This is the 100th blog posting for the Research Supervisor’s friend!
I started this blog with a posting about ‘Imposterhood’ which discussed the then, and still, common experience doctoral candidates close to their completion can harbour that they are unworthy of a doctoral degree.
The posting was originally intended for the Thesis Whisperer, but in some confusion about setting up access, I ended up with my own site and thus was born the Research Supervisor’s friend.
The blog was intended as a vehicle to share my experiences as a research supervisor. It was an attempt to bring the often hidden or secret research supervision practices into the light and to generate exploration of the practice by other supervisors. The ideas for blogs came from my lived experience as a supervisor. Indeed, that initial blog was inspired by an overheard conversation in one of the candidate lounges.
Well before I initiated the blog, I had begun to write about research supervision. My own doctoral inquiry had explored research supervision as one of the factors/practices impacted by new paradigm research, and that inquiry which gave me my doctoral degree also provided an opportunity to teach research supervision or to facilitate reflective practice for research supervision at my university. What started as an initial six week teaching contract grew to become my 13 year contract as the Co-ordinator of Research Supervision professional development at Queensland (Australia) University of Technology and later a Reader in Education at Birmingham City (U.K) University, where I introduced a community of practice agenda around research supervision professional development. Along the way have been additional consultancies developing variations of research supervision professional development for different universities including this blog.
Being able to think and write about one’s practice is a great help for advancing the practice. As I consider what I have done as a research supervisor and listen to and read other commentary about the practice, I have found that my own practice has changed and become more diverse. I would like to think that as a research supervisor I am very candidate focussed in that I have adapted my repertoire to accommodate individual needs. Along the way, paralleling work as a dissertation examiner, I found that I was also ends focussed in my research supervision. I constantly thought about how an examiner might examine a dissertation or how I had examined various dissertations.
The most interesting (by way of the number of hits) blog is the one dedicated to contributions to knowledge.
This blog started life, as did many of the others, with questions raised by either my own doctoral candidates or other’s whom I had the fortune to teach. The question would often emerge close to completion when candidates suddenly started to realise that making a contribution to knowledge was a defining feature of doctoral writing, and so they had to contemplate what their own contribution might be. Very soon the blog became the most interactive part of the research supervisor’s friend with various candidates asking what I thought might be their contribution to knowledge. With each question came the opportunity to create dialogue about this and so the individual page has had the most hits and the most engagement with readers.
The most challenging blogs are those very closely linked to my own political persuasion of challenging the hegemony of higher education practice. Some readers of this blog would have gained insights into one of my alternative lives in which I present my research as a sung cabaret, and through this blog I have been able to advance the agenda for those candidates seeking to write about or disseminate their research in a myriad of creative ways – not only singing- in response to the changing agenda of what counts as research. Again, I have been fortunate to have worked with doctoral candidates who are using many different creative forms to talk about and to undertake their various research projects.
I am hopeful that the agenda generated by the research supervisor’s friend continues. There is definitely personal energy for that, and this energy also comes out in the recently co-edited soon to be published book with Andrew Rixon
Making Sense of Stories: An Inquirer’s Compendium. As soon as it is published by Cambridge Publishers there will be dedicated blog exploring the value of the book as a researcher resource.
The other new project that assists and supports my engagement with a blog is my appointment as part of the editorial team of Advanced Scholarship and Research in Higher Education (ASHRE) Advancing Scholarship and Research in Higher Education (asrhe.org) which seeks researched ideas, not only about research supervision but about the broader spectrum of Higher Education pedagogy.
Who would have thought that aviation people management principles could have any bearing on research supervision? But, that is the essence of idea migration. The common factor that supports this particular migration is that both aviation and research supervision are reliant on relational development. Procedures established in the aviation industry to avoid catastrophes influenced by human error have a lot in common with the ways of supervising doctoral candidates to remove or minimise trauma.
The Human Factor, a collection of strategies for organisational improvement based on improved relationships, is written and published by Graham Miller and based on his over twenty years in the Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Air arm. The book illuminates key human resource maxims with application to aviation as well as other industries reliant on, not only human input, but on collaboration and co-operation between people.
Graham Miller defines ‘Human Factors’ as
how people perform tasks and how they interact with technology, their environment and others
and after a pandemic twelve months, research supervision can easily be viewed in this light. Traditional face-to-face research supervision meetings have been replaced with electronic ones and this same communication technology that supports meetings represents the ways in which emerging technologies have influenced the research industry.
The discussion in ‘Human Factors’ on situational awareness is relevant for any meeting between a research student and their supervisor, be this face-to-face or electronic. Situational awareness can even account for the predominant way in which supervisor and candidate communicate through the common text of their emerging dissertation. Situational awareness is comprised of perception, comprehension and projection – summed up in the catchy three questions
So what? and
[As an aside, these questions are often raised when a supervisor reads an emergent dissertation and works with their candidate to fathom their research question (what?), the way in which addressing that question can make a contribution to knowledge (so what?) and the next step in the process of inquiry/research. (now what?)]
Making sense of the situation is a key starting point. In an earlier set of blogs in the research supervisor’s friend advocating a range of ways of making sense of a candidates’ beginning point [supervisorsfriend.wordpress.com/category/analytical-tools-for-the-early-months-of-candidature/] – their ability to read, to write and to engage in technology, there is a parallel to any candidate/supervisor meeting that the situation needs to be assessed.
The discussion on Managing Error-ism has great resonance with what I would describe as applying systematic analysis to a research topic. Coming from a background generally referred to as ‘bean counters’ I have seen the value of strategies introduced under the umbrella of quality management that advocate systematic operation and introduction of systems to ensure rigor in both the research process and more importantly the dissertation writing – systems such as filing references in a data base such as end note or checking the whole dissertation for consistent spelling of key words.
The ‘Human Factor’ is written in ten chapters
Chapter 1 Connecting the dots
Chapter 2 Understanding human factors
Chapter 3 The origins of human fallibility
Chapter 4 understanding errorism
Chapter 5 The power of good leadership
Chapter 6 The importance of good teamwork
Chapter 7 understanding situational awareness
Chapter 8 managing errorism in aviation
Chapter 9 Human factors in other industries
Chapter 10 Applying human factor thinking
It did not matter which pages I opened, I found that the insights were not only valuable but could be applied to my current dilemmas in supervising doctoral candidates.
An invigorating, although at times uncertain, walk to see Curtis Falls in the Mount Tambourine area (Brisbane, Australia) in contrast to a Skywalk walk through to see Cedar Creek (also on Mt Tambourine) alerted me to the importance of signposting. I migrated that thinking across to the challenge of providing feedback to doctoral candidates in their writing – particularly the writing skill of signposting in the dissertation.
A first question about this topic might be ‘why signpost?’ and the answer for me comes from the experience of examining a doctoral dissertation. If I am sitting comfortably and my reading of a dissertation flows, then I am in a positive framework to absorb what that dissertation is arguing. When this relaxing and stimulating process is interrupted then my attitude, and hence my examination of the dissertation, is interrupted.
There are obvious and traditional signposts in the doctoral dissertation. An index at the beginning of the dissertation shows a reader how the dissertation is structured. Often in the opening chapter a writer outlines what a reader will experience in the later chapters, and thus in a different way, lays out the plan of the dissertation. The comparisons between an index and a narrative are similar to those drawn between a traditional scientific explanation of an inquiry and the journey or narrative of the inquiry.
Sometimes, a diagram can be useful serving a similar purpose as a map for a road trip.
In addition what I would describe as the genre specific signposts, a writer might adopt more subtle signposts, implanted with the specific recognition that an examiner is a first time reader of the dissertation and as such can benefit from scaffolding the writing with some clues as to where the dissertation is heading and more importantly where the thesis – the argument contained in the dissertation – has come from. Genre specific refers to both the genre of a dissertation as one form of academic writing, and the genre of dissertation writing that adopts the metaphor of telling the story of the journey.
These subtle additions can fall into three categories:
Use of scaffolding models that speak to the overall structure of the dissertation
Reminding (telling backward)
An extended argument is often hard to remember. In such extended arguments, readers often ask themselves questions – for example, what does this section mean? Or I wonder if the inquirer has thought of X? A writer, the doctoral candidate, mindful of how an examiner/reader will read the work, can pre-empt these internal questions by embedding comments such as –
a definition for this term is provided on page…
(and offer a future page number or section heading);
or a comment such as –
The impact of this philosophy on the ways in which this inquiry had been undertaken is elaborated on page (and offer a future page number).
There may be a metaphor or analogy that supports the act of telling forward at this point as well, one that become relevant from theory or that has grown out of the author’s own research and mind map of the work that the thesis will do.
An example of this telling forward metaphor in Jo Trelfa’s PhD dissertation was a metaphor about ‘spirals’, drawn from Trimingham (2002). Jo’s metaphor described the stages of her doctoral investigation, and within these spiral stages, ‘strands’ of the core themes that had been woven through. A metaphor of a weaving or tapestry gave substance to how her dissertation had been structured.
In describing her creative scaffolding, Jo also adds a note of caution….
A second writing device Jo used in her dissertation was to adopt the literature device of a preface, a prologue and an introduction. In the preface she provided details useful to know from the outset – this included her metaphor of ‘spirals, strands, and props’. The prologue offered a space to tell her story, who she is and how she came to the project and the research question. Together these provided the gateway to the introduction – traditional in a dissertation – through which the reader could enter, readied to do so with that understanding in place. Her use of a ‘prologue’ served a purpose similar to what in this blog has been referred to as Provenance (Hill and Lloyd, 2018). https://supervisorsfriend.wordpress.com/2019/10/16/practitioner-inquiry-and/
As (presumably) Barnard (1921) suggests ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ – so using pictures or graphics in a dissertation can also signpost the dissertation argument structure. In so doing for her dissertation, Jo Trelfa drew attention to an arts-based agenda in doctoral writing of Turner’s (1974) liminoid that celebrates the interplay of the arts and science. Two diagrams in her chapter 1 depicted firstly the spirals of inquiry that represented the five settings in which the investigation was undertaken;
and these five spirals played out in front of four themes, demonstrated in her diagram almost like musical notation.
As an argument becomes more complicated, a writer may choose to embed reminders of what has already been discussed. These can appear at the beginning of chapters to remind the reader what was achieved in the previous chapter and how that connects to the current one; they may be page references to draw the reader’s attention to a definition that had been provided in the argument and at this point in a dissertation need reminding about.
Talking about her dissertation and the writing devices she adopted, Jo Trelfa explained a reminding device that she adopted by including an epilogue in the dissertation.
Finally, in writerly tools, a work that commences with a prologue must have an epilogue. It was a space in which I could precis the thesis and determine what could follow, whilst also highlighting the shortfalls of the research so that these might be avoided in those future developments.
Feedback to the writer
One of the major challenges for a research supervisor is to provide pertinent and timely feedback on various iterations of drafts of the dissertation. As the document comes closer to completion, a supervisor might choose to recommend addition of scaffolding comments or signposts into the text to facilitate the examiner, a first reader, having a comfortable read of the work.
Some examples of this feedback might include:
In chapter one, reminding the author of the importance of a set of paragraphs that elaborate the whole dissertation. These often appear at the end of the chapter to lead into the remainder of the dissertation. This scaffolding might include a model that illuminates how the various chapters work together to construct a complex argument.
Sometimes in a chapter such as the conclusions, the complexity of knowledge arising out of the inquiry may make this chapter difficult to read and a coded diagram could be added to facilitate a reader knowing exactly where they are in terms of the conclusions being reached by the thesis. The same concept can work in a complex methodology chapter, that a coded devise – say a diagram of the overall methodology – is colour coded to indicate which sections of the chapter address which parts of a complex process.
Speaking about her supervision, Jo Trelfa commented in interventions that helped to guide her, singling out the support from Prof. Alison James, an expert in the serious business of play in higher education, who helped her to coppice her work. The drawings/graphics of the spirals and threads were inspired by her supervisors, Dr Olu Taiwo, Dr Richard Cuming and Prof. Inga Bryden. Another model developed
was a device inspired by her supervisors and was particularly significant in the early part of the thesis.
As an examiner of this writing, the signposting assisted the reading of the work. In discussion with Jo following her examination she also commented on the supervisor support for her viva, which again reinforced the signposts that she had adopted in her writing and suggested ways to mobilise those signposts in her talking about her dissertation.
Barnard F. B. (December, 1921) Printer’s Ink (December, 1921),
Trimingham M. (2002) A methodology for practice as research. Studies in Theatre and Performance, 22 (1), pp.54-60
Turner S. (1974) Liminal to liminoid, in play, flow, and ritual: an essay in comparative symbology. Rice Institute Pamphlet – Rice University Studies, 60, No.3. Texas: Rice University
Jo Trelfa’s PhD is published by Winchester University
Facilitating reflective practice in higher education professional programmes: reclaiming and redefining the practices of reflective practice
Some inquiries involve research supervisors looking at their practice; some can involve experimenting with new ways of supervising; or might explore new philosophical underpinning of supervision – such as exploring how your candidate’s nominated inquiry paradigm informs the way in which you supervise.
Each of these forms of inquiry, if formalised, create possibilities to enable other research supervisors to improve their practice and overall contribute to the ever growing discourse around doctoral inquiry.
As Zuber-Skettitt (1994) explained in her encouragement for research supervisors to undertake action research about their supervision, research is only complete when it is published or disseminated. Dissemination of one’s research is an integral part of inquiry. Making the contribution to the community is part of what authenticates inquiry. In addition to investigating, it is important to find spaces and places where a supervisor can share what they have discovered from their own research supervision.
It is thus with excitement that this blog announces the arrival of a new journal as a space for research supervisors to share their research into their pedagogical practices of research supervision.
Advancing Scholarship and Research in Higher Education (ASRHE https://asrhe.org/) is a new open source journal under a Creative Commons licence published as part of the Higher Education Research and Development Society Australia (HERDSA)’s publication stable. ASRHE will complement HERDSA’s long standing research journals RDHE and HERD.
As an on-line journal, ASHRE provides an opportunity to explore higher education research that might draw on different types of data – sound bites, images from walking around methodology, even music and songs of resilience!
The journal also has implemented a review process that contrasts with the doubleblind review academic journal tradition and involves instead a community of practice. Review groups evaluate individual submissions in conversation, providing a rich feedback on the article to the prospective author.
The journal is now open for submissions. In particular, in the light of this blog, those submissions might be around examining your teaching practice or supervision pedagogy.
The already written editorial –a variation from the journal trend in that the editorial is inviting submissions rather than commenting on them – encourages prospective authors to submit. The web site also invites applications for review group membership. Novice reviewers are encouraged as the group review process acts as an apprenticeship for less experienced reviewers.
My experience of ‘becoming a supervisor’ was effectively contiguous with ‘becoming doctoral’. I embarked upon full-time doctoral study later in life following fifteen years as a widening participation practitioner in UK higher education. I was awarded my doctorate in 2016 at the age of 50, took up a research post in a modern UK university and began supervising doctoral candidates in 2018 with little formal training. I am currently the second/junior supervisor for four doctoral candidates, all of whom are studying part-time at their place of work. One is studying for a PhD, three for a Professional Doctorate (EdD) in which students research their own practice. They are all mature adults who have moved into teaching roles in the academy from experienced roles in the health, social work and human resources professions. These individuals negotiate a student identity alongside multiple and prioritised identities (Jackson 2008), shaped by the domestic, caring and financial responsibilities that come with age, but also by their professional backgrounds and teaching experience. They must navigate between identities often represented as binary opposites: expert/novice, teacher/student, professional/academic. Meanwhile I too, swap and negotiate identities in the supervision space: expert/apprentice, supervisor/colleague.
Gloria Anzaldúa, Chicana, feminist, queer scholar, writing in the context of a life lived on the US/Mexican border, challenges such binary separations, calling for a ‘new mestiza’, an individual aware of conflicting and meshing identities. Anzaldúa challenged conceptions of borders throughout her writing life (Anzaldúa 1987, Moraga and Anzaldúa 1981, Anzaldúa and Keating 2002, inter alia), proposing the idea of borderlands instead; the possibility of ‘a third space, a new location where individuals fluctuate between two discrete worlds, participating in both and wholly belonging to neither’ (Abes 2009, p.258). The borderlands are a space of hybridity, tension and potential transformation. Imagining novice doctoral supervision as borderlands territory is further enriched by Avtar Brah’s conceptualization of diaspora. Brah is a sociologist of race, gender and ethnicity, whose life trajectory has taken her across four continents as migrant, refugee and academic. She explores ‘not only who travels, but when, how and under what circumstances’ (1996, p.189). Diasporic journeys, Brah writes, are not casual or temporary; they are ‘about settling down about putting roots elsewhere … are potentially the sites of hope and new beginnings’ (p.90). It is essential to acknowledge the post-colonial context of Anzaldua and Brah’s work and diaspora may seem an unlikely frame for doctoral supervision. However, Brah’s conceptualization richly encapsulates the hybrid identity and psychosocial dimensions of travel towards an uncertain future.
What does the idea of borderlands mean for my supervisory practice? I think it is primarily about bringing my ‘muscle memory’ of becoming doctoral to the space of supervision. How many of us, in the early stages of our studies, puzzled fretfully about the meaning of ‘becoming doctoral’? I can recall comparing it to completing a jigsaw without a picture to work from. As a novice supervisor, I can reframe my own experiences as a student as turning points and critical incidents, to support students in mapping their own routes. For example, when and how did I come to understand that a literature review was not a long list of the big hitters in the field, but a dialogue in which I was entitled to be an equal partner? When and why did I realise the research ethics application is not just a tedious necessity, but an opportunity to engage in a careful thought process which goes to the very heart what it is to be a researcher? What helped me to appreciate theory, not as something that only others seemed to understand, but ‘a form of active engagement that gives rise to other ways of inhabiting and imagining this and other worlds’ (Singh 2019)? Now I can recast these essential tasks as a series of border crossings required to turn the doctoral corner.
Learning how, whether and when to articulate these critical moments for individual doctoral students at different stages of their journey requires a more practiced and nuanced understanding of the supervisory relationship than mechanistic paradigms of supervision styles: laissez faire, pastoral, directorial and contractual (Taylor and Beasley 2005). These paradigms are bound up in the profoundly unequal power structure in which supervisors and students are located (Deuchar 2008, p.491) with the student reliant on their supervisor to discharge the many elements of their role, including that of gatekeeper to the academy. However, given my own non-normative route, I value the ways in which my students’ hybrid identities contribute to their interactions with literature, concepts and methods. I value what I can now learn from them about becoming doctoral, and adapt for my practice, in my own ‘supervision as becoming’ (Halse 2011, p.569). In her poem To Live In The Borderlands, Anzaldúa writes:
To survive the Borderlands you must live sin fronteras be a crossroads.
Here is a way of re-imagining novice doctoral supervision, as a borderlands space in which student and supervisor ‘fluctuate between two discrete worlds, participating in both and wholly belonging to neither’ (Abes 2009, p.258). A crossroads offers bridges between experience and knowledge, a way of bringing hybrid identities into a shared, collaborative endeavour.
Abes, L. (2009). Theoretical borderlands: Using multiple theoretical perspectives to challenge inequitable power structures in in student development theory.Journal of College Student Development, 50(2), 141-156.
Anzaldua, G. (1987). Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
Anzaldua, G. and Keating, A. (eds) (2002). This Bridge We Call Home: radical visions for transformation. London: Routledge.
Brah, A. (1996). Cartographies of diaspora: Contesting identities. London: Routledge.
Deuchar, R. (2008). Facilitator, director or critical friend?: contradiction and
congruence in doctoral supervision styles. Teaching in Higher Education, 13(4), 489-500.
Halse, C. 2011. Becoming a supervisor’: the impact of doctoral supervision on
supervisors’ learning. Studies in Higher Education 36(5), 557–570.
Jackson, S. (2008). Diversity, identity and belonging: Women’s spaces of sociality. The International Journal of Diversity in Organisations, Communities and Nations, 8(3), 147-154.
Moraga, C. and Anzaldua, G. eds. (1981). This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Persephone Press.
Singh, J. (2019). In conversation with Chase Joynt, March 25 February. LGBTQ Speaker Series. Center for Study of Gender and Sexuality, University of Chicago.
Taylor, T. and Beasley, N. (2005). A handbook for doctoral supervisors. London: Routledge.
[This blog is based on a Critical Reflection tutorial delivered to doctoral candidates in the context of a Post Graduate Certificate in Research Methods tutorial series. The ideas are drawn from my PhD research (Hill, 2017) which investigated business professional’s use of Reflective and Critical Reflective Practice.]
A common criticism made by doctoral candidate supervisors about their candidates’ dissertation is that it lacks criticality or critical thinking. Sometimes this deficit is articulated with the observation that ‘the writing is not doctoral’; suggesting that the supervisor/reader is unable to recognise in the doctoral writing, elements that align with academic writing definitions – including a presence of critical reflection.
Sometimes, it would appear, the comment of not being doctoral can be made without the evaluator/reader themself having a clear notion of what constitutes doctoral writing, but making their comment on a basis that ‘you know it when you see it’!. Situations such as these in my own lived doctoral candidate experience prompted my making my own dissertation examination criteria explicit when I undertook a practice-led inquiry into doctoral dissertation examination (Sankaran, Swepson and Hill, 2005).
Helping a candidate develop critical thinking can be challenging! Some supervisors rely on the traditional method of encouraging reading of literature and, through that, recognising critical thinking. A strengths based approach to supervision focuses more on helping a candidate see the spaces in their writing in which critical thinking could emerge – such as areas of contestation. The approach is supported with a clear explanation of what is being sought.
On the assumption that ‘every practice has its history’ one way to illuminate the essence of critical thinking is to explore its Provenance (Hill and Lloyd, 2018).
Critical Reflective Practice Provenance
John Dewey (1910, 6), the educational philosopher, defined reflective thought as
‘active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge, in the light of the grounds that support it, and the further conclusions to which it tends’.
The defining feature of consciousness raising of beliefs was later developed by Van Manen (1977) into a Reflective Practice model incorporating technical reflection, practical reflection and critical reflection. Van Manen’s (1977) model was based on Habermas’ Knowledge model (1973) that posited Technical knowledge, Practice knowledge and Critical knowledge. Other theorists similarly advocated critical reflection as reflection on assumptions or beliefs (Mezirow, 1990; Brookfield, 1998; Reynolds, 1998). Schön (1987), recognised by many as the initiator of Reflective Practice, amended his own description of ‘reflective practice’ with ‘advanced reflective practice’ that involved reflection on beliefs associated with a practice.
Critical reflection is contested. Mezirow (1990), aligning with the Habermas (1973) knowledge model, defined critical reflection as leading to recognition of one’s paradigms or belief systems. This definition is likely related to Kuhn’s (1962) construct of paradigm – the beliefs underlining a practice. Reynolds (1998), drawing alternately on Habermas (1973) ‘critical theory’, advocated critical reflection involved raised awareness of power. Consideration of one’s beliefs and assumptions is also referred to elsewhere as ‘reflexivity’ (Cunliffe, 2004) and ‘practical reflexivity’ (Yanow and Tsoukas, 2009, 1341).
The contested nature of ‘critical reflection’ can be ascribed to different authors’ core ideologies – for example Reynolds (1998) reliance on ‘Critical Theory’. Prior to its role in distinguishing forms of reflective practice, ‘critical’ was associated with bringing a critique to an issue or problem. ‘Critical’ also referred to in certain problem solving processes, such as ‘double loop learning’ (Argyris, 1982a, 116) in which is applied to questioning organisational policies and objectives to raise awareness of assumptions and beliefs (Fook, 2010).
Brookfield (1998) in an essay on Critical Reflection, suggested four different ways or ‘lenses’ to achieve critical reflection in practice:
Autobiography – the practitioner exploring their own story.
Learner’s eyes – understanding teaching practice from the student’s perspective.
Talking with colleagues or peers about the common practice.
Reading the observations made about the practice in literature examining the practice.
Doctoral capabilities and The Vitae doctoral repertoire both suggest that rather than being a threshold capability, it is one which researchers develop over phases – presumably during candidature:
Phase 1 involves recognising paradigms and multiple ways of knowing.
Phase 2 involves recognising significant and important arguments and identifying and evaluating others’ assumptions.
Phase 3 involves proficiency and confidence in applying critical thinking.
Phase 4 is described as a creative critical thinking acknowledging national and international discourses surrounding a topic.
Part of a supervisor repertoire supporting candidates as they develop critical thinking includes providing academic writing feedback that helps to locate examples of critical thinking in the candidate’s writing or identifies opportunities in which critical thinking could apply.
Adopting a Mezirow (1990) view of critical reflection, that a writer consider their assumptions, generates a search for assumptions evident in the writing:
Assumptions within the issue or practice being investigated.
Assumptions within research practices
What counts as data? [an issue explored by Stenhouse (1981) in advocating practitioner inquiry]
What counts as analysis?
What counts as dissemination?
This final question opens up the array of performative modes being used to disseminate doctoral inquiries.
Identify a Provenance of one’s practice to illuminate the spaces for bias in line with Brookfield’s (1998) proposition.
…and taking a Reynolds (1998) approach to critical reflection generates a search for the role of power:
Power inherent in the issue/practice being investigated.
The researcher/inquirer’s own power (and their potential bias) and the impact that has on making sense of data.
In conversations with a doctoral candidate, whether in the context of a regular supervision of in a viva, critical reflection can be evident in their language if they:
Talk about their research/inquiry paradigm – and even make a distinction between the words ‘research’ as representing scientific paradigms and ‘inquiry’ representing the range of post-positivist paradigms.
Explore alignment between their inquiry paradigm and the ways in which they propose undertaking the inquiry.
Name the assumptions made by other people exploring the issue/practice – critical reflection of the literature.
Identifying the assumptions underpinning
Being a researcher
Doing a Doctoral degree (what is doctoralness?) and how those assumptions are expressed in their dissertation writing.
Many supervisors make use of a knowledge building strategy of encouraging candidates to read the literature – expecting that in these examples of good academic writing they will see evidence of critical thinking and adopt the practice into their own repertoire. In addition, a research supervisor can model critical thinking evident in the very meetings between candidate and supervisor.
Expressing a view of multiple truths (or not suggesting that there is a single way to undertake doctoral inquiry)
Actively encouraging the researcher voice (even though their voice may represent a different way of working/writing to your own researcher voice.)
Posing possibilities for exploration rather than exercising ‘super’ visor – power oriented – directives.
Expecting a candidate to remember and apply everything raised in a specific supervisory session – a classic expression of power and domination.
Reason and Marshall (2001, p. 415) in talking about their Action Research approach to supervision, describe it as process-oriented rather than content-oriented. Their role is to help students stay in charge of their own research and to ﬁnd their authentic voices and forms for expressing their action research:
… our primary attention in supervision is on students’ life energies as they engage with their research. We seek to facilitate the personal learning in research, and so help people realise their potential project which has relevance to their lives. In our view, good research is an expression of a need to learn and change, to shift some aspect of oneself.
Argyris, C. (1977). Double Loop Learning in Organisations Harvard Business Review, 55(5), 115-125.
Brookfield, S. (1998). Theoretical Foundations: Critically Reflective Practice, The Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 18, 197–205.
Cunliffe, A, L. (2004). On Becoming a Critically Reflexive Practitioner. Journal of Management Education. 28(4), 407- 426.
Fook, J. (2010). Beyond reflective practice: reworking the ‘critical’ in critical reflection. In Bradbury, H., Frost, N., Kilminster, S., and Zukas, M. (Eds) Beyond Reflective Practice: New approaches to professional lifelong learning. London, U.K.: Routledge.
Habermas, J. (1973). Knowledge and Human interests. London, U.K.: Heinemann.
Hill, G. (2017) The use of reflective and critically reflective practice by business professionals. Business School. (Doctoral Dissertation) Brisbane, Australia: University of Queensland. https://espace.library.uq.edu.au/view/UQ:681135
Kuhn, T. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, U.S.A.: Chicago Press.
Mezirow, J. (1990). How critical reflection triggers transformative learning. In J. Mezirow (Ed.), Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: A guide to transformative and emancipatory learning. San Francisco, U.S.A.: Jossey-Bass.
Reason, P. and Marshall, J. (2001) On working with Graduate Research students. In Reason, P. and Bradbury, H. (Eds) Handbook of Action Research
Reynolds, M. (1998). Reflection and critical reflection in Management Learning. Management Learning, 29(2), 183-200.
The 2020 Corona Virus pandemic has impacted every aspect of daily life. In Higher Education we have seen changes in the ways in which many universities operate, and specifically (for this blog), ways in which research candidates receive or experience research supervision. It may be that when we look back on this time in terms of the evolution of research supervision practices, we will describe it as a critical incident in reformulating practice.
Delivering higher education electronically is not new; distance learning has been a vibrant discourse in Education conversations since the very early experiences of a module booklet and assignments submitted through the post. Technology, particularly the internet, improved the ways in which we could communicate with each other; and the world wide web brought all forms of knowledge to bare on academic pursuits. As with any challenge to routines of professional practice, some academic professionals may find that the new challenges of the current crisis require or invite a new range of practices.
Research supervision is a long standing practice, and while technology and changed research philosophies strongly influenced what we accept as contemporary research supervision along with many long held assumptions about research supervision, the practice still remains as either:
a specialist Pedagogy often associated with one-on-one education or
Project management requiring monitoring an apprentice researcher’s progress.
Both aspects invite relational practices.
The three are consistently working towards an explicit contribution to knowledge.
Research supervision is the predominant teaching method by which a research student learns how to do research and how to write about research. This relationship has Provenance to the Master and Apprentice relationships of the medieval guilds, but in contemporary universities, the relationship has attempted to embrace more equitable and less power oriented relationships. The practice provenance also extends to pedagogue relationships from Ancient Greece.
In modern times, one-on-one relationship of supervisor-student has given way to models of multiple supervisors for a single student, multiple students for a single supervisor, and the supervisor and student located in different geography and connected only by technology, but, despite these variations, the learning within the relationship is still predominantly based on a dialogue between the supervisor and their student.
The pandemic repertoire may have recontextualised one-on-one meetings into an array of electronic meetings, but the core research practices designed to support either the actual research or writing about the research in a dissertation or exegesis continue. The core practices emphasise the relational approach to both providing guidance in the apprenticeship of a research project and feedback and teaching is provided to develop a dissertation.
One of the advantages in electronically enhanced supervision meetings is that it draws attention to recording these meetings. This has often been a contested practice, with some research supervisors expressing discomfort as to how the recordings might be used, despite the teaching advantage in a candidate being able to listen (after the event) to how they have orally explained an idea. Their oral expression may be the conduit to finding appropriate expressions for written versions of their arguments.
Learning the craft of dissertation writing is often paralleled to the apprentice experiences in the Medieval guilds. The final work, being it written or communicated in other modes of expression, is likened to the guild masterpiece, crafted with the help of less complex work, often the research proposal, and culminating after their apprenticeship into doctoral writing.
Viewing the research proposal as a forerunner and skill development task for the dissertation lays the foundation for a broader proposal that dissertation writing is acquired across three stages of development.
The development of the research proposal through which a research student builds their academic writing craft.
The middle stage, in which the research candidate progresses the main thrust of their investigation and (hopefully) concurrently writes about their investigation in a range of developing chapters.
The final stages of candidature, the commencement of which is signified by the coming together of the variety of documents (chapters) into a draft dissertation or exegesis.
While the initial stages of developing academic writing might be supported with a range of resources to assist candidates develop their academic writing , the main form of tuition for academic writing is by receiving feedback on their writing from their research supervisor.
One example of a resource supporting development in academic writing is Brown’s (1994) set of questions which scaffold development of a research proposal. In positing this model, Brown (1994) referred to the traditional education for academic writing as learning academic writing by ‘osmosis’, the way in which many research supervisors developed their own writing skills and, unchallenged, what they expected of their own students. Often this resulted in support as being instructions to read research literature. The set of questions developed by Brown(1994) represent one of the forms of pedagogy for this specific task and parallels a Socratic nature of research supervision.
Drawing attention to issues across the full dissertation or exegesis document
Helping the candidate consider questions that might be raised by an examiner or in a doctoral viva.
It helps with any feedback, regardless of whether it is face-to-face or electronic, that there is a core developing document that is always being read and responded to, so that each individual part of the academic writing is seen within a context of the whole document. Such a requirement in electronic only meetings give rise to the importance of being able to both look at a common document. Google documents is one of the technology supports that provisions such joint reviewing of a developing document. A similar effect can be obtained using the comment function ( in contrast to track changes) with a Word document. The comment function facilitates discussion about specific sections of a developing dissertation or exegesis.
In either case there is a constant iterative document that acts as the platform for conversations.
Doctoral candidacy has long been recognized as inviting strong emotional journeys. In recent years, recognizing this support need has been discussed both in terms of research supervision and also alerting candidates to professional counselling services.
The nature of the current crisis heightens the need for emotional support.
Change in the routines will impact different on different candidates. For some, the shift to an on-line only mode of operation raises already present anxiety. The meetings to discuss research may well be channeled into needs to provide emotional support.
As with any change in a project plan, it is important to keep a close eye on the overall deliverables of the project. Like the common document for the dissertation/exegesis, it is also worthwhile to have a common project plan document that can be mutually reviewed so that a candidate and their supervisor(s) are constantly aware of the long term delivery of the research and its report.
In 2018, I was fortunate to hear Professor Michelle LeBaron (from the Allard Law School at The University of British Columbia) articulate her (organisational inquiry) model for reflecting on a range of organisational issues at the Artistry of Management and Organisation (AoMO) Conference in Brighton (2018). Recently, as I have edited a journal issue of Organisational Aesthetics based on papers and workshops from the same conference, I revisited Le Baron’s model in a paper written by Michelle with colleague Professor Nadja Alexander Director of the Singapore International Dispute Resolution Academy at Singapore Management University. (available through https://digitalcommons.wpi.edu/oa/vol9/iss2/5/)
The framework is inspired by the Medieval work of alchemy – understanding events from the basis of the four elements Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Their model describes these elements using Latin terminology – sublimatio, caclinatio, solutio and coagulatio.
LeBaron and Alexander (2020) explain
Because air is invisible, sublimatio reminds us that many invisible factors can influence organisational transformation processes including structures and habits that form part of the status quo. Identity is one such factor; it is both critically important and elusive to name. Frequently invisible both to us and others in organisational settings, identity images of self and the collective can keep us from embracing needed change…….
Fire illuminates and cleanses. Replete with kinetic energy, it is dynamic, unpredictable and often beautiful. It can also be destructive, leaving charred remains in its wake. Fire is contagious: it easily spreads. Fire is often invoked by those involved in transformative processes, and not usually in positive ways. Attitudes toward the intense fire of disagreement are all-important. As with fire, we must discern when to avoid conflict, when to try to manage it, and when to try to tap its transformative potential. It is difficult to dialogue with a fierce fire. Deepening understandings of its dynamics, we tap into its unrivalled energy and passion to realise organisational potentials: the operation of calcinatio.
Like water (solutio) , we can freeze and be blocked; we can pretend to disappear like gas; or we can experience a sense of flow together as when the river meets the ocean. As the structures of water molecules alter in adapting to their surrounding environments, so do we…..
The alchemical process of coagulatio, associated with earth, relates to things coalescing, or becoming solid and trustworthy. Coagulatio is frequently encountered at the beginning of transformation processes: people tend to resist change by clinging to the fixed and familiar ways of the past and present; alternatively, they may hold solid views and very clear ideas of what should be changed and how. Well-designed transformation processes can challenge deeply-entrenched home ground positions…..
As I read about their lenses for looking at organisational work, I was drawn to thinking about my own supervisory practices in the context of a university as an organisation.
My identity as someone knowledgeable about different methodologies and strengthened with two doctoral degrees, is what secured my research supervisory positions and roles. This is my sublimato. I am constantly adding to my identity with conference presentations and journal publications (I have also published in the same journal at Michelle and Nadja about Provenance). As a result of these identity factors, I have secured different doctoral candidates – ones who might be embracing more of the creative; and I have been invited to examine more creative dissertations.
The experiences of conflict are commonplace in all organisations. In the context research supervision there can be conflicts between the candidate and their supervisors, and indeed between the candidate and doctoral administration. My own candidature as well as the candidates I have supervised have many examples of calcinatio. I am reminded of the importance of engendering resilience and attempting to resolve conflicts with a sense of the candidate realising their own power in what is often perceived as a deficit position compared to their supervisors.
The lens of looking at what is frozen and blocked became very evident as I shifted my research supervision from the Australian context into a U.K. context. Even the professional doctorate, my own first doctoral degree, was understood differently in a different setting, and this brought with it need for different scaffolding and different ways of empowering candidates. This was my solutio. By seeing different ways of embarking on the professional doctorate, I was able to move beyond some of my long held views about what counts as doctoral. This had a major impact on the ways in which I examine a doctoral dissertation.
And finally, to what became solid and trustworthy- my sublimato. Having a greater number of research candidates than I previously had enjoyed, gave me strength in realisation of some of the ways I worked and advocated supervisors working.
The model may also provide you, the reader, with ways of thinking about your research supervision!
One of the ways to investigate research supervision is by the supervisor undertaking a practitioner inquiry. In the booklet from which this blog is taken (Hill and Vaughan, 2019), we elaborate nine different practitioner inquiries undertaken by research supervisors based at Birmingham City University in U.K. Each of these studies was initiated with a Provenance exercise (Hill and Lloyd, 2018) taken from the professional development program (Hill and Vaughan, 2017) they were undertaking.
The idea of Provenance is borrowed from antiquity study. It refers to the history of development of an artefact – who has made it, where it was made, what it represents in movements. Provenance can also apply to any professional practice with the notion that each practice has a history and each practitioner of that practice has their personal history or provenance.
Provenance within research supervision aligns with the notion that many research supervisors develop their initial supervision practices in response to their own experiences of being supervised (Pearson and Brew, 2002). Such migration may bring with it the ideas of what the student ‘liked’ and then attempts to reactivate these processes with their own students. It may also give rise to uncritiqued practice, such that what has been modelled in previous supervision experienced by the supervisor in their own student experiences is accepted without question as being ‘that is the way it is’.
As Finlay (2002, 536) suggests, Provenance as a mode of reflective practice needs to start from the moment that the practitioner inquiry is conceived to embrace the investigator’s motivations, assumptions and interests seeking to illuminate forces that might skew the research in particular directions. Once identified through reflection, the investigator can mark those experiences and literature that may bias their analysis of other practitioners’ descriptions of their practice, opening the ways in which they frame problems, make assumptions and understand power (Torbert, 1991).
Research supervisors’ reflecting on practice has been encouraged since the emergence of the professional discourse (Johnson, 1995). The idea of focused reflection mirrors recent higher degree research, such as Lee’s (2012) framework for research supervision and Taylor’s (2015, 2016) supervisor questionnaire, that encourage supervisors to audit their own practice. Within the reflective practice and self-auditing agenda are possibilities for supervisors to address institutional requirements for their own professional development, as well as raise their awareness regarding the professional choices they make in undertaking research supervision. Raised awareness about professional choices is an identifying feature of Practitioner Research (Stenhouse, 1981). This agenda highlights critical reflection on beliefs common to professional practice investigation within the ‘practice turn’ (Schatzki, Knorr- Cetina & von Savigny, 2001).
In terms of my own research supervision provenance I know that I started to informally supervise others while I was still completing my own doctoral inquiry. Higher degree research practices were the focus of my doctoral investigation so it helped that I had some first hand experience as I studied the practice. Two significant events informed the ways in which I supervised. The first was examining my first doctoral dissertation and developing a set of examination criteria (Sankaran, Swepson and Hill, 2005). Having this set of criteria sharpened my supervision practice. The second was my Readership at Birmingham City University which afforded an opportunity to concurrently supervise fourteen doctoral candidates. This provided a wealth of knowledge about the ways in which I varied my core practices to accommodate individual student’s support needs. Many of these insights have been shared on this blog. In many ways this was my equivalent to Salmon’s (1992) study of her research supervision experiences.
The practitioner inquiries (Stenhouse, 1981; Andersen & Herr, 1999) undertaken by participants in the BCU communities of practice around research supervision are a defining feature that secured SEDA accreditation. Each inquiry involved a two-month focus on one aspect of their own research supervision and a report back to the community of practice of their discovered knowledge. Projects were identified and supported through scaffolded community of practice discussions that took place in the preliminary community of practice meetings (elaborated in the final section of this booklet) when practitioners discussed issues within research supervision that ‘troubled’ (Schön, 1983) them. In later community of practice meetings, discussion focused on what counted as ‘good’ supervision, the different resources that can support supervision practice and finally an invitation for each participant to identify their proposed practitioner inquiry.
Positioning a practitioner inquiry in the context of a community of practice takes reflexivity from a private practice to a communal one whilst maintaining the personal and individual focus through individual practitioner inquiries.
If, as a result of reading this blog, you are inspired to begin working on your own research supervisor provenance, I am happy to act as ‘critical friend’ – send a copy of your first thoughts on Provenance for your research supervision to me at Geof@bigpond.com
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.
Finlay, L. (2002). Outing the Researcher: The Provenance, Process, and Practice of Reflexivity. Qualitative Health Research, 12, 531-545.
Hill, G. and Vaughan, S. (2017). Conversations about research supervision – enabling and accrediting a Community of Practice model for research degree supervisor development. Innovations in Education and Teaching International DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2017.1406388
Hill, G. and Vaughan, S. (2019) Ten ways to investigate research supervision. SEDA, London: U.K.
Johnston, S. (1995). Professional development for post-graduate supervision. Australian Universities Review, 2, 16-19.
Lee, A. (2012). Successful research supervision: Advising students doing research. Abingdon, UK: Routledge
Salmon, P. (1992). Achieving a PhD – ten students’ experience. Staffordshire: Trentham Books.
Sankaran, S., Swepson, P. and Hill, G. (2005) Do Research Thesis Examiners need training? Practitioner stories. The Qualitative Report, 10(4), 817-835.
Schatzki, T.R., Knorr-Cetina, K. and von Savigny, E. (2001). The Practice turn in contemporary theory. London, U.K.: Routledge.
Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action. U.S.A.: Basic Books.
Stenhouse, L. (1981). What counts as research? British Journal of Educational Studies. 29 (2), 103-114.
Taylor, S. (2015, April) Benchmarking supervisory development, paper at 2nd International Conference of Developments in Doctoral Education and Training, UK Council for Graduate Education, 30-31st March
Taylor, S. (2016) UK Professional Standards Framework (UKPSF) Dimensions of the Framework for Doctoral Supervisors. U.K.: Higher Education Academy
Torbert, W. R. (1991). The Power of Balance: Transforming Self, Society, and Scientific Inquiry, Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
The publication of this blog coincides with the Staff Educational Development Assoc (SEDA) publication of a booklet celebrating eleven research supervisors investigating their supervision practice in single authored and co-authored vignettes/case studies of different ways in which an academic could investigate research supervision practice. The tenth way – the final section of the booklet – invites the reader to embark on their own practice-led inquiry into their research supervision. With growing numbers of doctoral candidates, more and more academics are becoming involved in research degree supervision. Supervision is a specialist academic practice that tends to be learnt through the experience of the practice, through supervising.
The booklet is the culmination of a university wide professional development program around research supervision based on communities of practice (Hill and Vaughan, 2017) and introduced into Birmingham City University in 2016. The program sought and obtained Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) accreditation. In the course of the program, academic staff across four different faculties engaged in communities of practice leading to and scaffolding their practitioner inquiries into their own research supervision. Eighty eight academic staff across the university secured their SEDA accreditation by engaging in the program, undertaking their practitioner inquiry and reporting on their interim outcomes in the final community of practice session. Eleven of those accredited practitioners took an extra step in writing up the inquiry methodology they adopted in undertaking their practitioner inquiry. These approaches included discourse analysis, strengths based analysis, time and motion analysis and a repertory grid, and were undertaken by academic staff in a range of disciplines including Education, Law, Psychology, Media, and Fine Arts.
The set of inquiries have been edited by Dr Geof Hill, the Principal Director of the Investigative Practitioner and a Reader in Higher Education at Birmingham City University, U.K. and Dr Sian Vaughan , a Senior Lecturer in Birmingham School of Art at Birmingham City (U.K) University and site Director for Midlands 4 Cities, an Arts & Humanities Research Council funded Doctoral Training Partnership.
The booklet can be purchased from SEDA . https://www.seda.ac.uk/specials
The discussion of the model for the Communities of Practice around research supervision can be found at Innovations in Education and Teaching https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14703297.2017.1406388 , under the title ‘Conversations about research supervision – enabling and accrediting a Community of Practice model for research degree supervisor development’. The Community of Practice handbook is available on request from Dr Geof Hill (email@example.com) and he will also address inquiries about Australian based workshops for ‘Ten ways to investigate research supervision’.