Power and thesis feedback


Research supervision training should include some critical discourse analysis of sample feedback on thesis drafts, so potential supervisors can grasp how the apparently neutral discourse of “comments” enacts social practices and power relationships of supervision.

Take this example, written beside a paragraph in a thesis chapter draft:

“I will consider allowing you to do this.”

We can ask (Fairclough 1992, 1995):

  • What is represented here?
  • What interpersonal relationships are set up?
  • What is the textual work taking place?

“I” as the active opener and dominant subject of this sentence is the supervisor. This “I”, coupled with the strong modality of “will” embodies supervisor power and agency. “Consider” feigns a softening, yet also implies condescension. The student, the “you” addressed passively, must await the uncertain outcome of the supervisor’s deliberations. What poses as receptivity and responsivity on the supervisor’s part is actually a controlling, delaying and destabilising gambit. “Allowing” sets up the supervisor  as authority, policeman, gatekeeper or parent. The student is not understood to be expressing ideas, but seeking permission for the expression of those ideas, which is a different matter entirely.

This is just a beginning, but demonstrates the ideological bases and goals for the language chosen by supervisors in comments. Where and how does the language you use position you in relation to your students? If you would like to post a sample in the Comments below, I am happy to analyse it for you!

Fairclough, N. (1992). Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge, UK; Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Fairclough, N. (1995). Media Discourse. UK: Edward Arnold.


Author: becomingaphdsupervisor

Dr Lucinda McKnight is a lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy at Deakin University.

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