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Faculty Discuss One-on-One Work with Students

This article was originally published in the Spring 2001 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

by Ellen Granberg

In this article, four members of the Vanderbilt faculty discuss their experiences with one-to-one teaching at Vanderbilt. Michael Aurbach is Associate Professor of Fine Arts and works with students one-to-one in sculpture courses. Catherine Fuchs is Associate Professor of Psychiatry and, as Training Director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, supervises both residents and post-doctoral fellows. Ellen Fanning is Stevenson Professor of Molecular Biology and Chair of the Department of Molecular Biology. She trains both graduate and undergraduate student researchers and holds lectures and seminar courses. Michael Kurek is Associate Professor of Composition and Chair of the Department of Composition/Theory. For over ten years, he has taught individual composition courses to students at the Blair School of Music.

CFT: How does one-on-one teaching compare to teaching students in large forums such as lectures?

Kurek: In composition instruction, one-to-one teaching is about turning out students who are artists. So the difference is primarily the close trust that’s developed. Just having a friendly personality, or other things that work in a classroom, won’t necessarily work here. There’s an intensity on the one-on-one teaching because it’s their major and it’s not just an elective class. It’s probably going to be their career so there’s a lot of investment of importance, by both of us, into what we’re doing.

Fanning: One-on-one teaching is a lot more creative. There are no “knowns,” you’re dealing with new problems, and you’re dealing with people who you’re only beginning to get to know. I think that the one-on-one teaching is where the most teaching and learning takes place, and that the one-to-many sort of teaching is–I don’t know if this is too strong–a necessary evil to compact an enormous amount of information into bite-sized modules that will give a large number of people a starting point.

Aurbach: It’s an incredibly draining experience. Some people may say that in many ways it is more efficient and easier to do a big podium type presentation, because when you teach one-on-one, you almost become like a psychiatrist. You have to listen to everything they say and read between the lines and that will suck the energy right out of you in a hurry. But that’s good. If I’m wasted when class is over, that means I care. If I’m not wasted, then I’m screwing up.

Fuchs: If I’m teaching a lecture, I have slides and I have a very structured presentation that I do. In one-on-one supervision, the only preparation I have is experience. And the resident has to take some responsibility for bringing information to the supervision so one-on-one teaching also requires more of the student than does a lecture series.

CFT: When you’re teaching one-on-one, how much do you change your teaching approach to match your student’s personality, desires, work habits or other individual preferences?

Fanning: That’s really the main ticket because unless it works for that particular student you’re going to get nowhere with it. Your assessment of where he or she is has got to be pretty realistic. You’ve got to figure out where the student is coming from as far as family background, social context, and economic experience. Even the student’s health situation is important. You learn to recognize an incredible number of things, like signs of depression. You’ve got to be very sensitive to that to be effective.

Fuchs: One-on-one teaching allows students to take more risks and be more vulnerable because they’re not worried about what their peers think. This means that I’m able to problem-solve areas in their of weakness more than I can in the group setting. The one-on-one teaching in psychiatry also allows you to work with the person on not just psychopathology but on understanding the relationship that the resident has with patients and help him or her look at the importance of relationship as a physician and not just illness.

Kurek: I quiz them about their working habits. What hours of the day do you compose? What is your biorhythm? When is it best for you to do creative work? Some people work better at night, some in the day. I’ve also learned how to effectively critique that particular student–which one needs more praise, which one needs more blunt comments.

Aurbach: I recently created an assignment that they have to create literal personal baggage. We all have medical histories, family histories, and I want them to compartmentalize that in some kind of baggage. I want them to look at the materials as sort of having a poetic potential. Is your life insular, where it’s cold and impenetrable, or are there parts of you that we can see through? We show them wires, we show them plexiglass, we show them string. Is your life warm and fuzzy inside? Or, if your life is just this sense of chaos, we try to create it that way. I’ve had students in the last few years break down in class, but it’s a standard assignment and part of the lesson is everything they produce is a self portrait.

CFT: Does working with students one-on-one require different kinds of boundaries between students and teachers than those needed for less personal forms of teaching?

Fanning: I can tell you exactly the moment that I realized that boundaries were important. It was my second doctoral student and I made the mistake of completing one of his experiments because he couldn’t come in on the weekend to finish it. He became very angry at me for “helping” him. I was just flabbergasted, and then I realized that I had infringed on his boundaries. I was heartbroken because I thought the world of this student. At that particular moment I realized OK, you need to know where the boundaries are for each and every one of your students.

Fuchs: When I agree to do one-on-one supervision, I have two expectations of my trainees. Our work may be unstructured in that I don’t come with a specific issue to talk about but I do have clear expectations that the residents identify cases that they are struggling with. I don’t want them to come in and tell me everything that they are doing right. I want them to come in and tell me their problems. I do have the expectation that I’m the teacher and they’re the students, that they’re willing to learn from me. If they have their own issues that make them defensive, and they’re not able to allow that student role, I will address that with them because the boundary is clear and I’m not here as their equal. I’m not here as their friend. I can be collegial with them but the expectation is that they want to learn and are willing to seek knowledge.

Another boundary is the confidentiality of the teaching itself. Trainees will not be vulnerable with me if they know that every time they make a mistake, I go and tell their colleagues or tell the other faculty. So there has to be, within that context, the knowledge that unless there’s a safety issue, what’s said in this room stays in this room.

Aurbach: As a teacher? Everything is on the table. It has to be this way because art touches everything. Even the worst art has psychological, social, political, religious, economic overtones. You cannot divorce yourself from that. Maybe a student is using profanity or whatever to work through a problem at the moment. If so, I have to be prepared for all that.

I don’t let them call me professor or doctor or anything like that. They have to call me Michael. That’s the tradition in art programs. We have to get away from that wall. But, I also have to be careful. I don’t try to force the situation. I’ll create a situation where if they want to open up they can, but if they don’t want to open up, that’s fine.

Kurek: I have a policy of not getting too personal. Because we’re working closely together, I don’t talk about what they’re wearing. I don’t talk about whether they’re happy. I stick to the music. There have been a few exceptions to that where something was affecting their work, but I treat it much the same way I would if it was a student in class. On some level I offer the most general kind of counseling but I really encourage them to go to the resources on campus where that’s available. Certainly, I’m sympathetic but I draw a careful line about telling them too much about myself and my own family life.

There’s also an especially keen sense of decorum and boundaries that all music teachers have towards students because of lines that were crossed for some of us when we were young. That also spills over into my consciousness. For example, if I’m sitting with a young woman in an office with the door closed, it’s more comfortable and more professional to be in separate chairs, instead of on a shared piano bench, so I make sure to have chairs available. Little things like that you are conscious of.

CFT: What do you find most challenging about teaching one-on-one?

Aurbach: What I like least is when I have a student whose ego is insatiable or someone who doesn’t know how to trust him or herself. At some point my students have got to be willing to run with it. I’ll stroke them a little bit and say “you’re doing great, keep it going, try this, try that.” But when it gets to the point that I’ve got to do that continuously, two or three years over, we’ve got a problem.

Fanning: There are occasional students who will refuse to rise to the challenge no matter how much you coax them. They recognize that they’re not doing it but they just will not and they expect you to adjust your standards downwards to accept theirs. That’s very disappointing. That’s when you know that student will never get to the point where he or she will fly on his or her own power and will forever be being told by someone else what to do.

Fuchs: The most challenging aspects are probably recognizing where students are in their level of knowledge and meeting them there rather than making assumptions about knowledge. Also, there’s guarding the integrity of the teaching process, because if I have a student who I am concerned is not making wise choices or not doing things right, I have to be willing to call him or her on it and that can be really uncomfortable. That puts more pressure on the supervisor; you have to be willing to challenge the problem and not just give praise.

Kurek: I think is draws it out of you, it sucks out your personal energy. Some people give back energy and some people are like black holes so that by the time you’re through with them you’re worn out and emotionally drained. In some ways, it’s much more tiresome than teaching class so I like actually the mixture of doing a little bit of both.

CFT: And finally, what do you find most rewarding about teaching one-on-one?

Fuchs: I think teaching one-on-one is fun. I like thinking on my feet. I like the opportunity to hear where a resident is and to pick up at that point and figure out how to help him or her move forward. In essence, you’re helping that student mold himself or herself, and so it’s a process that’s unpredictable and I like that.

Aurbach: What I like best is that every situation is different and it’s always changing. I would rather look at student work than work in a museum because I know the work is honest–it’s not distilled, it’s raw. If I go to a museum I know the work is by someone who’s done the work 100 times over and it loses its energy. Student work, as goofy and as bad as it may sometimes be, it’s really high energy. So it’s more human to me.

Fanning: With most students there will come a point where they start flying on their own wings, you ask “What are you going to do next?” and they say “I’m thinking about doing thus and such.” Yes! Right experiment! Go! That’s the most rewarding aspect, when students get to a point where they really don’t need you anymore. When they can do it, that’s fun. It’s great to see how they develop before then, too, but again, when you actually step back at the end and see that it has all been worthwhile, that’s just the best.

Kurek: I also have students who keep in touch with me afterward because of the bond we develop. Practically weekly I get e-mails from them. Some of them go to grad school in composition, some go to Hollywood, some of them go to Broadway. We’ve had some great successes. There’s a tremendous satisfaction on watching their success as artists in their own right.