Tuesday, November 14, 2006


What makes Cambridge education special is the amount of individual attention each undergraduate gets, in one-on-one or small group supervisions and tutorials. As the more senior academics are responsible for the courses and papers, it's often the graduate students or junior researchers who supervise the learning in between the lectures, make student write essays, check that they do the required reading and in general keep up to speed with the courses that usually cover huge amounts of material and issues.

The supervision system reflects the dual structure of the university, as the papers are organised and lectured (and eventually examined) by the university department, while the supervisions are paid for and organised by the colleges. There's no fixed method or content, or even a set amount of work you need to do in the supervisions, and so two students taking the same course might end up doing very different amounts of work and focusing on different issues in the course. Of course within the theme of the paper and the main content, set by the lecturers.

Tuesday is supervision day for me. I try to get all the supervisions done on Tuesday so that it frees the rest of the week for the infamous writing up. It works ok, apart from days like this when the supervision goes spectacularly wrong and manages to ruin the whole day.

I had three groups of 3, or actually one group of 4 and another of 2, as one student needed to switch because of other things. While one of the groups was ok and the discussion lively and dynamic, the other meeting was just a drag. For some reason, I didn't manage to explain anything properly, got messed up into nitty-gritty details that have almost no significance in the big picture and in the end I felt I had just confused people rather than being helpful at all. And I felt all drained afterwards, and have no energy whatsoever to read, write or do anything.

So, now I'm off to a seminar where I'm just going to focus on the wine and pringles (the other special component of Cambridge education), as I didn't manage to read either of the two texts we are supposed to discuss. And I actually liked one of them. The other paper I didn't like, the problem being that it's difficult to relate it to anything as the authors almost exclusively quote their own earlier work rather than anything anyone else might have read. They've created a bubble of their own and are happily within it, just replicating their own work and finetuning the experiments etc. Good luck, let me know if you decide to link it to anything in the real world.

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