This guest blog has been written by Dr. Kate Carruthers Thomas (email@example.com @drkcarrutherst www.thinkthreeways.weebly.com) a Senior Research fellow and Project Manager Athena SWAN at Birmingham City University.
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads
Gloria Anzaldúa, 1987
Doctoral study is frequently depicted as a linear, immersive trajectory between fixed points: student to academic; novice to expert. In practice, the ultimate destination is uncertain and the journey towards it precarious. Both student and supervisor travel, often circuitously, in multiple spaces between. Yet while the doctoral student’s learning journey is well documented in the literature, ‘there is a striking silence about what doctoral supervisors learn through supervising doctoral students and how the impacts on supervisors might be theorised’ (Halse 2011 p.557). In this blog, I reflect on my current experience as a novice doctoral supervisor. I draw on ideas of borderlands and crossroads to frame the transitional and formative dimensions of this period and how it impacts on my practice.
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.