Thoughts on writing tutor notes

Nigel Slater changed my life.  Or rather, his recipe for chicken wings with lemon and cracked black pepper did.  I was once a shamefully unashamed fussy eater, who barely cooked or thought with any imagination about food, and I rarely even glanced at Slater’s cookery column in the Observer Magazine.  But something about those glossy, sticky wings caught my eye – and my appetite – back in 2003.  I followed the recipe myself and miraculously pulled out an identikit glossy sticky feast from the oven, the warmth and aroma showing me that extra magic that no Sunday supplement ever could.  And I was converted: to cooking, to eating, and notably to Nigel.  I followed his column avidly.  I bought Real Fast Food and started to build a repertoire: penne with walnuts and gorgonzola, chicken breast with pesto and mozzarella, scallops with lime and coriander.  Every recipe delivered what it promised and what I craved.  It was easy; it was fun; it was delicious.  And Nigel’s words guided me generously throughout.  Despite my complete lack of expertise, he never talked down to me.  He taught me to notice the changing sights and smells in my pan, and helped me to understand the consequences of however I was choosing to slice and chop ingredients. He coaxed me into making my own choices with his subtle suggestions: substitute the walnuts with pine nuts; try rosemary instead of thyme; if you’re daring, melt the cheese in the pan rather than under the grill. Never any pressure, just encouragement to follow my own senses.

I learned a lot from Nigel, and key to the learning was that encouragement to pursue my own likes and interests.  I remember a recipe for roast potatoes that advised me to cut them to whatever size suited (“you know how you like them” he wrote).  I love this philosophy: the correct way to do it is the way that you like it.  Years later I was delighted to find that within the initimidating world of wine (which my wife inhabited when we first met, and which any state-educated Brit must of course fear and mistrust) the same approach applies.  It’s not – as the wannabe pedants on Come Dine With Me would have it – a case of saying A is better than B and if you can’t taste that for yourself then you’re a C; rather it’s a matter of if you like A then you might like B, and good for you: pursue what you like and don’t listen to any Cs that want to judge you.

But how does any of this unremarkable preamble relate to my EAP Lecturer existence?  Well, for much of the year I have been developing subject-specific pre-sessional courses (which we refer to as “bespokes”) to be delivered at the University of Essex from Summer 2014 onwards.  I’ve been involved in a fair amount of academic literacy support work embedded within subject-specific programmes, and I’ve run a bespoke pre-sessional for a very specific cohort of UG business students for the past two summers, so the process of designing the new courses and writing materials has been quite organic and relatively painless.  A complication, however, is that I’ll be leaving Essex before the new courses begin, and I need to be able to package up all my work and hand it over in a coherent state within the next four weeks.  So now I’m in the middle of a process that I find particularly painful : writing a tutor guide to supplement the materials.

I’m forever telling my students to think about their reader, but who is my reader when I’m writing tutors guides to EAP materials? I know some of them well and consider them friends; but there are others who I have never met – and probably never will.  I’m torn between writing for my ideal reader and writing for the worst-case scenario.

The worst-case scenario is a teacher who wants to be able to roll into the staffroom at 9.20 every morning, pick up the materials booklet, and be ready to “teach” at 9.30.  They want to follow clear and obvious steps; they want to have every step laid out for them.  They want minimal risk of malfunctioning classroom technology killing the lesson, or students asking awkward questions that haven’t been anticipated in the teacher’s notes. They don’t want to have to think or adapt anything, and they want very clear (and correct) answers to any questions asked within the materials. Perhaps I’m just paranoid and such a teacher doesn’t exist, but I’m pretty confident I’ve worked alongside one or two of them.

The ideal reader wants a tutor guide to be written by Nigel Slater.  They’re the kind of teacher that sees a lesson plan as a suggested recipe to be interpreted and adapted according to taste – a teacher that knows their own style and knows their own learners. Most importantly, my ideal reader understands that questions are questions and have value in themselves.  They know that not all questions have an answer, and feel that this is something to embrace, not to fear.  The ideal reader is there to be coaxed, not led. The ideal reader understandings that ultimately the eating experience of the diners will always take precedence over their performance in the kitchen.