Back at the end of October, I went for an afternoon of supervisor training. The point of this experience was so that I could get a bit of advice on how to go about providing useful feedback to the undergraduate dissertation students who have been placed in my tender care this academic year. While my experience with my writing group has given me some experience with how to provide useful feedback, the power dynamic with peers is very different to that with students and, as became clear during the session, there are important differences between how one deals with undergraduates and graduate students.
During that training session, one of the books we were pointed to as a further resource was The Good Supervisor, which deals in the main with how to deal with Masters and doctoral students, although there is some discussion of how to transfer the concepts to undergraduate students (namely, remembering that the average undergraduate thesis is not going to be considered for publication and is thus allowed to be a little less ambitious and more directed than would be expected of graduate-level work). The contents page certainly promises a comprehensive survey of the issues a supervisor will experience, from managing your first contact with a student to how to provide after-viva care.
Sadly, I found the book slightly disappointing. On the technical level, there are too many typographical errors for a publication that has a whole section on the importance of proper proof-reading. This really started to irritate me, especially when sentences abruptly ended mid-flow. On a conceptual level, the book tries to encompass all academic fields and thus have something to say to everyone; sadly, for me this aspiration to inclusivity meant that often the advice felt platitudinously obvious. There was also the inevitable ‘and how does this work for a classicist?’ problem, not least because of the dreaded section on ‘how to talk to your research students about methodology’ (which in my limited experience so far has involved emphasising the importance of close reading of texts and wide reading around the subject rather than debating the values of qualitative versus quantitative research, how to properly deploy interviews and questionnaires, or the ethics of action research). I’m fully aware that these are live questions in other humanities and social science fields (half an hour skimming through the #phdchat archives will tell you that), and that classics students dealing with issues of museology or public perception of classics might well run up against these questions. However, they are not currently issues that are relevant to me or my students.
Despite attempts to acknowledge different forms of theses, I also felt that the standard textual analysis thesis got rather short shrift. The book was, however, much better on more avant-garde options, like the thesis by publication or the performing arts thesis, and ways in which these things might be successfully managed and brought to fruition. There was also a lot of good material on thinking about privilege and potential clashes of supervisor/supervisee on the grounds of culture and gender, and the ways in which those problems might be avoided in advance by a little careful preparation. I would say that portion was the book’s most valuable contribution, and probably the useful section for me. But I am once more struck by how difficult it is to write a book about these issues that is not discipline-specific, and how easy it is for generalist books to elide what seems to me to be a core research strategy within the humanities.