The fine line between receiving supervision and trying to engage my supervisor in a battle over understandings

As I have thought, said and written many times before, I set up an unhelpfully combative relationship with my supervisor in nearly every exchange we have. I have found it difficult to get a grip on where her line is between holding on to assumptions about my project (which are remarkably different from those behind my methodology and the ones I hold myself), and leaving me to work through my own project. A few times I have felt like she was waiting for me to reach a certain point, but I never know what those points look like until I receive positive feedback for stumbling across them. Part of my issue is I still have much to learn when it comes to asking good questions, or even providing bite size accounts of my own thinking.

In our last meeting she described me as being a ‘very independent worker’. While I would certainly not consider myself self-sufficient, I can see how my surprisingly passionate verbal and email defences of positions that I am actually rather ambivalent about can be interpreted as me defending my independence. My supervisor is a lovely person (and not in that insincere, manipulative, always wanting to look like the selfless martyr, sort of way), so she does not take the bait. While she will indicate when I am being completely incomprehensible, she seems to be unwilling to be be as upfront or challenge me a much as many other people would. She asks very little of me, but it is not because she wants to do as little work as possible. When I contact her asking to meet her replies are usually enthusiastic and state explicitly that she had been hoping I would contact her.

In our last meeting I was upfront with the sort of help with refining ideas I had found very useful from another member of my committee recently. As much as she draws on rather ungrounded theorists such as Bauman and is willing to mount an argument based on fixed assumptions about social phenomena she has not directly witnessed, I think underneath it all she is an empiricist. Talking about a concrete example of what I found helpful did slightly alter the tone of the rest of the meeting. I also granted myself permission to take the time to justify my answers to her questions with examples from my fieldwork, and I felt okay doing this because I was able to stop myself catastrophising what my lack of communication skills was doing to the meeting and instead engage her in some meta-communication to clarify that she was finding the type of response I was offering useful.

It has been through giving up defending my observations and interpretations, and instead working on answering the questions she put in front of me in an intelligible way, that I feel we are starting to build a shared understanding of my project.

When I was doing honours I knew many of the staff in the department relatively well in an academic sense. The disagreements between staff members, the types of questions they asked in seminars, and the direct instructions they offered us in our coursework were very useful for gaining an understanding of the various opinion they held as to what constitutes good research, a valid claim and an adequate text. While I have been slowly piecing together an understanding of how my supervisor approaches research, I still feel like I have much to learn about how we can think together.

Whether my understanding of how to work with her and her growing picture of where I am coming from with my data will allow us to get to the point where I can write a thesis which is engaging (basis of her criteria) and adequate for examination (the basis of my criteria) is yet to be determined.

I am not sure why I am bothering to chart the supervision journey on this blog. Many of the things I say could be very offensive, and these sorts of posts certainly do nothing for any sort of image of me as a confident and savy research student which I might find reason to cultivate in the future. However, every PhD information event I go to people seem to want to know how they can better communicate with their supervisor(s). I would like to know the answer to this too, but I think ultimately a student such as me needs to take responsibility for understanding how I do or do not provide the space for my supervisor to relate to my project.

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