Supervising someone else’s dream?!!

This year I find myself taking on more postgraduate supervisions than I’ve ever had, though not as many as some of my colleagues because I’m wary of the responsibility of supervising someone else’s dream. And that’s how I think of postgraduate supervision, particularly for PhDs. People undertake these projects for different reasons, sometimes it’s a means of advancing in their chosen careers, other times a way of avoiding the big, bad world of ‘life as an adult’ and most times, somewhat in between, because they are reaching for an elusive goal they cannot quite see but nevertheless feel compelled to pursue.

It’s a huge responsibility and one I never take lightly. Essentially, I feel like I’m helping someone form the foundations of their dream.

Inevitably as I go about this all kinds of questions arise in that internal dialogue all good academic neurotics have with themselves. For example, can one do critical research work without being political? The reason I caught myself mulling this over was the almost physical recoil a couple of postgraduates had to the prospect that they might be critiquing their governments’ actions and decisions. Their visceral rejection of the idea caught me by surprise but it started me thinking…

I was fortunate enough to complete my own PhD in the politically free environs of Australia but not everyone enjoys that same privilege. Would I be as ready to critique my own government if I knew for a fact how badly it reacts to dissent? I don’t know that I would have the courage.

Still, I have my doubts that one can produce critical work without being political. To critique is to assess, to compare, to unpack, to understand and then, to write about that informed understanding. In short, to exercise judgment based on research. Power always comes into these exercises for once we begin to scrutinise power, its machinations, its wielding, its seeming absence and its weight, well, we become political. No?

This bears further thinking through. I might be wrong but I don’t see how yet. Fortunately, the two postgrads mentioned above are not under my supervision. I don’t think I could bear not pushing them to critique but I also don’t know it would be fair to ask them to put their necks on the line when they have to return home to work in a less politically free country. Maybe I’ll keep posting on this as it develops.