CLLEAR Seminar Wed 16th March: Dr Nigel Harwood

Please join us for the next Centre for Linguistics, Language Education and Acquisition Research (CLLEAR) seminar.

When: Wednesday 16th March, 4-6pm

Where: Lecture Theatre C, Avenue Campus

Who: Dr Nigel Harwood, University of Sheffield

Experiencing master’s dissertation supervision: two supervisors’ perspectives

Using a multiple case study approach (e.g. Duff 2008; Merriam 1998), I interviewed the supervisors about the supervision, analysed the studentsā€™ drafts and final dissertation chapters, their supervisorsā€™ comments and feedback on this writing, and the markersā€™ reports on the final dissertations. In addition, I examined supporting materials on supervision provided by the subject departments (e.g. handbooks, dissertation writing guidelines, assessment criteria).

I focus on supervisors in two different social science departments: Billy and Harriet. Both supervisors had recently taken up post, but Billy was a highly experienced supervisor of 17 yearsā€™ standing while Harriet had never supervised before. Although both Billy and Harrietā€™s supervisees wrote successful dissertations which were awarded distinction grades, the supervisorsā€™ experiences were not trouble-free (confirmed by superviseesā€™ interviews). Specifically, Billy supervised a dissertation outside his area of expertise, his supervisee had difficulties grasping methodological concepts, failed to adhere to deadlines to submit draft chapters, and was out of contact for several weeks; while Harrietā€™s supervisee decided to change her research hypotheses late in the day, and produced a weak methods chapter. In the face of these difficulties Billy was sanguine, while Harrietā€™s narrative featured moments of uncertainty and guilt about her practices. Billy spoke of the ā€˜arrogance of longevityā€™ his experience afforded him and how he was confident he knew how to supervise. His practices were characterised by flexibility as he reportedly altered his approach depending on studentsā€™ needs and abilitiesā€”and as he did when his supervisee began missing deadlines. He was therefore resistant to institutional attempts to impose rigid departmental supervisory practices. In contrast, Harriet was conscious of her departmentā€™s more prescribed supervisory norms and, despite disapproving of the policy that she was only allowed to read and comment on one of her superviseesā€™ draft chapters (the results chapter), conformed to it, ensuring that she could not be accused by her department of intervening inappropriately.

I argue that these cases raise questions about supervisory policies and provide food for thought for university policy makers attempting to draw up supervisory guidelines. For instance, how relaxed should departments be about supervisors being allocated supervisees beyond their areas of disciplinary competence? How many drafts and pieces of written work should supervisors be allowed to comment on? How much and what type of feedback should it be permitted to provide? Most fundamentally, how much autonomy should supervisors be allowed to vary their practices and their supervisory styles?

I close on a less normative note, by discussing the tensions identified in the data between the supervisorsā€™ inner convictions (e.g., their beliefs about best supervisory practice) and the departmental supervisory regulations, and how these tensions are (un)resolved, then broaden this discussion out to reflections on supervisor autonomy in the face of the performative and instrumental discourses surrounding the contemporary university.

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