Supervision survival: What to do when you have nothing to say…

Amelia Oakley 25 May 2015

Essay in on time. Success. And I thought nothing more of it until my supervisor, a week later, asked me to summarize what I had argued for. “Well” – I tried to sound knowledgeable –“first I introduce the problem, and then I look at various languages to evaluate what can be done.” How original for a linguistics essay.

It had never occurred to me before that I might want to prepare for supervisions, and actually have some sort of recollection of what I say in my essays. It’s a situation known to all non-super humans among us – as your official excuse, you’ve obviously been focusing on multiple essays a week (you got so caught up in Kant’s categorical imperative that you didn’t have the time to fully embrace Sartre’s existentialism), or, more realistically, your deadline just happened to be right after Sunday night Life and you’ve landed a supervision slot post-Cindies, or your budding career in the Footlights is a wee bit more interesting than your social anthropology degree, or Wikipedia proved to be a more time-efficient use of source material on Leviathan than actually going through the pain of finding and reading the original (it’s all about time management, right? Transferable skills, anyone?)

So, as much as supervisions are meant to be about learning with world-class academics, the best in their field, and everything you read in the prospectus, at least equally important is developing a strategy for survival.

A key component here is mastering the art of bullshitting. Just as restaurant dishwashers are ‘hygiene engineers’ and paperboys ‘media distribution officers’, you need a fancy enough way of rephrasing the simple truth that you have no idea what’s going on. It could be that the ‘multifaceted nature of the research question’ is preventing you from arriving at a ‘sophisticated conclusion’, or perhaps that the Freudian model of criticism was not able to deliver a satisfactory analysis of Ulysses and therefore the question itself, not your knowledge, is at fault.

If bullshitting fails (after all, there are only so many ways you can avoid directly answering a mathematical equation), you can always try reverting the topic to the ultimate reason you’re doing supervisions for – exams. Sure, it may well be your first supervision in Michaelmas, but there’s no harm in checking how long your essays should be when produced under timed conditions, or what kind of a pen would best please your examiners.

Of course, supervisions aren’t only about you. If you’re lucky enough to have an enthusiastic supervisor, it’s never difficult to get them to do the talking. Mention something close to their research, et voilà, you can sit back and enjoy the rest of your supervision.

Another option is your supervision buddies. There’s no shame in redirecting a question to them: “Weren’t you talking about the Mikheyev-Smirnov-Wolfenstein effect earlier? Oh you weren’t? What do you think about its applicability anyway?” Sometimes this will happen without any effort on your part: everyone knows the type who overdoes their active listening (hmh, absolutely, how interesting) to ensure that they can jump in the second your supervisor stops talking, to answer the question that wasn’t meant for them or that wasn’t even a question.

Surviving on minimal work and maximal strategic planning may not be academically ideal, but then sometimes the Footlights might take you further in life than memorizing everything Levi-Strauss ever wrote.