I haven’t been doing many tutorials while being Head of English, and it’s been nice to have a go at something different, but it is nice to be reminded now and again why you became a don in the first place, and gripping though Appointments, Planning, and Finance Committee can be – no, really, gentle reader – I have enjoyed being allowed to do a few tutorials this term.

I would guess that more words have been spun on Oxford’s tutorial system than on any other aspect of the University, many of them mythologising or sentimental or just wrong. Inspector Morse is especially unreliable. Enthusiasts sometimes invoke Socrates, which sets the bar quite high for most of us. Old members returning to colleges for get-togethers always seem to remember their tutorials with vivid fondness, even if, by their own accounts, the famous tutor spent the hour opening his mail or taking a bath in an adjoining room. Such things would never happen now, of course. No-one has an adjoining room anymore, for one thing. Possibly a bit of discreet email-checking on the BlackBerry might occur in more distracted moments, nothing more.

Tutorials can work brilliantly well, and very often they do, but I don’t think anyone would maintain that they are the only way of educating young people, who actually quite like classes and seminars, not to mention lectures (about which I have enthused before). But they do have one unambiguous advantage: if it is just the tutor and you, or you and one other student, there really is nowhere to hide.

I was once a young lecturer at a great metropolitan university in the north, where, apart from lectures, all the teaching was done in classes of a dozen or 15. It was an art among the less motivated students somehow to dissolve into the background. If they sat in a different position around the table each week they could elude the teacherly eye altogether. I am sure some of my students never said a word. You just can’t not speak in a tutorial.

The more severe of my colleagues would insist on students sitting in the same places each time, and there was a folk memory of one lecturer who brought a large piece of paper to every class on which was a map of the table with useful notes. ‘Tiresome child’. ‘Spots. Too big for his boots’. ‘Looks like a young Esther Rantzen and talks too much’. That wouldn’t happen anymore either.

Tutorials sound like they’re deeply personal: sitting in the same room as someone for an hour or two a week for the best part of three years might sound like a surefire way of getting to know someone very well. But I am always struck by how successfully tutors and students remain in a state of basic mutual ignorance. I remember giving an extremely nice student her very last tutorial before Schools and asking her what plans she had for afterwards. ‘Well,’ she replied, ‘as perhaps you know, I live to surf’. I did not, which seemed quite right.