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Act I Scene I


The Student Experience: Dr. Gallagher and her Students

KG = Kathleen Gallagher
BF = Barry Freeman
AW = Anne Wessels

KG: This is the beginning of a discussion with Barry Freeman and Anne Wessels. Barry who has recently defended his dissertation and graduated, and Anne who is beginning her doctoral journey and I have some questions to help them … to help me give you greater insight from their perspective about the kinds of things that make a doctoral experience, an experience as a researcher, better. So we’re going to start off with that wide open question, which is: How would you describe a rich doctoral student experience?

BF: So the first thing I would say is that, if one is planning to be a scholar, there is such a thing as a scholarly community that you want to be welcomed into, that you’re hoping to be welcoming into. And I believe that the supervisor’s responsibility is to help facilitate that, is to make someone feel like- to help usher someone in to prepare them and everything that will come with that- so, to prepare them for it, make them aware of what that is, what it takes, what they’re getting into (laughs). Basically, all about making them feel that they have a chance of being included in that- in that community. So that filters down, I mean, that’s a general feeling that you can get from a relationship where someone is very supportive and on your side, but it comes down to the micro level for me, too. Like if someone is actually sending you emails and actively trying to connect you with opportunities, opening up doors for you, you know, that’s not just sort of a general support, that’s really actively trying to include you in a larger community. So… I think that’s a- that’s a really important thing.

KG: What would you say, Anne?

AW: And it’s different than just a relationship that you would have with a professor in a classroom because, it’s- you have work in common that you all are engaged in and care about. But- I agree with you- it’s all of the other opportunities as well that are opened up. Some of the things that we’ve been able to do in the community that I would never have been able to participate if it hadn’t been for you saying, “let’s try and make this happen.” So, again these connections, but it isn’t just for the academics or the scholarly world but also some of these opportunities to engage in community activities as well.

BF: Yeah, and actually getting students to go to conferences. Not just getting them to go, but once you get there, introducing them to people and connecting them to people because, especially when you’re first starting out, it’s a very intimidating thing. You feel very much like, you know, there are things you have to do to earn passage into a community. You don’t really know what these things are or when they’re happening. It’s sort of like they’re happening all the time, in academic ways and in social ways as well. So, the process of cutting through that, and if someone just takes you and goes, “Hey. This is Person X, who happens to be a very well-known person in the field and who has written a lot of books and who you know and respect, who you use in your work,” for example. That connectedness to a person like that immediately makes you feel like, oh, well, you know, I can be connected to this world as well. So, you know, there’s- it’s partly even social, I think, as well as academic so you feel like, you know, I could then email such a person and say, “Hey, remember me? You know, I’m wondering if you know anything about this.” Or, you know, later on down the process, I’m thinking of doing a post-doc or, you know, anything can happen like that, right? And it’s really good to have those connections, but it’s intimidating as a graduate student to just walk out and do those things. So, I guess the moral of all of that is that it has to be an active rather than kind of a passive relationship where you’re just, as someone who is supervising such a student, I would think that you can’t just think of it purely like, “Well, I’m just making sure this one project is just a self-contained thing and have to make sure this student as is good as it is.” You should be taking that thing, making it as good as it is, and then also, actively helping the student to connect it out. The student should be taking care of that themselves at some point at the same time, but, you know, helping, that’s all.

AW: I think that if we didn’t have the relationship and the participation in your research project, and I were to go to a conference, I would either be passive and not present because I didn’t feel ready yet or I would be presenting my own work. But, going with a research project that we’ve all been involved in, it’s almost like you can go to a conference under the protective cover of this project. I get to see how presenting works. I get to try it out but I’m trying it out in a sense where I’m being very guided in how I’m doing that and it feels like sort of mid-ground between just being passive at a conference and then presenting your own work, and in a sense I look at it as a continuation of the apprenticeship, that really I think being part of a research project is, but that apprenticeship has arms in things like conferences.

KG: So the challenging aspects of the supervisor-supervisee roles or the PI on a project and the research assistants, as you both are, what are the kinds of things- maybe look at it this way, what can a supervisor do, a lead researcher do, to waylay some of the obvious challenges there are when you have your own projects, you have this project, there are multiple commitments, there may be wonderful convergences, but there may not be. How should a supervisor think about creating that culture?

AW: I think, though, it’s also true for the supervising professor, that they also have a million other things going on, probably ten times more than I do, so I mean, I think it is challenging, particularly in the busy crunch times when you have to get your papers written and things like that and then you think, “Oh! Have I really done my hours this week?” and “Oh! I’ve got to get back to that,” so there are times that you do have a fractured focus trying to keep the research project that you feel invested in going but also recognizing that you know you have your own deadlines. So, I would say it’s just a bit of a fractured focus for certain periods of time. Most of the time I feel like it’s a fruitful balance because when you get tired of your own work you’ve got this other work that’s always there and you can plug into it and there is a certain amount of flexible- making your time, organizing your time as you see fit in your week just making sure that you’re there enough--

KG: --and I guess, from my point of view, Anne, just building on that, it’s hard for students, I know, with busy faculty to get time, to have time, focused time. And sometimes, the experience of a common project makes the discussion and the sort of ongoing discussion about a student’s own project, especially when it’s imbedded in the project, but even when it’s not, more fluid and more, more consistent in a sense so that it doesn’t feel like stolen moments and then you’re off on your island again, that there’s some continuity there that you wouldn’t otherwise have whether the projects are connected or not. It’s that you build basically an intellectual relationship, as you said, that has a sense of greater permanence and greater stability.

BF: Yeah, I’ve never really thought about in those terms I mean, I don’t really have any other experience so I don’t really know, it’s hard for me to address. I know the experience of a lot of other people, though. But you know, I’m constantly saying to people, “I feel blessed,” and that’s a big part of it because I feel that our student-supervisory relationship has just been woven into this work so completely that I know very well where you’re at; where you’re at sort of thinking about my project but also where you’re at in your own work, as well. So we just have a much larger understanding than we would if we only met every four or five months. I can’t event even understand what’s that like actually. And you’ve always been really good, too, and I’ve said this many times, you know, at making time quickly, you know, sort of making yourself available quickly, and then when you do, you do have an hour and we would sit down and have a conversation about my thesis, for example, it would be great. It would be a rich hour. You would be very focused on it and that would be fine. For other, for fellow students I know that I have, it’s hard t get that time, and because they don’t have that ongoing experience, the time isn’t always that productive because they have to do so much catching up.

KG: That’s right.

BF: They have to do so much trying to figure one another out as to where their head is at with the entire project. So, I never really thought about sort of the mutual enriching aspect of that, I’ve just kind of taken it for granted because it’s always been there… but, you know, I can see how that would have helped many friends, and it’s another interesting thing to think about in terms of how, you know, how faculty want to supervise students.

KG: You’re absolutely right. You’re just making me think as a faculty member, I know you in so many more ways beyond your work, beyond your own project work, and research work. I know you in my research work. I know you in a kind of day-to-day-ness and if we weren’t working together it wouldn’t be this way, and you’re quite right, there’d be a lot of catching up. So when there’s cause for meeting, it’s also because there’s, there’s mutual investment. You know, I want to talk about your own work because we’ve been talking about my work. There’s a sense of reciprocity about it that I think without this, without this kind of culture and relationship, it’s constantly set into a dynamic of a faculty member making time that they don’t have, and maybe don’t want to have, for a student project. And I know that that’s the feeling students have often--

KG: --and that’s a feeling faculty have.

BF: Very often.  Yeah. Very often. 

KG: If what you’re trying to do is fit something in that’s somehow outside the main event then it becomes very taxing for both people. But when it’s not outside the main event and, as you say, it’s not only interwoven in, but is in a sense a- another arm of what becomes a really multi-faceted relationship, it’s effortless, from my point of view, it’s not an effort. It’s part of what we talk about in order to know each other and know the work. And I know, this is what I’ll say to people when I’m there, my work is multiply enhanced by that. I could not imagine going off and having this isolated time, as much as it’s revered by many people. “Oh, if only I could just go off and focus on my own work.” I can’t imagine the number of faculty who want that and think about that. Of no interest to me. At all. Really. I could do it. But it wouldn’t be the kind of environment I would want to work in as a researcher.

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