Community Acuity (14): poacher turned game keeper, or vice versa

This is a guest post from Dr Celia Popovic, Associate Professor at York University, Toronto. Her latest edited book, Learning from Academic Conference (2018) can be found here.

Until the end of December 2018, I was the Director of the Teaching Commons at York University. In that role I was responsible, among other things, for supporting faculty who supervise Masters and PhD students. As of January 1st2019, as my term as Director ended, I returned to my home Faculty in the School of Education as a ‘regular’ faculty member. In my 7 years as Director and before that in the UK, I was invited to take part in supervision committees and had a number of Masters students who elected to take what we call an MRP – a Major Research Paper which is something like a mini thesis. However, as a full-time faculty member my role of supervisor has increased and will continue to do so. I thus find myself on the other side of the table, in that I no longer directly support other supervisors, and instead look for support for myself.

You might suggest I should have done this other way around, and I would agree – but we don’t always get to choose the order of events. In my case I found myself asked to provide support to supervisors when I was at Birmingham City University, in the UK. I inherited a course that was highly effective, and with some updates and innovations over the years this was the basis for the support that I provided. When I came to York University I again found myself asked to provide support and so I created a Canadian version of the same course. That course was run regularly, and while those who attended rated it highly it never attracted more than 10 participants a year. Which out of a faculty cohort of 1500 is not many.

As with all teaching support, and yes, I do see graduate supervision as a form of teaching, there is no mandatory requirement for faculty at York University to engage in professional development. As a supervisor I am shocked by the lack of direct supervision or support that is on offer. I am not suggesting my colleagues are unfriendly or unsupportive, quite the reverse, but the expectation is that this is not something most people require. I do find this odd. 

Why is it that academics are quite happy to accept rigorous training in research methodology and to take advice and assistance from those who know about accessing research funds, but seem aloof to the idea of support for teaching? As a newly (re)minted faculty member, my time is my own to manage around constraints such as lectures and tutorials and department meetings. My diary is oddly empty compared to the same diary for this time last year. I anticipated that I would have plenty of time to engage in many and varied activities once I was back in the ranks, but strangely this is not the case. 

As Director I was required to attend a vast number of committee meetings, events, regular team management related catch ups and so forth. If professional development had been required, it would have been slotted in along with the other meetings. But now as a faculty member it is almost the reverse – I find myself jealousy guarding my time, but I’m not clear for what! I feel like a miser who has won the lottery, after years of little time under my own control now that I have so much of it, I am loathe to spend it frivolously. 

Unlike a miser, though, I do just that but in unexpected ways! The lack of booked appointments is not an indication of a lower workload. I have plenty of things to do, but far fewer externally determined deadlines and commitments. So now that I have had a month or so to contemplate my own needs as a supervisor, I have more sympathy for those who decline the opportunity to take a course. Not because it is unnecessary, it is needed, but because committing to a three day event feels somehow risky. My conclusion is that unless professional development for supervisors is made mandatory, it is unlikely to happen in large numbers. This is the same conclusion I reached as the person offering the support, but it feels different coming from another perspective.

Community Acuity (13): experiences in structuring & recording doctoral supervision meetings.

This is a guest post from Dr Peter Gossman, Principal Lecturer in Education at the University of Worcester.

Over ten years ago I worked in New Zealand and attended the Improving University Teaching Conference in Dunedin were Tom Angelo (of Angelo and Cross – Classroom Assessment Techniquesfame) was presenting. The theme of the conference was ‘assessing and grading as if learning matters most’. Perhaps not the snappiest of conference focus statements but it allowed him to present some key ideas in relation to feedback. 

I have a page from the day that contains i) why give feedback, ii) how students might use feedback and iii) a suggested order for feedback. It is this last element that I have adapted from my own supervision practice. Universities, at least in my limited experience (two English, one Welsh and one Kiwi) have some format for recording supervision meetings. This form tends to have a space on it for the recording the substance of the meeting. It is to this and with a certain approach I have applied Angelo’s feedback ideas.

Angelo suggests that feedback is provided in the following sequence:

  • First – good news (what was done well)
  • Second – bad news (what still needs improvement)
  • Third – options (what can be done to improve it)
  • Fourth – plans (what the learner intends to do)
  • Fifth – commitments (what both parties agree to do, to what standard and by when)

It is a seemly simple list. My take is that it is provided to the doctoral student as the structure against which they write up the meeting notes and identified actions. This in turn is submitted for sign off and agreement and then formalised as the supervision meeting record. The key adaptation here is that the student identifies the good and bad news, the options and the plan for themselves, they are learning to self-evaluate and problem solve.

  • First – good news (what has gone well for you since our last meeting?)

“I have read the articles we discussed since our last meeting. I have made notes on them and I have found a range of other literature.”

  • Second – bad news (what has not gone so well, or that you are still working on?)

“The cat was ill for a week and kept me up at night setting back my progress on constructing my questionnaire.”

  • Third – options (what can be done to address the issues in ‘bad news’?)

“I aim to catch up with the questionnaire construction by focusing on it for the next two weeks.”

  • Fourth – plans (what the learner intends to do between now and the next meeting – this can if the student wishes be a timeline or simple Gantt chart)
  • Fifth – commitments (what both parties agree to do, to what standard and by when)

“Read the first draft of chapter X. This will be submitted on dd/mm/yy and supervisor feedback will be provided by dd/mm/yy.”

The nature of what is contained in each section and the degree of detail will depend on the stage that the student is at and a wide range other factors like the discipline being studied,  the required frequency of meetings and so on.

I have applied this technique on form submission I can add to or amend it as required. The biggest issue is acculturating students into including enough specific detail. However, once a common understanding of the requirement to submit a detailed form is established the process starts to take care of itself.

Community Acuity (12): aligning expectations for the thesis in a cross-cultural professional doctorate

Dr Janet Strivens NTF, is based in the Centre for Higher Education Studies at The University of Liverpool, and supervises on the Professional Doctorate in Higher Education.

The Professional Doctorate in Higher Education at the University of Liverpool is a fully online programme developed, like most other Liverpool online programmes, in partnership with Laureate Inc., a global private higher education supplier. Four of us from Liverpool were involved in the design and have remained heavily committed to ‘our baby’ as supervisors. Every student gets two supervisors, one from Liverpool and one from Laureate. 

Inevitably, the Laureate supervisors are recruited from around the world so many don’t have University of Liverpool doctorates. The significance of this dawned on me gradually when my fellow supervisor, of Russian extraction but with a US doctorate and currently teaching there (I’ll call her Natasha), apologised for holding back a draft introductory chapter from our Middle Eastern student because he had not included a summary of his methodology. I received this in Madrid as I was idly wondering whether to join a very sun-baked queue to visit the Prado (such are the joys of any-time, anywhere supervision). I quickly forgot the sightseeing as I pondered Natasha’s message. I replied that I wouldn’t really have expected to see this in the introductory chapter anyway. She was surprised and our discussion of expectations evolved into a question of how many chapters I expected (as many as it takes?) and the discovery that, in her institution, the number and purpose of each chapter was laid down in the regulations. 

Later, with another US co-supervisor, another difference of perspective emerged: the tense in which the Methodology chapter should be written (past tense, as in, the research has been completed, or future/conditional, as in, this is the decision-making process I went through?)

Back home, I discussed Natasha’s queries with my Liverpool colleagues. I thought her perspective had provided an explanation, for me at least, for what I had regarded as some oddities in the writing of previous students. I had also told Natasha that I didn’t necessarily expect a final version of the Research Questions in the introductory chapter, which was in many ways more significant than the presence or absence of a summary of methodology. I explained that this was because I expected the Research Questions to evolve, and to be refined after the literature review had been completed. In summary, I began to realise that I thought of the thesis as ‘telling the story’ of the research more or less as it happened, rather than writing a report on it afterwards. At least two of my colleagues at University of Liverpool strongly agreed with this.

Subsequently, in recognition of the need to align all our expectations, we decided to include a session on ‘Structuring Your Thesis’ in our annual Student Residency (only a minority of students will attend thi, but the session can be made available as a video recording to all). The session is deliberately non-directive, presented as dialogue and discussion: my colleague and I present our preferences, with reasons, and invite students, and importantly fellow-supervisors from Laureate, to share their own perspectives and experiences. We are very conscious that this is a cross-cultural programme: nevertheless, most of our external examiners (and all our internal examiners) are familiar with the British doctoral system – and ultimately, they’re the people we have to please.

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.  Continue reading “Community Acuity (1) the sympathetic supervision of international students”