Between the structured and the unstructured – different experiences of master thesis supervision in Sweden and Poland

In this blog entry, originally a research essay, I aim to study my individual experiences of master supervision in two countries – Sweden and Poland in the light of the research on internationalisation of higher education classroom by Crose (2011), on intercultural competence by Gopal (2011) and theory of cultural dimensions of Hofstede (1997).

Supervision is part of the teaching process that is based on dialogue and cooperation between supervisor and student to reach the goal – passing the master thesis. I aim to study the differences of supervision patterns in different organizational setting and draw initial conclusions about the role of national differences in shaping the supervision styles. I will use my own experiences as master thesis supervisor at Department of Sociology and Work Science at University of Gothenburg and at Institute of Sociology, University of Warsaw, both in the field of sociology of work.

Internalisation of teaching in the light of intercultural approach

The internationalisation of teaching entails some kind of assumption that the ‘lingua franca’, which is the international version of English, provides a common platform for all the students and teachers. We use the same language therefore the communication process should be easy. However, it is just a first step in the complex process of teaching and learning. Crose (2011) points out different aspects of the use of the same foreign language in the international classroom, like various understandings of the tone and emotions or fear of being misinterpreted. The globalised classroom, using Crose’s (2011) expression, is a space for many unexpected experiences that cause stress and anxiety. One of the examples that he uses is the different authority of teacher in different cultures. Crose suggests strategies for teachers to make international classroom more inclusive for students, like being open-minded, flexible and enthusiastic. Nevertheless, Crose focuses mostly on international students. In case of this paper, the internationalisation of teachers also plays a role.

The tension between teacher’s culture, student’s culture and the culture, in which the institution operates, is the main topic of Gopal’s (2011) argument for studying the international teaching opportunities. Gopal shows that international teaching requires a certain dose of intercultural competence, a term coined by Deardoff (2009) that “is defined as a person’s ability to interact effectively and appropriately in cross-cultural situations based on his or her intercultural attitudes, knowledge and comprehension, and skills” (Gopal, 2011: 374). The intercultural competence is a non-static process, which means that it is a form of auto-reflective teaching, in which we recognise our particular cultural context, we recognize the cultural differences and approach them in nonbiased way.

According to Deardoff (2009), the intercultural competence has three core elements: attitudes, knowledge and comprehension, and skills. Therefore it is a mixture of affective and cognitive components that can change over time and that can be analysed and subjected to auto-reflection.

Both Crose and Gopal provide sensitising tools to understand the issues of international classroom, which show up often unexpectedly in interactions between teachers and students. Their analysis is more focused on individual and group processes that can be corrected once the perspective of international classroom is introduced and intercultural competence activated. Crose points out the differences between the Western and Eastern styles in academia, especially referring to role of the teacher. For the purpose of this paper this dimension should be studied in order to see not only individual and group processes, but also the organizational settings connected to the cultural contexts. Being an international student and an international teacher, who communicate in English does not exclude the importance of organizational culture that is enrooted in the local country culture. The idea of scientific and academic mobility that stands behind the internationalisation of universities is structured by country specifics – they shape students’ and teachers’ expectations and previous experiences. They become especially visible when both student and teacher are foreign at the university, which has its own organizational culture, enrooted in the national culture.

In order to narrow down Crose’s (2011) general Western-Eastern division encountered in international classroom, to sensitise the intercultural competence (Gopal 2011) and to better understand my own experiences, I will use the elements of cultural dimensions’ theory elaborated by Hofstede (1997).  This theory shows how culture shapes organizational setting and therefore complements the approach presented by Crose and Gopal. Initially, Hofstede studied the same corporate organization IBM in different countries in order to analyse national cultural differences and their influence on organizational cultures. He distinguished six dimensions of values: power distance, individualism/collectivism, masculinity/femininity, uncertainty avoidance, pragmatism and indulgence, and produced 100 points scale for each of them in order to compare national cultures. The cultural dimensions theory is used both for research and business purposes.

Regarding limitation of the studied case, I will focus on first four dimensions, according to the definitions presented at his project website:

“Power Distance (PDI) expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. (….) People in societies exhibiting a large degree of Power Distance accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. In societies with low Power Distance, people strive to equalize the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power.

Individualism (IDV) (…) can be defined as a preference for a loosely knit social framework in which individuals are expected to take care of only themselves and their immediate families. (…)

Masculinity (MAS) (…) represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success. Society at large is more competitive. Its opposite, femininity, stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented. In the business context Masculinity versus Femininity is sometimes also related to as "tough versus tender" cultures.

The Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI) dimension expresses the degree to which the members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. The fundamental issue here is how a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen? Countries exhibiting strong UAI maintain rigid codes of belief and behaviour and are intolerant of unorthodox behaviour and ideas. Weak UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles.” (www.geert-hofstede.com/national-culture.html accessed 01.09.2016).

Hofstede’s website provides scores of each studied country for comparisons.

Table 1.  Four cultural dimensions: Poland and Sweden

 

Power distance

Individualism

Masculinity

Uncertainty avoidance

Poland

68

60

64

93

Sweden

31

71

5

29

Source: extracted from https://www.geert-hofstede.com/countries.html Poland is characterised by very high power distance whereas Sweden scores relatively low. Both countries value individualism. They differ very much on the masculinity / femininity scale, with Poland scoring relatively high and Sweden significantly low. The difference is also visible in the uncertainty avoidance, with Poland at almost the maximum and Sweden scoring relatively low.

The scores of both countries in the four dimensions of Hofstede’s theory will be used to understand the cultural differences of the organizational context and institutional setting of the master thesis supervision in Poland and Sweden. The master thesis supervision is analysed here as an exemplification of organizational cultures of the departments of sociology in two countries.

The case of Swedish and Polish experiences of master thesis supervision

The case for the comparison is experience of master thesis supervision in sociology of work at Department of Sociology GU (Sweden) and Institute of Sociology UW (Poland.

In Poland it was written and supervised in Polish, in Sweden the process was in English. In Poland many issues regarding the process of supervision, contact between the student and the supervisor, the outcome, the rules of examination, are not discussed because they are interpreted as ‘obvious’ and ‘known’. In Sweden each of the parts of the process was very much subjected to reflection due to subsequent facts: the supervisor and the institutional setting are different in cultural terms – the supervisor is Polish, the setting is Swedish; further on – the student was Greek and the language of supervision and master thesis was English. Therefore it was the Swedish experience that enabled me to look at supervision as procedure linked to national and organizational culture.

Generally, the master thesis supervision is based on regular meetings and exchange of emails, discussion of the aim, research question, structure of the thesis and the chapters, the discussion and conclusions.

However, in each country it is done in a different way. In Poland the supervisor is not provided with any formal requirements for the structure of master thesis. The knowledge about the thesis is informally passed from the more experienced colleagues. The master thesis is a format itself – it is not a report or an article. The only point of reference that the supervisor can find in order to fulfil their supervision task correctly are the review requirements. However, they are quite general. They may be treated as general limits within which the thesis should fit in. Therefore, the master thesis formal requirements are quite unstructured. On the contrary, the relations between the supervisor and the student are quite formal. They never call by their first names; the students are required to use formal titles (‘doctor’, ‘professor’) of the supervisors and formal language in email exchange. The role of the supervisor is not detailed anywhere so the student does not have any formal point of reference in order to demand or at least expect the engagement of the supervisor. The supervision procedure and the master examination is mostly a process between the supervisor and the student. The thesis is reviewed by one academic reviewer and by the supervisor his/herself, so the same person reviews the thesis he/she supervised. In the end the student has to pass a formal oral examination.

In the case of Sweden almost everything is reversed. The master thesis is precisely described in a written form in terms of format (article or report), formal requirements concerning number of words, theoretical and empirical contribution, and precise requirements concerning the quality of analysis. It is all summed up in a table that is available to the supervisor in the beginning of the procedure. The student is informed about the formal requirements as well. The interactions between the student and the supervisor are quite informal. The student calls their supervisor by their first name; the emails start with ‘Hi’. After the thesis is almost completed, it is debated in the procedure with appointed opponent. The student has a chance to revise their work after first round of comments, both from fellow students and the formal academic reviewer.

The general outcome of the comparison can be described in the oppositional categories in terms of institutional arrangements: unstructured (Poland) and structured (Sweden), and formal (Poland) and informal (Sweden) in terms of social interactions.

Discussion – Swedish and Polish experiences seen from cultural dimensions’ theory perspective

How those two completely different supervision systems can be understood in a systematic way? How to increase the intercultural competence without too many failures on the way? The Swedish and Polish systems of master thesis supervision may be understood easier when the cultural dimensions’ theory is applied. Then it is clear that in Polish academia the high power distance prevails, which translates into formal relations between the student and the supervisor and explains informality in Swedish contacts. The masculinity index means more competitive and less cooperative approach – which explains lack of ‘second chance revisions’ in Poland and the multi stage reviewing system in Sweden that enables a cooperative contribution and revision of weak points of the thesis. The avoidance of uncertainty is a tricky case here because it would seem that the unstructured Polish case should be more into uncertainty than in Sweden. Here I think it is a good question for further systematic research on organizational and institutional comparisons. My initial interpretation would be that Polish model is based on avoiding uncertainty by sticking to a tradition known to the social group of social sciences teachers. The tradition may be a set of unclear rules but at least they are acknowledged and not challenged. It is interesting how two countries that score high in individualism differ so much in master thesis supervision – clearly individualism as value cannot be a single explanation.

Conclusion

It would be difficult to estimate which of the studied master thesis supervision models works better. This is not the aim of the study. However, the use of cultural dimensions theory enables to understand that the structured format lowers the potential of stress and anxiety experienced both by international students and teachers, as it provides clearer requirements, which are very needed in international classroom. Nevertheless, the unstructured form could provide more space for open scientific dialogue and experiments with master thesis format. This potentially could be beneficial for participants of international classroom but under condition that they would be willing to put more effort in cooperation. Regarding high level of avoiding uncertainty in Poland, this would be quite a difficult task. The power distance dimension helps understanding level of formality between student and supervisor in terms of assumed respect or lack of it that can be interpreted from the style of interactions and email exchange. This again is one of the sources of anxiety and fear of at least ‘faux pas’ experienced by both sides. The reflection upon masculinity/femininity dimension helps understanding that there are different values behind the format of examination of master thesis in Polish and Swedish cases. The cultural dimensions’ theory provides some explanations that help develop intercultural competence and facilitate interactions in the international classroom. Although it does not give direct understanding in all cases, it supports the process of thinking in comparative and at the same the respectful way towards different cultures.

References

Crose B. (2011) Internationalization of the Higher Education Classroom: Strategies to Facilitate Intercultural Learning and Academic Success. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.  Volume 23, Number 3, 388-395

Deardorff D. K. (2009). The Sage handbook of intercultural competence. Thousand Oakes, CA: Sage Publication, Inc.

Gopal A. (2011) Internationalization of Higher Education: Preparing Faculty to Teach Cross-culturally. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education . Volume 23, Number 3, 373-381 .

Hofstede G. (1997). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. New York: McGraw-Hill USA

https://www.geert-hofstede.com/national-culture.html (accessed 01.09.2016)

https://www.geert-hofstede.com/poland.html (accessed 01.09.2016.)

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