Time to Embrace Group Supervisions

TOM WILLS on axing the awkward silences and mundane discussions as he welcomes the notion of group supervisions.

academic excellence Cambridge Group Supervisions supervisions supervisor

Last week The Tab ran a news story entitled Save Our Supervisions, reporting on the risk of government cuts having an impact on the sacred one-on-one Cambridge supervision.  I am colossally unfazed.

I’m not in support of the government education cuts. I don’t think humanities should be marginalised in favour of more ‘useful’ degrees. I’m not even advocating the complete abolition of the one-to-one supervision. I just think that the ‘endangered species’ tag suggests a value that the reality rarely justifies.

As a history student, my weekly supervision is pretty much all I have apart from a few lectures that  keep me from slumping, drooling and snoring – usually in that order. I have been known to spend time wandering around the UL for days at a time, mostly trying to find the light switch. But apart from that, my tuition fees are being poured straight into a single hour. This one-on-one format is presented to prospective applicants as the very pinnacle of the Cambridge experience. Obviously the opportunity to pick the brains of a top academic is a privilege, but is one-to-one really the best way to learn? For a dissertation, of course, and accordingly the current proposals would retain them. However, on a weekly basis I see no crime in inviting a few more students along.

In an attempt to illustrate my point, here’s a rough breakdown of my last supervision:

0-10 minutes: Cagey chat about my week, I mumble a few apologies for not having read very much. This will be repeated, in almost identical format, over the entire term.

10-20 minutes: He picks up my essay and starts with constructive criticism. I need to be tighter, sharper, silkier and generally superior.

20-40 minutes: The room is warm and I start yawning. In an attempt to stay awake I’m focussing so desperately on his face that his head seems to be getting smaller. The constructive criticism becomes a droning soundtrack. I nod, grunt or murmur at regular intervals; this seems to encourage him.

40-50 minutes: The chain of yawns has passed and I’m back in the game. He’s making some points about the nature of the paper and passing on hints to bear in mind for the exam. I’m pretty sure he says this to everyone he supervises.

50-60 minutes: I’m set work for next week.

Sound familiar? With a small group supervision on the other hand, the supervisor doesn’t need to be repeating the same nuggets of advice multiple times a day. On top of that, there’s more scope for discursive variation with three or four people than with two. This would benefit both the academic and the students. It would also be easier to scribble down the odd note without feeling the weight of an awkward silence.

Rumours of the demise of the one-to-one format have ruffled a few feathers. The general feeling remains that they are what characterises Cambridge as a cut above the rest. That may well be, and it’s a great selling point, but the quality of teaching and learning should be the prime consideration – not the size of the groups. If cuts are being made in humanities funding then they should be the first things to go – much to our benefit.