Composing a supervisory panel… with a paint brush

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The key to a successful PhD supervision panel is composition, or rather, design. What are the principles of good panel design? Who should be on the panel and why? As a transdisciplinary academic artist and writer, I think the arts provide us with some good principles re composition for still life. So we can think about:

The student as focal point of the arrangement. Relationships between panel members and their interpersonal or professional issues must never dominate.

Background and foreground need to be clearly defined. Panel members’ agendas and preoccupations should not skew the student’s project.

The negative spaces. Those composing the panel need to be aware of what is invisible that exists between and around them, and how this might affect a student.

Agreement on what needs to be sharply defined and what can be blurred. When one supervisor wants to let a student roam free and another wants a contents list updated weekly, disaster lies ahead.

Theoretical harmony. Panel members’ theoretical influences need to harmonise and work together, not violently clash. In a painting, for example, artists create harmony with related (not identical) shapes that sing against each other.

Rhythm is important. In art, rhythm is movement, and (in painting) a visual beat. Projects need to progress with a rhythm to which everyone on the panel can move. Meetings need to be held regularly. Reliable and stimulating patterns of submission and feedback need to be established.

This last point is perhaps the most controversial one. Elements of a painting should not be of equal size, or on the same plane. There should not be equal divisions on a canvas. A focal point should not be exactly in the middle, but off to one side. Not everyone on the panel can have the same degree of influence, nor should they. Striving to achieve equality here is not helpful. It is likely that some advice will prove more influential, and panel members need to be collegial and generous in recognising this.

These are quite traditional principles, and in art, of course, all rules are meant to be broken! These ideas may be useful as a starting place though. How often are panels composed without reference to any principles, and just based on who is available?

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Author: becomingaphdsupervisor

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

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