Brabazon’s ‘Ten truths …’: thoughts on no.9

Of all the ‘truths’ in Tara Brabazon’s ‘Ten truths a supervisor will never tell you‘, the one that surprised me the most was no.9: ‘Weekly supervisory meetings are the best pattern.’ I know that my colleagues in Chemistry, and no doubt in other laboratory-based subjects, meet weekly with their supervisees, and see them frequently between those meetings.  But is this a good pattern for the humanities, specifically for English Literature?

I’m not sure it’s a viable pattern.  The Oxford English Faculty handbook currently states that candidates ‘may expect that their supervisor will provide at least two extensive supervision meetings in each term’, and that the candidate will provide a substantial piece of writing towards the thesis each term.  In Oxford, someone in my kind of post — a ‘University Lecturer’ in English — has a normal supervisory load of 6 PhD students, as well as having undergraduate lectures and tutorials to deliver, and usually some involvement in the M.St.  Weekly meetings would represent a significant increase in contact hours.  What would have to give?  Not my own research — there’s never time to do that in term — but more likely the extras such as convening a research seminar.

Even if extra hours were discovered in the working day that would allow weekly meetings, would such a pattern actually be desirable? To hold weekly meetings would be to keep a graduate student in an essentially undergraduate pattern of teaching.  I have some experience of this pattern, acting a supervisor to American doctoral students who have been in Oxford looking after JYA undergraduates.  The meetings reassured me that the doctoral students — both focused and industrious researchers — were putting in the hours in the library, but the written work presented for each meeting tended to be lists and brief notes.  My real concern is that a weekly periodicity might discourage exploratory reading and the kinds of discovery that come serendipitously.  I’m sure my doctoral students could manage to write weekly essays of, say, 3000 words; but I suspect that if they did so they might fall into relatively mechanical ways of doing it; and that even if the material varied from week to week, the argument or the method would remain substantially the same.

Brabazon justifies weekly supervisions by saying that some postgraduates ‘lack time-management skills and would prefer to be partying, facebooking or tweeting, rather than reading, thinking and writing.’  I’m inclined to think if they’re so completely absorbed in those vices as to be unable to produce written work (or other substantial evidence of progress) every month or so, they shouldn’t be doing postgraduate research.  (My own guess is that postgraduates are far more likely to get distracted from their theses by diligent teaching preparation or by finding new, shinier and more exciting topics; this second one is the bad side of exploratory reading.) Maybe if there’s a crisis a postgraduate will need to be put onto the intensive care regime of weekly meetings; but I wouldn’t see it as a desirable norm.  Postgraduate study should foster time-management skills and scholarly independence; in the Humanities weekly meetings could do the opposite.  A good supervisor will be there for an extra meeting if there’s some sort of crisis in the project, or a practical difficulty with obtaining texts; but he/she will also allow the student space to develop the project and his/her thinking.

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