Standardization of supervision procedures: the cross-cultural perspective

Karen Bennett

Universidade Católica Portuguesa, Viseu

(Report from the Lisbon Congress round table on supervision, September 2004. Convenor: Andrew Chesterman)


What follows is a subjective response to the proposals recently raised for standardizing supervision procedures in the area of Translation Studies. It should be noted that these comments are entirely based upon my own experiences as a student and teacher in both England and Portugal, and I do not claim to be speaking on behalf of any authority, or indeed for any other individuals.


The Cross-Cultural Perspective

What is most immediately obvious about the AHRB Guidelines on supervision procedures is the extent to which they reflect the values and organisation of the British University system. While many of the suggestions are clearly useful, and indeed valid for different cultures, there are other aspects that would be difficult to implement elsewhere due to deep-rooted differences in the whole approach to postgraduate study. 


Aspects that may be transferrable:

§   Structuring of the supervisor’s role: certainly students everywhere will gain a sense of security from the knowledge that their supervisor is in some way answerable to an institution or network, and that they are not at the mercy of the whims of some individual. Indeed, the existence of a supervisory team or panel would go a long way towards ensuring that the proper checks and balances are in place. (However, the precise nature of that structuring may need to be established on a national or even faculty level – see below).

§   Training of supervisors:  clearly students will benefit greatly from the implementation of a training scheme for supervisors, particularly as regards the all-important counselling skills, which are at present somewhat left to chance in most institutions. Once again, however, the exact nature of that training should perhaps be established locally, in the light of the other complementary services provided by the institution.



Possible areas of difficulty:

Rigid structuring of the kind envisaged in the guidelines could not, I feel, be easily implemented outside the UK without a complete standardization of the whole doctoral system. This is largely due to the fact that the various systems in existence in Europe have developed out of very different traditions, and therefore have their own logic that may not necessarily be amenable to the importation of foreign procedures.

Some of the differences to be taken into account are:


1)Profile of the PhD student: while in northern Europe the PhD is perceived as a preliminary qualification for getting started in an academic career, in a country such as Portugal, most people who embark on a doctorate do so because they are already lecturing. That is to say, these people will not perceive themselves as ‘students’ as such: they are earning professionals, who have a certain status in the community already. Due to the fact that all academic degrees take much longer than in the UK, these people will be much older than their British counterparts – perhaps in their late thirties or even early forties  – and their supervisors may well be their colleagues, with whom they have been working side-by-side for years.   Naturally, these factors mean that they will have a very different relationship with their supervisor than that envisaged in the Guidelines. 

2)Institutional structures available: many of the institutional structures mentioned in the Guidelines are not necessarily available in other countries or are operated by other bodies. Many Portuguese universities have only limited closed-access library facilities, no career guidance or other support services to speak of, and pastoral care may be provided by the priest. In these situations, the supervisor’s role needs to be more loosely defined.

3)The Dissertation: in Portugal, dissertations are much longer and more loosely structured than in the UK, and the discourse is often used in a very different way. This naturally has repercussions on the kind of training supervisors are expected to give their postgraduate students. 


Indeed, the ideology of scientific materialism that underlies almost all research in the English-speaking world is perceived as only one of a number of competing approaches to the production of knowledge in Portugal; far more deep-rooted in the humanities is a certain logocentrism (no doubt the result of the pervasive influence of the Catholic Church, not to mention more recent Post-Structuralist imports). Consequently, not all potential supervisors will be operating within the same paradigm, and this will, in turn, affect all aspects of the relationship: perception of roles; attitudes to questions such as originality and plagiarism; use of language; examination procedures, etc. 

Attempts to impose rigid norms from outside will, I suspect, meet with a certain resistance, or at best will create confusion. We should also ask ourselves if it is morally justifiable, especially in a discipline such as Translation Studies, which supposedly gains its raison d´être from a profound respect for cultural difference.