible. Success depends upon the accuracy of my aim, (my teaching approach), and the thickness of the neck of the bottle/ student. I don’t care what you think about how you are filled or what you are filled with. You are, after all, a bottle and don’t have feelings.

This “transmission” model, expressed like this, is clearly unacceptable. But how many of us can claim that we have never been reduced to it at some point in our careers?

The second model is “indoctrination” and can be dealt with swiftly. I know my politics or my religion, or indeed anything else, are right. It is my duty to make you think as I do so that you can think right too. To do so I must undermine all rival claims. To you, I become the guru, the oracle, if I am successful.

The third model is based on “selling”. Education now is business. Big business. You, the student, are my customer or client. I may believe in what I am trying to flog you but need to market it successfully, to overcome competition, overcome consumer resistance. The customer is always right. You are a free consumer in a tough but fair market-place. I need to work out what you want, or what you think you want, and produce it for you: relevant skills, certificates, high grades, excitement.

A Realist Analysis

These three models, filling, indoctrinating, selling, are based on different theories of humanity, society and education. Theories are pictures of the way things are. They are stories about how things fit together, about what causes or influences what.

Realist theories argue that there are aspects of reality which are not directly observable, but nevertheless very powerful in shaping what happens.

An example from the world of nature will illustrate: tides. We can directly observe the water level in the harbour or at the beach going up and down, the “tide” going in or out. But why does it happen? What explains it? A huge fish far out to sea breathing in and out?

The idea that it is all to do with the moon must have seemed fantastic, mad, when first proposed. But a theory, a story connecting things not obviously connected, was needed to reveal levels, layers of reality we did not know were there. Similarly, think of magnetism or electric currents.

In psychology, Freud was a realist, postulating the real existence of the “id” and the “superego” as forces which shape our behaviour but which do not have a physical, observable existence. They need to be theorised.

Realist theory about society seeks to reveal the hidden structures and forces which position us as individuals and frame our relations with one another. We cannot properly understand, conceptualise, have an adequate mental grasp of, for example, a student-tutor relationship without theorising, mentally grasping, the force fields at work which structure that relationship.

Marxists are a subset of realists who have a particular story to tell about social reality, namely that it is founded on economic, class relations. Institutionalised education is part of the apparatus for reproducing a proletariat and a bourgeoisie and the relations, of domination and subordination, between them.

A realist theory which uses some Marxist concepts can critique the market, “selling” model of education. It can reveal that the student is not a free consumer in a fair market-place, but an alienated victim of capitalist relations. The Marxist might speak of the “commodification” of knowledge, everything turned into a commodity like a fridge or a burger, price more important than value. Freire talked of the “banking” conception of knowledge. Knowledge transfer is just one more part of the capitalist machine with teaching and learning redefined as production and consumption.

Responsible education is therefore not giving them what they want, but in part revealing to them how they have come to be who they are. A parallel would be policy intervention in diet: not respecting the free consumer choice of chips with everything.

A Liberative Model

Which brings me to my fourth model: “liberating”. Here my job is to liberate you from your oppressed state, to replace your false consciousness of the way things are, with your own true consciousness of the way things are.

Part of your oppression is that you are alienated: from product, from process and from “species being”.

Just as the factory and office worker have no intrinsic interest in what they produce – the nuts and bolts, the insurance schedule- so the student has no intrinsic interest in the essays, the notes that they produce. They are ritualistically destroyed at the end of the course and essays remain uncollected. The academic wage-labourer is interested only in the pay­cheque at the end: the certificate.

Just as the process of production for the factory or office worker requires following routines created by others and the suppressing of originality and creativity, so the student is a piece-rate labourer on a conveyor belt production line.

Just as the factory or office worker is made less human by the process, is separated from their true, full potential, turned into a tool for someone else’s purposes and profits, so the student becomes the object, the plaything of someone else’s freedom to think, separated from their potential as a free subject, as a distinct individual and member of the human species.

In such a view, liberal notions of social inclusion and widening participation are hardly progressive forces. All they boil down to is a mopping up operation, ensnaring those who have escaped the net of academic incorporation. The issue is not so much the distribution of knowledge as changing relationships to the means of knowledge production. To liberate you, I do not respect your constructed self. Rather I seek to challenge you to recognise that construction and free you from it.

Of course , this can very easily slip into indoctrination if all I do is give you new answers to who you are and what you want. It avoids indoctrination if it allows you to work out not only your own answers, but also your own questions.

I am reminded of the student in a year 1 sociology class who came to me at the end of one session and told me that I had taken away everything that he had believed in and left him with nothing. It was a shocking moment. He was a mature student in his late 20s.. His growing sociological imagination made him see that things he thought were absolute, could not be otherwise, were in fact relative, social constructions. It was not that I had been indoctrinating him with a single alternative vision. He might have been happier if I had. Then he could have had the comfortable reassurance of a new set of rules and absolutes. Instead, as I told him, he had to rebuild for himself a sense of what society was all about and how he did and might fit into it. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.

To believe that such a quest is worthwhile and possible is to stand against the oppressive, dominant models of education, and to affirm the genuinely, and mutually, liberative potential of the student-tutor relationship.

So, in summary, my paper is a lament for the marginalisation of the fundamental questions of education, for the triumph of the question “how?” over the question “why?” It set up three straw models. It argued that only a realist analysis can grasp the social context of the student-tutor relationship. It ended with a call for a reassertion of the radical and liberative agenda for those who want to be serious educators.



Bruner, J. (1974) The relevance of education Harmondsworth Penguin

Freire, P. (1972) Pedagogy of the oppressed Harmondsworth Penguin

Goodman, P. (1962) Compulsory miseducation Harmondsworth Penguin

Holly, D. (1973) Beyond curriculum St. Albans Paladin

Illich, I. (1973) Deschooling society Harmondsworth Penguin

Postman, N. and Weingartner, C. (1971) Teaching as a subversive activity Harmondsworth Penguin

Reimer, E. (1971) School is dead Harmondsworth Penguin

Young, M.F.D. (ed.) (1971) Knowledge and control London Collier-Macmillan

David Webster
e-mail: d.c.h.webster@mmu.ac.uk
telephone: 0161 247 5378


Winter 2004
ISSN 1477-1241

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