Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Doctoral Journey as an Emotional, Embodied, Political Experience

    Stories from the Field

    Edited by Rebecca (Bex) Twinley and Gayle Letherby

    London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2022. 218 pp. $39.95 (paper).

    In chapter 5 of The Doctoral Journey as an Emotional, Embodied, Political Experience, entitled “When the Student Dies,” author Jennifer Patterson reflects on the loss of her doctoral student, Christine Lawler. In the wake of Christine’s death, she tries to find ways to posthumously honor her work and recognize her contributions. She remembers that Christine talked about writing her thesis as a process of giving birth and wonders what happens to this “baby” when the mother dies before it is fully developed.

    This thing of the value of a person’s work resurfaces here. Formally known as their contribution to knowledge, it is not more important nor certainly more real than their life. But, for the individual it represents a particular passion and the investment of years of time...And yet this academic intellectual thing is also work, involving a role, a performance, a status...for an academic these are fundamental parts of self and of identity. (73)

    As this passage shows, The Doctoral Journey as an Emotional, Embodied, Political Experience is an excavation of the knotty and fundamental questions that underlie doctoral study—What, essentially, is a PhD? What are the needs of those who pursue it? How do we understand their relationships with their supervisors, who are both mentors and accomplices, guides and companions? For this volume, editors Rebecca (Bex) Twinley and Gayle Letherby compiled accounts of doctoral study and supervision from students, supervisors, and examiners in education as well as the social sciences, humanities, and medical sciences. With this diverse set of narratives, they seek to disrupt traditional notions of doctoral study as detached, objective, and purely rational, illuminating instead the ways emotional attachments, personal experiences, and identities shape the convictions and trajectories of doctoral students and the work they ultimately produce.

    Many of the accounts are co-authored, and all are retrospective. Containing 17 chapters written by 24 contributors, the majority of whom are academics in the United Kingdom, the book is divided into two sections. The first section (6 chapters) explores the titular concepts—emotion, embodiment, and politics—at play in various facets of the doctoral experience. The second and longer section (10 chapters) is comprised of autobiographical reflections. The volume is bookended with chapters by Twinley and Letherby, a former doctoral supervisee and her supervisor.

    The metaphor of doctoral study as a journey is a dominant frame, with contributors both deepening and challenging this idea through the lens of their own experience as student or supervisor. Doctoral study is not a journey, some contributors suggest, but many journeys—an outward examination of the subject of research, an inward transformation of the self from student to knowledge producer, and “a motion forwards towards fostering continuity” (53) of the wisdom and legacies of preceding generations of researchers. It is a multidimensional constellation of smaller journeys—planned and unplanned, literal and metaphorical, distinct and continuous.

    Though it may be a flawed metaphor, the journey of doctoral study captures an undeniable and powerful sense of immense personal growth while working toward the PhD. In chapter 4, Matthew Staples writes of holding his 312-page, 91,000-word thesis right before he submits it and describes the growth that is encapsulated within its pages, including learning to be creative, writing stories, creating films, producing visual novels, and playing guitar (63). Twinley, whose doctoral research on woman-to-woman rape and sexual assault was influenced by her own identity as a victim/survivor, reflects in chapter 1 on the healing she experienced through this work: “I have come to understand that my doctoral journey was key in helping me to become more embodied; in and of itself, it was a therapeutic journey that led me to feel more and more connection” (8). While the emotional work of navigating personal trauma and writing about respondents’ trauma was the most challenging part of the study, she concludes, “I would say I am the embodiment of the doctoral journey, if I concede that the journey ‘is as much about identity transitions as it is about becoming an expert of research and teaching within a discipline’ (Foot et al., 2014, p. 103)” (14). In a different vein, in chapter 12, Anna Denejkina discusses the need for self-protection in authoethnographic work and the importance of weighing the benefits of disclosure against the pain that can come of exploring one’s own hidden trauma. “I set limits on my own self-exploitation within the writing,” she writes. “I left some of my vulnerabilities hidden from both the world (that is the reader and the audience) as well as from myself—leaving some wounds untouched for either time or forever” (146). She shares her own process and encourages researchers to extend ethical considerations around participant protection to themselves as well.

    Yet, several contributors challenge the journey analogy, discussing the ways in which it obscures some and reifies other harmful facets of doctoral study. Jennifer Patterson suggests in chapter 5 that this image is derived from ancient Greek heroic epics and, despite its universal application, is gendered and culturally specific. The idea that a hero must struggle in order to succeed—an essential element of the archetypal journey—can also valorize individual struggle in the face of adversity and normalize the institutional structures that burden PhD students. The implication that triumphing over hardship is part and parcel of the doctoral journey is particularly dangerous in light of recent scholarship which finds “there are structural factors specific to the doctoral experience that have the potential to either cause or exacerbate mental health issues for Ph.D. student(s), and that we are in dire need of institutional supports (Barreira, Basilico, & Bolotnyy, 2018, 21–24)” (82). In contrast to the archetypal hero who travels alone, the authors of these chapters understand doctoral journeys as collaborative endeavors between students and their supervisors, stressing that the challenges of graduate study require collective commitment. Additionally, as Twinley and Letherby point out, positioning the doctoral student as the traveler and protagonist obscures the mutual and reciprocal growth that occurs during work toward a PhD and perpetuates hierarchical structures of teaching and learning.

    In both their introduction and conclusion, Twinley and Letherby reiterate that their aim with this volume was to challenge traditional and masculinist conceptions of supervisor/supervisee relationships as “‘professional’ and detached, rather than in any way intimate,” (1) stemming from epistemologies that view knowledge production as “scientific, objective, tidy” (1) instead of emotional, embodied, and political. Authors in this volume present their own counterstories. In chapter 17, Twinley and Letherby describe their own relationship as one of “mutual nurturing” (188), while in chapter 3, Oonagh Corrigan and Roger Nascimento invoke a “covenantal ethics” (51) that goes beyond contractual ethics to express their commitment to one another and their work. In chapter 9, Chrissie Rogers details a “care ethics model” (118) that acknowledges interdependence, and straddles the emotional, practical, and sociopolitical spheres of supervisor/supervisee relationships.

    While the importance of strong supervisor/supervisee relationships in doctoral work is a strong central argument throughout the volume, not all contributors embrace the same levels of intimacy, and some acknowledge that these relationships can go awry. In chapter 7, Jen Marchbank discusses maintaining certain boundaries with supervisees so that they are not perceived as “overly pally” (96). From the supervisor perspective, Rogers discusses the fragility of a relationship that places one person on a pedestal and the discomfort that can occur when “the idealised object inevitably fails to live up to the expectations” (122). In the conclusion of chapter 15, Marton Racz, Sarah Robinson, and Martin Parker acknowledge that supervisors are also on their own distinct journeys and that this can have varied impacts on their supervisees:

    They can entertain by telling their stories, share their intellectual food, provide safety and guidance on potentially perilous paths. But they may also cause pain and not be so great at map reading, they may overstay their welcome when the pilgrim wants to walk alone, and they may disappear down a fork in the road leaving a dust cloud of mumbling and unfinished sentences. (172)

    I am left, however, with questions about the navigation of power within these relationships. In the concluding chapter, Letherby acknowledges a power relationship that is “more complicated than the traditional model and university systems suggest” (190), but this complexity is unexplored. How can student and supervisor build authentic relationships across inherent differences in status, position, and privilege? Given the centrality of relationships to the successful completion of a PhD, what is the fate of the student who is unable to forge these strong bonds? How do we ensure that doctoral students are protected if the relationship sours? While these questions are occasionally alluded to, they are for the most part left unaddressed. If we accept the premise that doctoral work is fundamentally relational—indeed, that “it’s not survivable on your own” (66)—then these are critically important concerns.

    Doctoral work is hard—all encompassing, often lonely, and increasingly precarious. For doctoral students, this attention to who we are, what we do, and the support we need to do it is heartening. The Doctoral Journey as an Emotional, Embodied, Political Experience does an impressive job of pushing back against traditional epistemologies to consider the role of emotion in the academy. Together, these chapters put forth a vision of doctoral work that is fundamentally cocreated and urge readers to spend as much time developing these central relationships as they do their research methodologies. Yet, these relationships do not exist in a vacuum and must be placed within a context where “doctoral students must also contend with structurally created vulnerabilities...making post-PhD prospects deeply discouraging” (81). While I believe that this volume will start conversations about the individual and personal needs of doctoral candidates on these journeys, I hope that it will also spark critical reflection about the broader landscape we traverse.

    Alysha Banerji
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    Book Notes

    The Doctoral Journey as an Emotional, Embodied, Political Experience
    Edited by Rebecca (Bex) Twinley and Gayle Letherby

    Memory in the Mekong
    Edited by Will Brehm and Yuto Kitamura

    Willful Defiance
    Mark R. Warren

    Queer Data
    Kevin Guyan

    All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep
    Andre Henry