Let’s talk about supervision sheets!

Welcome to the inaugural post on the Ethical Teaching Forum blog.

It’s Jenny’s and my hope that we can use this space for three main purposes. First, to provide practical support for graduate supervisors across the university: a place where we can discuss problems in the classroom, preparing for supervisions, communicating with students, and negotiating with colleges and faculties. (Submissions of blog posts or more minor questions are very much welcomed: please email getf-admins [at] srcf.net.) Second, to open up discussion of pedagogical problems on a more theoretical level, and of the particular political position occupied by graduate supervisors in the university. (Guest posts are welcomed with open arms…) Third, to provide semi-regular updates on the activities of the Ethical Teaching Forum. We’re currently planning out a schedule for the year ahead, and we hope to have an exciting range of events: twice-termly Forums, a few panel events throughout the year, socials, and the creation of an MCR women’s officer network. We’ll keep you posted on how all that goes!

Since term’s just about to begin, I’d like to kick things off here with a discussion of supervision sheets or syllabi: that is, documents given to students before supervisions (or at the beginning of the term or year), detailing anything from the work assignment for that week, to a full syllabus, to the supervisor’s policies and expectations for how supervisions should proceed.* I don’t know how common or universally expected supervision sheets are, in Cambridge’s various faculties and departments; in fact, I don’t think I was ever given one in my time as an undergraduate here, although they were recommended to me in the supervisor training I received at the beginning of my PhD, and I know graduate supervisors and faculty members in my department who use them.

So, some basic questions to begin: do you use supervision sheets or similar handouts? Are they typical in your faculty or department? What sort of information do you include on them? And do you think they’re a good way of informing your students (and, where relevant, inviting them to negotiate with you) what you expect from them academically and personally, what they can expect from you and from the course, and how they might go about producing the work you want them to do? – or do you use a different method entirely?

My current system is to meet at the beginning of the term with each group of students I’ll be teaching, to discuss supervision arrangements/scheduling and written assignments, and to allow them to ask any questions they might have about the course, the supervision arrangements, or any other aspect of the supervision system. At that meeting I give them a boilerplate supervision sheet detailing most of the above in written form, as well as a more specific sheet with their written assignments. I’ve uploaded both of these as a basis for discussion: the generic supervision sheet is here, and the assignment sheet here. In this case, the latter is for first-year students who have not studied Latin before coming to Cambridge, who I will be supervising in one of their set texts, Cicero’s first speech against his political enemy Catiline. If timetables work out, they will have attended a few lectures on this text by the time they prepare for my supervisions, but it’s possible they’ll be working from scratch.

My main aim in producing these supervision sheets has been to lay out clearly how I expect the supervisions to go. Something that repeatedly comes up in surveys of Cambridge undergraduates is a sense of confusion, especially in the first few weeks or months, about supervisions: what type, what amount, what quality of work is expected? What are the rules about missing supervisions, or delaying them, or handing work in late or not at all? In each case I have tried to emphasise that, while I do have basic standards and expectations, I am more than willing to be flexible and to negotiate with students to reach a style of supervising that suits both of our needs well. I am particularly concerned with making room in supervisions for nontraditional learners and students more likely to struggle with Cambridge’s more alienating aspects: students with physical or mental disabilities or illnesses, for example, or those from marginalised demographics such as BME students, women and nonbinary individuals, LGBT students, or those from deprived and oppressed class backgrounds.**

So: feedback, please! What do you think of all this? Does it work? Do you think giving this much information at once is overwhelming or helpful? Do I come across as too intimidating, or as a soft touch? Is it inclusive, and would it help a student see me as approachable if they are having problems? Do you think students even read (and/or appreciate) this sort of document? Are my expectations fair and clearly expressed? What do you do differently?



* Necessary background information for anyone reading this who is not familiar with the Cambridge supervision system in the humanities: the basic structure here is that the faculty runs lectures, seminars and classes, which cover topics relating to the syllabus on a spectrum from ‘some’ to ‘all’; the college organises smaller classes called ‘supervisions’, in which a student or group of students (usually between one and six) spends a week producing a written assignment, hands it in to the supervisor, and then meets with the supervisor for an hour. Usually the assignment will form the basis of discussion, but wider topics are also included. The supervisor is generally either a member of the faculty or a postgraduate. Assessment is in the form of three-hour long exams in the summer term, between April and June, although some courses have longer coursework in some years of the course. The supervisor has limited opportunity to choose the topics, material, and theoretical approaches that will be the basis of the supervisions. The university’s description of the supervision system is here [http://www.undergraduate.study.cam.ac.uk/courses/how-will-i-be-taught]. For Latin literature courses I will typically see the students five times each over the course of the year, in groups of one to three.)

** Studies and surveys consistently show that there are many improvements and adjustments to be made to Cambridge’s teaching and supervising systems to allow these sectors of the student body to participate more fully in their undergraduate education. For the most recent of these, see the Women Campaign’s ‘Mind the Gap’ report on gendered attainment gaps at Cambridge (August 2015).

One thought on “Let’s talk about supervision sheets!”

  1. I truly wish that my supervisors had been so clear at the start of my university career. It may have encouraged me to be confident that I was working towards the right sort of goal.

Leave a Reply