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2 May: Supervision

Published onJul 09, 2019
2 May: Supervision

Today a PhD student came to see me after a quite long hiatus. It was unlike him to be so distant. He explained that his absence was due in part to the fact had been going through a ‘low period’. It all had been going so well then he became frustrated with how long it had taken him to re-draft one of the chapters of his thesis. Disenchantment and disillusionment are part and parcel of the doctoral enterprise. For this student there was no point trying to talk about it: he just had to ride it out. ‘The thing is if you went to the doctor and explained that you’d been experiencing highs of elation and euphoria [when the thesis was going well] and then bouts of resignation and depression you would probably be diagnosed as suffering from a mental health problem’, he said. Living with and through a PhD can certainly feel like some kind of bipolar affliction.

PhD supervision is one of academic life’s year round staples, but what is supervision and when do you know it is being done well? These are things that are rarely talked about on campus. There are the obligatory ‘professional development’ courses that address the topic but I have rarely heard anyone comment on them being useful. Part of the problem is that supervision is an allusive skill but equally our cognizance – as either supervisors or students – of what is actually happening in the room when supervision is taking place is at best partial.

I often find myself describing supervision as a kind of intellectual friendship that often extends far beyond the time it takes to write the thesis. This is not necessarily how it seems to doctoral students who recount a wide range of experiences. It is not uncommon for students to complain that being supervised is akin to a monthly intellectual interrogation that crushes rather than fosters confidence. For some time now I have been canvassing opinion, including that of my own supervisor Professor Pat Caplan. Pat was an extraordinary supervisor and discerning reader who helped many students along the doctoral road during the dark days of Thatcherism and through the austerity of the 1980s when I studied with her.

We hadn’t seen each other for a while but meeting Pat always bears the antecedent trace of the many productive and fraught supervision sessions. This time I wanted to ask her about supervision itself. How would she describe it? ‘You listen to them, you care about them . . . you give them time. You say the difficult things if you have to.’

In many respects I have simply tried to emulate these qualities as a supervisor. She facilitated the opening up of intellectual space in which my interests were admissible and legitimate. As supervisors I think there is an ethical responsibility to act as our best teachers and examples have acted. Pat was very supportive and encouraging but she was never afraid to say difficult things.

I remember visiting her for a supervision session at her north London home in the midst of a very bleak period of educational cuts during the mid-1980s. It was a time not unlike the atmosphere in higher education today. Clutching a draft paper I climbed the stairs and sat down in her study. There were very few jobs and the prospects for the future looked grim. Thirty years later I can remember the conversation almost word for word.

‘Les, I feel I must say this’, she said. ‘I think you are talented and you have a lot to offer but I can’t see a future for you and think you might be wasting your time continuing with the PhD.’ I don’t remember coming away from that meeting feeling demoralized. Rather, the lasting impression is how much courage it must have taken to say those things to a young person. She had the guts to say an uncomfortable truth as she saw it.

It wasn’t a period when many people had much confidence in the future. I continued regardless and managed to complete my PhD largely due to the patient critical integrity of my supervisor. Pat’s fears were not realized, partly through stubbornness and luck but mostly because of the improvement of the university’s fortunes and an expansion of higher education over the last ten years that is now coming to a close. The point is that as supervisors we muster the best advice but we are not prophets.

As a student recently commented in a supervision meeting: ‘I always assume that you have the answer in your head!’ No, supervision is a place of deliberation and a time of thinking together, where potential answers are tossed around and tried out rather than transmitted from supervisor to student.

A student once complained ‘I can’t write it in the way you want me to write it.’ He missed the point. I was not trying to get him to write in a prescribed way but rather arrive at his own means of presenting his material and so enable his arguments to stand on their own terms. Repeated leaps of imagination are required in order to see how each piece might connect to the larger argument and the thesis as a whole; problems have to be formulated and reformulated and chapters are drafted and re-drafted over and over again. No wonder then that supervision – for student and supervisor alike – can seem exasperating, akin to wallpapering in a dark room!

What qualities make for a good supervisor? As I started to ask students this question a range of things emerged, many of which surprised me. First, students said that a supervisor needs to be interested in and excited by the student’s work. A sense of intellectual excitement conveys value to the student. Others said beyond this it is important that the supervisor is still excited about scholarship and their vocation more broadly. Second, students want supervisors to listen attentively and read carefully and take time and not make the student feel like they are an inconvenience to be dispensed with as quickly as possible. Good supervisors need to be patient and not teach everything they know but rather encourage students to arrive at answers for themselves. Part of the value of supervision is that the doctoral student has to give an account of him/herself and their project on a regular basis. Sometimes this involves convincing themselves, as much as their supervisors, that they are progressing and moving closer to the completion of the project. Third, good supervisors are honest in their criticism but constructive. In this sense, the supervisor needs to be both partisan and supportive of the project but, at the same time, its most loyal and trenchant critic. The supervisor is the student’s first and most committed reader. A student who submitted her thesis recently put it this way: ‘Sometimes I find it funny how I always say ‘‘I have to write a chapter for Les’’ rather than ‘‘I have to write a chapter for my PhD’’ . . . You start to internalize your supervisor’s voice. If a chapter isn’t working and I think ‘‘What would Les say?’’ then that helps me to fix it.’ Fourth, supervisors should enable students to explore ideas but not let them drift too much. In this sense supervisors need to remind the student of the stages of the thesis as a whole and the larger time frame. Finally, the best supervisors are ones who also keep the longer-term future of the student in mind in terms of academic and intellectual development, but also of what might come next in terms of a working life after the PhD.

What qualities by comparison make for a good PhD student? A cynical or self-serving faculty member might say a good PhD student is someone who leaves the supervisor alone and produces an immaculately conceived PhD after three years of lonely industry. A PhD student needs to read widely and imaginatively and this is perhaps the first quality a good student needs to cultivate. Second, a student needs ‘mobility’ and they need to engage with the world. As one colleague put it, they should ‘step out into the streets with their books with them’. Mark C. Taylor puts it to his students in these terms: ‘Do not do what I do; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I could never imagine doing and then come back and tell me about it.’ Third, PhD students need to write regularly and to write to deadlines. This is a much harder skill to cultivate than it might appear at first sight because writing can often be a real struggle. The progress of a project is not measured in the ability of a student to ‘talk their thesis’, rather it is calculated in words amassed, chapters drafted and how much of the whole thesis has been committed to the hard drive and then to paper. Fourth, the hallmark of a good student is the capacity to hear criticism and react to it productively. Supervisors sometimes repeat the same critical points over and over and wait, sometimes in vain, for the student to act on them. Assimilating critical feedback and acting on it is an important skill that is not at all straightforward. Finally, in order to complete the PhD students need to remain loyal to their project. It is a long process and the temptation to become distracted by a short-term gain and interesting side projects can be very strong. In this sense, students need to remain vigilant about making the completion of the PhD their first intellectual priority. The thesis itself is often much more than a three-year project; it’s the beginning of a much larger intellectual venture that will evolve and change over a lifetime of scholarship.

The committed and critical form of intellectual dialogue that takes place in PhD supervision is among the most rewarding aspects of the intellectual vocation but it can also be mysterious, fragile and risky. Student and supervisor, each in different ways, put their ideas and judgements to the test and open themselves up to critical scrutiny. When the student eventually goes before her examiners in the viva voce she isn’t alone: the advice and judgements of her supervisor are also being assessed with her. This is acknowledged by the examiners because they read the thesis not only for the candidate’s ideas but also to see if the student has been well advised about form and structure. Examiners might explain or even condone the weaknesses of a thesis because ‘it wasn’t supervised properly’ or the student ‘should never been allowed to submit’. As a supervisor you can never really be sure that you are getting it right. Also, the reactions or behaviour of students don’t always feel like appreciation. I know that some of the actions of my own supervisor that I hold up as an example to emulate are not quite how she reflects upon them.

A few years ago I wrote an article for a newspaper that included a discussion of how difficult and painful it was to read my supervisor’s critical comments on the literary shortcomings of early drafts of my thesis. The piece included what I thought were some quite nice metaphors – ‘red pen marks like a form of intellectual bloodletting’, for example. I sent the piece to Pat expecting the comments to raise a wry smile. When the article arrived through her letterbox she was nearing the end of her career as a supervisor and reflecting on her life as a university teacher. She feared that the article might be evidence of a longstanding grudge and I am ashamed to say I think it hurt her.

I mention this as an example of the vulnerabilities at play in the supervisory relationship that are by no means confined to the student. Along the way both students and supervisors will make mistakes. By the same token, they will get many things right. Together they will get to the end of the thesis which in many respects is not an end in itself but a beginning. It is the beginning of a scholarly career but it is also a moment to formulate, assess and reproduce the ethics of scholarship itself. The former student will carry what they have learned by example. They might also decide to do things differently as through the course of time they in turn become supervisors.

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