Being on the different side of the coin

I have had experience of being a supervisee for my both MA and PhD theses, and this academic year, I have supervised undergraduate research projects and dissertations. My third-year supervisees graduated in July, and I would like to reflect on my experience as a supervisor in this post. I am very pleased that 80% (four out of five) of my supervisees received a distinction, and the other received a merit!

It is absolutely a privilege to be a dissertation supervisor. I have supervised dissertations which are similar to my research interests, including ‘the representation of Muslims in the British press: a corpus-assisted approach to discourse analysis’, ‘the analysis of images and lexico-grammatical features in UK women’s magazines’, ‘the ways in which undergraduates cope with culture shock in Manchester’, ‘the spelling development of primary school pupils’, ‘the relationship between teachers’ identities and classroom practices’. I had a good knowledge of the first three topics, and in order to provide more effective feedback on the last two topics, I was engaged with the highly cited papers in these areas, and thereby, I also improved my knowledge of different areas in applied linguistics.

In addition to individual supervision meetings, we also had group meetings in which my supervisees reported their progress and exchanged their ideas with each other. I believe that group meetings are important for community building and motivation for writing. From my PhD experience, I know that writing a thesis can sometimes be an isolating experience, and interactions with peers may alleviate this feeling. I also offered to have ‘shut up and write’ sessions together as an optional support session, but there was not enough demand for that. Probably, the idea of ‘shut up and write’ event was a bit intimidating for undergraduate supervisees. If I supervise BA dissertations again, I will frame ‘the shut up and write’ event in a different way in order to attract them to an event.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
May 28, 1986

I have observed that BA dissertation writers have three milestones in which they need more support: the stage of designing their research and formulating research questions, the data analysis stage, and the final write-up stage. These milestones may be similar to those of PhD thesis. Also, general advice on writing a dissertation is highly valuable for dissertation supervisees as it is the first time that they produce such a long document (12,000 words). In my first year as a PhD student, I attended a series of academic writing workshops and seminars which proved useful for my academic writing. In this sense, I think we (both the lecturers and universities) need to do more to provide writing support for dissertation supervisees. Just because novice writers have written successful essays throughout their degree programmes, it should not be assumed that they know how to write dissertations, since there may be register differences between essays and dissertations. Writing seminars and workshops specifically tailed for undergraduate dissertations can be held to improve undergraduates’ writing performance.

Most importantly, writing feedback on draft chapters of dissertations is a crucial step to provide supervisees with opportunities to revise their work. We need to have solid knowledge of disciplinary content and academic discourse to provide effective feedback. This feedback process was interesting for me because I was also receiving feedback on my draft of PhD at the same time, and I thought critically about the content and lexico-grammatical features of lecturer feedback. While I was commenting on their drafts on Turnitin, I often put myself in their place (in a way, I was for my PhD thesis), and asked myself: Is this feedback clear and detailed enough? Would I find it helpful? Is it framed in a constructive way? I now greatly value any constructive feedback regardless of writing style, but this may not be the case for undergraduate writers. I feel that feedback written in imperative forms (e.g. ‘revise this paragraph’, ‘rewrite this sentence’) may be discouraging for novice writers, and these imperative forms may perpetuate power differentials between supervisees and supervisors. Indeed, previous studies show that hedged feedback is more likely to be effective for novice writers to revise their writing than unhedged feedback. Previous research informed my practice in that I tried to hedge my constructive feedback as much as possible, such as ‘you could rewrite this sentence’, ‘it would be better to include X here’.

Presents from my supervisees at the end of the academic year 🙂

As a whole, I have learned a lot from my experience as an undergraduate dissertation supervisor, and it was a fulfilling experience for me to guide my supervisees into doing rigorous research!