Doctoral supervision: From the PhD Panopticon to circle of awesome

Is it surprising that prisons resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons? ~ Michel Foulcault, Discipline and Punish

chapel by @debsnet

circular chapel with spire

This week, Module 2 of the How to Survive the PhD MOOC asked us to take a photo of something in our daily lives which harks back to the history of the doctorate, and comment on it, perhaps considering the remnants of history on our own doctoral experience.

Although not medieval or at a university, I was immediately drawn to the chapel of the school at which I work. It has two elements which might be seen to allude to the history of the doctorate.

The chapel has a large spire atop it, which appears as a sharp white spike, piercing the blue sky. The spire speaks of the monastic traditions of the PhD, which was originally based on an understanding of the Bible. Whenever I’m sitting in this chapel, I’m aware of the presence of that spire, which looks like a kind of direct line to God, awaiting a lightning bolt of inspiration or knowledge, or carrying prayers to the heavens.

The circular form of the building is the other feature which has me thinking about my experience of the PhD. Could it represent an ideal cycle of PhD completion or be an Orwellian metaphor of authority, surveillance and control?

On the one hand, the symbol of the circle might help us to think of the PhD journey as a complete, unified process. Although most candidates do not experience a seamless journey, they might feel at the end of their doctoral studies that the cycle or circle is complete (not, hopefully, like they have ‘come full circle’, but that they have tied up the ends of a long process).

A circle often also suggests infinity, and certainly the PhD process can feel like it is never-ending. Just as one PhD milestone is completed, there are already more laid out before the candidate.

circle by @debsnet

In a less positive view of the circular building, I am reminded of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, and Michel Foucault’s Panopticism. The Panopticon was a circular prison building with a central watchman’s tower, perfect for surveillance and control. The prisoners were separated from each other by concrete walls, and yet potentially under constant surveillance from the eye of the watchman. The watchtower emanated bright light, so that at any time each prisoner was unsure if or when they were being watched. Foucault saw the Panopticon as a symbol of power through the knowledge and observation of the watchman, and the disempowerment of the imprisoned and the watched who were robbed of knowledge.

I wonder how traditional vs. non-traditional views of the doctorate might relate to the Panopticon. Often PhD researchers are isolated, like Panopticon prisoners in their cells. They are watched over in varied ways and to differing degrees. Some may feel like they are unaware of the knowledge of the watchman, those in the academy who know what a PhD is, and what a PhD researcher should be doing; the watchtower is knowledge from which the candidate is excluded. Some might feel as though they are working away in their cells beneath the eye of no-one, abandoned by beacons of power to toil alone, un-watched and un-helped. Perhaps some research students would like more constant watching and checking in by their supervisors. Some are watched over generously by kindly supervisors who are far from the invisible authority in the blindingly-lit tower.

Despite Foucault’s observation that the idea of constant surveillance could help with self-governing behaviours – that people who think they are being watched develop agency and self-discipline – I would hope that the modern PhD experience feels very little like being invisibly surveyed by those in authority, where the candidate is power-less and the academe is power-full. PhD candidates should not be seen as a population which needs to be under the control of powers that be. Doctoral researchers should be capable of independent research and provided with supervisory support.

In my own experience of supervision, I have found that the supervisory relationship slides along a continuum as it changes over time. At first I felt very much like the enthusiastic apprentice to the knowledgeable masters. Never was I, however, expected to emulate the masters. The PhD is about creation of new knowledge, not emulation of old knowledge. In my Fine Art study we copied the Old Masters so as to understand how they did their work, but then took this knowledge and bent or broke rules to generate new ways of creating, producing or knowing. Research, like art, is conversation in which layers of meaning are added.

At some point along the way I felt as though I became a peer or collaborator in my supervision meetings, with some of my own expertise to offer, although my supervisors are still the experts in PhD completion and peer review processes. I became the expert on my own work. Finding my own voice and owning my contribution was an important step in developing my researcher identity.

I still feel sometimes as though I am working behind soundproof concrete walls, alone in the PhD studio (it has not been a cell for me). Yet connections with tweeters, bloggers, and now the How to Survive Your PhD MOOC online community, have helped me feel more connected to others experiencing the doctorate from their various vantage points. My circle has become more campfire-Kumbaya and less panoptic Orwellian control.

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