Saturday, October 17, 2015

What has firefighting got to do with doctoral supervision?

I've recently taken up a new challenge as the Convenor of the Supervision Enhancement Program at Macquarie University,  NSW Oz. I've come to this role having previously been a positional leader fostering "new normals" in learning and teaching at a number of regional Universities in Australia. I'm also a unionist and a feminist, and the casualisation of academic work matters to me. [My PhD, was on the changing nature of educator's work through casualisation in the Australian vocational sector, 2001]*.

I've been puzzling about "research supervision" and it's particular version of structural inequalities. What sense can I make of them? One of the things that has helped me is my background as the Academic Advisor to the NSW Fire Brigades (1996-2007). I know that seems like an odd connection! Let me explian: when I began my work with the fire services in 1996 I found a prevailing (unchallenged, unnamed) circular reasoning fallacy that all good firefighters are male. As a result of this fallacy decades of research about firefighters (until recently called "firemen") also made a normative assumption that all firefighters were male. Therefore population samples that formed the basis of years of study did not include women. As a result, almost 100% of research conducted about firefighters prior to the past ten years is actually not relevant for a diverse firefighting workforce - yet this research continues to be used to shape things like WH&S regulations, fitness tests, entry tests, design of appliances and uniforms, health campaigns and so on.**

In the same way, an (unnamed, assumed) circular reasoning fallacy exists in the PhD Supervision discourse. It goes something like: all good supervisors are securely employed.

In the case of firefighting, all paid fire fighters after world war II were in fact men - because governments across Australia passed a law banning women from being employed in that role (prior to, during WWII and until this day many women were volunteer firefighters). So the "men" part of the "firefighters" was in fact the case until the Anti-Discrimination laws that were introduced (eg  in NSW 1977). So "women" couldn't be good firefighters, because they weren't actually allowed to be paid firefighters! (But see my Archive).

In the same way, PhD graduates who are employed as sessional academic staff are constrained by law (university policy) in terms of their ability to supervise. PhD graduates who are employed as professional staff (eg as researchers) are currently not permitted to supervise at all! Academic staff employed on a contract of less than 3 years (and this might include academic staff who are serially employed on a one year contract for fifteen years) are not allowed to be Principal Supervisors. They may be appointed to the role of Co-Supervisor in most universities, but keeping track of the lived experience of this is hard because the regulatory processes that have been put in place for "quality supervision" (the good supervisor) only count academics who are employed on a contract of 3 years or more. Circular exclusion.

So you can probably see my point making a connection between the exclusionary practices at law of firefighting agencies, and the exclusionary practices at law of doctoral supervision. In both spaces, the notion of what constitutes "good" (firefighting, supervision) is theorised and codified in the absence of important populations. In the case of firefighting, exclusion was "n=all women" (has it changed?) In the case of doctoral supervision exclusion it remains n=all academics employed on a 3 years plus contract who also meet other requirements. 

For example, the Group of Eight's 2013 discussion paper The Changing PhD drew on the EC Lifelong Learning Program's set of questions  to ask in relation to the quality of supervision:
  • the maximum number of doctoral candidates per supervisor;
  • obligatory training for supervisors;
  • voluntary training for supervisors;
  • a requirement or recommendation or a minimum number of meetings with the supervisor;
  • a requirement or recommendation for supervisory teams;
  • written agreements between supervisors, supervisees and/or institution;
  • procedures for dealing with supervisor-supervisee conflicts;
  • systematic feedback collected from doctoral candidates; and
  • other (specified) issues.
Absent from the list is "the length of employment contract of the Supervisor".

I don't like exclusionary practices that promote themselves in the garb of "quality", or in the case of PhD Supervision, excluding a generation of potential supervisors because the sector has moved away from secure work. 

Research about firefighters needed to kick-start again to include identify, gender and race in their figuring of the social dimensions of firefighting. So too does research about doctoral supervision. I find studies that talk about "good supervision" that exclude thinking about the changing nature of academic work, and the diversification of career pathways, inadequate for the task at hand. 

If "secure work" is one of the dimensions of "good supervision" then this needs to be explicitly named as an assumption in sampling methodology in studies that are then used to justify university policies of exclusion. If it is not an essential, then policies (the law) need to change so that new generations of graduating doctorates can supervise, regardless of employment contract. Better still: both need to change. 

Also needing change is the popular view (for example expressed by Tara Brabazon) that PhD candidates should "be wary of co-supervisors". In other words be wary of anyone who is not employed in a contract of 3 years or more. Instead, what is needed is fresh eyes and a new perspective about flexible and adaptable supervision, responsive to the changing nature of the PhD, candidacy and diverse career pathways for PhD candidates. What constitutes and can be experienced as "good supervision" can't be meaningful if it leaves out a whole new generation of doctoral graduates who are excluded from supervising because they can never get to be supervisors, because they are excluded from supervising by the combined gatekeeping of Australian policy and employment practices.

It's like this. If you go to a conference and there are no female speakers, twitter runs hot (Congrats, You Have an All-Male Panel). Rightly so. If you go to an Indigenous meeting and only white fellas are speaking, it just isn't OK! If you go to a fireservices and there are no paid female fire fighters (and in 2013, there were none in the Northern Territory) then a siren should go off. Loudly. The house of equity is burning down.

In my experience, and in my research, I've argued that exclusion has a look. You can see it. You can see that the history of firefighting has made invisible women's roles. You can see the gendered response of media following a disaster. You can also see when institutions change.

In the context of higher education, you can see the exclusion and absence of  #nextgen doctoral graduates from academic work, including doctoral training, supervision and university policy and practices.

The systemic and cultural exclusion of #nextgen doctoral graduates can't be justified by arguing PhD students need proven supervisors. It can't be justified by arguing a supervisor needs to be able to guarantee they are there at the start and finish of a PhD candidacy. (Does anyone realise how silly that sounds in the world and labour market we all now live in?). It can't be justified by research that proposes models of "good supervision" by drawing on population samples that did not include the insights of insecurely employed doctoral graduates.

Simply: it can't be justified.

*In it, I argued the need for courageous management practices that empowered, and gave voice to educators, including those marginalised through post-industrial labour practices. I didn't go on and publish further in this area, but I have certainly tried to apply the principles of this work to my own leadership practices
**I was fortunate to be named one of Australia's 100 Women of Influence in 2013 (Diversity Category) for my work in gender and firefighting in Australia.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Alzheimer's and the Unspoken Choice

Over time different refrains have run through my mind as I've thought about death. The one most encouraged when I was a child echoes still; by Dylan Thomas: "Do not go gentle into that good night/Rage rage against the dying of the light". We are encouraged to fight it, til the last, and through that fight find strength and dignity. I think about death now, as I experience my mother's decline due to the terminal illness, Alzheimer's. 

I say "terminal illness" with purpose. Writing about my mother's disease in a public space is not something that comes easily to me, nor do I plan to detail her journey. Many others have written with great elegance and heart-felt tempo about their experiences of the parent's or other loves ones slow, inexorable decline and to them I nod. So too do I nod to the many clinicians, researchers and associations who know much about Alzheimer's and to who I am grateful. Most recently Fight Dementia'Models ofDementia Care:Person-Centred,Palliative andSupportive was of particular use as I revised my mother's end of life care plan. (It has made a difference already). 

Instead, I want to reflect on a thread that runs through some of the pieces I have read (and to which I don't intend to point, as those author's have a right to their own experiences and views without my critique). The thread is this: the notion that a loved one with Alzheimer's should not be told of their disease because "there is no cure" - on the basis "what would be the point" or  "it would be cruel to know".

Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer's. It is a terminal illness, often portrayed with a soft focus in movies like "Still Alice" or smiling photos of a ill mother and a daughter, that do much to challenge stereotypes, but not to open up to public discourse to "the other choice" which is choosing to die such as assisted suicide. There is a point for those with Alzheimer's to know because it belongs to them to decide to live or die if they know early enough. There is also a point, because they have a right to know what is happening - because what is happening can be frightening and confusing - even if they need to be reminded frequently. To rage in a different way against the dying light. But as a society, assisted suicide in the context of Alzheimer's is an unspoken choice. It's heartening to see positive aging stories for those with Dementia and Alzheimer's. But again, these stories portray those not yet in an advanced stage, which can go on for many years.

Lack of insight happens in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and so many in forums talk about how hard it is to convince a loved one that they may need to be checked for cognitive decline. Certainly this was true in my mother's case, and this delayed her diagnosis for far too long as we battled our way through. This is why I am such a strong advocate for early diagnosis where-ever possible, and an honest exploration of the options if diagnosed. 

I am not alone in my view (as a daughter of a parent with Alzheimer's) that I have no intention of going through what she has gone through if I can at all avoid it. And I also know, as a carer, that the "unspoken choice" must come early, or not at all, following diagnosis. I have a right to make that decision, not my children. It's my life, not theirs, and my information to have, not theirs to withhold. 

I've been lucky to have Mum in my life, even with Alzheimer's - even now, as she stares as if sightless into the darkening light. There is the kernel of her, somehow, somewhere, that I cling to, and miss, day after day. She eats every meal, and that astonishing will to live that she has, burns brightly. Had she known this is what her end of life would like like, would she have taken her own life? I can't answer that question. I can say that nothing prepares you for the experience of the end of an Alzheimer's sufferer's life, and as far as I know, there are no truthful portrayals of exactly that available to give a true and realistic insight into it's desperate indignities. 

But I have paid witness to it. Yes, Alzheimer's was first named in 1910 but I am among the first generations to experience our parents live longer lives, and for some of us experience a parent dying from Alzheimer's. My mother's parents died in their 70's, both suddenly. My generation? We watch, read, inform ourselves, care, fill in the endless paper-work, make endless decisions, and love and grieve. We do the slow goodbye, the slow decline. Wipe the chin. Sing. But too often, we do not tell the truth about it. We romanticize, wanting to protect our loved ones and ourselves from the truth. Or we stereotype, taking the human away, when so little human is left to take. 

My brother looked it in the face and said to Mum "You have Alzheimer's.You're dying." It was the truth. She was glad to know. He cried, I cried. Throughout the early stages of her decline, she'd say "oh that's right, I have Alzheimer's. I read about that didn't I". I still have her hand-written notes trying to diarise her life, thinking this was it's decline, not knowing the decline was a long way to come, and a long journey down. And she wanted me to donate her brain to science to help find a cure. Pragmatic, stoic, inquisitive, she had a right to know. She needed to know because she experienced her decline in a visceral way that she puzzled to understand, and which distressed her, always proud of her intelligence as a working class woman who managed to do her first degree when her five children were grown. She found it hard to explain it to herself without knowing her diagnosis. 

I whisper still to her, close up with my breath at her ear, how brave she is, how proud I am of her, how strong a woman she has always been and is still, to face her illness in the way she has. I hear her breathing relax, I hear her random yelling settle. Impossible to know why, and Alzheimer's leads you sometimes to simply be in that moment, generous and warm. 

But for Mum, it was too late to make the "unspoken choice", and as I asked above, had she understood, had she known what I her daughter knows, would she have chosen to leave early? Again, I don't know. I am guessing not. 

I believe the unspoken choice needs to be spoken. Yet, this is where talk of palliative care stops the conversation. My mother has wonderful care, and yes, a palliative care plan is in operation. But this should not stop the bigger conversation about the unspoken choice. Assisted suicide as an end-of-life plan has tremendous agency and dignity for someone diagnosed early with Alzheimer's and still able to decide their life's journey, knowing that at this present time no cure exists, dying is not only long, but characterized by significant and irreversible cognitive decline.

In Australia, there is no right to euthanasia, assisted suicide or "rational suicide" as it was called in the case of Beverley Broadbent. More importantly, public discourse about an illness that will effect millions of us is in the background of diseases like breast cancer. It is too hidden, too misunderstood in popular imagination, too "new" for us in the sense of our collective experience of the long goodbye. 

In a way, my mother had no choice. We knew nothing about Alzheimer's before her journey took us down that road, and we certainly never expected this bright, remarkable woman to experience cognitive decline. We misread many of the early signs. Misunderstood much, learnt much, felt much. Much I cannot forget, and more still that I do not wish to go through. But the thing her generation of feminist women fought for, was for their daughters to have the choices they did not have. I had the choice to go to university, to control my fertility, to gain a doctorate, to be paid well. But so too should I have the harder choices she did not have - to die at my time of choosing. 

Perhaps I too will have no choice. Perhaps I'll be proactive in seeking an early diagnosis too late to still be sufficiently aware to choose. Perhaps the moment will elude me, or the "good night" seem too long. I am my mother's daughter with a will to live bright and bold. But so too may I find courage to go bravely into that good night.  Perhaps, as many of my age hope: they will find a cure. I hope pro-active early-diagnosis won't reveal the disease tomorrow, or next year, or in five years time. I'm not ready - there is no "ready". That is the painful irony of Alzheimer's. Not only is it the long goodbye, but an early diagnosis met with a decision to end one's life means an ending whilst one can still decide. Full of life, love and hope, not yet ready to go. If it was tomorrow, would I begin to make preparations?

Who knows? Life is like that. There's the theory one has about it, then there's what really happens. But if I do know early enough (and I differ from my mother because I have seen what she did not) the unspoken choice will be on my mind. That is my right, and the right of all our loved ones who still hover this side of self-determination on the journey towards ending. Dying well, whether at the point of early diagnosis or years later at end-of-life, is important. So too is having the choice.

Dialogue about blended learning

Visit a project I built using Wix in 2010 where colleagues and I explore the meaning of "blended learning"