9 Together is Better: Co-Supervision/Co-Mentoring of Students in an Online Doctoral Program
Cindy Ives; Beth Perry; and Pamela Walsh
Our current research focuses on recent experiences of co-supervising doctoral students who are conducting interdisciplinary, socially engaged applied research (SEAR) for their traditional and manuscript-style dissertations.
Embracing a philosophy of openness (Athabasca University, 2020) including open educational scholarship, we “draw on open technologies, pedagogical approaches and open educational resources (OER) to facilitate collaborative and flexible learning” (Campbell, 2021). We conceptualize graduate supervision as a mentoring relationship with students (Kumar & Coe, 2017; Kumar & Johnson, 2017), inviting them to participate with us in the co-creation of knowledge. The mentoring approach contributes to reciprocal learning between students and supervisor/mentors.
Effective mentoring is associated with higher success and retention rates, student-faculty research collaboration, higher rates of publication after graduation, and increased faculty member career satisfaction (Kumar & Johnson, 2017). By offering co-supervision and co-mentoring in a spirit of open pedagogy, we share a guiding philosophy that informs our actions and interactions with one another and with learners (Hall & Burns, 2009).
Grounded in a scholarship of engagement that connects the resources of the university to society’s pressing problems (Boyer,1996), we expect socially engaged applied research in our online doctoral program to address educational challenges that include those related to social justice, and health and well-being. Principles of SEAR include quality, reciprocity, and crossing of disciplinary boundaries (Beaulieu et al., 2018). Beaulieu and colleagues defined reciprocity in terms of collaboration with academic and practitioner partners; most of our students are practising educators. Since complex social issues are often best studied through interdisciplinary collaborations (Vanstone et al., 2013), interdisciplinary research can address the complexity of the research questions doctoral learners are investigating. Supervising interdisciplinary research projects to successful completion presents distinct challenges. As Watts (2010) points out, it is unlikely that a solo supervisor has the breadth of knowledge required to support a doctoral student embarking on a complex interdisciplinary investigation. Consequently, co-supervisors need to learn how to navigate this new role successfully. Robertson (2017) reminds us that the most critical element in successful doctoral supervision is trust, defined as believing co-supervisors are reliable, truthful, and capable. For Robertson (2017), trust is the foundation to voice, resilience, and creativity in supervisory teams.
As co-supervisors, we have agreed that co-mentorship of interdisciplinary students requires a different pedagogical approach than supervisors might use with a single discipline learner. Specific considerations when supervising interdisciplinary students include adopting a stance of flexibility when working with literatures from different disciplines and encouraging a reflexive orientation and openness toward these diverse bodies of knowledge and ways of knowing (Vanstone et al., 2013). Such an approach is essential to supporting the learner; it also becomes a learning experience for the supervisors, as we are exposed to new ways of knowing and related (but often new) knowledge. Learning to co-supervise interdisciplinary students provides a professional learning opportunity for the supervisors (Kumar & Johnson, 2017).
Our work builds on current literature related to graduate supervision and is illustrated with examples from our experiences with students in an online practice-based doctoral program in distance education. We emphasize the importance of quality and rigour in socially engaged and applied research. We highlight positive outcomes and lessons learned related to improving our co-supervision and co-mentoring practices. We offer a critical perspective on the need for sensitivity to power, equity, and student agency. Finally, we revisit recommendations in the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies (2018) and Commonwealth of Learning (Tait, 2018) reports on doctoral studies from the perspective of our shared experience as co-supervisors and co-mentors. The conference offers us an opportunity to share our co-mentorship insights and elicit feedback from colleagues who also face the challenges of changing practices in interdisciplinary research, novel dissertation formats, co-supervision requirements, and open education.
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