Supervision, scholarship, and empathy

29 Jan
Above: I struggled to think of an image for 'supervisor'. So here's the late, great Carl Sagan.

Above: I struggled to think of an image for ‘supervisor’. So here’s the late, great Carl Sagan.

My biggest teaching challenge for the 2015-16 academic year has been taking on responsibility for supervising the final year dissertations of eleven undergraduate students. It’s very rewarding to be given this job, but it also makes me only too aware of the profound responsibility that I now have for the research of junior scholars.

It’s ironic that as academics, we all worry about our own research: its quality, accessibility, and implications. I’m grappling with that right now as I explore the relationships between governments, the secret intelligence services, and media institutions during the 1980s. Supervision adds to this. You’re now worried on behalf of a cohort of other scholars!

One way I’ve tried to approach this is by using the lessons I’ve learned from those who have supervised me. I’ve been lucky to benefit from the advice and support of a number of great people since I returned to university in 2008. In particular, my Masters supervisors Dolores Janiewski and Malcolm McKinnon, and my doctoral supervisors Fabian Hilfrich and Robert Mason.

Things that unified these very different scholars is their rigorous approach, no-nonsense feedback, incisive analysis, and – most importantly – their empathy, generosity, and willingness to help me develop my ideas. I hope that in my own supervision I can live up to the very high standards set by Dolores, Fabian, Malcolm, and Robert.

It’s delightful to have the chance to engage with and see the development of such a diverse range of projects. My students are looking at subjects as varied as MI5’s infiltration of British fascist organisations (using files that have so far not been used by historians), official British responses to the Watergate scandal (a subject that – remarkably – seems to have hardly been commented on), US government responses to the 1981 Osirak raid, and the role of ‘nuclear talk’ in the 2000 and 2004 US presidential elections.*

Watching students develop their projects, come to their own conclusions, and do the work of historians is fantastic. I’ve been incredibly impressed by how willing they all are to take on board feedback, do archival research, engage with tough topics, and advance innovative perspectives. This has been made abundantly clear over the last month or so. Coming back from the festive break, I’ve seen increased confidence, heard about new findings, and witnessed a burgeoning sense that they are engaged in legitimate, worthwhile scholarly activity.

Supervision also benefits my research. In order to have some sense of what my students are going through as they head towards submission, I’m aiming to have the first draft of an article completed at the same time. The article will be the same length as a dissertation, so I’ve been using it to draw examples from. Talking about my research with undergraduates often brings up perspectives and ideas that I had never considered, making the entire process doubly valuable.

Most importantly, though, supervision is about empathy. With the stresses and strains of their final year, students can often feel a little ragged round the edges. It’s not the job of a supervisor to pile on more pressure, but to offer friendly guidance, a listening ear, and to help the student marshal their thoughts and ideas.

Having gone through undergraduate, Masters, and doctoral degrees, it could be easy to dismiss a final year dissertation as nothing more than a trifle. But it’s not. It’s the biggest, most important piece of work that undergraduates will carry out during their time at university, and we should recognise it as such. My students are going through the same things that I went through (and still go through), so I hope that I can use my experiences to empathise with them, guide them through the process, and help them see that they are doing valuable work.

In the end, I feel immensely privileged that students thought enough of me to choose me as their supervisor. I would be letting them – and those who supervised me in the past – down if I didn’t do my utmost to help them produce the best work they possibly can.


*That’s a just a small sample and should not be taken as the dissertations I think are the most worthy of praise. All of the topics my supervisees are investigating have an immense amount to recommend them.

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