We’ve reached the end of HERDSA, or at least the last paper and presentation season for this year. It has been a good conference, with some great presentations and discusses, if perhaps too much eighties music!
The first paper in this session focussed on support and pressures on PhD students, presented by Helen Cameron, UniSA. With the increased pressure to produce research outputs for Australian universities, we have seen increased pressure on on-time PhD completions, and for our PhD students to publish high quality journals and conference publications during this now compressed period. But, as with any student, the are many other pressures that PhD students face, including financial pressures, family pressures and the need to undertake other forms of work, such as sessional teaching and administrative tasks, in order to build up required experiences.
The presentation was an interesting journey through the literature on this topic, blended occasionally with anecdote from the presenters own experiences as a supervisor. In one of the talks yesterday regarding research model development, the presenter identified that postdoctoral research fellows are probably the most isolated and unsupported staff members that we have, as we often isolate them within a research project with its predetermined aims, and we tend not to view the professional development of those staff members as being important. It appears that PhD students in some of our universities, at least, are feeling similarly isolated and unsupported – with few dedicated resources and spaces to recognise their place within the institution.
The second presentation that I attended discussed identity of PhD students, and the connections that we have as supervisors with our students, our community etc, and how those relationships change in context. Presented by Barbara Grant, Auckland, it reviewed the experiences of non-Maori supervisors supervising Maori PhD students, “to give voice to alternative ways of knowing and being”. One of the main thoughts coming for this is that different identifies have different consequences on the supervision relationship, and that when we take on an identity, we take on the specific consequences of that. I this particular example, it is a blend of history and cultural conflict which bleeds through into current relationships.
Barbara refers to Stuart Hall’s work in cultural identity, and the idea that it is a point of temporary attachment, and part of a response to the environment that we are placed in, and tangled with complex emotions.
I am becoming more and more interested in the idea of identity – after re-reading unlocking the clubhouse, and seeing several presentations at HERDSA regarding identity, and identity theory, I am seeing this form of analysis as a powerful way of connecting with our students, and understanding their motives, and the way that they act and react within our community. But not only that – also the way that our culture might promote different senses of identity, or changes in identity, that we are not aware of. I think this could be a fascinating area of research for computer science – what is our sense of identity, and what identity “types” do we promote in our students? We often talk about how our culture can not be welcoming for some students, and that female and non-traditional computer science students find it difficult to break into this culture – perhaps this avenue of research would help us unpack what this culture is and why we have such conflicts.
The last presentation in this session was a catch up on TATAL – an ongoing activity that meets annually at the HERDSA conference, promoting discussion on learning and teaching issues. I had meant to join up this year, but several of the TATAL sessions conflicted with paper presentation sessions that I wanted to attend – again, a difficult choice with the number of parallel streams. I really like the idea of creating and fostering communities of practice to support teaching and learning, but I have always been a little unsure of the focus. One of the selling points of the TATAL groups is that you will develop a teaching philosophy which can be used for applications, promotions etc. As a focus, this always seemed a little odd – perhaps too pragmatic, and appealing to end wrong aspects of being an academic. However, what become apparent as the TATAL participants discussed their experiences, is that the bulk of what they have gained from participating in this community is the chance for reflection and constant engagement with colleagues on learning and teaching practice.