It is impossible to generalise across all subjects, but the following remarks for a few randomly chosen subjects will be helpful in general. Many departments (and CUSU) issue guidelines for supervisors and for students in connection with supervisions. Although the intellectual scope of the supervision should be very wide (as one expects at a University), the demands of the Tripos should be also kept in sight by supervisors.
1. Physical Sciences, Mathematics.
Learning is very much by doing. Several hours preparation for each contact hour will be required to solve problems set by lecturers or the supervisor, solving old exam questions and writing essays as directed by the supervisor. This work should be submitted in advance and marked. The supervision should be spent largely addressing problems and difficulties experienced by students, covering ground the student feels is difficult or subtle, receiving direction for further reading, etc. The struggle with difficult material/problems is extremely educational. Collaboration with other students during the period of preparation can be beneficial for both parties concerned and represents a valuable complement to supervision learning. Simply taking over material from other students, because of lack of effort put in is a waste of supervision and quickly becomes apparent to the supervisor.
Prior reading of at least the key cases and the textbooks is essential. The supervision should be spent clarifying the points that remain unclear, and explaining the implication of the materials already read. Where problems have been set, students should make a serious effort to analyse and solve the problem in advance of the supervision.
As most supervisions are essay-based, essays should be handed in in good time to allow supervisors sufficient marking time. Bringing an essay to supervisions is usually too late. Discussion between student(s) and supervisor is largely directed by the content of the essays. In classes that are not essay based, but where reading is set, it is essential that students read and think about those texts and come to the supervisions with something to say.
An essay is expected in advance of the supervision and this should have been marked by the supervisor in advance (at the very least the supervisor would work through written work in the supervision itself). The early part of the supervision would deal with specific issues (stylistic; detail; comprehension; etc.) arising from the student’s discussion of the topic. The rate at which the scope of the supervision broadens out depends on the student’s preparation, interest, ability and confidence. In addition to the advance production of written work, students are expected to be familiar with the main secondary literature on the essay topic (identified the week before); to have done some reading on associated topics; and to contribute to the supervision with questions and comments. Students are often asked in supervisions to sketch verbally their arguments, or to reconstruct the arguments of historians they have read.
There are two distinct types of supervision in classics: language supervisions (unseen texts, set texts, prose and verse composition) and essay-based supervisions (literature, history, archaeology, philosophy, philology). Different skills, expectations and work patterns are required for both. For language supervisions you will usually be expected to have translated a passage before the supervision, to have learned new grammar and vocabulary, and to have read a section of set text, isolating any problematic passages. Proper preparation will commonly involve, at a minimum, several hours’ work. Supervisions will concentrate on particularly difficult areas in the texts. Importantly, you should not expect your supervisor to do the translating for you in the supervision; rather you should use the supervision (and the supervisor) to tackle any particular problems that have arisen in your week’s reading and translation. Essay-based supervisions confirm closely to the standard model for Humanities supervisions. You will receive an essay title and bibliography in advance; the essay should be handed in before the supervision (usually no later than the evening before) to allow the supervisor good time both to read and mark it. The supervision will discuss your essay – its construction, arguments, use of evidence – in detail; and also move more widely to discuss other approaches to the question. You will be expected to have read the key items on the bibliography and to be able to talk about them and about your own ideas. Above all, supervisiors are interested in what you have to say, and in your reaction to the classical world and the many problems of interpretation it poses. A good supervision, like the best teaching, is a co-operative activity; it succeeds and (and is at its most enjoyable) with thoughtful input from both sides.