Women Supervising and Writing Doctoral Theses: Walking on the Grass

Lia Bryant and Katrina Jaworski, eds.

New York: Lexington Books, 2015, 149pp.

Reviewed by M. Cristina Alcalde

The relationship between faculty advisor and doctoral student is one of the most relevant factors to the intellectual development and at least initial professional development and success of the newly minted Ph.D.  In spite of its significance, there is little written on the perceptions, expectations, and challenges of this relationship. The contributors in this collection are faculty supervisors and doctoral students in Australia. They propose to re-examine in particular the role of emotions and care work for women in academia. The personal narratives in the nine short chapters (including Introduction and Conclusion) are broadly framed as “life writing” and underscore the complicated ways in which autonomy, knowledge, and power are constantly negotiated during doctoral studies and more broadly in academia.

In the chapters by faculty advisors, Bryant employs poetry to examine the experiences of working-class women and their feelings of belonging in academia, noting that academic writing is also an emotional process that exposes power relationships in the advisor-student relationships. Attention to the emotional dimension, she points out, helps reveal some of the important points of resistance and transformation in an academic journey. In their chapter, Beasley and Jaworski present an in-depth, informal skype interview between the authors. The interview focuses on collaboration and dialogue in the process of knowledge-production in the context of, and in contrast to, “the supposedly universal and neutral claims of the neo-liberal ethos of knowledge production as achieved through competitive yet disembodied atomistic individualism” (36). Some of the more notable points in the interview are when the authors discuss the long hours they dedicate to doctoral supervision. These extra hours are rarely acknowledged by departments yet expected of faculty by students, and may require significant emotional investment.

In the chapters by doctoral students, topics include debates surrounding the inclusion of personal information about the author’s position and relationship to the data and participants as part of the dissertation (Gill); writing a dissertation when English is not your first language (Jaworski); how emotional labor connected to personal experiences of care work as a mother, wife, and nurse also inform the experience of doctoral studies (Adams); how vulnerability is a critical part of the supervisory relationship (Rowntree); and frustration and anxiety as central aspects of the supervisory relationship in blogs written by doctoral students (Ward). Adams’s chapter in particular provides a rich discussion of the emotional labor and multiple roles women may juggle during their doctoral studies.

Several chapters cite Ahmed’s 2004 book on emotions yet it is not clear if there were common specific guiding questions or prompts that contributors were asked to address to examine the broad topic of women’s doctoral studies and supervision. Unlike the recent book Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (Gutierrez y Muhs, Niemann, González, and Harris), which focuses on women faculty of color in U.S. academia, this collection has a much broader and almost unwieldy focus: women in general both as faculty and students. Feminist anthropologists in particular may be surprised to find that issues such as positionality and reflexivity are treated as rare in knowledge production within the frameworks contributors refer to in their chapters. Similarly, intersectionality is not mentioned or engaged with as a potentially useful theoretical framework for understanding the experiences presented in this collection. The editors also write that knowledge production cannot “be removed from questions of gender, ethnicity, class, and sexuality” (3) yet sexuality is not addressed in this collection. It is also worth noting that this multidisciplinary collection does not include anthropologists.

The editors rightly point out that the name and role attached to “academics guiding doctoral scholars” varies by country, and as I read the chapters I also wondered about the impact of the structure and requirements of doctoral studies in different countries on the advisor-student relationship. Although the book’s description online and on the back cover does not refer to the Australian context, it is important to keep this context in mind since women’s experiences of doctoral studies may vary significantly depending on the structure and requirements across national academic contexts.  For example, in Australia the time to Ph.D. is generally shorter, includes less emphasis on teaching as doctoral students, and may not require coursework or qualifying exams before beginning the research and write-up phase as compared to the U.S. academic context. All of these may result in significantly different forms of interaction and mentoring in the supervisory relationship across settings. Other national academic contexts may include additional variations that inform the supervisory relationship.

Overall, this book may be of interest to those who want to learn more about women’s “journeys of transition or transgression into academe” (3), particularly in the Australian context, and to those interested in gender and comparative education studies.

  1. Cristina Alcalde is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Kentucky. Her areas of specialization include migration, gender, violence, and masculinities.  Her publications include Provocations: A Transnational Reader in the History of Feminist Thought (co-editor, with Susan Bordo and Ellen Rosenman, 2015); The Woman in the Violence: Gender, Poverty, and Resistance in Peru (2010), and articles in journals including Chicana/Latina Studies; Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism; the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology; Latin American Perspectives; Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health; Men and Masculinities; Culture, Society & Masculinities; and Feminist Formations. Her current book project focuses on return migration to Peru.

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