Avoiding Rivalry in Graduate School

One of the biggest issues that I’ve faced in graduate school has to do with the type of supervision that I have received. I have had some fantastic supervisors (notably, Richard J.F. Day – whose supervisory technique ought to be replicated) whom have understood the delicate nature of the professor-student relationship. However, I have also had some horrible supervisors. I think that my experience with the good and the bad allows me to offer a suggestion or two about how to avoid the bad relationships. While this advice is useful to other graduate students (particularly doctoral candidates), I’d really like to offer this advice to supervisors.

  1. It should go without saying that the role of the supervisor ought not to be one of agreement or sympathy with the project of the doctoral candidate. In fact, it seems to me that this ought to be the last thing that brings a doctoral student and a supervisor into a relationship with one another. It is very often the case that a more productive relationship between students and professors occurs when both parties presume that there are no commonalities between themselves or their work.
  2. The role of the supervisor is not to create a clone of himself. This much is obvious, but it really needs to be stated explicitly. The mandate of the graduate student is to create an original contribution to knowledge and the mandate of the supervisor is to help the student create an original contribution to knowledge. When a supervisor micro-manages his graduate student he necessarily precludes the possibility of there being any original contribution and thereby tempts the student toward banal repetitions. The student might be moved by the question: what does my supervisor want from me? And the supervisor might be moved by the question: how does the graduate student measure up to my own work? 
  3. The role of the supervisor is not to offer knowledge to the graduate student. There is more than enough knowledge out there to go around. On this point, I am fiercely Weberian. When the supervisory function is reduced to a passage of knowledge from himself to the graduate student we return to the problem of #2, above.

In other words, rivalry occurs between a supervisor and his graduate student most often when the supervisor reduces the relationship between himself and the graduate student to one that occurs across the imaginary order. If the role of the supervisor is to agree or be sympathetic with the project, create a replica of himself, or to offer knowledge to the graduate student, then the possibility of rivalry occurs. Rivalry is not always a shared sentiment. Very often, either the supervisor or the graduate student will feel rivalry while the other is in all actuality quite oblivious. This, for example, was the case in my most recent debacle at Trent University, when my supervisor suddenly “fired me” for not being “psychoanalytic” enough – a measure he deduced from his imaginary.

By imaginary, I mean an image of the relationship between the graduate student and the supervisor is mapped by one or both parties. The simplest way to understand this is to assume that the graduate student and the supervisor are two points situated uniquely within space. A line is drawn between the points, connecting them. The line that occurs between the two points is different from the perspective of each person – I am tempted to use the example, from Physics, of inertial frames and length contraction. Within Physics, we know that the length of a line is observed differently depending upon which inertial frame a person is lodged upon. In the same way, the length of the line connecting the graduate student to the supervisor may be longer for the graduate student than it is for the supervisor and vice versa. 

Now, if we presume that the length of the line corresponds to the measure of the two points in space then we can suggest that the supervisor might measure the length of the line in a different way than the graduate student, and vice versa. If the line is long then the measure of the relationship between the graduate student and the supervisor is weak and if it is short then the measure of the relationship between the two are strong. Obviously, when we have a strong relationship we necessarily have a strong identity between the supervisor and the graduate student – they are basically the same person. If the measure is short or roughly equivalent then nothing new is produced by the graduate student and there are only repetitions of contributions to knowledge. If, on the other hand, the measure is long and fairly non-equivalent, then a growing sense of rivalry might occur. Why? Because a measure assumes an order and if there is no order, from the perspective of the supervisor, then the student is unruly and must be detained.

All of this can happen when you reduce the relationship to an image. An image is always also the possible measure of rivalry between the supervisor and the graduate student. You know you are within the imaginary when you ask such questions as: is the supervisor’s work better or worse than mine?, is the student’s work better or worse than mine? 

Bruce Fink describes the situation as it occurs within the Lacanian clinic – I’ve merely substituted the words for graduate school:

It is at the level of imaginary relations that supevisors who are concerned with acting the part of the master of knowledge are challenged, if not unseated, by their students, such supervisors mistake their authority as [mentors assisting students toward the goal of making an original contribution to knowledge] with the authority associated with keeping the upper hand.

The supervisor contributes to a problematic imaginary relation, and inevitably to rivalry, when he attempts to prove to his graduate students that he (and not they) have the required knowledge and the experience. This approach to supervision necessarily precludes the possibility of the student making an original contribution to knowledge and thereby erects, in place of it, a situation of exploitation or slavery. The supervisor who functions in this way encourages slavery rather than liberation just as the analyst who functions in this way encourages repression rather than sublimation. This practice might also create a situation whereby the student or the supervisor takes absolute opposition and drops out of the relationship (or even the academia) altogether. 

I believe that the imaginary style of supervision is pervasive within academia. It is responsible for the conservative nature of academia insofar as it assures that the brightest and most original thinkers are transformed into blind slaves producing repetitions of previous interventions .. at best. 

The worst case scenario is that the graduate student or the supervisor drop-outs of academia entirely.


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