Part 1: Remote Control  Supervision – The hybrid puppet master supervisor

I love a training session.  I’m always signing up for new workshops.  I know there is often a load of nonsense from academics who somehow think that they are instinctively good teachers and don’t need to engage in professional development, that isn’t explicitly developing their reputation as an international scholar.  In fact I’ve heard early career and established academics say some pretty shoddy things about pedagogical training.  Shoddy things that they wouldn’t accept being said about their own work, their own research or indeed their own teaching.  Why wouldn’t we want to benefit from the high quality pedagogical research and training experience of experts? We certainly expect people to take our own research and experience seriously.  In fact I have noted a direct correlation between historians who dismiss pedagogical training whilst simultaneously separating themselves from public history, heritage, amateur archivists, genealogists or school and FE based history curriculum as not being ‘real history’.  So it is alright for historians to blag it as teachers but not for teachers to blag it as historians?

This is the first of two blog posts inspired by a training session I went to in June 2015. “PhD: facing in or out?” was run by Publishing and Research Training Consultant Josie Dixon and in this and the next post I will explore how it fed into a remote control group supervision session I ran over Twitter using the hashtag #RemotePhd.

Josie Dixon helps doctoral supervisors think about the specific conditions in which our doctoral students work.  During her workshop it became clear how the experience and pressures of doctoral students encapsulate the pushes, pulls and pressures of HE more widely.  These speak not only of the doctorate researcher’s position more generally, but of the big questions about what we are doing as public sector workers, in research and education in the current university context. Josie guided us through the inward and outward pressures that doctoral students experience.  It made me realise that my own inward pressures (personal goals, career targets, ambition to make a difference, getting through the day, trying not to humiliate myself, finishing stuff, letting it go) and outward pressures (grant application criteria, REF, public engagement, widening participation, student satisfaction, Knowledge exchange and Impact) don’t actually work together very well to bring out the best out of me – so why on earth would they for a doctoral researcher?

Josie mapped the historical development of the imagined role of the Phd .  The values attached to the Phd have changed from “adding to the knowledge of the nation” (whoever and whatever that is) to transferable skills with postgraduate research students re-purposed as academic trainees in Sir Gareth Roberts’ Review SET for Success in 2002. Practically in the current context these tensions have encouraged doctoral research that is narrow and deep with research based on bite size case studies.  These are deliverable, and make sense in terms of completion rate target goals, but this is at the cost of breadth, in coverage and in terms of the potential implications of doctoral research.  Further more Josie used her own considerable publishing experience to explain that this often renders doctoral students incapable of publishing their thesis as a single authored monograph.   What doctoral students can do, and what academic publishers want, do not seem to match up very well, which is pretty tough considering the centrality of the REF driven agenda in career development.

So whilst the position of doctoral students helped us ask the big questions, we supervise them in situations that make it increasingly difficult for our supervisees to ask the same big questions in their own work. But we are all in the same boat.  My pedagogical work for example is very small scale, slipped in round the edges of everything else.  I’m certainly not interested in the mega MOOC for example.  I’m interested in working together in small ways that still allow us to ask some really big questions.

Josie developed a way of working across the inward and the outer pressures, in fact by the end of the session it appeared that engaging with the outer pressures could be a way out of the narrow deep pit holes.  Rather than encouraging doctoral students to identify the gap they are filling (as if filling a gap is in itself worth filling) we could instead encourage  doctoral researchers to draw out the ripples of potential influence from their research.  To refuse to be limited to either the “Ivory Tower or the Shopping Mall”.  Josie’s workshop mapped out some ways in which we could help our supervisees think about the wider and wider implications of what they are saying, for their careers, for a particular type of history, for a particular type of evidence, for a particular audience now and to think about this as a an ongoing process from today to their future careers.

With all of this spinning round my head,  this seemed to connect with a related set of questions about digital pedagogy, virtual and face to face teaching.  What space is there for us to use the digital to enhance and problematise what is we already ready do, rather than churn it out on a mass scale for cheap?  It reminded me of a different set of pedagogical interventions that had been set up by my undergraduate students as part of the DIY Digital project.  Both Josie’s workshop and the DIY Digital students raised similar questions, as a teacher how could I facilitate, or teach, students to be in charge of their own work? Can you force autonomy in the classroom? Can we have our cake and eat it? Did I have to be there when my students learn? am I ripping them off if I’m not? How can we use the virtual to service what happens in the room rather than the other way round?  And how do we deal with the contradictions of democratic learning in the here and now? In their reflections on the project DIY Digital students talked about the importance of being in the room together in order to explore virtual possibilities of history as a social network online.

There has been an increasing amount of work in digital pedagogy and an ever increasing numbers of great apps and open resources aimed at teaching.  (Anne Hole and the TEL team at Sussex do a great job of finding us apps and tools for pretty much any challenge we throw at them)  Just like other forms of pedagogy, digital pedagogy shouldn’t just mean winging it;  it should be thought through, bringing ‘research, experience, and openness to each new learning activity, technology, or collaboration’. Buzzwords like  “blended learning” and “flipped classroom” are bandied around, often in ways that limit digital pedagogy to a replication of what we already do, but cheaper, or at a distance.  Instead as historians we are well placed to think about what ‘digital pedagogy’ might actually mean, and what might it do that we don’t already do.  Can’t it be more than a facsimile of what we already do? The DIY digital students made it clear that their digital creativity was dependent on their sense of being a collective group based on real experience of being in a real room with each other. Michael Strawsor’s idea of ‘hybrid’ pedagogy, which goes beyond a sense of blended learning to think about transformation rather than replication, seems to resonate with the responses of the DIY Digital students.  They had thought carefully about what they wanted my role to be – how to get me out of the way when needed, and how to call me into their project when needed.

With these things in mind I approached four of my postgraduate students, all at different stages of their research and asked them if I could experiment on them – seeing what happened if I put both Josie and my DIY digital students’ suggestions into practice.

The four postgraduates involved were:

Amy Gower who is a masters students currently researching her dissertation on Grange Hill and representation of childhood and as an undergraduate was involved in my previous projects Observing the 80s and DIY: Digital.

Laura Cofield second year Phd student who works on attitudes and representations of public hair in the second half of the twentieth century.

Owen Emmerson who is also a second year researcher works on the history of corporal punishment who had been involved in Observing the 80s, and David Geiringer who is about to submit his thesis on Catholic women’s experience of birth control.  Not only were they at different stages of their research careers, but they were connected through a set of interests and approaches.

I set up a peer supervision experiment on a Thursday night in a pub in Brighton. It was an ‘unplugged’ or remote control experiment.  I would be guiding the discussion remotely via Twitter they would be in the room together working together. I explained that my goals were to explore the ways in which being a postgraduate researcher put them at the epicentre of the faultlines and contradictions of higher education in any given historical context.  But also about how we (supervisors) can facilitate/encourage community building within the post-graduate community especially across different stages of research.  If we are in the room doing the facilitating then we end up stuck in the established structures by default.  If we choose not to be in the room are we short changing our students? If we choose to work virtually on top of everything else we are doing are we training our doctoral students to accept never ending workloads of self-exploitation?

The second half of this write up is now also up.

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