Process. My. Ass.
This has been an interesting time to step away from the internet to say the least. I had a very important oral exam, which I needed to prepare for and I did not do as well as I hoped. Now, while that is disappointing on the surface, usually the assessor recommends 3 months or 6 months remediation with specific recommendations for revisions and to resubmit. So, I went forward with an open mind that remediation is not the end of the world, but rather a chance to take a new path forward and get an external examiner to look at my work and give comprehensive feedback.
However, before I go into detail about my exams, I reflected on this whole experience to realize that I just learned a thing or two about British culture and the underlying passive-aggressiveness when it comes to conflict resolution.
It’s the Right Direction
As a PhD student, your project (the thesis) is really of your own making, your supervisors are there to guide and offer advice (and sometimes inspiration and motivation) to keep you on the right track. When I first started in January 2016, I was nervous about my capabilities and whether I still had what it takes to hit the books and absorb what I needed compared to all the younglings in the room. The truth is, that you do not have to be “super smart” to do this degree, it is really more about project management skills and creativity to see beyond what others can’t. So, as a student we often ask, “Am I going in the right direction?” to our supervisors and mentors to see if we are staying on track. They often see the light ahead in the tunnel that a student cannot. However, everyone learns differently and enters the program at different levels, so there was no reason for me to be insecure.
Read This, but Don’t Say That
Obviously at this level, the amount of reading is crazy. I’ve literally indexed close to 600 items (books, articles, and chapters) that I’ve read in the last two years. Sometimes supervisors will recommend that you read some things that he or she wrote or finds useful for you. This is meant to guide you and give you more depth or perhaps push you in another direction, but sometimes it is hard to tell from a book that may sound like the 300 other things that you read.
As writers, we crave and fear feedback at the same time, the first draft masterpiece you have been working on, may need revising. For students at this level it is the same issue, except the supervisory team cannot tell you exactly what is wrong and what you should do, but can only suggest, “do you mean this?” Or “Here is an example of that,” Or my favorite, “It needs structure,” but fail to define structure without using the word in a sentence. We spend most of our time revising chapter after chapter for years.
Well, I am in an unusual predicament to have 3 (instead of normally 2) supervisors from three separate disciplines. Lucky me. I initially welcomed these diverse perspectives because it seem to align with my multi-disciplinary cross-cutting work and I even asked if this type of collaboration between departments was common and received a muted, “yes.” However, two years later, I tried to incorporate all their opinions, then some of their opinions, and finally just sticking with the one person who is pragmatic and making the most sense. I barely have a chapter that coherently links all my concepts and theory into a well-meaning approach and new contribution to the field (which fucking field?!)
Read Between the Lines
Reading is obviously an important component, but you know what else is just as important? Talking. Discussion. Unfortunately, only 2 out of 3 supervisors offered to discuss the readings with me after suggesting them; they knew that I did not have a background in their fields and we went through some concepts and brainstormed on a one-on-one basis. I found this to be very helpful and probably the only reason why I know any theoretical material. Unfortunately, with my main supervisor, the person I reached out to because her interests and expertise aligned with mine, had been fairly quiet in offering feedback or being open to theoretical discussion.
For example, in a group supervisory meeting the “pragmatic one” was offering comprehensive guidance on the application of my theory (it wasn’t well-applied), my main supervisor’s verbal input to me was, “I agree with him and don’t want to duplicate anything, but you have to remember to put page numbers and thats it,” and handed me a copy of the chapter that seem to have minor revisions– mostly grammar. I stared at her for a minute wondering, if she wasn’t going to question why I should only follow the other’s structure. Well, at least you can say the team wasn’t quarrelling with each other. Another incident was when I approached my main supervisor about my fears of conducting field research and asked her to share her experiences with me– tangible and practical experiences of doing field research, she responded by handing me a book.
Did someone write a book based on your field work? Are you fucking kidding me?
I think at that point, was when I knew I couldn’t even ask her for advice. Hopefully, if something is really wrong then she will tell me. If I’m not going in the right direction, she’ll say something. If she sees something seriously wrong, she’ll say something. She has to, right?
This is the Wrong Path
So, apparently, I have been on the wrong path…for a while, I’m not sure – no one has pinpointed it to me. When I returned to the U.K. and had a group supervisory in September, I felt like something was wrong. Although I had data and possibly a theory to analyze it, they didn’t feel the theory would hold up or that it needed more explanation, but no one could agree in which areas, what I should condense, nor explain “structure” to me. The most fateful words from that day, was from my main supervisor on advising me to choose a theory, “When you read it, it will sing to you,” (shrugs). So, I made major revisions and condense it into a discipline that didn’t really seem to be a major focus of my project. I patched a theory together and half-heartedly submitted, because even though the written feedback seem glowing, it didn’t feel like what I initially wanted to research. Anyway I need to revise and you know what is the best thing about that– the external examiner gave me something to read and I immediately (OK more like 15 minutes) saw my contribution to knowledge! It was right fucking there! Now I want to change everything and I think I know how, until my main supervisor pulled some more nonsense bullshit on me.
It’s Not Me, It’s You
I had suggested we debrief the day after the oral exams. However, before I could say two words, she started choking up and frantically accusing, “Why don’t you have any confidence in me, you have refused to take any of my advice—you don’t trust me as a supervisor!?” Oh god, are you serious? Is she in remediation too, lol? “This isn’t about me, I just want you to have the best learning experience. This isn’t about me!” Um, this seems like it is about you.
So, I explained that I do feel that something is missing and I actually would like to have more of her advice. I said that my other two supervisors had given me one-on-ones when I had questions on the readings, however when I asked her for advice on my approach or even on her experience she’d refer me to a book. Even when I commented on the readings, she never really gave advice (at least not in a way that I recognized). She then asked why I didn’t reference the readings she suggested, I told her that I did in past drafts, but we agreed (one supervisor determined) in the last supervision meeting that I needed to exclude all material that was not relevant to his field. She was at the meeting too, I’m sure she remembered this because silence is consent, right? This was actually a problem raised by the examiner since the paper lacked background and didn’t really show how it connected with the broader aims. She then said that she didn’t know that I found other PhD theses that matched my work and asked why I didn’t include them to make the argument in my chapter stronger?
OMG, when was the last time we sat down and had a comprehensive discussion about my paper, other than you saying, “I’m going in the right direction.” Or “Good, OK.”
These kinds of things may come up, if you’re…what’s the word? Supervising. So, I responded, “How was I supposed to know that?” And she fell silent and said, “Well this is all part of the process” (shrugs).
So, I left that brief meeting feeling at least she said she is open to having one-to-ones like the other supervisors and it’s a new path: a better path. In other words, I felt OK. So tell me why, a week later she writes up 3 supervisory reports for a phone call, a mock interview, and the debriefing listing that she has had all “these concerns” and I dismissed all her advice (she didn’t advise me on anything on the last meeting, only the mock interview in which I took her advice to change my answer and really fucked that up during the assessment, does she not remember her own advice?).
This is so passive-aggressive.
At the end of that aforementioned mock interview gave me a hug before I left the room, and told me I was well-prepared and good luck. Now, you’re writing a series of demerits on my record saying that you had all these awe-inspiring words for me that would have pushed me to the other side of my assessment?
Ok, let’s hear ‘em.
When I first walked in for the mock interview session (that I asked her for) she said, “I don’t know how to hold an interview and won’t be good at asking questions.” Great. Very inspiring, you just suggested that I shouldn’t have come to you for a practice interview. So what did I do? Ignored that comment because I needed to keep my head focused and in the game and not on her insecurities, because it is not about her, right? This was automatic whenever I hear her make these comments, I guess it is possible that I had made a habit of ignoring her.
More words of inspiration:
Me: I’m concerned that it seems I’m not making sense in my writings.
Her: As long as it makes sense to you, its fine.
Me: You mentioned in the 2nd chapter that I had to go deeper, what do you mean?
Her: Uh, what was the exact phrase?
Me (Reading): The theoretical part could deepen once you have better access to literature back in the UK, but you have now much greater clarity on what your analytical approach is, and what is part of the narrative…
Her: Yes, that is what I meant.
Me: Wow, could I do extra field work to collect data for a research paper?
Her: Please don’t think about doing journal articles until you’ve written at least a few chapters…