I’ve been posting about how we learn to supervise. There have been three guest posts on the topic in addition to my own, and two of them – here and here – have focused on the pedagogic strategies used in supervision.
However, as we all know, supervision is a lot more than pedagogic strategy. So I’ve also been thinking about other aspects of the supervision relationship. I’ve been wondering in particular about the pastoral aspects of supervision.
I recently went back to look at Nell Noddings‘ writings on care.
Noddings discriminates between caring for someone and caring about them in a more abstract and generalizable way. The implication of “caring about vs caring for ” is that it is possible to care about what happens in general, but this is not the same as caring for someone – caring for is focused and specific. Noddings’ differentiation (about, for) suggests that caring about would be a precondition for a supervision relationship. However it is not the same as caring for a doctoral researcher. A supervisor might actually care about doctoral education in general, but still conduct specific supervision relationships as if they were instrumental…
Noddings sees care as an ethical practice, and one which occurs through encounter. Encounter is a term she drew from Martin Buber, who argued that encounter occurs when we meet as people (I-thou), not as person and object ( I-it). We could think of supervision as an encounter.
The Noddings-Buber notion of encounter offers one way to understand the problems with the kind of supervision relationship in which the doctoral researcher is merely an object to be audited, an entity to be got through the three year process, not a person but simply an embodied research project and thesis. Noddings’ theories support something different, a supervision encounter constructed as and by person-person interactions, practices and ethos.
Noddings suggests that there are some important interlocking elements in how caring for is practiced.
According to Noddings, care is reciprocal, not one way. Both parties gain from the encounter and both give to the relationship. It is not the case that one party cares for and the other does not. Both parties need to be engaged in the practices of care. Both parties also recognize that care is being practiced.
Noddings identifies reciprocity in a caring encounter as something built up and dependent on:
(1) modeling – by this Noddings means that care must be materially demonstrated in the relationship. Furthermore modeling is concerned not simply with care in the here and now but also with each person learning about and learning for care in the future.
(2) dialogue – Noddings suggests that care develops through dialogue; care should be deliberately discussed, not left implicit. The conduct of a care-full relationship becomes something to reflect on and evaluate together. Supervisors do often try to do this, I think, although the few advice books about supervision generally don’t get a lot further than suggesting the supervisors make their expectations clear at the outset. I imagine this making explicit process to be rather more in the I –it category than Noddings has in mind
(3) practice – Noddings suggests that care does not occur without conscious and deliberate practice and reflection on that practice. Care is built up over time.
(4) confirmation – Buber suggests that confirmation is an act of affirmation of the other person. It is intended to encourage them to do the best they can, and be the best they can. This aspect of care also seems to resonate with supervision, which does involve a lot more than critique and asking hard questions. Good supervisors, like all teachers, work with the positive, acknowledging what people can do, confirming their skills, knowledge, ideas and potentials.
Care is dependent, Noddings concludes, on trust, empathy and continuity, all of which are constructed through the encounter, and through reciprocity and modeling, dialogue, practice and confirmation.
Now, there are criticisms of course of Noddings and of Buber, and various uses and misuses of their work (some of which are truly cringeworthy). But it does seem to me that this theorisation- or if not this, then something like it – does begins to make sense of an ethical, rather than an instrumental basis, for supervision.
I’d be interested in your views on this. I’m working up to a longer piece of writing I think on this aspect of supervision and this post is a little think along the way….