Masters Disagree On Tutor Survey

Houses solicit student opinion

Some resident tutors hold frequent study breaks for their students. Some prefer meeting privately with students to offer academic advice.

And some do none of these things.

Some students in the Houses say they are not even sure who their designated resident tutor is or what he or she is supposed to do—a confusion that is not limited to students.

“It isn’t necessarily clear to anyone who a tutor is,” says Eliot House resident tutor Nicola T. Cooney.

To make matters more confusing, there has been no formal process by which students can assess their tutors and let the College know what qualities they expect in the graduate students who live among them—until now.

Over the past month, four Houses inaugurated the first-ever student evaluation of resident tutors.

For some, the experiment in CUE Guide-style surveys—underway in Cabot, Eliot, Kirkland and Pforzheimer Houses—is long overdue.

“I’ve been encouraging Masters to think about tutor evaluations for years,” says Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68. “I’ve always found it curious that tutors are just about the only people who aren’t evaluated.”

But not everyone is sure that the surveys will be helpful in improving House life.

Leverett House Master Howard Georgi says that any CUE-style student evaluations of tutors would destroy the “family atmosphere” that he strives to foster in his House.

“The students filling out such a thing are encouraged to imagine that anything wrong with the tutor-student relationship is the fault of the tutor, and that they bear no responsibility,” Georgi writes in an e-mail.

“Once the students start thinking this way, any hope of having a real community is lost,” he says.

Despite Georgi’s objections, the evaluation process is almost complete. Three of the Houses are officially done and Pforzheimer stops accepting evaluations today.

The debate over the efficacy of tutor evaluations in all 12 Houses, however, seems unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.

The Need for Feedback

The four Masters who are currently trying out the new survey say the importance of student feedback is the driving factor behind the new initiative.

“The simple answer is we like to constantly improve,” says Cabot House Master James H. Ware. “Just in the same way we evaluate our courses, we should do this self-assessment.”

Currently, the only formal College-wide mechanism for students to evaluate their tutors and Masters is the survey seniors fill out before they graduate.

Lowell House Master Diana L. Eck says this senior survey is not enough.

“By the time the senior survey comes around they’re gone,” says Eck, whose House experimented this year with a qualitative survey given over intersession. “I would rather hear what they think when they’re still here.”

Matthew C. Abraham, a resident tutor in Eliot, says he is not afraid of being evaluated, but instead looks forward to hearing the feedback of students.

“I feel everyone should be evaluated,” he says. “Teachers are evaluated and it’s taken in good spirit. There’s always going to be someone who’s going to say something outrageous.”

Kirkland House Master Tom C. Conley says the tutor evaluation survey that began on Feb. 13 in Kirkland will be an excellent supplement to their more informal evaluation methods of talking to students in dining halls.

“The rule of thumb we use prevails in most places where things work,” he says. “You do three things: you consult and you consult and you consult and you do it in a very amicable way.”

A Slippery Slope

But some Masters and tutors question whether students have enough knowledge of the tutors’ job to evaluate them.

“I do think it’s a good idea inasmuch as I think it’s important to have the student feedback,” Cooney says, “but I think it’s a very hard thing to evaluate.”

She describes a tutor as a “kind of omnipresent figure that’s somewhere between a friend, a parent figure and an adviser.”

Ware agrees that this may present a problem in the usefulness of the student surveys.

“A lot of what tutors do is not apparent in the House,” Ware says.

Ware says the job of tutor is an all-encompassing one, ranging from their pre-professional, concentration and residential advising to throwing study breaks to disciplinary and administrative responsibilities.

The consensus among the Masters, however, is that the most important function of the tutors is simply to support the students—something that is not quantifiable.

“There should be a support for students here that students feel to be accessible, approachable and helpful,” says Pforzheimer House Master James J. McCarthy.

Since there are many possible ways to “support” students, some tutors and Masters are wary that surveys that aggregate information might tend to encourage cookie-cutter tutoring.

“My only concern would be that the people that are using the results from these tests are careful with the way they think about them and make allowances for how nebulous the role can be,” says Brian E. Delay, a resident tutor in Cabot House.

Ware says he understands that tutors have different styles—some attend Stein Club while others prefer counseling students privately.

“[Some Masters] worry an evaluation system might have built-in values,” Ware says. “Once you start scoring you encourage certain types of behavior.”

Others worry that formal tutor evaluations will bring with them what they see as negative effects of the CUE evaluations on courses, which some have criticized for encouraging professors to win high marks through easy grading.

“There’s always a bit of concern about it becoming a popularity contest,” McCarthy says. “The role of the tutor is not to make students happy. The role of the tutor is to provide essential services.”

Kate Holbrook, a Leverett resident tutor, says that the survey might encourage tutors to neglect some of their disciplinary duties, such as telling students to turn down their music.

Eck says one solution to these concerns might be a survey that addresses House life in general rather than tutors in particular—like the one Lowell House debuted at the end of last semester.

The Lowell survey was filled with qualitative questions about everything from what activities students attended to what they thought of their Masters.

“It was one way to do a tutor questionnaire that was broader,” Eck says. “We figured if people really had problems with an entryway tutor they would use this as an opportunity to do that.”

For the most part, there was little complaining in Lowell.

Eck says 90 percent of the respondents indicated they thought highly of their entryway tutor.

A Family Affair?

But some people argue the biggest problem is not the style of the evaluation but what having a formal evaluation might mean for the future of community within the Houses.

They argue that student evaluations of their tutors could form a rift between students and tutors rather than bring them closer together.

Last year, as discussion about tutor evaluations became more serious, Georgi sent out an e-mail to the other Masters enumerating his view that the surveys would only be detrimental to his House.

“We think of Leverett House as a very large family,” Georgi wrote. “Like a family, it is organized in a very complicated and not entirely logical way...But it works because we are in a community in which people care for one another.”

Georgi said he thinks that while his House is not perfect, its tutor system does work pretty well. And he does not think evaluations are the answer to working out the kinks.

“When something is not working, we don’t think that the way to deal with it is to have people fill out forms,” he wrote to the other Masters. “That generally leads to a hardening of positions and more polarization. We live together. We can do better than that.”

Georgi says he hopes students feel comfortable enough to talk to their tutor or Master if they have a problem with a tutor.

But tutors and students say that while it is nice to think of the House residents as a family, they realize that tutors are College employees, not surrogate relatives.

“You can see it wouldn’t be nice to live somewhere and feel that people are summing you up, but at the same time the CUE Guide is immensely important,” Cooney says. “The idea of family is huge, but we’re not actually a family. It is a job and it’s good to know how to do it well.”

Quincy resident Timothy B. Urban ’04 says that maintaining the professionalism of the tutors is more important than fostering a friendly atmosphere.

“I don’t feel like it’s much of a family,” Urban says. “It’s much more important that the tutor does their job.”

Eliot resident Rachel A. Stein ’04 says she does not think the tutor evaluation survey has harmed her House’s sense of community.

It remains to be seen what effect the surveys will have on House life once the results are actually compiled by the Office of Instructional Research and Evaluation and sent back to the Masters—something Ware says he expects to happen within about a week.

Ware says the results will not be released to the public because of the experimental aspect of the survey, which he calls a “rough instrument.”

“Since this is first time out, we don’t really have a sense of how this is going to perform,” Ware says.

—Staff writer Anne K. Kofol can be reached at kofol@fas.harvard.edu.