What Would Sue Do? Confessions of an Early Career Supervisor

I had a pretty cruisey supervision experience. Initially, no one at my institution was equipped to supervise my project, but about 6 months in, my department successfully headhunted my perfect match from Vic, Sue – a woman my mum’s age, who grew up in Waimana near my papakāinga in Pāroa, with a PhD in Media Studies, who specialised in representations of Māori in the news. Sue was the man! As long as I handed in something – anything – that reflected what we’d discussed in our last hui, and I bought a beverage of some description, Sue was happy. Except for this one time:

DIALOGUE SUE: Jani. I haven’t made contact with you

JANI: Yup. I noticed.

SUE: Because (dramatic pause)… I get so angry when I get your writing sometimes. And I throw papers. My husband doesn’t like it.

INNER-MONOLOGUE Jani: Truuuuuuuuue?

She was equally happy to red pen everything; question marks, crosses, copious ‘what do you means?’, ‘this is unclears’, ‘unpack this mores’, and entire paragraphs – sometimes pages – that I’d taken weeks to write, were goneskies in one swish of the biro. Sue was the right supervisor for me, for her spelling/grammar/punctuation gestapo-ness, but she had a kind, gentle wairua (I only very recently paid her back the $40 she lent me for petrol one time I came to a supervision in Auckland from Whakatāne), and I was a solo-mum living away from my whānau doing a PhD on the DPB. But the trust relationship, that I’d do my job so Sue could do hers, was definitely one of the elements I’ve tried to emulate in my early career supervision.

I’ve recently inherited the co-supervisory role to an awesome 3rd year PhD student, exploring the decolonisation of industrial design. In the next few weeks, she’ll embark on a month long journey into the field where she’ll run ‘focus groups’ in an Indigenous art community in her home country.

DIALOGUE, JANI (action: mini-clapping): Wow, your study sounds awesome! How exciting for you.

STUDENT: Yes. (Nervous pause). I’m looking for another supervisor. [Supervisor’s name] has left AUT.

JANI: Aw, ok…  (thinking, thinking). You know [friend’s name] would be PERFECT for you because of the identity trajectory you’re following. I could talk to her for you, she’s a close mate of mine.

STUDENT: I want you.

JANI (blink… blink…) INNER MONOLOGUE: I write about movies?

STUDENT: I read your thesis. I know you weave.

The artists make incredible woven items – including the beautiful bright coloured blouses and smocks with the elaborate embroidered collars – worn in festivals a few times a year, to celebrate the distinctive Indigenous material culture of the region. Like our tāniko, kete muka, and tukutuku panels, the weaving is a significant cultural marker, and each region have their own representative symbolism and stories attached. An  inescapable consequence of such ornate designs is that the ideas are then adopted/thieved by corporations who uplift the patterns for mass production, and neither acknowledges the kōrero that informs the patterns, nor the community from whence they came. Sounds all but too familiar.

Why have I inherited this student? How did I get a PhD student with only one year to go? Unfortunately, this student has now lost two supervisors to the great vortex of changes to tertiary education, with a third supervisor halfway out the door to a too-good-to-pass-up international opportunity that’s come up. So, her approach to me was understandably in desperation to find her Sue.

This student is really, really far from home, with no family in Aotearoa, and a kid. She teaches part-time, covering part of her exorbitant Auckland rent, and is the grateful recipient of a scholarship that covers the rest of her rent and fees. However, a regulation of her host department is that scholarship recipients don’t qualify for research funding. Consequently, she has a ‘Give-a-Little’ page and has relied on the aroha and koha of friends, colleagues and a research whānau to go home and conduct the research for her PhD. I’ll simplify: she is expected to do field work in her country and pay for it herself. Remembering Sue now, when I was expected to go to international conferences to test my work and check it’s rigour, Sue would forward me tons of funding applications: leadership ones, Māori ones, women’s ones, research innovation ones… anything going that may fit me. It’s too late for funding applications for this student, but I’m thinking: What would Sue do?

She’d remove the political stuff from me, so that I could do the mahi. The ‘rules’ that restrict my student from qualifying for research support is, for want of a better word, bull-kaks. As a supervisor, what is my job in this situation? A supervisor is meant to guide and assist the student in their independent study, and to ensure they are able to  conduct the research and to help present their findings to the highest possible standard. (I paraphrased this from the Nottingham University post-grad page, so it must be true!) How are we serving this student if we don’t even help her do the research? Is the only thing I can do to help her donating to the Give-a-Little page? There must be more we can do, particularly because she’s been abandoned by two and a half supervisors already, researches overseas, and has a child?

Supervisors should make known the needs of the student to the HOD. So, I spoke to mine. We don’t have those rules on scholarships in my faculty. Channelling Sue – because I know this is what she’d do – I approached our boss, and was able to acquire his support to try and win this student to be hosted by us so that we can support her research and alleviate some of the stress. We’ll see how we go. But I’m hopeful this student will soon be left to simply do the mahi, and most importantly be an effective parent to her daughter.

Come on Universities. Get your $h#* together and stop making unnecessary obstacles for our students.

Thank you, Sue. Ngā mihi aroha xxx

One comment

  1. Thank you for the post Jani! It’s inspiring when acts of care come from the academy. I am sure your Indigenous student will do so much better because of the support. Mauri ora koutou!

    Liked by 1 person

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