Saturday, September 10, 2016

Why we need to debunk the idea that a PhD/Supervisor relationship is "similar to a marriage"

Recently I tweeted that "the cultural practice of equating the PhD/Supervisor relationship to marriage is highly problematic" in response to something that landed in my feed via @ANU_RSAT. This is not the first time I've heard someone liken the PhD/Supervisor relationship to marriage. Basker & Russo 2005 (in Avison et al 2013) identified 11 metaphors commonly used to describe the PhD/Supervisor relationship - and one of these was marriage, "where the student and supervisor are very close in their relationship, indeed extending beyond an academic one and often beyond the dissertation period, referred to as an "intellectual romance" by Baskerville & Russo (2005). The "marriage analogy" is explored by Delamont 2001, and by Galt 2013 in an extra-ordinary piece that equates the contract between the supervisor and PhD candidate with a "pre-nuptial agreement" because "this may be the most important relationship they have had in their lives, and it is a little bit like marriage". Cheema's 2015 guide, like many others that can be found on the web, offered this advice: "I know there are subtle differences but the relationship between a PhD student and advisor is a lot like a marriage - compatibility is very important. If you have different priorities, goals and personalities, both of you will suffer". There are many others who use this metaphor.

So: the marriage-like metaphor. What's the problem? Here are 7:

1. A PhD-Supervisor relationship should be a professional relationship.
I've been in close professional relationships at work, and never once had those relationships described as a marriage. Because they aren't. They are relationships governed and mediated by numerous policies, laws and expectations - just like a PhD should be. A PhD-Supervisor relationship should be a professional relationship, even if there are weekly meetings for many years, mentoring and so on.
2. A PhD should be a professional program of research training.
There is no reason at all for describing the artifacts of PhD study in marriage-like terms. A project proposal is a project proposal, not a pre-nuptial agreement. A progress report is a progress report. Confirmation of candidature is confirmation of candidature. There is no need for metaphors. Imagine if a Head of School described an academic's annual performance management review as a marriage-like guidance session!
3. Academics, including PhD Supervisors, need to shift paradigms and stop seeing university students as empty vessels  (by implication: virginal bridges and grooms?) who have just left school, or have yet to hold down a real job if they are postgrads. Infanticising university students happens even when they are clearly in their late 20s or 30s, 40s, 50s and so on. The terms "early career researcher" and "early career academic" reflect the failure of universities to understand that adults bring rich and complex lives to UG and PG study, and many are not "early" at all anymore. (On a personal note - I did my PhD with two children in tow, and a fully developed career, in my 40s. It would never have crossed my mind that my supervisory relationship was anything like a marriage, and had this been suggested I would have found it totally inappropriate).
4. PhD candidates should be empowered to expect good supervision, in a way quite different to the expectation of a "marriage". This is a much needed shift in thinking that should be stated up-front at every commencement program, and in every PhD handbook. If a supervisor's behaviour is poor, then Universities and PhD candidates should not accept it. If bad things happen during supervision, then a zero tolerance approach should be in place.

Anonymous Academic had something interesting to say about this (December 2015). The marriage-like metaphor in no way helps candidates to expect good supervision - after all, it is marriage, or marriage-like, relationships that provide the social contexts for domestic violence and intimate partner abuse.
5. The marriage-like metaphor implies a heteronormative relationship (eg the implied normative values), which should be thoroughly debunked by those involved in fostering the quality of postgraduate research programs. The ACOLA Review 2016 argued that increasing emphasis needs to be placed on supervisory panels, and on industry partnerships and internships, as part of improving the quality of the PhD. The marriage-like metaphor exists in a paradigm that fosters neither. (See Hudak & Giammattei (2009) for an interesting read about heteronormative assumptions about marriage in the context of therapy - but note even without these assumptions, the marriage-like metaphor fails). The PhD candidate is best served by rich, complex, diverse relationships including peer-to-peer, self-to-lifeworld, self-to-sector, and so on.
6. The marriage-like metaphor stops questions about the "one Principal Supervisor throughout" paradigm. The current paradigm of PhD supervision is that the commencing supervisor in Year 1 should be the graduating supervisor in Year Whenever. This way of thinking stops the design of models where fabulous supervisors of the first-year-PhD-experience then hand over to those talented at supervising thesis/ thesis by publication /creative works. The Higher Education Standards Framework (Threshold Standards) 2015 do not require that the Principal Supervisor be there at the start and the finish, but rather that:
4.2.3. Each research student is supported by continuing supervisory arrangements, including:
a.  a principal supervisor who holds a doctoral degree, or has equivalent research experience, and who is active in research and publishing in, or otherwise making original contributions to, a relevant field or discipline
b.  at least one associate supervisor with relevant research expertise, and
c.  the principal supervisor is a member of the staff of the higher education provider, or has a relevant adjunct appointment, or is otherwise formally contracted and accountable to the provider for supervisory duties. 
Supervisory monogamy should be questioned as a model. However, this is difficult because the academic who is appointed as Principal Supervisor accumulates reputational goods throughout the PhD, such as joint publications, brand recognition, budgets, promotion, and so on. There are weighty driving forces against change.

7. The "marriage-like" metaphor implies that marriage is a universal, known good. Where to begin to unpack such an (heteronormative) assumption? But see here or here or here as starting points of critique. (And remember, any PhD candidate may come from backgrounds where "marriage" is not a universal, known good.)


In a professionally networked, constantly evolving digital world like this....

and in a country where other models of learning, such as the Gunya Model (MQ, 2016 p.35) or the 8 Ways Model (ACER 2011) exist...'s pretty hard to sustain an argument that a PhD/Supervisor relationship should look like this:


Monday, July 11, 2016

"What shall we do with our girls"

I'm feeling nostalgic. Here is a copy of my reflective piece on my work on women and firefighting.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A response to the ACOLA review 2016: HDR Supervision

The goods train Research Training

Recently, the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) released it's Review of Australia's Research Training Scheme Final Report (2016). The Report was derived from numerous sources, including submissions from across Australia from those involved in research training, and training research supervisors.

What does the report say about supervision?

My comments here are restricted to one section of the Report - Section 10: Evaluation of supervisor
competency and performance (pp.87-93). The key finding of this section:10.5 Key finding 10, is as follows:
Universities have a responsibility to provide ongoing high quality HDR supervisory training, and a responsibility to act where supervisory performance falls below expected performance levels. Outstanding HDR supervision should be recognised and reinforced by universities through the application of professional standards and rewards for performance (p.93).
 This key finding was arrived at after considering the supervision experiences of HDR candidates (10.2); and key issues relating to improving the quality of HDR supervision (10.3). These included:
  • Inconsistent or lack of training
  • Structural issues affecting quality of supervision
  • Unclear involvement of supervisory panels
  • Lack of quality assurance mechanisms (pp.88-89).
The report then makes a number of recommendations, broadly under the rubric that research supervision needs to be professionalised. In summary:
  • There needs to be supervisor training, and there should be a framework to frame this training
  • There needs to be improved support for supervisors
  • There needs to be consistency in the role of supervisory panels
  • Supervisor performance needs to be monitored

My response to Section 10 of the Report.

1. Silos
The Key Finding, key issues and recommendations, in my mind, can be summarized as largely adding few new insights to improving supervision practices. In addition, they appear unaware of many years of scholarship about academic development that may have proved useful and fruitful to establishing a "new normal". This is the unconscious working of the Research Training Silo (yes, another meaning for RTS). I've sat in a graduate studies office for less than a year, but I'm a veteran of academic development and the pursuit of the new normal in a digital age,(eg and eg)  and the report confirmed my experience of the silo nature of "research" and "learning and teaching" in Australian higher education. It's disappointing. 

2. Digital literacies.
The ACOLA report mentions the word "digital" twice only, and one of these times is actually a job title. In the section on supervision training the word "digital" is not used. The need for digital literacies in higher education practices is a basic rule 101 in today's academic development conversation, yet it does not appear as a key issue in the report. It is a critical oversight.
[Re research training: The section on "skills development in research training" (pp. 36-40) and Table 9 (p.39: possible research-specific and transferable skills for HDR candidates) do not foreground digital literacies. Perhaps this is because no-one mentioned it in submissions?]
The question not asked: What does research training and research supervision look like in a digital age? 
The review should have stepped up and asked this question. It is a great shame other reports, (outside the Research Training Silo) such as Advancing Australia as a Digital Economy (among a great many) were not drawn upon. And given the OECD is referred to in the report as a touchstone for international comparison, surely it should also have drawn on the OECD publication OECD Digital Economy Outlook 2015.

3. Minimising.
OK, so the report does acknowledge that 1 in 5 HDR candidates are not satisfied with their supervision, and that this number is qualified by access to post graduation employment. But then the whole section self-sabotages by this important throw away paragraph (emphasis added):
The data suggests that universities have an opportunity to improve the supervisory experience and provide further support for the minority of candidates that are currently not enjoying a positive supervision experience (p. 87).
The section begins by saying "1 in 5" not satisfied, but by the end minimized to "the minority of candidates"! Sorry, but 20% is actually a very large number! It's unacceptable! It is not good enough, and it must change. It may not be the role of the report to use exclamation marks as I have, but using the word "minority" in this context, and in this way, if inappropriate and minimizes the issues. For a more detailed discussion, see the NSW Ombudsman's recent report Complaints about the Supervision of Post-Graduate Students (2016).

4. The "training" silver bullet
In Blog posts, MOOCs, twitter and reports, the silver bullet called "training" is recommended for solving the issue of supervision. Apart from the focus on "training" being very 1980s, there is no notion in the report that before any "training" is done what is needed is a broad and robust conversation, hopefully with academic development professionals, about what best practice might be in a digital age in terms of continuing professional development. This isn't just a conversation about research frameworks, it's also about learning, learning design appropriate to academic development (supervision), and where supervision fits within academic work. It's also about access and equity.
As I look around Australia, the preponderance of training in relationship to supervision appears to be off-the-job, short, one-off, compliance-focused events that foreground procedural "how to" knowledge. There are many password protected sites, and a great lack of sharing.
In the "open" (free, not password protected) there are self-directed asynchronous resources such as the Research Supervision Toolkit and Edith Cowan's Improve HDR Supervision Practice eBook Both have suggestions about local usage that assume a synchronous face-to-face mode.
Generally speaking however, resources are developed in the absence of conversations with educational designers or technologists (the Silo effect at work) so that the resources lack appropriate, well-thought-out design-based approaches to learning and changed practices. (Let alone the notion of academic development being achieved through, for example, professional learning conversations).
From a learning design perspective, throwing things online could be regarded as "first generation" distance education (slight variation - print media, but put online) if one used Taylor's taxonomy. (The sector should aspire to "fifth generation"!)

What is missing from the report?

Scary missing things

1. Professional learning theory (academic development)
A deeply embedded link needs to be forged between what we already know about academic practice, academic development and research supervision pedagogy. Reference is made to the UK Vitae Research Development Framework, but this not provide insight into how to develop academics who have the capacity to support candidates to achieve the framework. There are existing professional standards for academics, such as the Australian University Teaching Criteria, Professional development framework for teaching in higher education; the UK Professional Standards Framework, the Kinship model for teaching and learning, among many. As I'm an advocate of supervision in a digital age, I also think the following frameworks should inform any conversation about quality supervision: ACODE Benchmarks, JISC support and development materials, and the E-Learning Maturity Model.

2. Acknowledgment of cultural practices!
Broadly, the report is an expression of the cultural norms of the research training sector. "Disruption" and "transformation" are missing in action (hiding in the corner with "digital") so perhaps the sector thinks only tweaks, additions, tightening ups and changes of focus are needed? (That's not a view I share).
In terms of "supervision": Changing supervision practices is about cultural change. Cultural change cannot be wrought through Key Finding 10. For example: the word "completions" is wrapped up in, and expressive of, a range of cultural norms. It is mentioned 48 times in the report. "Completions" is a word that has big legs and assumed meanings in the research training world. [The answer to the question "How many completions do you have?" being a chaff-sifter in academic parlance.] Sadly, the report does not grapple with the meaning of "completions" as a cultural practice, and arguable it is only by so doing that supervision practices can be transformed. But this is only one example - the report itself appears unaware of it's acculturation. Surely a review of this substance should have looked at it's own limitations, and the limitations of those in the sector making submissions?

3. Frankness
The truth is there are some supervisors that are serially terrible - and institutions that are sometimes complicit in doing nothing about it. Key Finding 10 fails the frankness test when it comes to dealing with the conflicts of interest that can occur when a poor supervisor (who achieves completions) brings in a big reputation, big industry connections and large sums of research funding. We don''t know nearly enough about this occurrence, for a whole range of reasons. But for change to take place frankness is needed.
It also fails the frankness test by not mentioning complicated things like the fact that we know that bullying takes place in some industries (such as clinical settings) by senior staff who then may also supervise as Adjunct in Universities. The examples are many, here are two: 1, 2. What procedures are put in place to ensure bullying cultural practices that are "common" in external workplaces are not imported into the supervision of research students? Again, a conflict of interest exists - the disinclination to expect Adjuncts to develop as supervisors because they "supervise for free".

Not to mention the lack of clearly, upfront stated zero tolerance for bullying by supervisors of candidates. That is a whole other Blog entry, but see a tweet of mine below:

Evaluating and monitoring supervisor performance cannot be fully understood nor enacted in the absence of such frankness about conflicts of interest and an eyes-open approach that grapples with cultural norms that need to change.

4. Leadership in thinking about the changing security of academic work and implications for supervision
Although the report considers postgraduate career destinations in the context of academic careers (p.12) and generally acknowledges the decline in secure, tenured employment in universities, it only briefly flows this acknowledgment through to considering the implications for quality supervision (under "structural issues" p.89). The industrial organisation of supervisors, prescribed through policy across Australia, is predicated on secure and stable employment. The appointment of Principal Supervisor, for example, typically assumes consistency of opportunity (to demonstrate that they have brought candidates to completion, thus justifying being appointed as a supervisor) and consistency of contract (that the supervisor will be there at the start and finish of a candidates long journey). Yet HR policies and employment practices no longer guarantee either. It is a great shame that Key finding 10 did not refer in any way to this critical structural issue.
To put this colloquially: given the insecure nature of academic work is not going to change anytime soon, how on earth are #nextgen supervisors going to get to be "Principal" supervisors if individual University policy and practices aren't changed as a matter of urgency? This inter-generational "new divide" will characterise academic work into the future and needs new thinking and new solutions.

5. A connection between the report's findings in other chapters, and implications for supervision
The Report usefully highlights the need for greater focus on industry-university partnerships, internships, and much greater support for Indigenous researchers. Yet these findings don't flow through into Key Finding 10 or to thinking about the continuing professional development of supervisors in the context of a shift towards Master of Research; Internships; and Indigenous education; internationalisation and so on. For example, in the context of Indigenous education supervisors need to develop and demonstrate, cultural competence and safety. While this was noted in Section 11 in the report (Under-represented groups in HDR training) the implications for supervisors was not then noted in Section 10.


Although I have read the whole report, I have focused on one section - Section 10: Evaluation of supervisor competency and performance. I had hoped the report would provide substantial leadership and vision concerning the way forward, but was disappointed. The reliance by the research training community on "training" as a silver bullet is evidenced in the report, which lacks engagement with thinking about supervision as a 21st century capability in a post-industrial labour market/economy/world - in many ways discontinuous with industrial forms and norms of supervision labour. Yet it is these very norms that remain un-surfaced in the review, and therefore resistant to exposition or disruption. I can only guess that this reflects the likewise limitations of submissions made re "supervision" by the sector.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

In response to "Dear kids, don't ever shove me in an old people's home"

Two things caught my eye. First, the headline. "Dear kids, don't ever shove me in an old people's home". Second one of my fav tweeps  @clairebrooks posted the link and included an almost-throw away line "bit close to the bone this weekend". It was Easter, the one just past, and my concern and empathy switched on as I imagined the many "Claire's" out there, who may have, like me, been spending their time thinking about, caring for, managing the lives of, their ageing parents.

The article in question voices the experiences of Avril Moore, who has made the difficult decision - in retrospect regretted - of placing her mother into an aged care home. Avril does not want her adult children to place her in a home, and writes the following reverie, which I quote in large part because her words speak louder than any paraphrase I might write:
"Yes, the bathroom is clearly a death trap so help us organise some of those handles and perhaps a shower that accommodates a chair but I'd rather fall over in my own bath and drown than move to ... as above.
I know, the loose rugs covering the worn carpet are a broken hip waiting to happen as too are the piles of newspapers, plastic bags and cardboard boxes we have taken to hoarding.
Feel free to chuck it all out but remember we have to die somehow and if it's as ignominious as slipping on a shopping bag or the recalcitrant pooing cat so be it, better than etc. etc ... Oh, and ditto the stairs.
Please refrain from talking to me as though I am a child. I might be slower to comprehend but I am still me and I want you to remain you, not some awful incarnation of Nurse Ratched and a kindergarten teacher.
And if the neighbours are complaining that I've been wandering the streets in my dressing gown or your father is talking into the garden hose again, remind them if it takes a village to raise a child it most certainly takes a suburb to look out for its old folks."
My experience of caring for a mother with Alzheimer's has taught me, among a great many things, to never make comment on the choices people make concerning their parents. I don't, therefore, make comment on Avril's choices for her mother, and I feel compassion for the very real fear that underpins many a baby boomer's treatise on ageing - including Avril's.

But I want to make this clear up front - I did not "shove" my mother into an "old people's home" (an aged care facility). It was a painful, heartbreaking, traumatic process to have to step into someone's life - as it happens, my mother's - and take that most basic of human rights away. The right to self-determination. Advocating self-determination is central to my values as a professional, as a critical pedagogue, and as a mother. Advil's desire to self-determine is powerful, just as my mother's was. Her desire for her final journey to be fragile, feral and at times frightening, echoes my mother's as the world slipped away, and she hallucinated, deteriorated and became frightened.

We delayed as long as we could. We delayed even though she cooked her chicken still in the plastic wrapper and ate it. We delayed through her repeated episodes of food poisoning. We delayed even though we saw her feeling with two hands down the side of the car to find the keyhole so she could drive - and then got in the car and drove. Just before she was diagnosed with agnosia as part of Alzhemier's. We delayed by making sure she lost her car license, and sold her car. We delayed by simplifying her kitchen cupboards, removing hazards. We delayed by accessing aged care packages, so that she had a carer visiting her through the week. We delayed through many ACAT assessments, and through her increasing confusions and distress. I left full-time work, and we delayed some more. We delayed by arranging for her to live with my brother, cared for by my sister-in-law. We delayed because we could not find the right aged care facility. Yes, we delayed.

Then, we couldn't. Caring for someone with dementia or Alzheimer's is a complex professional health care matter. There is a cross-over point. There it is, on my life line: the moment we took Mum's self-determination away. The day we sat and filled in the paper work, and signed on the dotted line. That moment.

Had we not put Mum in care, at a time when she could adjust to a new situation, we would have let her down. We would not have been providing her with the right care, by trained professionals. And yes, this has been a journey, taking much time, self-educating, visiting, bedside sitting. Building relationships with health care professionals, ensuring case management. And - so on. As Mum's adult daughter, I have witnessed, felt, smelt, done, thought about, much I never expected to. It took a great deal more time to have Mum in care than it did not to. It filled the four corners and the beating hearts of her children's worlds.

Yes, my brother and I, her enduring guardians, put Mum in care. Not because of the reasons Avril gave, but because it was the right thing to do.

And me? What do I want to say to my adult sons? Like Mum, and like Avril, I don't want to go into an aged care facility. But I'm not going to ask this of my children. I know they will struggle, like I have struggled, to accept the moment when they must decide, if I am unable or unwilling to make that call, if an aged care facility is the thing that next must happen in my life's journey. I know that they value, encourage and love my self-determination, my larger than life dreams, my passion, my poetry and energy. They won't want to take that away from me. It will break their hearts.

But there may come a time when they have to. I'm not sure if Avril knows this, but one of the first stages of Alzheimer's is to loose self awareness. I watched Mum stop being able to read. Stop knowing how to go for a walk and come home. This isn't an annoyance for the neighbours, this is distressing for the person experiencing it. Loosing oneself, as least as far as my experience of Mum suggests, hurts. Oh yes, there are the bright sides, the laughter moments, the black humour giggles. Like life, it's complicated. But - not being able to use a key to get in the door - hurts. Not being able to remember that a door is a door, or a key is needed, or where the toilet is, or what a toilet is for. These all hurt. But I have seen the great care offered by trained staff who reduce this hurt. Staff who kiss my mother on the cheek, and thank her for helping them.

I have argued elsewhere that we need a robust conversation about assisted suicide, and the difficulties of ending one's life when faced with Alzheimer's. Sometimes taking responsibility for one's life is about facing the hard realities that ageing sometimes brings. Perhaps Alzheimer's. Perhaps something else. Perhaps a quick death unexpectedly. Perhaps a ripe and healthy old age. Sometimes, for some people, it's about making tough choices about one's final journey. I don't know how to do this. No, not yet. Perhaps not at all. But owning my ageing, controlling it, shaping it's texture, the playing out of self, the not going gently into that good night....may not mean what I think it might mean. Or it might. Mum's journey has taught me that.

Dialogue about blended learning

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