This post is from Rebecca Coles, a doctor-in-waiting at The University of Nottingham. She has recently handed in her thesis (yippee and well done), an ethnographic study examining what counts as ‘education’ at an independent ‘art house’ cinema.
When I submitted my PhD thesis a few weeks ago, I emailed Pat and said “We didn’t always find it easy but we made it! Thank you for sticking with me”. Later in the week we drank a glass of wine together and she said something like “I hope I wasn’t that bad, was I?”. “No, I didn’t mean that!” I said. “It’s just that I found supervisions really hard at first”. What follows is a reflection on why supervisions can be complex and fraught.
Before I started my PhD, I had never before been asked to sit down for an hour at a desk, facing someone I didn’t know that well, and talk seriously with them. It’s not that I’m not used to discussing ideas with people, but that when I do it’s usually with friends and usually in small groups, in the pub or in a reading group. As an undergraduate and during my MA, I discussed more formally in group seminars. This was, in fact, central to how I learned and was the thing I most enjoyed about University. I talk a lot in group situations and often I find out what I think in the process of articulating an idea. One-to-one interactions are very different. There aren’t all these ideas flying around, proposed by different people, that you follow, are inspired by, and then intervene in when you choose. You have half the responsibility to maintain a coherent flow of thought and interaction. As soon as the other person stops speaking, you have to be ready to start.
Also, I had no idea how this one-to-one interaction was supposed to go. Was it supposed to be a free flowing discussion? Or was it supposed to be more structured, more like an interview in which two people assume different roles? And if this was the case, who was supposed to be the interviewer and who was the interviewee? Who was supposed to take charge? Perhaps my slight paranoia about the situation was just a matter of personality. But whether it was me, or whether it was the way the education system had taught me to be, to begin with one-to-one supervisions made me tense and panicky.
Before I started my PhD, I had never been involved in discussing my ideas and thinking process in any kind of sustained way. In group discussions people rarely challenged me about how I knew something, in what detail I knew it, or where the thought led me. In a supervision, your ideas are under close examination, both in a good sense and a in bad sense. On the one hand, you can’t be flippant about an idea and declare, as you might to a friend, “Such liberal bollocks” because you have the vague idea that’s the right opinion and move on. Or rather, I did, but it always met a sceptical glare. You have to justify yourself. This forced me to take myself and my ability to generate coherent analysis more seriously than I had before. A bit like Althusser said: “I was already a Communist so I had to learn how to be a Marxist”.
But on the other hand, the kind of thinking that supervisions requires is not totally open and free. Ideas do not meet a warm reception if they are too out of step with the existent concerns of the discipline, literature or your supervisor. The point is not just to learn how to think but to learn how to produce a commodity for the academic market – a thesis, a talk, a paper, a book. Being a good academic in general, I suppose, involves negotiating between two possibly antagonistic demands – that you reflect on the reality of your thinking process, and work continually to develop it, and that your thinking process be commensurate. But the supervision process was the first time I really experienced this.
Before I started my PhD, I had never been required to sustain a relationship that mixed friendship and professional power. When you have such an extensive intellectual engagement with another person, they feel like a friend. But is your supervisor your friend? There is also a power relationship between you: she will write your reference and she can get you work or not get you work. So there is a second, more personal, level to the dilemma described above: on the one hand you are supposed to be honest and open with your supervisor (as you are with any friend), but on the other you are supposed to be giving her your best performance of being an academic. The relationship, something between genuine affection and practical utility, something between intimacy and performance, is necessarily ambiguous.
The tensions of the supervision process seem tied to the complexity of learning to do any creative, intellectual labour that requires the engagement of one’s deepest subjectivity and thinking processes and at the same time the engagement of a particular subjectivity and way of thinking. Its specificity is that this learning takes place through spoken one-to-one interactions. This was new to me and it concentrated these more general problems in an intense way. If I’m no less confused and divided at the end of it, I’m a better thinker and a better academic.
We’re interested in how this might fit – or not – with your experiences of supervision and perhaps supervising. Why is supervision so intense emotionally as well as intellectually?