By Claire Aitchison

In this blog I thought I’d share some of the teaching materials I used recently when working with higher degree research supervisors. As part of a series on supervision and researcher writing I created small vignettes from stories I’d collected over the years. Groups were encouraged to talk over the scenarios in response to two prompts: What is going on here? and What strategies might be useful to address the issues?

Very often academics work in isolation, rarely having the opportunity to share their teaching practice – despite a literature that extols the virtues of peer observation (Shortland 2010) and the desire of (especially newer) academics and supervisors for learning from colleagues (Hamilton & Carson, 2013).

Given the history of PhD scholarship and the increasingly busy lives of academics, it is not surprising that the student-supervisory locus remains the most private of all teaching spaces. For students and supervisors alike, what goes on there is rarely scrutinised, discussed nor made public (Goode 2010). Perhaps that is why this activity that showcased some pretty common scenarios received so many exclamations of recognition and generated such lively discussion. As long as it’s not overdone, I think we all enjoy the chance to share and compare our own experiences against those of others. Well-constructed scenarios that ‘ring true’ can encourage us to consider events from different perspectives, trigger self-reflection and hopefully enrich our supervisory practices.

As you read these vignettes perhaps you’ll rehearse some possible explanations and responses? Perhaps you’ll think of other stories that could become a launching pad for discussions about challenges and practices in supervision, or you may like to share a pedagogical initiative that’s worked for you?

Scenario 1
‘For over a year now I have been giving my research student careful, detailed feedback on her writing. At the end of the chapter I try to summarise her main problems and identify relevant spelling or grammar rules. I have even given them links to grammar websites that have clear explanations and practice activities. However, I have seen the same errors repeated over and over. I am at my wit’s end. What else can I do?’

Scenario 2
‘A recent incident has negatively impacted my relationship with my doctoral scholar, leaving me perplexed and surprised.
Luke wrote a fabulous Masters dissertation that was insightful, quirky and inventive. I was happy to take him on as a doctoral scholar. Because I am already familiar with Luke’s capabilities, I guess I have not been as attentive to this student as I am with others; nevertheless, I have been happy with the progress of the candidature. He has been highly self-motivated, achieved all the milestones and handled some difficult surprises in his research. He is now in the last 6 months of candidature and I am working more intensely with him.
In my experience, candidates’ writing capabilities often show significant improvement in the final stages of intense ‘writing up’. As is not uncommon, some of Luke’s writing had long been under par – lacking the sophistication and depth required of a highly theoretical thesis. When I tried to explain that his writing was not ‘academic enough’ and that he still wrote like a Masters student rather than ‘at PhD level’, he reacted badly. He cut short our conversation and left the meeting. Since then our interactions have been rather steely.’

Scenario 3
‘My doctoral student has been a high school classroom teacher for over 35 years. His research is on second language acquisition – an issue about which he has very strong opinions. He is a great writer, teacher and communicator, and despite emigrating from Italy, his command of English language is exceptional. His thesis writing, however, is convoluted and dense. His sentences are long and complex. He writes passionately, at times infusing his work with hyperbole and flourish. He is determined that his views, born of extensive experience, find a place in the thesis. I am not sure how to proceed; so far he has failed to pick up on my feedback about the importance of being objective.’

Scenario 4
‘One of my very capable students is at risk of not completing on time. She is demonstrably clever and contributes well to lab activities and discussions. She is popular amongst her peers, often helping others with their work. She has developed an active social media profile with a website and research blog where she posts stories and pictures from the field and communicates with a global network of researchers.
However, she regularly fails to deliver substantial pieces of writing – rather, she turns up to supervision meetings with pages of dot points and descriptions of what she is going to do. She often presents with yet another new idea. She doesn’t stick to agreements about handing in work a week before our scheduled meeting, nor producing text in accordance with our discussions. She always has excuses – and grand plans for catching up. She has probably attended nearly every workshop available to HDR candidates.’

Goode, J. (2010). ‘Perhaps I should be more proactive in changing my own supervisions’? In M. Walker & P. Thomson, The Routledge doctoral supervisor’s companion: Supporting effective research in Education and the Social Sciences. Oxon: Routledge.

Hamilton, J., Carson, S. & Ellison, E. (2013). Building distributed leadership for effective supervision of creative practice higher research degrees Final Report for Australian Government Office for Learning and Teaching. Retrieved from supervisioncreativeartsphd.net.

Shortland, S. (2010). Feedback within peer observation: continuing professional development and unexpected consequences. Innovations in Education and Teaching International 47(3), 295-304.