supervision as an ethic of care

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….

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in encounter, ethics of care, I-thou, Martin Buber, modeling, Nell Noddings, practice, supervision and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to supervision as an ethic of care

  1. Julia says:

    i’m not sure this is helpful but I think it may not be totally irrelevant: i was wondering what classes as ‘encounter’? Is this space in this present moment an ‘encounter’? I believe it is – especially since there is some communicative interaction going on – but I wouldn’t class every activity on other social media as encounters. It’s tricky… but I think that if FB, Twitter and other such social media did not exist, I would more often write to colleagues and friends to directly enquire about how they are doing. My mistake – and I think my generation’s mistake on the whole – has been to assume that when I see a colleague post some status, I can count that as an ‘encounter’. Could this be something that Nodding’s notion of ‘practice’ warns us against?


  2. Dear Pat,

    I have long admired your posts and recommended them to my doctoral students. I think that the ethic of care is crucial not only in the supervision of research students but in all teaching activities, from primary school on. This is what makes teaching a vocation. The ethic of care discourse has been long making an impact in the social sciences but I think that it is bound to do so in many way, especially as more and more people like ourselves reach an age when we need to be cared for by others. Returning to doctoral supervision, it seems to me that the crucial issue and one that confronts all caring supervisors is the balancing of an ethic of care with an ethic of criticism. You may be interested in my own blog on the subject.!/2013/01/reconciling-ethic-of-care-with-critical.html

    Keep up this great work. It is invaluable to supervisors and students alike,



  3. Carol Webb says:

    Speaking as a student who has now reached the final stage of my EdD, care has been an incredibly important issue. How far a hand reaches out towards a student is crucial to helping them stay on board the doctoral rollercoaster. Emotion plays a large part in engagement, being acknowledged, feeling that you are known, a sense of inclusion, all help one to take the necessary risks.
    No matter one’s age, the emotional needs when in the role of learner begin with connection. Dialogue, modelling, critique absolutely need to be driven by the characteristics of confirmation. I can see how those three factors gave me something to aspire towards, while the fourth, provided the catalyst for engagement.


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  5. meg says:

    I completely endorse what Carol has said. Half way through my doctoral research, at an age when I should be nodding in my bungalow, I would say that a feeling of being cared for as an individual is THE critical factor in deciding whether one makes it through the tough times. And, as Pat says, it has to be founded on trust. This in turn means that those supervisors who are on the high end of the elusive spectrum are negatively affecting their students not only academically, but emotionally and psychologically.


  6. vivcree says:

    Dear Pat, I wrote about this in an article published in Social work education journal – called I’d like to call you my mother. reflections on Supervising international phd students. Hope you find it useful – this is an important topic!


    • M-H says:

      Hi Viv – I’d like to read this, but I can’t find it in the Journal of Social Work Education. Do you have the full citation? Thanks.


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