Friday, 21 December 2018

PhD Supervision by Instagram

I’ve blogged quite a bit on here about using social media in my teaching – YikYak for anonymous questions when it was still a thing; and making a complete balls-up shaming my class on Twitter. But I don’t actually use social media much in my teaching. My Facebook profile is a very private place, so it’s quite locked down (I generally avoid being Facebook friends with colleagues). I use Twitter to get stuff out to students, but I don’t expect them to rely on it. It is completely unethical to expect students to use a commercial service external to the University for their learning.

One social media I’ve only got into using over the past year is Instagram. My use of it changed quite a lot when they started Instagram stories. I don’t use them very much, but on most days I’ll post something banal to my story. I quite like catching up with the stories of the people I follow too. It’s fun watching what people are up to and I occasionally chat to them. And as the everyday functions of Instagram have grown I find I use the messaging function quite a bit. I can have simultaneous conversations with the same person on Instagram, WhatsApp and email about different topics.

One of the people I follow on Instagram is one of my PhD students. I started following her after she suggested she might use Instagram to collect data for her fieldwork. I’ve followed PhD students on Twitter before, but most of the interactions there had been quite banal and work-like – just congratulating them on achievements and that sort of stuff. Like most doctoral supervisors I talk to, I find it is the most rewarding part of my job – I learn so much from my students and watching them flourish as scholars and rounded-individuals just gives me the greatest pleasure. Part of this is building up a trusting relationship, but I’m always wary to keep it professional. I don’t feel I should be the researcher’s friend, particularly when I’m in that supervisory relationship. We never know how a PhD is going to go, and I don’t want to be the friend who has to have an awkward conversation with a researcher telling them exactly what they’re doing wrong and that they have to buck-up their ideas and work harder if they’re going to finish this PhD.

Pretty early when Instagram stories started, I realised that following my PhD student was going to blur this line between a professional and a personal relationship. I was seeing everything that my student was up to across their life in a way I had not done before. It did dawn on me to stop following them, or just skip through their story. But I did them interesting – she’s a fun person with a rich life, and also seeing how she fitted the PhD into her life was interesting. I would respond to her stories and we’d message each other in the way friends day (we’re both gay, so this was common ground). However, that I was blurring the professional and personal did dwell in my mind and a few months ago I did say that their might be a point in future where I might politely end the supervisory relationship if mixing the personal and professional was getting difficult. I’d become friends, in a way, over Instagram stories.

But recently things have changed again with our supervisory relationship and Instagram. It all began when the student had a block on submitting a journal article that was just about written. I’m currently doing a coaching course, so I suggested we have a coaching conversation to work out what was going on and get her in a place to submit the article to her chosen journal. The conversation worked a treat and we set some pretty tight deadlines. And then it appeared on her Instagram story! I felt so pleased that she had got there that I had to engage with it positively – it’s what I would do as a coach and a friend. She didn’t quite make the deadline, but the paper was submitted and we celebrated through her Instagram story together.

She then went for a period of travel away through her research. And our Instagram story engagement, to me, took another little turn into a deeper relationship. Being away from our home and comforts pushes us into uncomfortable areas and we end up doing a lot of things that are socially brave, but doing so also brings out all the anxieties that hold us all back. I knew this as I’d done it a year before. So just occasionally I’d check in with her through the Instagram story, showing empathy, but also celebrating the many successes that have happened during this trip.

And I realised I’m sort of supervising by Instagram. What makes me a good supervisor, I think, is that I build a good, trusting relationship with my students. I support them to achieve what they want to achieve. And I’ve now just moved this onto Instagram stories. Hopefully it won’t all go horribly wrong…