Friday, February 10, 2006


What makes Cambridge education special? Apart from the opportunities to row (to row as in 'row, row, row your boat', not as in 'row with your parents over bedtimes') it must be the emphasis on one-to-one and small group teaching. For all of the 'papers' the undergraduates take, they are assigned a supervisor; someone whose responsibility it is to make sure the students do their homework and learn the things they need to for that paper. The supervisors make the students write essays, give presentations, quiz them about the reading, organise mock exams (to perfect that "Cambridge exam answer" style) and in general ensure that they have understood the lectures given by the professors and lecturers. The supervisions usually take place in groups of 1-8, 3 or 4 being the typical group size.

Interestingly, organising this supervision (and paying for it) is in the responsibility of the colleges, not the departments who provide the lectures. Usually, it is the more junior members, junior fellows, post docs, and postgraduates who give the supervisions, since it is a bit tedious and has to do with going through the basics over and over again, correcting essays etc. Plus, the postgrads and postdocs never say no to extra income...

Since small-group supervisions are the bedrock of Cambridge academic excellence, you can imagine me being not just a little scared when I was asked to start giving supervisions myself a year ago. Coming from a system that is completely different, I had no idea what the supervisions were about, but was nevertheless very keen to get involved. In Finland we had "small group teaching" only when the course was so obscure nobody was interested in it. I went through many courses in my MA by just emailing the professor once to let him/her know I'm going to take the book exam, and the only reply I got was the grade after it was all done.

In Cambridge, I had had supervisions with my own PhD supervisor, but those were always one-to-one and about my project, not about any course or lecture. So graduate supervising (which exists in Finland as well) has nothing to do with undergraduate supervision. Having never sat a Cambridge examination, I also had no idea on how "demanding" I should be. I didn't know whether the students were expected to be argumentative (which of course is the general Cambridge style) and how much detail they needed to know to support their argumentation (essentially, what's the balance between content and rhetorics). Since the topic of the paper was linked to natural science, I had to also find out how much of the physics and equations etc. I could demand from the poor humanities students. I got some very good tips and instructions from my own supervisor, who was the lecturer of that paper, but eventually had to just follow my instincts.

The university organises courses for new supervisors, but the content of these seems to be geared for people who don't have a clue about or ability for interpersonal communication. I skipped the course, because having chaired and attended literally hundreds of meetings I didn't think those would be the problematic issues for me. There was no course where the international postgrads would get a in-a-nutshell -introduction to the British education system, Cambridge examinations and course requirements. That I would have attended.

In the first supervision I was petrified. Not so much because I felt I didn't know what I was talking about, since I had spent countless hours preparing myself and reading the course reading list in advance (something I've now learned is not the usual practice...), but because they seemed to believe every word I said, and even worse, were writing them down!

Much of the material on that course (in which I'm supervising again this year, much more confidently, and needing about 10% of the preparation time I did last year) was very basic, in fact so basic that I hadn't looked at it since my very first undergrad years 10 years ago. So I needed to do a lot of work to check my facts, read the material and re-learn the things properly myself. I truly agree with the old saying that you don't really know anything until you've taught it to someone else. Teaching something means that you need to be exact with your terminology, know all its connections to other areas, have an idea of the relevance of it and finally, you need a way to express yourself accurately and clearly. Plus, I found out, it's great fun.

At least with motivated and smart students. I've been lucky, since all the people I've had the pleasure to supervise, have been just that. Some seem to rely more on their wits than hard work, while others are so engaged with extracurricular activities that they have very little to no time to do their assignments "properly". But I think these are fair enough excuses, as long as the student shows progress. Students need to live and experience things as well as learn the books, I think.

So, teaching is fun and useful. Also time-consuming if you want to do it properly. And I think it would be extremely irresponsible not to. Even though the exam marks are not the most important thing in the world, they have an effect on people's future opportunities. Giving people the chance to do their best in the exams is what supervisions are for. You can't do anyone's work for them, but you can motivate them to put the necessary effort in, and by giving good feedback you can help them improve.

And as a postgraduate student I need supervision as well. My supervisor is a star, and has helped me immensely to get where I am now. He has opened my eyes in many ways. But still, perhaps the best individual piece of feedback I ever got, was earlier this week from a visiting professor. He had come to see my talk (the story below), didn't like it, and wanted to give me personal feedback over lunch. I'm still analysing his feedback. Not so much for the content of it, since it was clear enough. (And as I said, I sort of try to forget the talk...)

What was stunning was the way he gave his feedback. It was so constructive: even though his evaluation of the talk was negative, his feedback sounded positive. He wasn't trying to find the positive things in the talk, since there weren't many, but he focused on things I should do differently next time. He was analysing the kinds of audiences I might encounter, the relevant points in my research for those groups, and how the talk could be structured so that it would better reflect the interesting aspects of my research (which he likes very much). I really, really appreciate the time he gave me, and the honest, direct, even blunt feedback. It all seems so clear now. I now know what kind of a talk I would give next time around. Even more clearly, his comments showed me what kind of a supervision and feedback I'd like to learn to give myself.

(Picture: Johann Friedrich Greuter: Socrates and his students)


mitluana said...

Maybe I should hire you to be mine. My supervisor, I mean. 8o)

Nice thoughts, and I'm sure they don't realise how lucky they are to have you there! :)

TH said...

Not sure about that... I think I still talk too much. But I'm constantly trying to shut up and let them explain things. B0)

This introductory course is simple, but there's another, final year course I'm supervising as well. That's more challenging, since the students need to run a small project. On one hand, you can't expect them to do everything from the beginning within the given time, but on the other hand, you can't do it all for them. And many times it would be much easier to just do some of the more technical things yourself than explain them how to do it, and then correct it when it goes wrong. But, it's about learning, and what I learn there is some patience... :-)