What doesn’t kill us: Supervisor feedback

Freya Sanders 26 May 2014

The sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach; the fear of turning the page to read the final comment; the overwhelming urge to sprint out the room, weeping. We've all been there. And at such times, it's important to remember that you're not the first person to experience such sensations, and nor will you be the last. By way of comfort, we've compiled some of the most awkward, tragic or downright mean comments to emerge from the mouths or steely pens of supervisors. It was a hugely cathartic process.

On arriving at Cambridge, it's understandable that freshers get spooked and write slightly garbled, narrative junk. Such essays become adorned with comments such as, “Am I missing something or are you? Where is the argument?” and, just as snarkily, "Missing something? A point, perhaps?"

One student even recounted how, on the bottom of their first ever essay at Cambridge, was the comment: “It’s beautifully written, and very rigorously scholarly, it’s just such a shame that you’re completely and utterly wrong in every way”.


What do you mean you didn't finish the reading list?                                                       Credit: jvoves

I mean, it's nice to get off to a good start, isn't it? A distressed English student recounted how, recently, their supervision began with the comment, “Yes as you both clearly discovered this week, John Donne is someone who is very difficult to write about. I don’t think I’ve ever found an undergraduate who can write about him well…"

Similarly, good starts don't always work out in essays. The first line of one student's piece of work was subjected to the brutal assessment: “What does this even mean? I don’t understand why you thought you should start with this. Or why you thought it was worth mentioning at all.”

It's always tempting to include that little fascinating nugget that has nothing to do with the question in hand, but had you marvelling late into the night; but beware: those students who succumb to such temptations will gain comments such as "Irrelevant. So irrelevant""Why are you saying this?" and “I’m looking very, very hard and I can’t find the point of this"


You're not a Cambridge student until you've left a supervision in tears.           Credit: A National Acrobat

Sometimes, supervisors just can't help themselves; they've been known to come out with heartening remarks such as, “I’m bored”.

However, this isn't as bad as the classic, passive aggressive "Am I boring you?" that rears its ugly head when your subconscious yields to a late-night-at-Cindies-early-morning-on-the-river-and-therefore-totally-understandable yawn.

Similarly passive aggressive, one member of the TCS team recounted how they were invited to leave a supervision after twenty minutes because "there’s just not much more to say…" This happened twice. 

Professors are people too. They have bad days like the rest of us. And sometimes they take it out on our work; don't take it personally. Students reported comments such as: "No, no, no, no!""This is horrible", and "cringe! :)". The smiley face of the latter comment really serves to negate its patronising undertones.

But it's always nice to know our supervisors care, right? Well, most of the time anyway. One member of the TCS team reminisced about how she once accidentally missed out a page when printing out her essay, only for it to go utterly unnoticed. The supervisor in question was known for giving three words of feedback maximum; maybe he was too busy plumbing his outstanding vocabulary in order to choose a winning triplicate phrase.


Think of Kanye.                                                                                                    Credit: YouTube

But what doesn't kill us can only make us stronger. Particularly in the case of the student who had to read a French Revolution essay out to her supervisor because he couldn’t read her handwriting. Apparently aforementioned supervisor then proceeded to wince at regular intervals and constantly interject angrily when the unfortunate student mispronounced a French name – which was basically every sentence.

Perhaps even more awkward is the case of the student who winningly and completely took apart a critics argument, only for their supervisor to tell them not only that they were completely wrong, but that the critic in question was a good friend of his and had recently passed away.

However, it's arguably scarier when supervisors are nice to us – something that happens disturbingly frequently in exam term. One confused humanities student described how, in a revision supervision, their supervisor sighed, smiled kindly and said "well, on the plus side your handwriting was very legible". This was apparently the only positive thing he said about the piece of work for the next hour.


Why sleep when you could work?                                                                             Credit: hackNY

Perhaps more harrowing is the simple – yet heavily, heavily loaded – statement of: "Maybe you will need an extra supervision before the exam next week…"

Such ominous ambiguity is deeply unsettling. Surely it's preferable when supervisors tell it like it is? For instance, the fierce academic who regularly expostulates phrases such as, "I know when someone is bullshitting me, and that is bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit!"

But, in this bleak and tragic term, it's difficult to beat the stellar advice of the wise supervisor who told their student: "There will be plenty of time to sleep when you are dead."