Saturday 30 July 2022

On (Briefly) Returning to KCL and Supervisory Best Practice

Weird event of the week was attending a King's College London graduation day at the magnificent Royal Festival Hall. Having left this university unnecessarily, under a humiliating cloud entirely of Management making, I was nervous and dragged my husband along to protect me from The Evil Eye. But I soon felt comfortable on meeting some of my favourite former colleagues, whom I miss sorely: Hugh Bowden, Emily Pillinger-Avlamis, and Will Wootton.

With Father of My Children, Who Offered to Bring an Electric Drill for Some Reason

I was there to receive an award for being the best PhD supervisor in Arts and Humanities. There was a fruity irony in one Dean's office deciding to bestow this on me, thanks to the amazing testimonials provided by my lovely PhDs, when another Dean's office was spending hours devising ways effectively to demote me. 

With lovely former colleagues Emily Pillinger-Avlamis and Will Wootton

Unfortunately nobody warned me that the tube in which the diploma to be awarded was actually empty, and my husband caught a photo of me staring inside it in some confusion.

I was asked last summer to provide a statement about my supervisory theory and practice to go on the KCL website. Unsurprisingly, it has never been posted, presumably because I do not work for that institution any more. So just in case anybody out there is remotely interested, here is what I wrote:

With Professor Hugh Bowden, Superb Town Crier at the Event

My supervisory practice is founded in the philosophical approach inaugurated by Sara Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking (1989), which emphasises that society needs to shape the care and education of each citizen as a mother does for each of her children. This is supplemented by Aristotle’s belief that every one of us has a potential (dynamis) to be the best possible version of ourselves, but that to fulfil it one needs sensitive and caring support from others.

I try to look after each supervisee from the moment they contact me with a view to studying for a research degree onwards, helping them frame the research question in their applications and exploring their motivation, skillsets and potential to cope with for the long, hard, lonely effort that writing a dissertation entails. I try discreetly to discover how well they are supported financially and emotionally in order to shape advice and support to their individual needs and make them feel confident and welcome.

The reference works in Classics are numerous and extremely complicated to use. Students, especially from unconventional backgrounds, are often intimidated by them. When supervision commences, I introduce supervisees physically to the library and online research tools they will need, advise on key mailing lists, societies and online communities to enrol in, and introduce them to all my other current PhD students in order to encourage mutual advice networks.

Clarity in terms of expectations and timetabling are crucial. Together we often create a paper diagram with optimal dates (receipt of written assignments, supervisions, first draft of thesis plan, doxography, upgrade, research trips, receipt of first full draft, selection of examiners). This is then adapted as necessary across the months and years.

The single biggest challenge intellectually is turning a research topic into an over-arching research question. This needs to be formulated as a ‘why’ or ‘how’ question, rather than a ‘what’ question (the last of which tends to elicit empirical and descriptive lists rather than analytical writing). I never cease emphasising the principle that every page of the thesis must be geared towards answering that question and that any excursuses need justifying.

In feedback, kindness and constructiveness are essential; intellectual confidence is a fragile thing. I try to find something to praise in every piece of writing and guide supervisees’ thought processes by Socratic questioning rather than flat criticism which tends to shut down discussion. I recommend the close study of the way in which scholars write when supervisees say they admire it, in order for them to discover for themselves what makes a convincing and elegant academic style. I hold ‘live’ rehearsals when they are to deliver papers at conferences or attend interviews and work with them to improve the clarity, brevity, and enjoyability of their oral performances.


But the most important aspect of the supervisor’s relationship with graduate students is that it is quasi-parental, even where the supervisee is considerably older than the supervisor. I make it clear that I am happy to help at any time with personal difficulties, observe the strictest confidence protocols, and always ask at the beginning of supervisions how students are doing/feeling in general. I look out for opportunities for them to deliver papers, publish, and network and train them in how to do it for themselves. The point is to give them an intellectual tractor of their own rather than a few years’ sustenance.

Finally, I do everything I can to ensure that supervisees pursue successful careers or life goals when they finish: I allocate an afternoon a week to reference writing. With the most academically ambitious, I hold joint conferences and train them in co-editing published volumes. I have been consultant on their theatrical productions and have helped them publish their dissertations as monographs or series of articles. I continue to meet them regularly either in person, often on theatre trips, or virtually for the rest of our lives. A PhD student is for life, not just for a PhD.   


Sunday 17 July 2022

Ancestral Suicide, the Ancient Greeks, and Me.

Edwardian Dunbar

I've needed for some time to find out more about my mother's family. She died in 2016, but had refused to talk much about her own mother, who killed herself almost exactly 50 years after her father, my great-grandfather, had taken his own life.

When I first read a Greek tragedy, at 16 years old, I was immediately fixated by the idea of families afflicted by curses handed down over generations. Sometimes I think the  trajectory of my entire working  life was determined by the shadows hanging over my matrilineal descent.

First we went to Dunbar, a beautiful seaside town on the south coast of the Firth of Forth, once a popular vacation resort in the days before package holidays to the Mediterranean. We were looking for Seafield Pond, where my great-grandfather, Robert Nicol Masterton, was found drowned in August 1912. It is a beautiful spot, right by the sea, once a quarry. 

With the help of my husband Richard Poynder and brilliant local archivists Hanita Ritchie and Pauline Smeed, we discovered that Robert was a well-respected officer of the Burgh, Inspector of the Poor. He was in his fifties and had bought a fine Dunbar house for his wife and four children, now in early adulthood. He had risen socially through his marriage to the daughter of the local Provost (Mayor), my great-great-grandfather John Kellie Keir.

John Kellie Keir

Robert’s death caused a huge disturbance in the community as well as his family. Although depression is undoubtedly in this line of DNA, and he fought very hard for more funds to alleviate poverty, nobody knows what drove him to suicide. The shock in the local news reports is palpable.

Edith Masterton in 1913

We crossed Scotland to the coast of Ayrshire, where my grandmother Edith Henderson (born Masterton), who had been devastated by her father’s death when she was  a suffragette undergraduate at Edinburgh, threw herself from a hotel window in Largs on October 1st 1962. The hotel has since been demolished, but its precise setting, right by the sea, is oddly similar. 

Marine and Curlighall Hotel, Largs, c. 1983

My mother receiving the news of this catastrophe by phone in Nottingham is my earliest memory. Her adamant silence about it subsequently, besides expressing regret she had called me after her mother, was a symptom I believe of her deep pain. Her mother Edith had suffered from lifelong depression, an unhappy marriage, no occupation for her excellent brain and the death of a baby. Her suicide had long been imminent.

This round-trip enabled me finally to visit the crematorium in Kirkcaldy where my own mother’s funeral ceremony took place in 2016. For reasons too painful yet to make public I had not attended it. The waves of peace washing over me after leaving flowers at all three places have brought me an unexpected amount of relief.

I write this not to elicit pity, which would be misplaced, nor (I hope) to be self-indulgently morbid. There are still taboos around suicide and depression, and the utter silence about this history in my family has always disturbed me. More importantly, I believe that the trauma caused by suicide leaves profound intergenerational scars which can never be healed without investigating and addressing the truth. 

With Hanita Ritchie at the John Gray Centre, Haddington

I hope to write a book about how the extraordinary suicide narratives in Greek tragedy, and the arguments against suicide in Aristotle, have helped me to a better understanding of these things. But for now, I’m just feeling thankful to those archivists and my amazing husband with his car and camera and humour and enjoying an unprecedented sense of psychic calm.

With Pauline Smeed of the Dunbar Local History Society