supervision and feedback

So this week there’s a bit of tweet humour about how US grad students might interpret feedback from faculty trained in the UK. If you haven’t seen it here’s a taste.

They say “With the greatest respect”, the grad student hears “They’re listening to me” but they mean “I think you’re an idiot”.
They say “Very interesting”, and the grad student hears “They are impressed” but they mean “Clearly nonsense”.
They say “I’ll bear it in mind”, the grad student hears “ They’ll probably do it” but they mean “I’ve forgotten it already”.
They say “I just have a few minor comments”, the grad student hears “They noticed some typos” but they mean” You need to rewrite the whole thing”.

Well, you get the picture – and if you want to see the lot, it’s here.

This little joke goes to the question of feedback in supervision – not only what is said and not said, but how it’s understood. And I’ve been thinking about feedback a lot recently, not least because I got an email not long ago from someone who had quit their PhD because the feedback they got from their adviser not only lacked any helpful pointers at all but was also an ongoing ad hominem attack, that is, it was a pernicious commentary on the doctoral researcher. I’ve also recently talked to a couple of people who had had utterly no feedback on their work – they knew that this didn’t mean that their work was perfect but rather that they were left swimming around on their own.

Giving feedback is one of the most vexatious tasks for doctoral supervisors. While it’s easy to avoid obviously cruel or slack feedback, it’s much harder to work out how to give feedback that isn’t going to be too upsetting but still provide the clarity of support that is helpful and needed. There are a number of reasons for this I think, including:

1. Most supervisors want to be encouraging. The PhD is a long haul and it’s easy to put people off. There is enough room for doubt and more than enough time for attacks of the doldrums in the average PhD, and the supervisor often finds it pretty tricky to know what is actually going on for the doctoral researcher at that precise minute. It’s also not easy to manage the balance between challenge and support. I often feel I have been rather ‘too nice’, to the detriment of more precise feedback. I am then surprised when a doctoral researcher tells me I have the reputation of being pretty ‘straight-shooting’ in what I say! But see above – as an Australian I’m much more likely to say “I don’t think that’s such a good idea” than “Maybe we could consider some other options”.

2. Providing the most useful feedback depends on the supervisor being able to diagnose the analytic/writing problem correctly. This is not always easy. It’s not unlike getting papers for review – some take several readings and some time to work out what the problem is – you know there is one but you can’t put your finger on it. The same is true of doctoral work. Sometimes I don’t have the time – between getting a piece of writing and a tutorial – to work out what is actually the problem, so I just have to do the best that I can in the time available. I’m sure I don’t always get it right. Supervisors also can’t know everything about the question, the literature, methods, field-work and writing – like many of my colleagues I’m often unsure that I actually know what I need to know in order to give the most helpful feedback.

3. Everyone is different. Some doctoral researchers are able to take fairly robust critique without falling in a heap. Others are much more likely to doubt their ability and competence. And this isn’t consistent throughout the PhD – there are times when people are more fragile than others. Sometimes people are not ready to hear what is being said – they may not have the experience or the reading to connect to the feedback. So the supervisor needs not only to know the doctoral researchers they are working with, but also to judge the level of feedback that will be ‘right’ for the person and to consider how often the same thing might need to be said.

4. And, as the jokes about the US grad student and UK faculty suggests, there are also cultural differences that play out in the power relationship that exists between supervisor and doctoral researcher. We talk very little about these cultural questions, and often then as a joke, but it is increasingly an issue in most universities around the globe as doctoral programmes become populated with researchers from more diverse disciplinary and cultural backgrounds. And we are only just starting to discuss how we deal with the hegemony of able-bodiedness.

A beginning list only about the issues surrounding feedback… As I’ve said before in this blog, there is far too little institutional discussion about supervision, let alone the key pedagogical task of giving feedback.

Last time I posted about supervision feedback (see here and here), Jo Van Every recommended this book, Liz Lerman’s Critical response process, A method for getting useful feedback on anything you make, from dance to dessert. Originally written to help people handle ‘the crit’, a common pedagogical practice in performing and visual arts, the book offers a useful protocol – start with the affirmative, ask neutral questions and then offer critique – which could well be helpful in some supervision processes too. At the very least, it could be the basis of a discussion between supervisor and doctoral researcher about how they will manage the feedback process – something I confess I don’t do nearly often enough.

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, doctoral pedagogies, feedback, supervision and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to supervision and feedback

  1. Jane S says:

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” ~ Lewis Carroll.

    Many a true word spoken in jest, Pat ~ I recognise some of these comments, and I’m NOT an American grad student! But you’re correct – there are times when the shell of one’s ego is less than robust, and the ‘power relationship that exists between supervisor and doctoral researcher’ is such the d.r. tends to feel they must accept at face value all opinions handed down – but whether s/he gets the message is uncertain.
    Academics seem to be chronically short of time, and fast last-minute scans of a d.r.’s writing ahead of supervisions does no one any favours. Verbal comments are the devil. Feedback goes in one ear and out t’other; confusing, esp. when two supers. are involved. I scribble notes, but prefer written remarks (marginalia) I can dissect later.

  2. Pingback: supervision and feedback | Educational Books an...

  3. Thanks for the post Pat! I have gotten very mixed feedback from my supervisor. His favorite line is “you’re on the right track” which I learnt translate to ”I’ve only skimmed it, but it seems to be ok”. I always worry I am expecting too much feedback and help and then get annoyed when other co-postgrads get more feedback than I do. Maybe I just need less??? Maybe he is saving it all up for a large heap of criticism??? I hope its the first of the two!

  4. Adam says:

    I think the origin of the ‘how to understand the British’ table that’s gone semi-viral in HE circles is:

    Rottier, Ripmeester and Bush (2010) ‘Separated by a common translation? How the British and the Dutch communicate’, Pediatric Pulmonology, Volume 46, Issue 4, pages 409–411
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ppul.21380/abstract

    It’s been expanded, added to, reformatted, re-purposed, and generally evolved, but this is the earliest version I can find.

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