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Transition from supervised to supervising

Maree with Ivory and Shin-Hung

Earlier this year, in February 2020, the Centre for Marine Socioecology (CMS) and IMAS hosted a group of Taiwanese students from National Cheng University.

Alongside Karen and our colleague Emily Ogier, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to support two of the visiting students, Ivory and Shin-Hung. They wanted to understand the human dimensions of ecological change and to develop some social research skills. It was a great process and useful too as they produced some really good coding and analysis of people’s perspectives on environmental and human impacts of aquaculture.

Supervision is up there in researcher KPIs with publications and winning funding grants. Karen and Emily supervise many students but for me it was a first as an ECR, a kind of taster of supervision. Thanks to CMS Director Gretta Pecl and the CMS hosting, I got an entry point into supervision, starting the transition from ‘student’ to ‘supervisor’.

During a transition like this you get to go through what Turner (1987) described as a liminal zone – neither fully student, nor fully supervisor. You are literally as Turner described it “betwixt and between”.

In the liminal zone you get to see each identity anew – you get to problematise each and wonder things like What is student? What is supervisor?

In the liminal zone you get to notice practices and assumptions, roles and functions from both perspectives. You get to consider why we do things, and sometimes you get to resolve what seemed like tensions or ambiguities before. This work in the liminal zone is how we get to assume new mantles and responsibilities.

(By the way, this is just one example of some of the utterly awesome stuff that happens to your mind after you finally submit that thesis sucker and are momentarily and gloriously free)

Back to liminality - this is one thing I learnt. The supervisor role has a fundamental tension to it - part greatest supporter, part fiercest critic and yet fully always an enabler. As a student I found this tension hard work to be on the receiving end. It was often when experiencing this confusing part of the supervisory relationship that I would doubt myself, feel confused and alone, and not just a little bit overwhelmed.

On the one hand, I was to seek pastoral support, skills development and academic guidance from my supervisors – we were all in it together as a team, and the research had a sense of shared endeavour. Very supportive, collegial and person-centred.

On the other hand, the constant push to write-write-write when I didn’t feel I had anything to say; consistent critique on writing style, editing & expression when I did write; never-ending challenges to every assertion that I didn’t even realise I was making; relentless requirement to justify every concept, and always the demand to take responsibility – “it’s your research, you’re the expert” (sure, as if, right?)…

It was tough, relentless and played right into my insecurities as a researcher with training wheels on.

With the benefit of hindsight, coming to terms with this tension academically and emotionally was one of my greatest learning points. Seems to me that negotiating this push-pull is one of the ways you move from ‘student’ to ‘researcher’.

When working with Ivory and Shin-Hung this tension started to make sense from the supervisory side too. My role was to help them find their own insights, learn to be aware and analyse their assumptions and so become more rigorous researchers. I also wanted to make sure they were looking after themselves, and not giving way to negative feelings in the hard slog which is learning new stuff and going deeper into intellectual places that you didn’t even know existed.

It seemed to me the trick was to get clear for myself where I was in the process – which role was required at which moment – pastoral carer or academic critic; teacher or reviewer; when to explain and provide answers and when to push relentlessly for them to go harder and find their own answers.

Not only that, but it seemed to me I needed to make sure I helped Ivory and Shin-Hung understand where we were in the process: acknowledging the tension, naming up the difficulties, and making sure they really trusted my faith in their ability to do what they had to do, and my genuine positive regard for them as people.

It was a delight getting to know Ivory and Shin-Hung, and a getting this little taster into supervision. In understanding and managing the tension for myself as a ‘supervisor’, I hope I was able to help them navigate the terrain too. My experience with them also strengthened my resolve to never forget how this tension can play out for students, and to always make sure I help any student to reflect on the process as well as be in the process.

Turner, V., 1987. Betwixt and between: The liminal period in rites of passage. Betwixt and between: Patterns of masculine and feminine initiation, pp.3-19.

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