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Crisis, catharsis, and creation: a gothic approach to doctoral supervision

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From pathologic concerns to powerful dialogues In doctoral schools and programmes today we see a strong concern for the well-being of doctoral students. In the research literature too, there is a strong focus on how doctoral students have to deal and cope with stress, anxiety, and depression, and we learn that many doctoral students fight to maintain a healthy work-life balance, while at the same time having to be excellent researchers, work part or full time on the side to support their studies, take care of their own family, and sometimes caring for elderly or disabled parents (Hopwood et al, 2011). We fully acknowledge this pressure doctoral students experience, and at the same time we challenge the pathological discourse that is clouding doctoral education and supervision. Redefining researcher education into health issues and diverting the challenges of research supervision to a matter of care for the well-being of students is not the only way forward. We know from the research into doctoral supervision that well-being and research excellence are closely connected to intellectual and epistemic breakthroughs (Brodin, 2016; 2017; Wisker et al, 2011; Bengtsen 2011; 2016), the so-called ‘depth supervision’ (Skagen, 2017), and the experience of identity transformation and professional growth (Halse & Malfroy, 2010; Barnacle & Dall’Alba, 2017; Frick, 2011). There is a need to explore and understand supervisor interactions, engagements and duties in terms of where they can actually help and support students through relational epistemologies and empathic intellectual activities. Methodological approach In this study we draw from qualitative semi-structured interviews with doctoral students and supervisors from UK, South African, and Danish universities. In the period 2015-2018, both authors have worked in tandem and aligned and critically discussed and adjusted their interview approaches in their different national contexts. We build our presentation around key passages and quotations from these interviews, to bring into the room the actual voices of the doctoral students themselves. In our data analysis and our discussion of the data, we draw from what we have come to call a ‘gothic approach’. An essential trajectory of the Gothic in literature and its criticism (Botting, 2013; Punter 2001; Punter & Byron, 2004) is first a revelation of discomfort, dismay, contradictions, and the upsetting of complacencies. However, defamiliarisation renders the familiar strange, unsettling and should this unsettling darkness be worked through, it can lead to new insights and understandings, new ways of seeing, behaving, and creating. Our gothic approach draws from the concept of ‘darkness’ in higher and doctoral education research (Bengtsen & Barnett, 2017; Elliot et al, 2016; Wisker, Robinson, and Bengtsen, 2017). The concept of darkness goes beneath the pathological discourses and point to deeper existential concerns and troubles. Also, the gothic approach draws from research into the crossing of conceptual thresholds in doctoral education and supervision (Wisker & Kiley, 2009; Wisker & Robinson, 2009). Powerful and effective supervision is a critical-creative dialogical effort that goes to the heart of the disciplinary (epistemological) and personal (ontological) meaning creation. It raises the doctoral student’s thinking out of darkness and ineffability, into light and shape. Findings – Dark matter and intellectual leaps In the presentation, we shall focus on our two main findings: Taking a look into the dark Our qualitative data makes visible how the deep anxieties and frustrations experienced by doctoral students are about vanishing of identity, loss of meaning, loss of self, and displacement and disconnection with the surrounding social and societal contexts. Interestingly, the pathological issues can be seen to be a derived consequence of deeper challenges and troubles in their intellectual struggles. The depression experienced by some doctoral students is interwoven with the depression of being at the conceptual threshold of learning without being able to cross it. The following fatigue is related to an apathy of the mind and the intellectual powers. The existential crisis is a loss of familiar markers for interpreting new experiences. Here, doctoral supervisors are not powerless and peripheral in the changing Graduate School landscape, but on the contrary have a vital part to play on the deep intellectual-existential level of doctoral learning. Tales from those who have crossed over In our data doctoral students retell their experience of crossing over to the other side of the threshold and regaining their faith in their academic work and selves. These intellectual leaps are primarily linked to gaining new insights, understanding knowledge in new ways, and obtaining new views on their research challenges. The stories told are about feeling at home in their academic and intellectual culture and activities, and they are linked to self-mastery and self-efficacy due to being and becoming a researcher. Again, the emotional and pathological issues are being addressed as implications of the intellectual-existential transformation and development. Also, the crossing over is a crossing over between worlds, and not states of mind (or emotional states). Some of the deepest concerns doctoral students have are ontological in nature – being about concerns and joys in understanding the world and only in a derived sense about understanding themselves as persons. Conclusion – Crossing over with Charon the ferryman Based on our findings we argue that in order to enhance the efficiency and quality of doctoral supervision, we should not transfer unto them discourses, and hereby educational demands, about personal well-being, health, and social welfare. Instead, our data suggests that supervisors should be revitalized as central ‘ferrymen’ (like Charon in Greek mythology), going into the dark half-worlds and in-between zones, where students get lost, and where their thoughts and ideas becomes broken and crippled. This is an intellectually haunted land, where ghosts pray on the students with their nightmarish callings and cries of failed careers, broken families, and loss of sanity. Supervisors actually do have the powers to go into that spot of intellectual crisis, to dwell there with the students in order to understand the fibres of that darkness, and then to help students towards a new version of the world, and the self, through knowledge creation efforts. References Barnacle, R., & Dall’Alba, G. (2017). Committed to learn: Student engagement and care in higher education. Higher Education Research and Development, 36(7), 1326-1338. Bengtsen, S. (2016). Doctoral Supervision. Organization and Dialogue. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press Bengtsen, S., & Barnett, R. (2017). Confronting the dark side of higher education. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 51, 114–131. Botting, F. (2013). Gothic. The New Critical idiom. London & New York: Routledge Brodin, E. (2017). The stifling silence around scholarly creativity in doctoral education: experiences of students and supervisors in four disciplines. Higher Education, 75:4, 655-673 Brodin, E. (2016). Critical and creative thinking nexus: learning experiences of doctoral students, Studies in Higher Education, 41:6, 971-989 Elliot, D. L., Baumfield, V., Reid, K., & Makara, K. A. (2016). Hidden treasures: Successful international doctoral students who found and harnessed the hidden curriculum. Oxford Review of Education, 42, 733–748.
 Frick, L. (2011). Facilitating Creativity in Doctoral Education: A Resource for Supervisors. In V. Kumar & A. Lee (Eds.), Doctoral Education in International Context: Connecting Local, Regional and Global Perspectives (pp. 123–137). Serdang: Universiti Putra Malaysia Press. Halse, C. & Malfroy, J. (2010). Retheori- zing doctoral supervision as profes- sional work. Studies in Higher Educa- tion. Vol. 35, No. 1, pp.79-92 Hopwood, N., Alexander, P., Harris-Huemmert, S., McAlpine, L., & Wagsta, S. (2011). The hidden realities of life as a doctoral student. In V. Kumar, & A. Lee (Eds.), Doctoral education in international context: Connecting local, regional and global perspectives (pp. 213–233). Serdang: UniversitiPutra Malaysia Press. Kiley, M., & Wisker, G. (2009). Threshold concepts in research education and evidence of threshold crossing. Higher Education Research & Development, 28(4), 431-441. Punter, D. (Eds.) (2001). A Companien to the Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Punter, D. & Byron, G. (2004). The Gothic. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Skagen, K. (2017). Faglig dybdeveiledning på masternivå. Norsk pedagogisk tidsskrift. Vol. 101. doi: 10.18261/issn.1504-2987-2017-01-08 Wisker, G., & Robinson, G. (2009). Encouraging postgraduate students of literature and art to cross conceptual thresholds. Innovations in Education and Teaching International. 46(3), 317-330. Wisker, G., Robinson, G., & Bengtsen, S. (2017). Penumbra: Doctoral support as drama: From the ‘lightside’ to the ‘darkside.’ From front of house to trapdoors and recesses. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 54(6), 527-538.
Original languageEnglish
Publication yearDec 2018
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2018
EventSRHE Conference 2018: The changing shape of higher education: Can excellence and inclusion cohabit?
- Celtic Manor , Newport , United Kingdom
Duration: 5 Dec 20187 Dec 2018


ConferenceSRHE Conference 2018: The changing shape of higher education: Can excellence and inclusion cohabit?
LocationCeltic Manor
CountryUnited Kingdom
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