Community Acuity (1) the sympathetic supervision of international students

‘Community Acuity’ blog posts are from supervisors, to supervisors. They  share the thoughts, experiences and reflection of the highs and the challenges of supervising doctoral students. See also #comacu on the @predoctorbility Twitter.

This post is by Jane Plastow, Professor of African Theatre, University of Leeds. 

I get a lot of international students, most are from Africa because I work mainly in the area of African theatre, but they also come from Europe and Asia. In this blog I’ll be thinking mostly about students who come from a non-western background because they’re the ones who are often going through the biggest cultural and academic shocks. Of course all PhD students are different and they all need supervision tailored not only to their subjects but to the way they each work best, but I would argue that many students coming from the political South need supervisors to recognise what a big deal it is to work in a western university system for the first time.

The first six months, are, in my experience the time when these students really need empathetic and understanding supervision. Many of the people I supervised have never before encountered a well-resourced research library. You can’t just say “Go to the library”, or even simply send them on a library tour, you need to spend time helping them to get the most out of their research as quickly as possible, otherwise – and I’ve had experiences of this – you can find people have wasted months because they’ve been too shy to admit they don’t know how to access or interact with particular resources.

I also find its really helpful all round if I can get new international students to write me something short as soon as possible. If I can see something quickly I can find out what quirks of English or of presentation need to be addressed – it’s fascinating how different countries produce students that have particular, repeated erroneous constructions of English. It is also true that in many Southern – and other – countries students may have had less than brilliant advice and support in developing acute critical analytic skills. The sooner I can find out if this is a problem the soon I can point someone in the direction of – or myself offer – relevant help.

Above all I find it really important to try and build students’ confidence. I’ve known international students whose belief in their abilities has been shredded within months by unsympathetic supervision. They may arrive understandably nervous, and in early group sessions may have their confidence further undermined because home students seem so knowing and at ease. They may be cautious in contributing to discussion or offering ideas, and they may not know the most up to date thinking. Just put yourself a little in their shoes and think how you’d be doing if you were plonked down in a Chinese university.

Beyond the purely academic usually the most useful thing I can do is to help my students locate other post grads from their own country – and point them in the direction of shops where they can buy the food they want to cook. I’ve lived abroad often enough to know the boost to morale provided by a dish of ‘home’ cooking when spirits may be low.

Image caption: The Kingfisher’s Story’ Community Theatre in Uganda

Author: predoctorbility

I design researcher mentoring and coaching programmes, partnering researchers at all career stages with academic and non-academic mentors. I use research data to ensure programmes are aligned to the researcher voice, are situated in academic development, and fit with the current researcher career landscape.