encouraging robust scholars: how can we encourage students to critically give and receive?

This is a guest post from Dr Steve Hutchinson, a freelance consultant and author on doctoral development and supervision.

Let’s start with two quotes taken from a book called Enhancing the Doctoral Experience. Both quotes are from research students and they highlight a common ingredient in the challenge of growing as a researcher.

“My supervisor is critical of me. This makes me feel bad and so I don’t want to give him [my] work…. This makes me guilty. My supervisor does not make me feel good.”

“How can I challenge my supervisor? He is a professor and I am just beginning!!”

The shared ingredient here is intellectual criticism – in both ‘give and ‘receive’ modes.

PhD students live a precarious existence; they are not really students and nor are they fully integrated faculty members. We want them to be independent and yet sometimes they must function as part of a research team. Their sense of self-identity is very often tied to their research outputs and yet many of them have yet to develop the academic resilience that comes from weathering myriad setbacks, criticisms and rejections. Too much criticism and we, as supervisors, can break them; too little and we may kill them with kindness.

Moreover, we also need to help engender within our students a sense that their voice matters and they can contribute to the debate. Additionally, (and there is often a cultural dimension at play here) they need to realise that even senior academics in the field are not omniscient deities to be placed on pedestals, and that respectful challenge is part of the rule-set that we professionally live by.

The question is then, as supervisors, how we can we do both at the same time? Here I present five ideas on each aspect of criticism that I’ve come across on my travels. Thanks to those whose ideas I’m now shamelessly passing off as my own…

Five ways supervisors can use to develop their student’s ability to receive criticism

  1. Ensure that the balance is set as CONSTRUCTIVE criticism (as opposed to constructive CRITICISM). Frame your feedback as “Remember, this is just my opinion, but here’s how I think you could make this better…” Remember that supervision is about building confidence as well as capability.
  2. Ensure your feedback is about the work, not the candidate. Even the sentence “You haven’t used enough references”, can be construed as YOU haven’t used enough references…” And what you really mean here is ‘only two or three more references are needed to give this piece sufficient scholarly credibility.’
  3. Ask your student to review a paper / manuscript / seminar (either individually or at a journal club), and note their feedback style, critical bugbears and the specific words they use. Then ensure that your feedback to them is couched in a similar patois.
  4. Review the ‘supervisory expectations’ conversation that you had at the start of their candidature (or actually have this conversation for the first time…) and ask them how they want you to be with your criticism. If they want honesty/brutality/diplomacy etc then ensure your feedback is framed in this way. Don’t assume that your receive mode is the same as theirs.
  5. Make sure that they are receiving feedback from multiple sources (journal clubs, peer support, supervisory team, seminar audiences). The point here is not to overwhelm them with negatives, but so they realise that academics frequently differ in their opinion of a piece of work. And the sooner they understand that none of us are right, none of us are wrong – we’re all just different – the stronger they’ll become.

The beauty here is that if you model good behaviour when giving feedback the student learns how to do likewise. Much of the challenge then comes in helping them to realise that they themselves have the right and the duty to be critical of established intellectual figures – including you.

However, we need to remember that many students (especially internationals) have sacrificed a lot to come and work with someone that they intellectually respect. If every question they ask is reflected back to them with a Socratic “well, what do you think?”, then this will inevitably grate, however good your intentions.

Five ways supervisors can use to develop their student’s ability to give criticism

  1. Be aware of the power of terminologies. A supervisor I met told me that he constantly reminds himself never to use the word ‘student’ in reference to his doctoral researchers. He tells them from the start that they are ‘professional researchers’. “After all”, he told me “if they’re a ‘student’ – they’ll see me as a ‘teacher’ and that’s not my job.” (Additionally, let them read your doctoral thesis. If it’s anything like mine then that should set you down a peg or two in their eyes…)
  2. Ask to see their teeth. A supervisor I met asks her newish students to find ‘the most important/prestigious paper’ in their field. She then asks them to review it as savagely and pedantically as possible. They then discuss the review and the process. Her purpose here is simply to help her student to understand that even the ‘best’ papers are not perfect. Additionally, another supervisor I encountered at a workshop told me that they ask their students (in the early stages) to critique a manuscript from which the author details and contact information have been redacted. The supervisor says that he will do the same and they can compare notes afterwards. At the ensuing meeting it becomes clear to the student that the manuscript was originally written by the supervisor. The supervisor says he then points out to the (initially mortified) student that this is exactly the type of critically symbiotic relationship they need to have.
  3. Share your reviews, and your feelings. Sharing with your student the critical feedback that you’ve received on your work (either recently or in your formative intellectual years) and moreover telling them how you felt about it, can be both an powerful trust-builder and an insight to the (oft-hidden) norms of professional academic behaviour.
  4. Share the leadership. Ask yourself who is leading the research direction and the supervisory process. Simple measures like saying to your student “tell me what I need to be reading so I can supervise you effectively”, places an onus of responsibility onto the student and starts to move away from the ‘I say, you do’ direction of an authoritative supervisor.
  5. Peer learning can be a powerful tool. Group meetings, review clubs and colleague conversations can all help to emphasise the notion that even pivotal papers are imperfect; time, new technology, new-data and globally-shared information all serve to help evolve intellectual ‘fact’. This is sometimes difficult to realise in the silo of research student-dom.

Ultimately a doctorate us about producing a robust and independent scholar who has produced a substantive and original piece of research work of reputable quality. All elements of this process require critical capability from the candidate – and it is pivotal to the supervisory role that our students can ‘take it’ and ‘dish it out’.

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