Oddly enough, BA dissertations are eliciting quite a high degree of personal involvement from both students and teachers. I say oddly enough because this is unexpected for a dissertation at this basic level, and because the teachers are not reacting in the same way to students in their own BA courses. Possibly, not even to their own tutorees if registered in those.

I’m aware that BA dissertations are common in many degrees all over Europe. In Spain, as happens, until recently they were a requirement only for Engineering and Architecture old style ‘Licenciaturas’ (for which students actually submitted ‘projects’). Some bureaucrat in the Education Ministry had the ‘brilliant idea’ of introducing dissertations without taking into account how the staff would cope with so many… nor the high anxiety that naming them ‘degree’s final work’ (‘trabajo de fin de grado’) would generate among students.

It is, however, simply not true that the new BA dissertation comes at the end of the degree (for us the only requirement is that a student has passed 160 credits), nor is it true that the TFG has an impact on the whole degree. It certainly tests the specific competences of the degree but it is, after all, just one more subject. It should have been named something like ‘Advanced Academic Skills’, or, perhaps just ‘Project.’ The problem is that we’re beginning to tell ourselves this now, two years into organising the TFG. If we had started with this plain truth rather than with the assumption that the TFG was a kind of proto-MA dissertation or the students’ only chance to truly choose a subject for themselves we’d be better off today. Both sides.

Although numbers have been growing, and many more students have submitted their TFG this second year than the first (63 instead of the original 22), we have tried to maintain the spirit of that first year, when we used too many hours to tutor the pioneering students who dared submit their TFG first. With a growing demand (perhaps up to 90 for 2014-15), we have no option, though, but to curb down the students’ and our own enthusiasm –though, to my surprise, this has already led to intense misencounters among teachers. Some feel somehow sorry that students will no longer be given the chance to freely choose their topic (we’ll offer a closed list, pre-inscription will depend on the student’s average grade); others (like me) worry above all about the impossible workload we’ve been assuming in the first two editions.

The personal involvement I was talking about, nevertheless, has other foundations apart from the so far free choice of tutor and topic. One is the decision we made to have supervisors (or tutors) be present as examiners in the oral presentation; the second, the decision to honour two deceased colleagues.

Generally speaking, the impression is that we tend to overvalue TFGs as tutors/supervisors, since the final product comes at a the end of quite a long process, which may have involved many meetings with the student (an exceptional situation in relation to our regular courses). In contrast, the second examiner knows nothing about this and generally has a less involved view of the matter.

About the presence of the supervisor in the oral exam, I’m myself in two minds about it. On the one hand, I’d rather ‘protect’ my students from that second less sympathetic examiner (though, to be fair, this is not always the case); on the other hand, as second examiner I have often felt quite annoyed by having to put up with other supervisors’ fierce defence of their students. About the prize awarded to the best Language and the best Literature TFGs in honour of our deceased colleagues, this has unleashed a strange competition among tutors promoting the candidacy of this or that student. Strange in the sense that, from what I have seen, who happens to tutor the best TFG is quite a lottery.

I have been asking colleagues in other Departments how they have organized matters both to limit teachers’ workload and to reach fairer standards of judgement. My impression is that the same problems are repeated everywhere. A colleague explained to me that she’s tutoring 19 different TFGs, the figure necessary for her tutoring to count as 6 ECTS, or a full course. This is, for me, madness (sorry)…

In our case, we started with 2 to 3 TFGs per teacher, supervised for free, apart from our official teaching hours. We’re still following this pattern, complemented with a novelty. With the application of the new teaching model, some teachers will have to supervise up to 10 TFGs to complete their teaching workload, a situation which surely calls for some kind of streamlining. We’re asking students to work on very similar TFGs if possible connected with electives (you’re teaching Shakespeare? Then you tutor that year only TFGs on Shakespeare). We’ll see how all this works.

I know students are not too happy, as the chances for a free choice of topic and tutor have dramatically diminished –and we’re bracing ourselves for the pairings in which neither tutor nor student will be happy to work together. Yet, there is only so much we can do before putting at risk precious time we need for research.

About my own experience, well, in the first edition I tutored three TFGs in which I was personally highly involved as I loved the topics and enjoyed the whole process very much (you may read them following the links in my own website). This year I have tutored three more, and though I loved once more the topics, contact with my tutorees has been more erratic, my involvement lower. Ironically, I have established the closest working and personal relationship with the student I have tutored online. Her TFG has been, all in all, an experience I’ll never forget on literary, academic and personal grounds –she’s done very well, of which I’m proud and happy. So you see…

I spent, by the way, two very enjoyable days attending the 23 TFG presentations (which I coordinated)–for, as I told everyone, I’m so fed up with discussing only bureaucracy with my colleagues that the chance of talking books was absolutely refreshing.

This, of course might be the root of that personal involvement I mentioned at the beginning of the post. The hours spent tutoring are often the only real chance along the semester to discuss books in depth with someone equally involved (which is not always the case in BA classes). What a pity, then, this will have to change… for lack of time.

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  1. Dear Sara,
    We are now experiencing our first TFGs and I feel so identified with the contents of this post… It is good to see that we are not the only ones having this kind of problems/dilemmas with the involvement and development of our students’ work.

  2. Hi Marta,
    I hesitated to publish this, as I thought some of my colleagues might object to my describing the situation from our point of view. I finally decided, though, that of the main functions of my blog is precisely to help students understand how it feels to be on the teacher’s side. I’m glad it has helped at least you.

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