As supervisors, do we ask prospective students this question? This is a useful question to help students move beyond a concern with finding someone prepared to take them on, to thinking more strategically about their future careers right from the very beginning. Can they imagine their names on a conference paper with their supervisor? Can they imagine writing a journal article with the person they sign on with? How will they be using their supervisors work to inform their own? How will they be challenging or moving beyond their supervisor’s work? What are the kinds of dialogues in journal articles that the supervisor is participating in? How does the student see their own voice contributing to the conversation, based on their Masters level research, or work experience? Is the supervisor already asking these questions up front? Is the joint publication plan already an exciting part of initial conversations, even if in only the vaguest, broadest way?
I’m now thinking about broader pedagogies of doctoral supervision, in particular what we model for students to teach them what being an academic is. How do we model the passion for reading that is so fundamental to this work? What are our capacities to model this in the neoliberal university, in which there are myriad demands on our time, many of them more administrative and less cognitive?
There is a difference between supervisors who treat reading as something they have done, ie as a corpus of reading that is complete and that they may refer students to, and supervisors who are hungrily devouring what their students unearth as well as pursuing their own reading, in a more symbiotic relationship that values the student as teacher too. Maintaining a public reading blog is a good way for supervisors to share their reading practice, but I wonder how widely this is done. Maintaining a group reading blog or social media reading group for a single supervisor and students, or within a school or faculty would be other ways. Foregrounding the ongoing reading that is essential to being an academic is a proactive way of fighting for the retention of the time in which to do it.
What if the language around doctoral supervision foregrounded the collaborative and symbiotic nature of doing a PhD? Rather than “I was wondering if you might be prepared to supervise me”, which places the supervisor at a distance from a student project (not to mention positioning the student in an attitude of deference and gratitude), perhaps potential students could ask potential supervisors:
- Could we form a supervisory partnership?
- Do you offer apprenticeships in being an academic?
- Are you available for a doctoral mentorship?
- Would you be interested in aligning your professional learning to a topic I have in mind?
- Are you interested in collaborating with me to launch a study?
Supervision is a huge learning curve for a supervisor, yet Chris Halse has written of the “striking silence” (2011, p. 557) around what supervisors learn from it. Flipping the roles, and defining the student as equal, as a partner or even in control, exposes the power plays that frequently inform supervisory roles. As supervisors, how do we attempt to position our students through language, from our very first contacts with them?
Halse, C. (2011). Becoming a supervisor: the impact of doctoral supervision on supervisors’ learning. Studies in Higher Education, 36(5), 557-570.
Now as a recently qualified supervisor, I have potential students approaching me. How do I communicate the enormity of choosing a supervisor? I remember, early on as a potential student myself, being very stuck on just ‘finding someone to take me on’, someone prepared to have me as a student, someone who would say ‘yes’. Alma Fleet reflects on this, in ‘Re-becoming a supervisor: Extending possibilities’ when she talks about her own experience of choosing a supervisor:
‘I had chosen him on the recommendations of a respected colleague, without fully understanding the process, or the importance of that decision’ (2008, p. 262).
Unfortunately, that didn’t go well, but she feels she was left with a legacy of pursuing being an excellent supervisor herself. Maybe one of the most important skills of supervison, though, is perceiving from the outset who you are likely to, or not likely to form a responsive and productive relationship with. Maybe sometimes the best supervisor is the one who knows when to say ‘no’, especially when there are institutional pressures to take on students. This link to a post by Kirsty Nash, on Inger Mewburn and Evonne Miller’s new Supervision Whisperers blog flips it over and describes how to choose a student: https://thesupervisionwhisperers: Choosing a student: Likes long walks on the beach
Fleet, A. (2008). Re-becoming a supervisor: Extending possibilities. In J. G. Knowles, S. Promislow, & A. L. Cole (Eds.), Creating scholartistry: Imagining the arts-informed thesis or dissertation (pp. 84-104). Nova Scotia: Backalong Books.
Happy International Women’s Day!
Are you supervising a female student? How do you create an academic culture of inclusivity (rather than isolation) for female students? In Australia, women are significantly more likely to be in caring roles, and to shoulder more responsibility for work in the home, with potential impact on study. Women are also more likely to experience sexual harassment at work. Here’s a test to check if you could be a “supervisor of choice for gender equality” (we have an Australian government citation available for “employer of choice for gender equality”). Do you:
- Know your university’s childcare provisions and insider info re waiting lists etc. inside out, so you can advise your students if necessary?
- Introduce all students to female academics as role models?
- Know school pick up times and holidays, and avoid scheduling meetings for those times, where relevant?
- Routinely suggest readings by female academics and theorists?
- Advise attending conference presentations led by female academics?
- Provide all students with readings re sexism in the academy?
- Direct all students, as a matter of course, to your institution’s web pages on equality and diversity.
- Consider how you can promote and support the voices of female students being heard in all possible fora, including faculty presentations, social media, peer support groups etc?
- Regularly update your knowledge of your university’s support for those in caring roles, for example for elderly parents?
- Foster representation of female academics on your walls, in your bookcase, in the citations of your own papers and articles and in the units you teach?
Some of these ideas are inspired by my involvement in Feminist Educators against Sexism: #FEAS. Follow at https://twitter.com/hashtag/feas?lang=en
How will I encourage my doctoral students to break out of the confines of the “conventional thesis”? How do other supervisors do this? And is it difficult for new supervisors to have the confidence to support students to be inventive? I wish I had read Creating scholartistry: Imagining the arts informed thesis or dissertation (2008) when I was a student, and I wish I had read it very early on. I would like to have physical versions handy, for browsing with students, of varied theses, like Daria Loi’s which is a suitcase, or Wayne Sellers’, which is drawn, in landscape format, or my own, which explodes between chapters, with photographs taken by a professional photographer. I remember the terror involved in refusing to comply with the university’s requirement that the thesis title page could not contain an image. I would like to welcome the idea that every thesis is unique, not only in theoretical conceptualisation and method, but in material, visual and structural shape, all informed by theory. To which examples do you direct your students, and when, if you basically want to blow apart rigid expectations?
What is the song you recommend students watch or listen to, when things get tough? Is there something you turned to, over and over again, that helped get you through when you were a student yourself? I am wondering how supervisors share very personal cultural aspects of their own doctoral experience with students.
A blog I loved called University of Lies recommended Travis’ ‘Sing’, just as a great song, but I think it makes a wonderful allegory for seeking admission to the academy through the doctoral process. If you watch it with this in mind, and see the octopus as your thesis, it is very, very funny: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYO1-gGWJyo ‘For the love you bring, won’t mean a thing unless you sing, sing, sing, sing’ ie. ‘finish, finish, finish’, and/or ‘publish, publish, publish’. I watched this daily at some stages of writing my thesis to stave off despair! Such a hilarious and accurate picture of the shenanigans of academia, academic publishing, peer review, collegial relationships etc. Could also be useful when talking to later stage students about what postdoctoral work in a university is actually like. Do supervisors do enough of this?