On dissertation supervision

Today, I met my current crop of undergraduate dissertation students to discuss their projects and what they have been up to over the summer.

This year’s topics are fairly varied and include popular reactions to the 1947 Royal Wedding, the British state’s attitude to Welsh nationalism during the Second World War, the history of recording studios and the logistics of Operation Market Garden. I might have nudged some of the students in certain directions but they are their projects.

Dissertation supervision is labour intensive but it’s my favourite part of teaching. It’s great seeing and hearing students’ enthusiasm for a topic grow, their excitement at what they find, and even how it can lead different generations of a family to share memories and experiences.

As a supervisor, you learn not only from a student’s findings but also from their techniques, mistakes and problem solving. As the deadline approaches, you feel their stress.  At their final-year vivas, you feel proud of them. If they don’t do well, you feel partly responsible. The students might not always realise it but it’s a shared journey.

When so much of university life can involve working to prescriptions and formulas, the dissertation is a rare moment of creativity and freedom that teaches students about themselves, research, time management, planning, communication, and, of course, the past. You just can’t capture that in a league table or a Teaching Evaluation Framework.