Tutorials &c.

So many things have happened in the past week! A final success at badminton, boardgame tournaments, computational neuroscience, strange and wonderful things happening on the next planet out, lots of good new books, and tutorials. I will deal with them all in time, but first, tutorials.

One of the distinguishing features of Oxbridge is the tutorial system, in which each undergraduate student will attend a few one-hour tutorials every week. In most tutorials, the attention of the tutor (usually a fellow or postgrad) is only divided between three or at most four students, and so they can spend a very intensive hour discussing the topics covered in that particular course. It’s thought that tutorials (they’re called supervisions at Cambridge) are one of the principal ways in which Oxbridge provides a ‘superior’ education to those found in other universities.

Whether or not tutorials are as good as they’re made out to be is a difficult question that depends on a number of factors, such as the skill of the tutor, the commitment of the students and so on. The reason I’ve brought the subject up is not to talk about their value – it’s because I’ve been asked to give a set of tutorials by my department.

It turns out that there are only two people in the department who know anything about phototransduction (the process in which photons hitting the retina are converted into information), and I am one of them. The other person, who knows a vast amount more about the subject that I ever will, is not able to give tutorials on the subject so I’ve agreed to give it a go. Despite what many of my friends fear, I really do believe that I can do a job at helping and teaching people. I’ve spent a rather large part of my life doing things that involve helping people understand difficult concepts and retain new facts so I hope I have something useful to offer undergraduates. Oh, and I do know how phototransduction works – thankfully, it is a rather logical subject to explain, if not fully understood.

The thought of giving tutorials to undergraduates in the very near future is a chilling yet simultaneously intriguing prospect. Chilling, because it means that these students will be partly relying on me to help them do well at their exams, which is no small responsibility. Intriguing, because they are finalist students (scientists and medics) and as such, there is a very distinct possibility that at least some of them will be older than me. Of course, it’s not unheard of for tutors to be younger than their students, and it certainly isn’t unusual for new graduates to be giving tutorials – I know a couple of friends in Cambridge who are in my year group and are already giving tutorials, albeit not to finalists.

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