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.

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Dialogue about blended learning

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