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Academic growth pains and supervision – Mika Loponen

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 4, 2009

Translation Studies


© 2009 Mika Loponen


Mika Loponen

The worst academic growth pains happen during transitions. The first of these transitions is when a student starts at the university level: the change from organized mid-level studies to academic freedom is a slippery stepping stone for many. My own growth pains lasted for approximately four years after entering the University of Helsinki, after which I put my studies on hold for four years before managing to pull my academic ambitions together.

In this, I think I somehow resembled a very common type of undergraduate student at the Department of English: someone who had just the vaguest idea about what studying at the university actually means, and who – in my case mainly through laziness – easily gets lost in all the academic freedoms and lack of any concrete deadlines.

It took me a few years of work outside the university to get some ideas about what I actually wanted to study; I had previously known that there were things that definitely interested me study-wise, but distractions to other subjects were easy, and in undergraduate studies the interesting subjects passed quickly by as it took most of my energy to drag through the uninteresting topics successfully.

To my great surprise, my return to the university was a lot smoother than my first years had been. Partially this was due to concentrating on topics I had realized I was really curious about, but in the end, the main factor was personal supervision, both in seminars and in writing my Master’s Thesis.

I do not mean supervision as in monitoring the student’s doings and requiring mandatory results (those typically cause people to find the easy paths around the obligations; no one likes obligatory monitoring, least of all within the liberal trappings of academic freedom), but as freely determined deadlines and regular (or irregular) comments, guidance and suggestions on work and progress.

The merits of supervision

What is good supervision made of? In my very subjective view, I have found four main qualities that have been invaluable in my supervisors.

Firstly, the ability to steer a student towards an existing body of knowledge, whether in a general area or in a specific, narrower field; to bump the student towards a relevant subset of literature and help him or her in evaluating where to proceed. During the first years of my studies, I managed to get a glimpse of the vast field of literary studies; the field was so immense and branched into so many directions that it was nearly impossible to grasp any concept or even context without getting lost in a maze of conflicting material – so vast, in fact, as to deflect any interest in literary subjects by its sheer amount. Only after returning to the university and by following up suggestions from my supervisors did I grasp the necessity – or even possibility – of navigating through only the relevant works.

Secondly, the supervisor needs to provide sound – and at times even harsh – criticism. In the field of humanities, it is all too easy to stick to subjective truths or to get so immersed in too narrow theories or lines of thought that all objectivity, perspective and relevance is lost. The supervisor needs to see beyond this and must be severe enough to let a student understand when his or her work is inadequate.

The third ingredient, not necessarily among the direct responsibilities of the supervisor, is boosting the student’s academic confidence within realistic limits. This is the trickiest one, as it requires not only praise and compliments when they are due, but rather making the student feel more secure in joining an academic discussion; helping the student become able to defend his or her points in a debate, or even to join an ongoing debate.

From good to excellent

However, what makes good supervising excellent is the fourth ingredient: the ability to help the student through academic crises or dead ends with just minimal nudges in the right direction, by giving just enough clues for the student to start unraveling the crisis or navigate past the dead end.

As an example, when I was writing my first actual post-graduate paper on translation issues relating to cultural concepts of fictional cultures, I quickly got lost in the deep end of the academic pool: my article was going in all directions at once, and all the focus I had thought I had was lost in a jumble of self-contradicting theories and dozens of terms to explain how culturally bound terms in fictional cultures could be described. Most of these terms required heavy explanations, and none were – by themselves – strictly useful to describe the realia of non-existing cultures.

I explained the problem and some of the inelegant ways of working around it to my supervisor, who listened to my rant before dropping one word on the table: irrealia. The concept was compact, easy to understand, and could contain all the ideas I had thought of. And best of all, the term was practically unused even though it seems obvious once spoken aloud. After the word was dropped, the chaos of concepts quickly arranged themselves into a neat line, and all my plans for the article started to fall into place.

For me, it has been moments such as this that have given me the most valuable insights and bursts of motivation to study further and write more even when having been fed up with my studies or confounded by the vastness of the fields of theory. I have been very lucky in this regard: in the undergraduate and post-graduate seminars I’ve attended, these moments have been plentiful.

Academic indecisions

When I was returning to the university to finish my studies, I had no plans for studying past the Master’s degree: I had a simple three-year plan of studying as much as I could on the subjects I had found interesting (mainly semiotics, folkloristics and the literary side of English studies) and to get my degree finished before the ‘best before’ date, which was approaching fast in the form of the overhaul of the syllabus.

In fact, had I been asked during my first year back at the university whether I considered continuing my studies after getting my Master’s degree, I would probably have laughed and not even thought about the question.

Even now, I am not sure of any specific point of having changed my mind. As far as I can guess, the process was a continuous one – a steady drip of ideas, literary suggestions, critical challenges and academic “baits” from my supervisors and seminar teachers, leading me inconspicuously, one small step after another, towards research topics that feel like they had been there just waiting for me.