emotional labour · grad school · teaching · writing

40 / 40 / 20 is the new black …

Here’s my working hypothesis: mentoring or supervising students through long independent projects–like a Master’s research paper, or a PhD dissertation, or an undergraduate honour project–is the kind of labour that breaks down into three categories of work, weighted 40 / 40 / 20. You know, how like the tenure-line assessment system encourages a division of one’s time and efforts into 40% research, 40% teaching, and 20% service? Only–goes my thinking–working effectively with students who are writing long pieces means spending 40% of my attention and effort on the intellectual questions, 40% on the process of writing and/or scholarship, and 20% on professionalization issues.

Interestingly, while each kind of work has discrete tasks associated with it, at the edges, each begins to bleed into the others.

The intellectual mentorship is generally what we think of (students and professors alike) when we think of “supervision.” Intellectual mentorship means holding a marked up draft in one’s supervisory grasp, and saying things like: “I think Ian Hutchby’s work on the relationality of affordances might be useful to you here”; or, “I think you’re going to have to be a little more precise about what ‘material’ means to you in this work”; or, “There’s a lot of prior scholarship on this question and you should look it up.” Some of that work is mentoring, such as when I help a student find useful material they didn’t know about, or think through an idea all the way to the end. And some of it is, frankly, gatekeeping: this piece of work is or is not up to snuff; this reference list is or is not thorough enough; this dissertation passes or does not pass the defence. It’s my subject area expertise, and my institutional standing, that are called on here.

But if all I did was that stuff with my students, most of them would take twice as long to finish, and with twice as much stress, for not much reward.

I really began to focus on the writing part of the question from my work in digital media classrooms: when I started teaching classes on digital design, it struck me that students who had technical skills on the way in did much better in the course than those who were coming to the subject new, even in an introductory course. I decided then that I was never going to assess anyone on skills that I wasn’t actually taking the time to teach them. So now in my design classes, we start from the beginning with each piece of software–I can’t grad you on Photoshop unless I teach you the basics of how to use it. This has translated to all my other teaching as well: I don’t assign research essays unless I teach students how to write in that genre and how to do the requisite research, for example.

In supervision work, it struck me, students are asked to write longer pieces than they have ever done before, with greater original thought expressed, and with deeper research. Where the hell are they being taught how to tackle the logistics, the psychology, the slog, the rhythm of writing a 100 page treatise on a thesis of their own devising? I guess that’s my job. It’s very rarely the case that students aren’t smart enough to write long projects. It is very often the case that the process ties them in such knots that they never get it done, or done as well as they might have.

So my students and I spend a lot of time on what we might as well call writing instruction: creating a daily writing habit, setting small goals, reverse outlining, free writing, low stakes drafts, frequent workshopping. We also talk about research work: using online bibliographic databases, citation software, email alerts from journals, Google alerts from research topics. “Lower your standards!” I say to them, “Write a shitty first draft!” Or, “Why don’t you use Zotero to keep all your references together, then you won’t have to retype everything all the time?” And of course, we engage deeply and systematically with the drafts they produce: I help them recognize their writing tics (mine are the overuse of semi-colons and beginning sentences with coordinating conjunctions); we talk about sentence variety, and the use of transitions, and the graduate student habit of putting all the secondary sources at the start of the paragraph and then only timidly adding their own idea in the last sentence. One former student, who went round after red-penned round with me over a tendency to jargonize, told me at the end of the process–his Master’s degree–that no one had ever actually taught him how to write before, and that he had really learned a lot by writing his thesis with me. That was one of my proudest teaching moments.

As far as I’m concerned, long-format writing projects in which a student writer works with a faculty supervisor are as much about writing as they are about research. So my job is as much about teaching time management, research strategy, writing process, and the writing itself as it is to ensure that the research quality is up to par.

(And the 20% professional stuff? Let’s talk about that another day.)

Does your work manifest the 40/40/20 split?

5 thoughts on “40 / 40 / 20 is the new black …

  1. Blogger is being a jerk. Here's a comment from Pantagruelle (sp? Yikes! hope not…):

    “Thanks for this really insightful post, Aimée! I don't know if I'm at a 40/40/20 balance, although I certainly like the concept. Since I've ended up teaching sooooo many grad classes in my first four years on the job, it feels like I'm putting 110% into grad supervision all the time, but I never really thought about how it breaks down. We have a mandatory research methods class which I know they all take in their first semester and is taught by someone competent whom I trust, so I don't spend much time formally teaching them how to research a research paper, and that class also covers professionalization, so it seems like I mostly focus on helping them improve their argumentation and writing style, although I certainly try to provide my own take on professionalization too. I'd say my split is something like 15/65/20, although when I look at it that way it does strike me as imbalanced. Something to think about balancing differently in the future…”


  2. Ah, the wonderful work that context does. “Write a shitty first draft”, objectively speaking, seems a lot like “Obey the laws of physics.” It's amazing how much of supervisory work involves telling people to do the inevitable or stating the obvious (“it can't be refereed until it's submitted”).

    One old saw that I heard for the first time from my own PhD supervisor, which I think he intended to make me hopeful–and if so, it worked–was “Cream and scum rise to the top.” I always wonder, though, if he was pointing out an alternative approach to career building. Kinda makes me cautious about repeating it to others.


  3. Sonnet — (Hey Lady! Long time no chat!) Reverse outlining is reading your own draft as though it were a secondary source, and, writing notes as you go along, creating an outline from what you've written, rather than writing to an outline you create in advance.

    DDVD — it's amazing how much I need to be reminded of the things I remind my graduate students of. The advice works but it's sooooo hard to follow. Forever.

    Melissa — I would love to offer 'how to supervise' workshops. Love. But it's amazing to me how many professors seem to think that sheer number of supervisions will somehow confer skill in this area.


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