How to be a supervision JEDI

This is part two of a double bill on supervision and diversity, by Dr Jessica Gagnon (@Jess_Gagnon) an educational sociologist, focused on inequalities in higher education. She has worked in higher education in the US and UK for more than 20 years. Jessica is a first-generation student from an American working-class, single mother family. She currently serves as co-chair for the Gender and Education Association, an international, intersectional feminist academic charity founded in 1997, focused on achieving gender equality within and through education. Part 1 documents the equality issues supervisors need to be aware of.

Content note: This blog post discusses and references systemic inequalities, bullying, harassment, gender-based violence.

Scrabble tiles spell 'be the change'

As my previous post outlines, there are a lot of evidenced inequalities in the doctoral experience. As supervisors, we take some responsibility for creating a more just and equal system, but our time is limited, and we cannot solve systemic inequalities single-handedly. We are also working within the same unequal system that we are trying to change, where overwork has become the norm and ever-increasing expectations keep moving our own career goalposts. There are also disproportionate burdens and unequal demands made on some supervisors’ time depending on identities.

However, there are things we can do to make a difference. Below I outline a number of actions we can take. This is not an exhaustive list, and some actions will work for you and some will not. For example, if you are a precarious academic on a fixed term contract, you may not be in a position to make demands for change at your institution. 

Set an example

Here are just a few ways we can set a good example to our supervisees and colleagues:

  • Join your union and encourage your doctoral students to join too.
  • Join and engage in support networks such as the Women in Academia Support Network, Black British Academics, or the Gender and Education Association.
  • Take breaks and time off and say no when you are overcommitted.
  • Learn the significant dates for cultural and religious celebrations that are not given priority on university calendars.
  • Add your pronouns to your email signature, social media bios, and meeting name display.
  • Use gender neutral and inclusive language. For example, using they when asking about an individual’s partner if their pronouns are not known to you or, when welcoming a group of people, using phrases like ‘Welcome, colleagues’.
  • Set up a JEDI in supervision reading and discussion group. Encourage supervisors and supervisees to attend. Even meeting a few times a year might help build a collective, and there is strength in numbers.

Be as prepared as possible

We are often required to complete university training before serving as a doctoral supervisor, but does that cover everything that you will need to know in order to provide the best guidance and support for your supervisees? Here are just some questions to consider before a new supervisee starts:

  •  Do you know where your doctoral supervisee can find peer support? For example, does the student union, the graduate school, or your faculty have networks or societies especially for: PGR or mature students, student carers, Students of Colour, disabled students, LGBTQIA+ students, first generation or working-class students? Are there student representatives for doctoral students in your department? Is there a peer mentoring programme at your university?
  • Do you know the complaints procedures if your doctoral supervisee experiences bullying, harassment, or gender-based violence? Are there different processes for informal and formal complaints and would it be clear to your supervisee what support they are entitled to when pursuing a complaint?
  • Do you know the procedure if your doctoral supervisee needs to declare their disability and arrange for accommodations to be made? Do you know where there are accessible toilets?
  • Do you know the procedure if your doctoral supervisee needs to update their gender or pronouns in university systems? Do you know where there are gender neutral toilets? See TransEDU for more resources and guidance.
  • Do you know the procedure if your doctoral supervisee needs to take family/maternity/paternity leave?
  • Do you know the procedure if your doctoral supervisee needs to take bereavement leave or long-term sick leave or suspend their studies for any reason?
  • Do you know where your doctoral supervisee can access mental health support? Is there a long wait time to access support?

If clear policies, transparent procedures, and robust supports are not available at your university, how can changes be made? Who has the power in the university to raise these issues? 

Discuss support openly and directly with supervisees

When we’re working with new supervisees to set expectations together, part of those conversations are likely to be about where they can find support at the university. However, if we’re only mentioning what training and skills development are offered to them and not, for example, what they can do if they are experiencing bullying or harassment, then we are not putting JEDI into action in our supervision.

These are difficult conversations, but the more we speak openly and directly, about topics like mental health, as one example, and the more we advocate for our supervisees to understand that seeking support is a normal part of their learning experience, then the more likely we are to change some of the statistics listed in part 1.

I think it’s important to note, though, that no matter how much work we put into building a trusting relationship with our supervisees, they still do not owe us (or our institutions) declarations, outness, or visibility for any of their identities. They are not obligated to declare them, and they are certainly not obligated to represent them (in marketing campaigns, on committees, or anywhere else that benefits the university). However, it is absolutely our institutions’ responsibility to make those optional declarations risk free for students and staff. 

Something to consider, for us as staff and for our supervisees: If there were no potential risks associated with disclosure for hidden identities, no fear of consequences or retaliation for asking for support or adjustments, no fear of discrimination or bullying for any identities, then how many more people might be able to thrive in academia? How might the world benefit from an academia where everyone is welcome and included?

Thank you for reading and considering the ideas in part one, and this part two post, on Justice, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the doctorate. Still, this barely touches the surface. There’s other JEDI in supervision topics that should be covered, such as addressing multiple discriminations or addressing the ways that support for certain marginalised groups are prioritised over others or addressing the ways supervisors and supervisees should work to recognise our privileges, even if we occupy one or more marginalised identities. Perhaps those topics could be part of the reading and discussions in the JEDI in supervision collective that you help create.

This is hard work, but it is also essential. In the brilliant words of Audre Lorde, in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches:

“You do not have to be me in order for us to fight alongside each other. I do not have to be you to recognize that our wars are the same. What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities.”

Your ideas and comments welcome.

Footnotes

*I use disabled people rather than people with disabilities in recognition of the social model of disability. Read ‘Why we are disabled people, not people with disabilities’. Watch Scope’s video ‘What is the social model of disability?’

**I am using PoC (People of Colour), though I also recognise the criticisms of umbrella terms for underrepresented and marginalised groups as they do not fully reflect the diversity of possible identities. People of Colour (PoC) was first in print in the 1700s though the phrase has been in more popular use over the last few decades. Watch Loretta Ross discussing the origins of the phrase Women of Colour

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