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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The 3MT as a lens into concision, productivity and creativity in PhD research

Perfection is not when there is no more to add, but no more to take away. ~ Antoine de Saint Exupéry

Last week I spoke at my university’s Three Minute Thesis competition, which challenges doctoral candidates to explain their research in under 180 seconds, to a non-specialist audience.

Other PhD students in the competition had been attending multiple workshops, practising for weeks in front of experts, and being given feedback from professors and each other. I wrote my speech the week before, and then attempted to memorise it while teaching, marking essays, parenting, and revising my whole thesis (again), this time for the eyes of my second supervisor. In amongst that week, the universe decided to add night after sleepless night with sick children, and sickness for me, too. Such is the world of the working, parenting PhD candidate!

I found ways to fit 3MT prep into the cracks in my week. I recorded my speech on my dictaphone and played it in the car on the way to and from work, and before I went to bed. At night after my kids were in bed, I ran through the speech. By the time 3MT day came around, I was still full of cold and bleary eyed, but I figured I only needed to be ‘on’ for three minutes. That, I could do. I presented the speech before its first ever audience on the day. I managed to remember my entire speech from start to finish, did it under time (which is crucial) and got some nice feedback afterwards. (Thank you to those in the audience who nodded vigorously, and the two girls at the cafeteria afterwards who told me they think I should have won!)

The most useful part of the 3MT for the PhD researcher is the decision making that goes into writing the speech. At around 500 words the speaker has to make tough decisions about what to put in (in my case, from research which has resulted in a 100,000 word thesis) and what to leave out. About how much to popularise and entertain, and how much serious research detail to foreground. I think my balance was a little off, but the experience of writing it – like writing abstracts or short papers – was a worthwhile thinking exercise in distilling my PhD down into its essence. It forced me to ask: What is the crux of what I am doing? Why should anyone care? How might I encourage them to want to know more?

my 3MT slide with thesis illustrations by me

my 3MT slide with thesis illustrations by me

Above is the image I used for the static slide which projected behind me as I gave my 3MT competition speech. It gives an idea of the way in which I’ve conceptualised my research about professional identity, professional learning and school change. It’s an approach which might be perceived as a bit whacky and non-traditional by some.

I’ve used narrative method, but taken the notion of story further, including using a well-known literary novel as conceptual frame and even providing illustrations in my thesis. These decisions emerged from systematic working through of research problems such as the ethical issue of protecting anonymity, as well as the storytelling challenge of making meaning for readers. I’ll be presenting at this year’s Australian Association of Research in Education conference about the use of extended literary metaphor and known literary characters as analytical and conceptual tools.

In reflecting upon this slide and my 3MT speech, I was heartened by Helen Kara’s new book, Creative Research Methods, and by this recent podcast from Tara Brabazon and Steve Redhead. Helen, in her book, does not encourage researchers to be creative for the sake of creativity, rather she notes that being open to creative solutions to research problems acknowledges and respects the complexity of research work.

Tara and Steve, in their discussion of interdisciplinary PhDs, make a point about doctoral (and other) research that resonates for me; select a university, supervisors and examiners who will protect your journey and respect your work. This has been so important for me. My supervisors, neither of whose own work is in my specific area, have been supportive of my ideas and my journey. That is not to say they have not challenged me! Quite the opposite. When I first floated the idea of creating illustrations for my participant stories, for example, they were sceptical, but not dismissive. I worked on the theoretical rationale for using illustrations in my thesis and once I had articulated my argument convincingly, my supervisors told me that I’d effectively made the case. This is one example of a number of moments in my PhD journey in which my work has been respected and my journey supported, rather than controlled.

So as I presented my 3MT speech, before my idiosyncratic slide, I felt that I was presenting research in which my journey, my voice and my work has been – challenged, certainly – but also respected.