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Writing a syllabus for graduate supervision

If you’re like most university teachers, you spend some time before each term writing a syllabus or outline for each of your courses. But if you are also a supervisor or advisor of graduate students, you probably don’t have an equivalent document to set expectations and communicate them to your supervisees. Why not?

I started to think of such a document as a “syllabus” when Professor Lisa deMena Travis introduced the concept in a recent workshop that she was leading for McGill’s instructional development office, Teaching and Learning Services. Supervision is a form of teaching, and the courses we teach require syllabi; therefore, supervision should involve syllabi too. The logic here works for me, though not everyone will agree with it. The purpose is to expect from supervision the same high standards we expect from courses.

An ideal supervision is like an ideal course. The student knows how to contact the teacher and when. Everyone has similar goals in mind, and, while the students might have the most to learn, the teacher too is really interested in the material and activities. They proceed with a timeline, and along the way there are planned evaluations of the student (and sometimes formative evaluations of the teacher!). At the end, there are outcomes—outcomes that can be generally described, if not predicted, in advance.

One of the outcomes is research and, indeed, supervision is sometimes claimed not only as a benefit to research but also as a form of research. Although supervision is strongly associated with teaching in McGill’s 2014 regulations relating to tenure, supervision and research assistance are parallel and sometimes indistinguishable activities, especially in the sciences. But such a connection shouldn’t lead to the dismissal of the idea of a syllabus for supervision. Research usually starts with a plan or a grant proposal, and a syllabus is not altogether different.

Nevertheless, in the humanities (to paint again with admittedly broad strokes) you might find other objections to the concept of a syllabus for supervision. A syllabus can be understood simply as a way to reach a lot of people efficiently. True: with smaller groups or individuals, we can explain ourselves verbally and get a higher proportion of decodable feedback so that we know we’re communicating well. The more personal the context, the less we want to encumber it with bureaucratic documents. The objectivity of a syllabus—its policies, its grade breakdown—is fair but too impersonal for graduate supervision.

Although I usually defend subjectivity, the counterpoint to the view above is that sensitive, humane, and personally effective supervisors are no guarantee of effective supervision. Supervisors and graduate students can be erratic and fallible when demands on their time increase. A syllabus is evidence of not only an intention but also a design for effective supervision, leaving less to chance. Like a statement of teaching philosophy, it shows that you think critically about your work and that you have a method.

It can also help you to define your style as a supervisor—with none of the impersonal bureaucratese that I’ve alluded to. Today, thinking through the content of my first syllabus for supervision, I’ve learned that I can be detail-oriented without being too formal. And to design the arc of my supervisions, I’m thinking for example of the later phases, when students will need strongly positive letters of reference. What can I tell them about how they can earn one? How much notice should I ask them to give me so that I can write or revise and send each letter? These questions could be answered on a syllabus.

In the same way that developing your course syllabi can help you to design great courses, a syllabus might be just the thing to encourage great experiences for you and your graduate students.

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