Field Note #1 Site: Dhaka, Bangladesh Date: December 22, 2019 2:53 PM I sprung off the rickshaw, trying not to trip over my long scarf. Finally, I had reached the tutoring center that I had been in communication with over the past few months—the potential site of my dissertation research on the dynamics of private tutoring in Bangladesh. Based in the capital, Dhaka, the center occupied all four stories of the building in front of me, serving students from 8th grade all the way to A levels (12th grade). The tutor with whom I had been in contact prior to my arrival met me at the gate, ready to give me a tour. As we entered the building and walked upstairs, he explained how each floor was dedicated to different subjects— mathematics, the sciences, business, etc. Students brushed past me, both up and down the stairs, chasing each other as they scrambled to either get to a class or rush home.
Growing up in Bangladesh, private tutoring was a part of my educational experience from an early age. From my peers to seniors in school, it seemed everyone was doing it, including myself. In Bangladesh, 40% of primary students and 68% of secondary students were estimated to be engaged in tutoring in 2008, rising to over 80% of students in grade 10 (Bray & Lykins, 2012). Private tutoring requires enormous amounts of money, time, and effort, yet it constitutes a major part of the Bangladeshi educational system. Most existing research on private tutoring in Bangladesh focuses on cost-benefit analyses; however, this economic lens tends to simplify the phenomenon (Hamid et al., 2009; Mahmud, 2016). I was interested in doing ethnographic research by actively participating in the tutoring center’s activities, thereby gaining an insider’s perspective on the dynamics of these tutoring spaces and the types of relationships built between students, their peers, and their tutors, which in turn may influence how students of certain classes are socialized.
In Bangladesh, 40% of primary students and 68% of secondary students were estimated to be engaged in tutoring in 2008, rising to over 80% of students in grade 10
Field Note #1 (Continued) Site: Dhaka, Bangladesh Date: December 22, 2019 3:30 PM On the topmost floor of the building was a small cafeteria. Students milled around, snacking on shingara and drinking tea as they waited for their first or second class of the day to start. There was a ping-pong table in the corner, and the tutor proudly informed me that students from the tutoring center had formed teams in the past and won championships, including in basketball. His class was about to start, so I followed him and managed to find a seat in the corner of a classroom packed with students. After the class ended, I gathered my things and waited for the students to leave so I could thank the tutor for his time and touch base about my research. To my surprise, a small group of students gathered around him. They all stayed standing for quite a while, each explaining a personal problem or something that they wanted his advice on. The tutor patiently talked to everyone, reassuring them or asking them to touch base with him later. Clearly, this tutor meant a lot to his students, and they felt comfortable sharing their troubles with him—a feeling I don’t remember from my own school days in Bangladesh. At that moment, I knew this center would be a good fit for my research exploring the relationships built and nurtured in private tutoring spaces.
A Roller Coaster of Emotions
After my 2019 trip to Bangladesh, I felt excited about my dissertation project; I was looking into a phenomenon that genuinely made me curious. I had made a connection with the research site, and I was on good footing to proceed with my oral exams that were planned for later that semester.
Then COVID-19 happened.
When the pandemic started in early 2020, I became physically and mentally distant from my project. My mind fixated on the seriousness of this new virus. Knowing that older folks were more severely affected, I worried for my parents who were miles away in Bangladesh, while I was in Minnesota, amidst border closures and lockdowns.
Not much changed as that spring semester progressed. And then summer passed in a blur.
However, as a fully remote semester began that fall, feelings of anxiety about my project started bubbling up. My idea of conducting a traditional ethnography in a tutoring center, which I had nursed for nearly a year at that point—how could I do that now? Bangladesh had shut down all in-person classes, and little did I know that they would continue to be closed for the next 18 months, one of the longest school closures in the world.
What followed was months of grieving for my project. Family or friends would check in with me about my dissertation, meaning well, but setting off a barrage of emotions:
- Unmoored because I couldn’t envision how to conduct my research without being there in person.
- Nostalgic for an experience I couldn’t have anymore when I recalled the organic interaction between the tutor and his students at the end of class and students’ conversations on the cafeteria floor.
- Resentment at the timing of the pandemic.
- Loss of purpose after investing intellectual, emotional, and physical energy into this idea.
- Exasperation at being forced to rethink everything.
- Envy towards peers whose projects seemed unaffected, and who were progressing in their research, instead of being stuck like me.
My primary coping mechanism became avoiding the topic entirely, made easier by a heavy course load and teaching responsibilities that semester. “Take your time,” my advisor reassured me; “just focus on your classes, in the meantime.” Her advice immediately took a weight off my shoulders. I needed that time to process how something totally out of my control had now changed my progress, plans, and prospects.
A new spring semester began, and the world had collectively marked a year of our “pandemic reality”. After taking several months to process, I decided that the pandemic would not hold me back from what I envisioned for myself, including finishing my dissertation. After many long nights and hard work, I passed my oral exams—another milestone that looked very different from what I had initially envisioned when I began my program. Instead of late-night study sessions or weekday pick-me-ups with my peers, the process of individually preparing for a high-stakes, explicit make-or-break moment, was much more isolating. I was grateful for the virtual writing check-ins with my friends who helped make me feel less lonely; we were all going through such a difficult journey.
Field Note #8 Site: Virtual, on Zoom Date: September 30, 2021 3:45 AM My alarm went off, insistently, angrily. I squinted at the time on the microwave—it was 3:45 in the morning. The tutoring class I wanted to observe over Zoom started at 4 a.m. (3 p.m. in Bangladesh). I forced myself to wake up 15 minutes earlier, spending half of that time letting my body be annoyed and the other half making myself look presentable. These 4 a.m. class observations occurred during an uncomfortable phase of the night—too late to stay awake for or go to beds afterwards, as I did when my classes were scheduled at 1 a.m., but also too early to start my day for, as I did with my 6 a.m. classes. To adapt to the 4 a.m. classes, I went to sleep at my normal time, around midnight, and took a “nap” of three to four hours. Following my nap, I observed the Zoom class for about two hours, and then went to sleep again. This sleeping schedule disoriented me, and afterwards it took my body a full day and night to feel like I was in my own time zone again.
NEITHER HERE NOR THERE
Summer rolled around again; vaccines were becoming widely available and injected hope. Sunshine peeked through the clouds of my dissertation journey. I worked on reconnecting with the tutors I had met during my trip to Bangladesh. By then, more than a year into the pandemic, the tutors had all successfully pivoted to using online tools for their tutoring lessons. I attended the orientation sessions they held over Facebook Live for their new cohorts. Over WhatsApp, I explained my research, asking if I could observe their classes. As I slowly built relationships with these tutors, they became my allies, welcoming me into their Zoom classes and Messenger chat groups.
One of the main challenges of doing everything virtually was also the most obvious—the time difference of 13 hours. At some point my body craved the banality of being able to respond to the physical signals around me—not having to ignore the eeriness of being the only one making coffee at 4 a.m., or not being able to participate in the routine of waking up in the morning. Since starting data collection, I have joked to my friends that I haven’t felt the urge to travel because I am effectively jet-lagged at home, sometimes not able to participate fully in either reality.
Field Note #8 (Continued) Site: Virtual, on Zoom Date: September 30, 2021 4:05 AM Tonight I picked the class of a tutor I knew quite well. He seemed to be in a good mood, and shared how he was teaching from a different city in Bangladesh. While the pandemic had changed the dynamics of his class, it gave him the freedom to teach from anywhere so long as he had an internet connection. The students clamored to know more about what else he was up to, referencing his recent Instagram stories. I was engrossed in observing how the students interacted with each other and with their tutor, so much so that I felt like I was part of the class as well. When the dark sky outside began to turn pink, signaling that the day was about to begin, my mind felt engaged, but my body was fading. It was time to force my brain to shut down and rest for a few hours, just as everyone else around me in Minnesota was waking up refreshed.
I’ll Meet You Where You are
The entire process of collecting data online has been personally affirming and revealing. As I observe these tutoring classes and the exchanges between students and tutors on social media, I see how their relationships are deepening in real time. I have had to learn the latest Gen Z slang in order to decode students’ references and the memes they share. Interviews over Zoom have allowed me to understand students’ perceptions of tutoring and the ways they’ve adapted their own plans and prospects during this time of social isolation; a time when students haven’t been able to meet their friends for months. The pandemic may turn out to be one of the most disruptive events for all of us, but especially so for young people and their learning. Although I still wish I could have done a more traditional ethnography at the tutoring center in Dhaka, I’m content with how I’ve not let that hold me back. Instead, I have forged ahead to employ ethnographic techniques to meet these young people where they are—progressing in their lives and education as best as they can, just like I am.
Bray, M., & Lykins, C. (2012). Shadow education: Private supplementary tutoring and its implications for policy makers in Asia. Asian Development Bank and Comparative Education Research Centre, University of Hong Kong. https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/29777/shadow-education.pdf
Hamid, M. O., Sussex, R., & Khan, A. (2009). Private tutoring in English for secondary school students in Bangladesh. TESOL Quarterly, 43(2), 281–308. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1545-7249.2009.tb00168.x
Mahmud, R. (2016). Shadow education: Determinants and implications of private supplementary tutoring in English at secondary level in Bangladesh [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. University of Hong Kong.