my-supervision-process

This blog has been written by Dr. Gerald Feldman one of the academic staff at Birmingham City University. He undertook a practitioner inquiry in the context of a community of practice around research supervision in his faculty and used an analytical framework based on Bøgelund (2015), to reflect on his research supervision in a Faculty of Computing, Engineering and the Built Environment.

A Reflection of My Supervision Process

Introduction

Four main types of supervision can be identified in the literature: (i) the traditional model, which involves a master and apprentice relationship; (ii) group supervision this is one supervisor has multiple students; (iii) team supervision where a team of supervisors are involved in the supervision of one student; and (iii) mixed model, this is a mixture of (i) and (ii) and supported by the use of technology (McCallin and Nayar, 2012; Guerin et. al., 2015). According to Sinclair (2004), these supervision types would either involve a ‘hands-on’ or ‘hands-off’. In the hands-on approach, the supervisee is dependent on the supervisor to guide them in developing the skills to become independent, while the hands-off approach suggests the student to be independent and self-driven (Boehe, 2016). In the hands-on, approach the supervisor or supervisory team adopts a project management approach to provide focus and empower the supervisees to achieve their milestones and make a decision in the direction of their research. The decision on which approach to adopt is dependent student, and thus, there is a need to tailor a supervisory style to a particular student’s needs and personality (Boehe, 2016). Understandably, it would be difficult to identify a single supervision style to suit all students when adopting group supervision. However, group supervision plays a major role in easing students into a research and enabling peer learning which can boost confidence and motivation (Guerin et. al., 2015).

Investigative Framework

In order to obtain a better understanding of my supervisory processes, I adapted Bøgelund (2015), analytical framework, and used two main themes to explore my supervision process: (i) perception of my supervision style; and (ii) my attitude and expectations. Lee (2008) proposed several contexts that refer to perceptions of supervision styles, these are: (i) functional; (ii) enculturation; (iii) critical thinking; (iv) emancipation; and (v) relationship development. In addition, I extended the framework, by extending my attitude and expectations based on the characteristics of a good supervisor proposed by Cullen et. al. (1994): (i) supportive, positive attitude; (ii) open minded and prepared to acknowledge error; (iii) organised and thorough; and (iv) encouraging and conveys interest for research. Reflecting on how my practice using this framework (see figure 1) would allow me to realise what I am portraying as my supervision practice.

My reflection is based on three students that I am involved in their supervision, but not their main supervision. These three cases offer sufficient depth to understand my supervisory process, along with any limitations in my approach, since the students involved demonstrate diversified characteristics. For example, one of the students is organised and independent, thus, requires minimum supervision (I refer to this student as Jo). The second student (John) lacks confidence and is very dependent on the supervisory team, the last student (Doe) has multiple characteristics, which are mostly triggered by extrinsic motivation.

analytical-framework

Figure 1: Analytical framework to investigate my supervision practice

Findings

Before this examination of my supervision practice, I would identify myself as being a facilitator, adviser, mentor and critic during the supervision process, as such, I considered myself as a constructivist. Based on Lee (2008) framework, I would associate myself to the emancipation section. I also felt that my attitude was supportive, open minded and encouraging research, which led me to expect that the students are organised and thorough in their task. However, after a close reflection of the three cases, I established that I tend to be supportive and have a positive attitude towards Jo. I observed that whenever I attend meetings with Jo, I have an open mind and will readily acknowledge my error, and demonstrate an interest in his research, this could be because I consider Jo to be an equal. When it comes to John and Doe, I am supportive and mentor them, but I am guarded, and hence I turn into a gatekeeper, which ensures the earlier task is complete so that I can lead them to the next task. One possible explanation for behaviour could be associated with the student characteristics. For example, Jo is organised and thorough, independent and his motivation is intrinsic, hence prefers a hands-off approach, where he is given space to conduct his research and would seek support when he requires it. For John and Doe, it is quite the opposite since there is a need for a hands-on approach to provide them with the direction that ensures progression. In this case, I feel my role is more of a project manager, who directs, facilitate, mentors and encourages John and Doe to reach independence. This is more of a master -apprentice relationship, which is dependent on how much the student believes the master has the right level of knowledge to guide him or her to the next task.

Reflection of my supervision practice

Supervision is a balancing act of the supervisor’s attitude and expectations against the student autonomy. Similar to earlier studies (Boehe, 2016; Bøgelund, 2015; Guerin et. al., 2015; Harrison and Grant, 2015; Vehviläinen and Löfström, 2016), there are several aspects that I have identified to be core to the research supervision process (see figure at the top of the blog).

  • Identifying the student characteristics facilitates determining case by case the student needs and characteristics that allow adapting a particular supervision process to provide adequate support and guidance to the student;
  • Open communication is important in establishing good working relations and trust between the supervisor or supervision team with the student, which in turn allows the student to be comfortable to discuss progress and challenges;
  • The structure allows controlling the outcomes, for example, in the case of paper authorship, I am a strong believer that the someone should be added to paper only if they contributed towards that paper and not because they are part of a team, which is mostly what most people assumes to be the norm. In fact, the level of contribution should determine the order of authorship. This is something I would like to establish with the student and the supervision team so that we are all on the same page. So establishing structure is not only for the student but also for the supervision team, thus ensuring each person plays his or her assigned role in providing the right level of support and guidance to the student. I think the establishing of a structure will support and encourage the student to make significant decisions about the research direction and research independence.
  • Relationship and boundaries in any supervision process are vital, as a healthy relationship between the supervision team, the supervisor and the student, provides a conducive environment that makes the whole experience enjoyable. However, it also important to establish a clear boundary in that relationship, as being very friendly to the student may create a situation where the student would assume that you could cover up for their indecision or progress. Understandably, this is not common, as most students take ownership and feel responsible for their research; and
  • Formal meetings are important to satisfy the university requirements and establish the formal supervision structure. However, informal meetings provide a sense of freedom to discuss research issues and challenges openly since students feel supported and the supervisor more approachable. This can also result in trust and open communication which can help the students.  

Integrating these activities as part of the supervision process could lead to making the students more comfortable and confident in their work, especially if all the supervision team is involved. Thus, there is a need to move away from the master and apprentice model towards a hybrid model, which allows balancing the students’ needs and characteristics to the composition of the supervision team. However, research supervision is a complex process, suggesting that the supervisor needs to be adaptable to the students’ need since no single style fits all situations. Acquiring these skills to accommodate the different students’ needs and characteristics is a learning process, which early career supervisors’ (like myself) can best learn when integrated within an experienced team. Thus, I believe being part of a team when supervising a student is ideal as it facilitates acquiring various supervision practices and approaches, to improve my supervision practice.

References

Boehe, D.M., 2016. Supervisory styles: a contingency framework. Studies in Higher Education41(3), pp.399-414.

Bøgelund, P., 2015. How supervisors perceive PhD supervision–And how they practice it. International Journal of Doctoral Studies10, pp.39-55.

Cullen, D.J., Pearson, M., Saha, L.J. and Spear, R.H., 1994. Establishing effective PhD supervision. Canberra: AGPS.

Guerin, C., Kerr, H. and Green, I., 2015. Supervision pedagogies: narratives from the field. Teaching in Higher Education20(1), pp.107-118.

Harrison, S. and Grant, C., 2015. Exploring of new models of research pedagogy: time to let go of master-apprentice style supervision?. Teaching in Higher Education20(5), pp.556-566.

Lee, A., 2008. How are doctoral students supervised? Concepts of doctoral research supervision. Studies in Higher Education33(3), pp.267-281.

McCallin, A. and Nayar, S., 2012. Postgraduate research supervision: A critical review of current practice. Teaching in Higher Education17(1), pp.63-74..

Sinclair, M., 2004. The pedagogy of’good’PhD supervision: A national cross-disciplinary investigation of PhD supervision. Canberra: Department of Education, Science and Training.

Vehviläinen, S. and Löfström, E., 2016. ‘I wish I had a crystal ball’: discourses and potentials for developing academic supervising. Studies in Higher Education41(3), pp.508-524

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My First Year as a Research Supervisor: Developing My Own Model of Supervision

emails-from-a-first-year

This blog has been written by Dr. Sarah L. Cooper one of the academic staff at Birmingham City University. She undertook a practitioner inquiry in the context of a community of practice around research supervision in her faculty and used a strengths based inquiry approach to reflect on her first year of being a research supervisor in a Law School.

In September, 2015 I began supervising my first PhD student. Despite the project fitting squarely within my own research area, which I had published widely on, and the fact I had very experienced colleagues to work with, I felt trepidation about taking on this responsibility. A year later, however, my student has finalised her literature review and methodology chapters, passed her qualification in research methods, and is on target to complete her data collection, analysis and write-up in good time. I helped her get to this stage, and soon I will start guiding two new PhD students along the same journey.

This blog post reflects on my first year as a research supervisor, and my initial ideas for developing my own model of supervision based on a strengths-based approach to supervision.

WHAT IS A STRENGTHS-BASED APPROACH (SBA)?

A SBA is an “approach to people that views situations realistically and looks for opportunities to complement and support existing strengths and capacities as opposed to focusing on and staying with the problem or concern. The problem and the person are separate; however, the problem is never minimised.” (Bernadette Glass)

My rationale for taking this approach as a new supervisor is that when you start supervising, your own strengths and common-sense are all you have to rely on for the diverse range of problem-solving, strategizing, and advising you are required to do. Moreover, your student (usually) arrives at your door equally as green.

KEY AREAS FOR REFLECTION.

Strengths-based analysis involves reflecting on certain areas of practice, including ‘relationships and communication’; ‘honesty and transparency’ and ‘framing.’ Below I summarise my reflections about these areas of practice during my first year as a supervisor.

RELATIONSHIPS & COMMUNICATION

A SBA values high quality relationships and communication. In the context of research supervision, I have found it important to engender good relationships with:

  • Your student. I have made a conscious effort to build a more collaborative and collegiate relationship with my PhD student. This is because I want to be able to clearly distinguish my role as a PhD supervisor from my role as a lecturer. I want my PhD student to see me as more of a colleague than superior. For example, there’s nothing wrong with conducting supervision over coffee or bouncing ideas around whilst on a run. Moreover, you need to be genuinely interested (and show as such) in your student’s research and success. You’ve got to foster a relationship that allows you to be the person they go to for critical feedback, motivation, and praise.

 

  • Your colleagues. Your colleagues are an excellent resource. There are few supervisory challenges that will have evaded an academic school or faculty. And, even if your challenge is unprecedented, someone will know an external colleague who has dealt with it before, or, at the very least, be able offer a sensible resolution. All you have to do is ask. I’ve found the most useful question to ask is “What would you do if…?”

 

These outlets not only disseminate knowledge but they also create networks. For example, there is a large and supportive PhD community on Twitter. Not only does every subject area have specific user accounts, but there are accounts dedicated solely to holistic PhD study. Accounts like @PhD2Published , @PhDForum , @PHDcomics bring together PhD students and supervisors from across various disciplines, offering a platform for discussion, trouble-shooting, collegiality, as well as an outlet for sharing the humour and realities of #PhDLife.

With regards to communication, in my experience, the following communication practices by supervisors are indicative of high-quality supervision:

  1. Communicates meaningfully and regularly about the substantive project. This includes keeping in-touch via e-mail and in-person meetings, and providing timely feedback on questions and work product.
  2. Communicates efficiently about the administrative ‘stuff.’ This includes keeping the student informed of academic regulations, deadlines, library loans, and completing the paper work required for things like ethics requirements, funding applications and conference attendance.
  3. Communicates the Bigger Picture. This means providing students with information about wider career enhancing opportunities, such as conferences internships, calls for papers, and teaching opportunities.
  4. Communicates at the right time and in the right way. This means knowing when to control a situation and when to back-off, and how to meaningfully celebrate success and help overcome disappointment.

 

HONESTY AND TRANSPARENCY

It’s important to be honest and transparent with your PhD student about the following:

  1. Their performance, progress, strengths and weaknesses.
  2. You’re experience as an academic. Tell them about what makes you suitable for supervising their project. For example, tell them about why your colleagues have recommended you as a supervisor.
  3. Your approach to problem-solving and difficult situations.
  4. Your own research experiences. Tell your PhD student about the ‘good, bad and ugly’ side of research. Share your successes, failures, mistakes, and anything else that stands out to you as a defining experience. If you’ve completed a PhD or are undertaking one, tell them about it. It’s really powerful to be able to say you know how they feel because you have felt (or are feeling!) the same way.
  5. Your expectations. Tell your student about how you work and what expectations you have for them. Try and ground your expectations in your institutions research supervision guidelines. For example, if your institution requires students to pass a preliminary research methods qualification, and present at one national conference by the end of year two, tell your student you expect them to do just that. Also set out how expectations surrounding workload, methods and frequency of communication, and feedback.

FRAMING

How you frame key components of the research journey is crucial. In particular, I have found it is important to be clear about the following:

  1. Resources. Give students a list of texts they can consult. A text I have found particularly useful is “The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research” by Marian Petre and Gordon Rugg.
  2. Project Management. You need to help your student to clearly unpack the project into bite-size tasks, set realistic and precise deadlines, help design effective methodologies, and offer advice on how to prioritise and multi- task. In particular, encourage students to keep a comprehensive log of their sole activity and supervision sessions.
  3. Problem-solving. Supervising is a diverse problem-solving exercise. In a single year we have encountered challenges ranging from the organisation of voluminous data that cuts across multiple disciplines and jurisdictions, to how to pitch objective research within an area that houses contentious viewpoints. The most useful thing I have learnt to do is clearly and objectively label the problem, identify its source, and offer possible solutions. 

 

DEVELOPING A GUIDE FOR NEW RESEARCH SUPERVISORS

Although unconventional in a SBA, checklists are a useful way of capturing “a set of tasks or a process that needs to be completed, particularly if the process or tasks contain many detailed elements that need to be completed with great accuracy” (Department of Education and Early Childhood Development Working Paper, 2011). Research Supervision involves just that. As such, based on my experiences so far, I have developed the following ‘to-do’ list, which aims to improve my own supervision practice, form the basis of a model of supervision, and offer guidance to new research supervisors.

 

  1. Draw up an agenda for my first supervision meetings that: Introduces the student to their supervisory team; Sets out clear expectations for the student-supervisor relationship; Suggests short, medium and long-term goals (in relation to the PhD and wider academic field) that the student should consider; Signposts students to helpful resources and people; and outlines typical internal and external procedures related to research practice, such as ethics requirements and funding applications.
  2. Encourage my students to create a virtual network by setting up professional social media account(s).
  3. Create a list of useful resources to share with research students.
  4. Create a list of what supervisors and students consider to be “good” and “bad” research supervision.
  5. Ask new students to carry out a SWOT analysis on their project at the start of their research and review it with them.
  6. Set-up regular meetings for all my PhD students to share ideas, progress and trouble-shoot through mutual learning.
  7. Ask my students to draw up an action plan (perhaps in the form of a Gantt Chart) every six months and ask them to define any problems they foresee, and how they might address them.  

 

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A New Site

Dear colleagues,

I am pleased to announce the launch of a new site called the investigative practitioner  http://theinvestigativepractitioner.wordpress.com

Over the next few months I will migrate the writing here into a dedicated example of investigating research supervision practices  within the new site.

The new site has been established to coincide with my current work at Birmingham City University in which I am working with an array of professionals  helping them to investigate their professional practice. Naturally some of those professionals are looking at their research supervision, but there are many more opportunities for exploring the broader issue of how one goes about investigating their practice.

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Review of the Big Bang Data Exhibition

BIg Bang advertising

I had the opportunity recently to attend the Big Bang data exhibition at Somerset house http://bigbangdata.somersethouse.org.uk/ in London.
One of the catchphrases by which this exhibition advertises itself is ‘Every day, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data. Explore how the datafied world affects us all through the work of artists, designers, innovators and thinkers.’ This slogan brings this exhibition into the realm of using creative means to articulate ones data and research findings, a theme I have been exploring with this blog.

One strong theme that was evident throughout the exhibition was the adage ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ and in cases where there is a lot of data, this exhibition celebrates creative ways to present that. A second perceived theme, perhaps not for the whole exhibition but for one or two installations, seemed to address the provenance of data collection to show how the ways in which data is collected and stored have changed over time. For those not aware of the provenance of Somerset House, it had a previous life as the Births Deaths and Marriages register so in a way the very building is an important part of the provenance of data collection.

The exhibition, like its web site, seemed to be a collection of installations related to the overall theme rather than presenting a thesis by using the various installations. This exhibition approach resonated with what I have often seen as a problem in doctoral dissertations that I have examined. It begs the question as to whether the viewer/reader of the exhibition makes of it what they want or whether an exhibition benefits from having an overall connectivity. For me the connectivity is important so this exhibition did not in my opinion hold together as an exhibition, but several installations had a strong impact on me.

One installation had a very clear didactic [ the written tablet alongside the art work] that explained the process of working with data. The installation ‘Unaffordable Country’ http://bigbangdata.somersethouse.org.uk/artist/the-guardian/ is an interactive data visualisation which exposes the UK’s dire housing crisis. What is most useful in this installation is the explanation of how the data sourced from the Land Registry was organised and cleaned and how it subsequently informed a ‘light bulb’ moment which resulted in the data being used in a way to enable the readers to really consider the impact of this data on their day to day lives of obtaining housing. In my opinion a clear addressing of the impact factor of research!

using photos as data display

A second installation spoke to me of the humanity that often gets overlooked in collection and representation of quantitative data. The data for this study was presented in spread sheets that in microcosm looked like straight lines, but in close up were a line of photographs. The message that I got by viewing this was that while certain research projects require working with huge collections of data, this data presentation device reinforced that the study still involved people with their stories.

pinboard

The best example of a picture telling a thousand words was the installation by Ingrid Burrington and Dan Williams. It involved a pin board covered in artefacts with connections in string between the different pieces of data. It made me think about the ways in which researchers connect various pieces of literature in an effort to either frame an issue for investigation. Making these connections explicit using the string made me wonder or trouble over the level of detail we may need to go to to make the connections between literature explicit.

[Ingrid Burrington and Dan Williams http://bigbangdata.somersethouse.org.uk/networks-of-london/ ]

The provision of the opportunity to attend this exhibition draws attention to provisioning the creative environment, a theme I have previously addressed in this blog.

The idea of provisioning a creative environment for research students to stimulate them into adopting creative approaches to undertaking and publishing their research involves more than giving them a budget to attend conferences. Two significant features of my trip to this exhibition emerge for me.

My attendance at this exhibition was funded by the faculty through a dedicated ‘creativity in research’ cluster. The fact that the faculty has a ‘creativity in research’ cluster is one way of provisioning such research agendas for others in that there is a group of researchers who meet to advance that particular research theme. The second obvious way of provisioning creative ideas for researchers is through funding and this project was separately funded. Whether the investment pays off in terms of informing research practice it is hard to tell at this state. In any financial provisioning of the environment, particularly a research culture, it is hard to tell whether the investment produces dividends because the outputs derived from such investments may take a long time in fruition.

Nevertheless both strategies are relevant for provisioning a creative environment in which research practices are undertaken. Having dedicated ‘creative’ research groups to provide communities of practice for students to explore and discuss their ideas is important as is backing up the creative rhetoric with funding to enable researchers such as the group with whom I attended this exhibition to do just that: Go out and see how other researchers are being creative.

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What I am currently writing about.

Having taken on a university wide research supervision professional development program for Birmingham City University, my agenda with regard to research supervision has been brought back to its origins when I undertook a similar project for Queensland University of Technology. That agenda will influence several of the posts on the blog.

Geof Hill

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Why is investigating research supervision practice important?

investigating something

Reflective practice (Schön, 1983) is seen in almost, if not all, professions as something which enhances professional practice. It helps professionals understand problems encountered in their practice from others’ perspectives (Ferry and Ross-Gordon, 1998; Yanow and Tsoukas, 2009; Kilminster, Zukas, Bradbury and Frost, 2010). It encourages professionals to question what they know and thus expand their knowledge (Betts, 2004). It enables a professional to look more deeply at what they do.

Practitioner inquiry (Andersen and Herr, 1999) is a step up from reflective practice, particularly in that it involves making explicit the assumptions that underpin one’s practice so that these can also be reflected upon. This form of reflective practice, along with the rigour of an investigation, helps a professional to not only become aware of their practice but to devise ways in which their practice can be improved. Often practitioner investigation involves understanding of what counts as ‘good’ in a particular practice and what therefore will enable the practice to become ‘better’.

Research supervision practice has for some time emphasised the value of reflective practice. It is a practice filled with rich traditions but as one that is also seen as a private or hidden practice (Manatunga, 2005). It can benefit from the illumination through focussed reflective practice as well as structured practitioner inquiry. Since the mid1980s there has been a growing agenda in the higher education literature to examine research supervision practices with a view to helping professionals become much more aware of the professional choices they make in undertaking research supervision. Such agendas also enable research supervisors to address institutional requirements for their own professional development.

When groups of professionals come together to explore a common practice this has come to be known as a Community of Practice (Wenger, 2000) and has the benefit for practitioner inquiry of generating conversations between professionals as well as valuing and affirming the knowledge that each professional has about their practice.

Anderson, G. and Herr. K. (1999). The New Paradigm Wars: Is there room for rigorous practitioner knowledge in Schools and Universities? Educational Researcher, 28(5), 12-21.

Betts, J. (2004). Theology, therapy or picket line? What’s the ‘good’ of reflective practice in management education?, Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 5(2), 239-251.

Ferry, N. and Ross-Gordon, J. (1998). An inquiry into Schön’s epistemology of practice: exploring links between experience and reflective practice. Adult Education Quarterly, 48(2), 98-112.

Kilminster, S., Zukas, M., Bradbury, H. and Frost, N. (2010). Introduction and overview in Bradbury, H., Frost, N. Kilminster, S. and Zukas, M.(Eds) Beyond Reflective Practice: New approaches to professional lifelong learning. Routledge: New York, U.S.A., 1-9.

Manatunga, C. (2005) The Development of Research Supervision: ‘Turning a light on a private space’, International Journal for Academic Development, 10(1), 17-30.

Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. Basic Books. U.S.A.

Yanow, D. and Tsoukas, H. (2009). What is reflection-in-action? A phenomenological account. Journal of Management Studies, 46(8), 1339-1364.

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems. Organization, 7(2), 225–246.

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Provisioning the research environment for creativity – a research supervision pedagogy.

derelict playground

Photograph of Meadowview by Mimi Martini taken August 23rd 2009 downloaded from
https://www.flickr.com/photos/38647394@N03/3989444492/ March 6th 2015

Pedagogy in research supervision is a relatively recent agenda. It is one of the many facets of the broader topic of pedagogy in Higher Education, and also a recent agenda. Research supervision has been described as a practice “traditionally conducted behind the closed door” (McWilliam, and Palmer, 1995, 32) or in “a private space” (Manatunga, 2005). Both descriptions allude to the lack of explicitness of pedagogy at this level of education and so it is not surprising that there is a shortage of names for this pedagogy. Some of those names have been documented. Kenway and Fahey (2009) make an important start of naming the (pedagogical) names for research supervision. These names include:

  1. Encourage uncomfortable thought.
  2. Examine the unexamined.
  3. Question the question.
  4. Go digging not surfing.
  5. Strive for complexity.
  6. Discover the intellectual excitement in the problem.
    (https://supervisorsfriend.wordpress.com/2013/09/03/specific-pedagogies-a-review-of-the-carolyn-baker-memorial-lecture )

To this list I propose to add the pedagogy of provisioning the environment, and in the themes of recent blogs, to take that one step further to suggest

provisioning an environment for creativity.

Provisioning the environment is a pedagogy most commonly encountered in Early Childhood. Where play is the essence of the curriculum, the tools for play that are made available in an environment become a most important choice for the teacher. For example, in awareness that without gross motor, children’s muscles do not develop sufficiently to enable them to sit at desks for periods of time; and mindful of the dearth of Gross Motor opportunities provided for children as they head into these higher grades, a teacher needs to consider what equipment is provided for children on and with which they can climb, hang, skip and jump. Something as simple as an item to climb upon provisions the opportunity for climbing and thus has the potential for not only gross motor development but development of self-esteem as the child overcomes their concerns about height.
In research supervision we often provision the environment by making sure that a research student has a dedicated desk, access to IT and particularly the internet. We sometimes provision that environment further by inviting speakers to present workshops on various approaches to research and inquiry and research students can be motivated by these speakers. Indeed, there seems an endless caravan of speakers extolling the values of writing for publication to ensure that one’s research can join the hallowed ranks of the ‘A’ journals.
Creativity, as has been mentioned before in this blog, is an uncommon visitor to the research student curriculum. Even though definitions of the PhD link it to a contribution to knowledge, sometimes the traditions of research seem to work to stifle rather than excite creativity. Despite these nullifying cultures, I am seeing emergent agendas for nurturing creativity in higher degree research:

  1. Science PhDs looking for ways to adopt more exciting and user friendly publications of their scientific discoveries. https://artefactconservation.wordpress.com/
  2. The ‘Bright club’ extolling the virtues of more creative lecturing. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/public-engagement/brightclub

In my own small research world I have also ventured out with pedagogy to provision for a creative PhD environment by:

  1. Developing a micro-skills workshop for PhD students to nurture creativity in research publication. This workshop exposes PhD students to several simple creative strategies to mobilise into their research publications. Strategies such as animation and ballad writing, as well as more adventurous choreography skills for contemplating the ‘danced’ dissertation.
  2. Reading student’s dissertations in a mode that encourages difference and creativity as well as awareness that such variations from hegemony need to be well scaffolded by arguments for their inclusion/presence in a dissertation.
  3. Providing publishing opportunities for PhD students to exhibit and publish their creative works and writing related to research.
  4. Acting as a role model for creativity by seeking out opportunities to publish my own research in my preferred creative mode of cabaret.

Kenway, J and Fahey, J. (2009) Globalizing the Research Imagination Taylor and Francis

Manatunga, C. (2005) The development of research supervision: ‘turning the light on a private space’ International Journal for Academic Development, 10(1), 17-30.

McWilliam, E. and Palmer, P. (1995) Teaching Tech(no)bodies: Open Learning and Postgraduate Pedagogy. Australian Universities Review, 2, 32-34.

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Creative Conversations about Conservation: an exhibition curated by Nicholas Smith

exhibition_hall_1

An exhibition review.

One of the outcomes of encouraging researchers to embrace creativity (see previous blog) in their publications is that they do, and this can result in a range of creative events. This exhibition is one such event, where several conservation researchers decided to publish some creative aspects of their research in the mode of an art exhibition.

The exhibition as a research publication is a relatively innovative way to publish one’s research or portions of one’s research, and can be undertaken by a single researcher, or as is the case with this exhibition, a collaboration with the support of an exhibition curator.

The purpose of the Creative Conversations about Conservation exhibition is twofold:
Firstly, each of the researchers is celebrating their individual creative talents and demonstrating how their creative flair plays an integral part in their research work and publication.
Secondly, the collaborative Artefact (https://artefactconservation.wordpress.com/ ) has used the exhibition as an example of the different ways researchers can embrace creative work and to draw attention to their agenda in supporting researchers in doing this.

There is little doubt when you think of some of the iconic scientific research that imagery plays an important part. For me, what comes to mind are the finch variations evident in the drawings of the birds (attributed to Susan William-Ellis)in Darwin’s species survival thesis and the drawings of the pneumatic pump in Boyle’s iconic experiment witnessing research. In contemporary times, many scientists advocate the importance of images in disseminating their research. One such scientist, Connie Bransilver, says she uses photography to help scientists shed light on their work and create that emotional connection that moves others to action. She talks about her photographs as enticing people to pay attention
http://www.conbio.org/publications/scb-news-blog/how-nature-photography-brings-science-to-life

The Creative Conversations about Conservation exhibition is notable for it eclecticism, a compliment to the curator in his efforts to bring the broad range of works into a single entity. It includes drawings, paintings, photographs, videos and even a children’s mobile and a board game that explores endangered species. The artwork of each of the pieces on exhibition speaks to the creative talents of each of the exhibitors and the didactics or exhibition labels advance the scientific context of each of the works and provide insights into the artist/researcher’s purpose for the artwork in their research.

As I attended this exhibition I asked myself the question ‘Did this exhibition help to extend or initiate conversations about conservation?’. I believe it did in that when you see the beauty of some of these plants and animals it makes you more attuned to the fear of the loss of such beauty.

What relevance do publications of this sort have to research supervisors?

In my own experience with cabaret, my research supervisor attending one of my creative expression events resulted in her encouraging me to write a cabaret for my doctoral degree and this was included as one of the in-candidature publications. I believe that when a research supervisor is aware of their student’s creative bent, this should be encouraged as in the broader context their creativity will be an asset in disseminating the content of their research. Sometimes presenting material or ideas in a new light works in the same way as creating a new piece of knowledge, that the researcher enables the readers/viewers to understand an issue with a new attitude.

The exhibition is scheduled to have a public showing at Visions Studio Gallery, Level 2 Absoe Warehouse, 51 Mollison Street, West End (opposite The Three Monkey’s Cafe) on Friday, 23rd January, 2015 From 6:00 p.m.

David Lack’s (1947, 166) book ‘Darwin’s Finches’ accredits the drawings of the finches to Susan Williams-Ellis.

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Nurturing creativity within the PhD

bean sprouts

Creativity maintains an uncomfortable alliance within research. On the one hand definitions of research suggest that the process generates ‘new’ knowledge, while on the other hand, publication of research is imbued with traditions that sometimes discourage difference and creativity.
The recent article in the Times Higher Education supplement (Oswald, 2014)
http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/opinion/in-research-weird-is-wonderful/2014085.article
describes the early years when research on happiness was new and how those ideas were blocked by hostile academics and gate keeping journal editors. Oswald makes the point in that article that it can be very difficult to get a new idea published.
I would attest to Oswald’s (2014) proposition. From early in my academic life I have championed different ways of both doing and publishing research. I established my career as an action inquirer, once considered quite marginal, and developed that into practice-led inquiry. I have also championed cabaret as academic discourse. Perseverance pays off and after over fifteen years challenging some quite established traditions of research publication I find that my new ideas are welcomed in a variety of outlets, as is evidenced by the recent publication in The Conversation
https://theconversation.com/research-cabaret-come-hear-the-music-play-27010
Because of my stance with regard to creative approaches to publishing research I am often engaged in conversations with colleagues who both admire my drive to retain and celebrate creativity in my research and regret the road blocks that are placed in their path when they make attempts to nurture their own creativity. Ana Duffy is one such colleague. She is a PhD student investigating the creative writing of Argentinian author Luisa Valenzuela http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luisa_Valenzuela .

In a recent conversation with Ana she commented that while she reads and analyses this other writer’s creative work, she also grieves the apparent barriers in academic writing that prevent her from nurturing her own creative writing.
I encouraged her to write about that grief!
Below is the short story that Anna wrote.

The dead nun: a requiem for I. – Ana Duffy
Once upon a time I was told I could write. The day I wrote a composition on the Argentinean flag, it was read aloud. And after that came Independence Day or the May Revolution, the war or, on the following year, the flag again. And I wrote. I wrote for me and for my friends. My friends in need of written flags. My hand was easy and there was no such a thing as a draft. My flags had the colours right and my wars had Tom and Jerry bombs to fight with and missing match boxes to stop them. My wars were wrong but my words were right.
Once upon a time I was told I could write. And I happened to believe I could.
I got older, and the flag was a serious matter but my words could still say it. And they were right. But the nun died anyway. Mine was a nun’s school and the serious matters wore black and white and fondled holy rosaries. And they were mostly old, like everything above the seventh grade was then. A nun died and I was commended to write about her. Not that I knew her, not that I did fight any wars with or without matches. But I wrote the dead nun anyway. Words were wordy then, like a tomb stone, they were a couple of sizes bigger than me. But I could grab any word I liked and make them all mine. That was a nice death made into a poem, about some nun, written on demand. The war and the nun. Death was wrong but my words were right. Once upon a time I was told I could write.
I am a PhD student now. One that once upon a time believed she could write.
I am not a PhD student. There is no I. There is a We. We are a PhD student. We, with the name of I.
I cannot grab any word; there is a proper way to say things with the precise words. And definitely I cannot make them mine. Which makes it one major drawback. Neither I nor mine.
I cannot write Tom and Jerry wars, they are not even scholarly. Let alone peer reviewed.
I cannot say war is wrong, I have to find someone that says it is someone that says it is not. And be critical, form an opinion I cannot quite express. Because there is not I.
I cannot write the flag because I changed flags. And the flag around my language is a foreign one now. My words are flagless. The ones with a flag, I borrow. Still not mine.
I cannot write the dead nun. Or quote her. I did not know her, neither the academic world. She died outside my scope of work.
I am a We and a PhD student now. But is wrong. However is right. Furthermore is better.
Once upon a time I was told I could write. I cannot quote who said it. It was not the dead nun.
Once upon a time I could make any word mine. Even the ones from the tomb stone. Unquoted.
Once upon a time, a nun in a poem.
Once upon a time, I.
One dead nun. One PhD student that thought she could write.

At the moment this is one story that gives voice to a grief that I expect is familiar to many PhD students, that they also feel their creative spirit is crushed by some of the requirements of academic writing.

How can an advisor nurture a creative spirit?
When I think back over my own candidature, I can identify two key moments of support in which my advisors encouraged my creativity. That is not to say that there were many others but these two shine out!
The first incident was encouragement. One of my advisors attended a cabaret I performed and following this she encouraged me to include a cabaret in my doctoral publications as a means to give voice to my researcher’s journey. That cabaret was written and ‘Doing a Doctorate’ was performed just prior to my candidature completion and graduation.
A second incident relates to the performance of my ‘Doing a Doctorate’ cabaret. I did not witness this first hand but heard of a morning tea room conversation about my cabaret the morning after I had presented. There was discussion as to whether I should be awarded my doctoral degree for my cabaret. My supervisor set the assembly straight in explaining that the cabaret was one of many publications that emerged from my study, and that my degree was being awarded for the monograph, my dissertation not the cabaret which was but one part of the monograph.

I have taken these two forms of encouragement to heart as I have worked with other students to help them nurture their creative spirits through the doctoral process.

  1. Perhaps the most important factor is that I try to live out my espoused beliefs of alternate paths for researchers. I take a political stand in advocating practice-led inquiry and I put my own work on the line taking cabarets out to present them to academic audiences. I believe that modelling is one of the most powerful forms of facilitating change.
  2. A second important factor is providing time to read and comment on examples of creative work to help a research student plot out both a vision for the creative work and re-vision it into their research. I believe that creative expression provides an ideal strategy for a researcher to articulate their researcher’s voice.
  3. There is an early childhood pedagogy of provisioning the environment and that translates into my own perception of research supervision, that my knowledge of what is required for a doctoral degree helps to mould the student’s research and creative expression into something that it recognised for its PhDness. The environment has changed and new rules about what constitutes a research contribution have opened up so many doors for creative expression.
  4. A fourth factor is actively seeking opportunities to support their publication through creative means so that multiple examples populate the terrain.
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Reviewing the political terrain

POLITICAL TERRAIN

A comment about ‘underhand’ tactics for getting a journal article published made by Blake Ashforth in a recent Art of Writing Theory workshop left me wondering about ‘what constitutes under-handness? And when is under-handness seen as political savvy?

Ashforth told an anecdote about another academic who had submitted a journal article to several A level journals only to have it summarily rejected. Later, as the editor of a special edition of the journal, the academic was able to include his own previously rejected article in the mix of papers. This series of actions was labelled by Ashforth as ‘underhand’ and as I listened to the anecdote I thought it represented a good example of ‘political savvy’. The anecdote suggested to me that the article author had assessed the political terrain regarding his article and his ideas, moved to a position of power and then used that power position to get his article published.

Whether we are aware of it or not, or like it or not, academics operate in a strongly political terrain. Despite rhetoric of openness and nourishment of new ideas, my observations of academic practice over thirty years of working in universities, give me an impression of gatekeeping. The journal publication process is a good example. So many journals require conformity to the style of their journal, which reinforces the traditions. I still remember the freshness I experienced as a would be publisher in the Qualitative Journal, when they not only welcomed the work, they worked with the authors to facilitate publication of the ideas and at the same time not compromise their quality criteria. I now realise that that journal’s approach is not the norm. It becomes difficult for someone with a new idea or a different way of communicating their research to break into the market. What may be commonplace in one discipline may be described as not even research in another. I found this out first hand when a journal article I had written based on a single case study, quite common in writing about research supervision, was rejected as not even research by a journal devoted to research on academic writing.

When I was first exposed to research practice through the culture of action inquiry, I realised very quickly that while there were pockets of active action inquiry in many universities around the world, these were often marginalised. Over time, this changed and now action inquiry has its own journals that are considered A level journals. As I developed as a researcher I learnt to share my work in selected sites, and with my experiential learning work even developed a hierarchy of conference venues at which to share differently developed experiential learning. This knowledge comes with longevity in the culture.

It begs the question as to how a new research student can begin to consider the implications of the political terrain within their discipline when they are still trying to come to terms with the variety of tribes within a discipline. This sort of question and knowledge becomes important when, in inviting the research student to comment on the choice of potential readers or examiners for their work, either at research proposal level or at dissertation level, they may still be quite novice in terms of political awareness. While it is a good idea to include them in the decision making, their knowledge of the potential of each of the readers may be limited or politically naïve.

The role of the academic advisor/supervisor can be quite significant at this point in a research student’s candidature, as the student is reliant on the advisor/supervisor’s knowledge of the political terrain for advice on from whom to seek assistance. Which professors will try to cobble your ideas into something that seems to fit into their own? Which professors have a track record of providing pertinent feedback? Which professors are attempting to champion their own causes, sometimes at the expense of disempowered research students?

The academic advisor/supervisor may also know who in the organisation will champion the work. Who has political clout to help a research student discern their way through the epistemological minefield? Who is a worthwhile member of a panel who can stave off paradigmatically inappropriate questioning?

All of these options fill out the role of the research advisor/supervisor as advocate!

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