My Broken English and EMI in supervising PhD student(s)

Sadly, this is my first blog during this course. This is especially sad since I have used blogs as a part of some of the courses that I have taught myself and expected everyone to participate in blogging eagerly. It is really stunning how soon even we experienced teachers decline into children who must be forced to do their homework. I apologize for my infantile behaviour and that I have prioritized other job-related assignments over this course. This does not mean I don’t value TACE; on the contrary, I do, and very much so! So from now on, I try to be more involved also in web discussions.

At the moment, as a senior researcher working in Academy of Finland funded projects, teaching is a very minor part of my work. I am more involved in chairing workshops and panels in English than in regular teaching. As an adjunct professor (docent), I supervise several PhD theses written in English. One of my doctoral students does not speak Finnish, so our meetings are in English. So in this blog, I will concentrate on guidance or supervising as a pedagogical activity and ponder on my guiding or supervising practices and methods and the demands they put on both the PhD student and on me from a language perspective.

As supervisor, I like to think of myself as someone who can be easily approached. I aim at a dialogical relationship with my students. I try not to position myself above them as an authority, as someone who has “better” knowledge”. Instead I hope to be a supporter or a guide who is available for the PhD students as someone who is there for them when they need me. I wish to utilize my experience of supervision and guidance after spending decades first as a supervisee and then a supervisor. I also have had time to gather tacit knowledge of the processes of academic writing and inter- and multidisciplinarity, and I believe that these are valuable even though I don’t necessarily have perfect substantial knowledge of the theses my superviewees are working with.

What does supervising mean from a languages perspective? The situation differs perhaps from many others that are taking this TACE course: they have to be aware of the variety of language skills that their students possess, whereas I know that the PhD student I am supervising is much more fluent in English than I am. She, originally not a native speaker of English herself either, has done her MA studies in English and both speaks and writes very fluently. As I have studied in 1990s when there were no courses in English and all the books in the curriculum were in Finnish until after perhaps BA phase. Also, as I never went abroad as an exchange student (which I regret bitterly now) I simply have not had many possibilities (neither the need) to practice my English language skills until recently.

Now this difference in our English skills and me being the underdog in this respect can be interpreted as both a benefit and a downside.

The situation is actually quite beneficial in in the sense that acknowledging our differing abilities in English as our working language helps us to become aware of the power hierarchies in (any) supervision relationship, and in this case – as she is the more powerful in this respect here – also to dismantle or deconstruct them. It is probably easier for the supervisee to discuss with me and seek for help as she sees that I am really just a human being with my faults and lacks. She perhaps feels that she does not have to formulate perfect sentences in her writing either, but that she can come and talk to me with incomplete thoughts, as she realizes that I too am in a constant process of developing. So our differing language skills may in this case be empowering for the PhD student.

And simultaneously the situation is also a bit difficult for probably both of us, but probably especially for me. Although I do understand written and spoken English, it is sometimes hard for me to explain what I want to say in a foreign language. This becomes ever more difficult in situations where conceptual and theoretical ideas that might be difficult to explain even in Finnish should be put into words in a foreign language. This of course applies also for any other situation that I encounter in academic work such as conference presentations, my own writing, etc. But sometimes I worry if the PhD student might feel uncomfortable in these situations where I lose my words, mumble, and so on. – And then again, this might be one more phase of just emphasising that I am a human being and not perfect as such. Also, as I claimed earlier, I trust that my supervisor talent lies somewhere else that in the fluency of my oral delivery.

That I don’t claim authority but instead try to facilitate a dialogical relationship means of course that the students in general have to take more responsibility. Even if they ask me direct questions such as “should I write my thesis in a form of a monograph or as articles” I rather not answer them directly but make them think about the options from many angles. Doing this in English is sometimes challenging for me and perhaps also for the listener.

Although there might be some benefits in speaking less fluently than my PhD student, I would still argue that becoming a fluent speaker myself is certainly not a hindrance for the future supervisor/guidance relationships. Taking this course is a step on my way to improving my EMI teaching and supervising practices.