I was talking with a colleague the other day, about the crisis in graduate education. (Pick your crisis, I guess: is it the no-academic jobs crisis, the time to completion crisis, the building grad programs to staff crappy teaching assignments crisis, what?) We were actually talking about the problem of graduate supervision: that is, how are you supposed to supervise a PhD student?
I mean, there are department or faculty milestones and such, like how many courses are required, and what constitutes passing the language requirement hurdle, and how many times you can attempt the comprehensive exam, and the Faculty of Graduate Studies or whatever it’s called where you are has rules around the font size in the dissertation. And our guidebook here says something about “reading drafts in a timely manner” and “yearly meetings.”
But, to supervise a graduate student, beyond simply flagging for that student the dates they are well enough able to look up unassisted. What does that entail, really? Go on, try to answer me. Now think: where did you get your ideas from? Was it from your own dissertation process, being supervised?
Think about teaching. Those of us who’ve taken any of the university teaching workshops at all know that generally, the only teaching training most of us used to get was … sitting in classrooms being taught. And so when called upon to teach, we replicated that. At least most PhD students starting to teach have taken something upwards of 40 courses, which, while not the ideal way to learn how to teach, at least offers some range of perspectives and methods brought to bear on the problem.
But again: how do you supervise a graduate student? If we assume the same passive training model (that is, teach as you have yourself been taught) all of us really only have one experience to draw on. And that experience may or may not have been ideal, but in any case it’s hard to generalize from one experience.
And do we, once professors, really see how our colleagues supervise graduate students? I don’t think so–or at least, I don’t see it. These strike me as very private relationships. And yes, the projects are individual and the relationship is much more strictly interpersonal than other aspects of our teaching careers, but still, we probably could stand to think more systematically about what, in essence, competent (never mind good or excellent) supervision looks like. Does the university teaching centre offer courses in how to supervise a dissertating student in the humanities? Err, not here.
So let’s bring it out into the open. I ask you: how were you supervised, how do you supervise, what are good strategies and what are poor strategies for graduate supervision? Let’s build up some real data, with some heft to it, and then maybe we can start to generalize. Please bring on your good ideas, your bad experiences, your helpful suggestions, your terrible warnings, the tips you’ve learned from books, or the research you’ve consulted. Let’s shine some light on this question, could we?
I’ll go out on a limb and say that, for me, graduate supervision is an act of teaching and mentoring, as much as it is one of assessment. It is an active process, or should be. You may disagree, and please! Tell me more!
For myself, I think competent supervision entails attention to the student’s professional goals (what kind of job do you want to get, and how can we get from here to there?), intellectual development (yes, but what do you really mean when you say “discourse”?), academic professionalization (how to apply for grants, which conferences, when to try to publish and how), and writing skills and process (no, that’s not how you use a semi-colon, actually; binge writing does not lead to good results or a happy life). I’m still working out how to model those skills or do that teaching.