From Excel to Pollock: Postgraduate student supervision in the time of Corona

Have lockdowns been a good motivation for supervisors to relook at their approaches?


Written by
Prof Roula Inglesi-Lotz, Department of Economics, University of Pretoria

Guest – Star and co-contributor
Prof Natasja Holtzhausen
School of Public Management and Administration, University of Pretoria


It seems as if the whole world has changed in 2020. From what was referred to as normal to what is now the “new normal”-whatever that might be. The Higher Education sector is not an exception to the trends and while the attention is focussed on teaching and learning, other activities are left to their own devices (pun intended)… Once I wrote that Supervisors are like coffee, in recent times, supervision feels more like a cocktail, an explosive cocktail, but at the same time, a delicious one with a yummy, yet peculiar aftertaste.

The first and main ingredient in this mix is the students’ needs and expectations. Postgraduate students always debate on their expectations of what constitutes a good supervisor. Opinions vary not only from student to student but also for the student during the period of their studies, from:  “I want a supervisor that is there for me emotionally” to “I don’t want a friend, I want an academic advisor”, from “I want a supervisor that will remind me of my timeline and deliverables” to “I don’t want a supervisor to police me, I can work on my own”, from “I want frequent meetings to share my progress and get feedback” to “I would like to get feedback only when I have final outcomes to share”.

The next ingredient is in the delicate relationship between the supervisor and the student is of course, the supervisor’s style and personality. Just a reminder here (and a surprise to many) is that supervisors are human beings, with their own personalities, styles and behaviours. The supervisors’ personal experience in their own studies also affect their styles. There are different schools of thought in that: “we become the supervisors we had” or “we become exactly the opposite of the supervisors we had” and many in between. Some have the willingness and skill to adapt to the students’ needs up to a level and offer a more individual learning experience. Now that we have all reminded ourselves the picture during normal circumstances, the conditions have become more difficult nowadays that the interpersonal relationship has to be built and maintained remotely. Students deal with a different world and new types of stressful conditions that no one foresaw. Their mental health is in higher imbalance than before but so is the academic supervisors’.

Do we re-invent ourselves as supervisors? Do we need to change our typical supervisory style and structure? My suggestion here is to try to convert the learning supervisory experience in a virtual environment, while being cognisant of the significant changes of the typical student environment during this time.

What has worked this far for me and my students:

The sense of community and belonging

Students have a need to identify with each other and develop a sense of community and common direction. By sharing struggles and wins in their academic life, they learn to deal with their own in a more positive way. Under normal circumstances, students meet in class, in the corridor, in the library and feel part of the “student community”. During these unprecedented times, this feeling and familiar environment is lost, even though many lecturers make an effort in many modules to recreate it.

We (all the students I supervise at all levels) have had a WhatsApp group before the pandemic, however less active and it had more of an announcement board format. Since lockdown, the group has been revived: except for academic articles, we share interesting news, data sources, relevant (and appropriate) jokes, personal stories and others. To kick-start such a group and make sure such a sense of belonging is established, maybe a couple of “get to know each other” tasks can be suggested. We organised a “send a picture of your pet studying with you” or “where you would rather be now, instead of where you are” or a “show us your work station”.

Such tasks are definitely not compulsory but create an ‘online’ community in place of simple everyday habits, such as drink coffee together at the Department or walk together or informally   sharing why we didn’t sleep well last night.

The supervisor is responsible to facilitate the formal discussions, to ensure that appropriate content is posted, and in general to model the ethics and house rules of the group. The supervisor should set a positive example of professional, polite, and ethical behaviour. In other words, if you are someone that doesn’t do well with group chats or any chats at all, maybe this not a good idea for you.

“Weekly” check-ins

The students have also lost their chance to come and knock on our door to say hello, to ask a question, arrange a meeting, or just to share an idea. We should establish how that could work now from the beginning with each of the students on a case-by-case. There are students that need frequent communication, even if it is an email from our side or agreeing that we will expect some form of communication from them more regularly than previously… I have noticed that more students in my group have asked for set “deadlines” (I promised I won’t use this term as it sounds so … final; I prefer timelines which sounds controllable). There are so many things around us that are beyond our control that we all have a need to be in control of whatever we can; that is a possible explanation from my side for this need of student for specifics.

Relatively “free” supervisory styles might not fit in with such a suggestion, so the frequency is not prescribed but suggested. Also, frequent contact does not necessarily mean frequent deliverables. What I am saying is contact might be “Here is a paper that might help you” or “Here is a dataset that I discovered, Prof. What do you think?” For closer and more personal style of supervisory styles, sometimes a simple “How is it going?” can take the student a long way. Overall, the advice is just be accessible, firm but accessible.

It is customary to expect postgraduate students to contact their supervisors, but especially during these times a little kindness can go a long way. You could even consider a WhatsApp video call if you realise a student is in distress, or not. I have seen the wonder of a WhatsApp video call especially when a student’s loved ones are far and they are on their own. You, and their class mates to which they do not have access now physically might be their support system. Think about that for a moment.

Also consider that due to the restrictions imposed by the lockdown it has had major implications on the data collection strategies of most of our postgraduate students. Reach out to your students. Discuss alternative strategies. You are the one with the experience, if you are not, reach out to colleagues and together create a plan-that is why collegiality exist.

Sharing vulnerability

The role of a supervisor is most times coupled with the role of a mentor, a role model and a leader. In the case of teams of students, a supervisor is the leader of the tribe (my students recently called me the mother of the tribe). One of my favourite authors, Brene Brown, discusses that a desirable characteristic of a good leader is sharing vulnerability. She shares that “Vulnerability sounds liked truth and feels like courage”. We, as supervisors, need to be honest about our vulnerabilities; that does not mean sit and cry with our students about what happens in our personal lives. It means being authentic: if we have a bad day, there is nothing wrong about it, ESPECIALLY at current mentally-challenging times. We admit and own our mistakes, and we do not pretend we know everything all the time. We share our fears and insecurities; that can make our students feel that their fears and insecurities are not irrational at current times. We can laugh at ourselves to keep things in perspectives: I apologised to my students that I did not answer to emails this morning because I had to pretend I am Captain America and had to take Hulk and Captain America (my sons) to a mission (clean their playroom). We can share our own paths and journeys that have brought us where we are now: we were not born in our positions, sharing our lessons will firstly help them see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and secondly, they will see they are not the only ones facing similar struggles.

Closing with two thoughts. Always remember that all these need to fit the particular student-supervisor relationship and be in benefit of the final outcome. There is not a one-size-fit-all in supervision, but rather a mix-and-match. Differences are to be celebrated and not feared.

Finally, we all talk about the pre-lockdown and post-lockdown conditions and how we all adjust now but also how we will also go back to the “new normal”.  I am wondering though whether the needs and expectations of the students from their supervisors have always been the same and will always be the same: academic advice, guidance and consultation, sense of belonging, mentorship and inspiration. Hence, whether under lockdown conditions, distance or close circumstances, the responsibility of the supervisor is to aim to adapt and provide the best learning experience for the students – however, nothing can be done without the effort and work by the students: research in postgraduate studies is the student’s primarily.

Students need to acknowledge that as a supervisor you also have various responsibilities and that you too are affected by the current situation. In all of this, communication is key. You cannot be available 24/7 and will have to set some kind of boundaries. You are probably home schooling your children, giving them art lessons about Jackson Pollock while populating that Excel sheet with the students marks your HOD wanted two hours ago.

I always think what if it was me? What if I was now for example a PhD student? What would I need to empower me? Let me be clear, not spoon feed, empower. But in the end, be kind. That is what all of us need more than anything right now.

The right to be wrong

Does the right to freedom of speech include the right to be wrong?

There is a touch of irony in one of the defining characteristics of the Information Age being #FakeNews, and in recent years the impacts and origins of #FakeNews have become the subject of much research. A Council of Europe report describes the term as “woefully inadequate to describe the complex phenomena of information pollution”, and that because it has been “appropriated by politicians around the world to describe news organisations whose coverage they find disagreeable” it is “becoming a mechanism by which the powerful can clamp down upon, restrict, undermine and circumvent the free press”. The report opts instead to use the term Information Disorder, and uses harm and falseness to divide the types of information into three sub-categories:

  • Mis-information: When false information is shared, but no harm is meant
  • Dis-information: When false information is shared with the intention to cause harm
  • Mal-information: When genuine information is shared with the intention to cause harm, typically by publicly sharing information meant to stay private

Tackling information disorders is a complex and multifaceted problem for various institutions within the scientific establishment. These include fringe movements such as “9/11 truthers” rejecting the analyses from engineers, material scientists, and demolition experts over the collapse of the World Trade Centre towers (#JetFuelCantMeltSteelBeams), to more well-known anti-science movements such as the Flat Earthers, anti-vaxxers, and the anti-GMO movement. For the large part I don’t think we as a society take these movements, and information disorders as a whole, as seriously as we should. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic grips the world, the narrative around information disorders has shifted. Multiple countries, including South Africa, have criminalised the spreading of false information surrounding the disease and this has raised the question of whether our right to freedom of speech includes the right to be factually incorrect.

As scientists we can get lulled into thinking those who perpetuate information disorders are an isolated group with whom we have little contact, but this is not the case. Recently a family member of mine posted a lengthy status on Facebook relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. The post claimed that the virus was a plot to destabilise the capitalist economies of the Global North, that communist countries had not been affected by the virus, and that the Chinese government already had a cure that was being hidden from the world but used to treat their own citizens. This post was one of the many I had seen discussed online, dripping with racist, sinophobic, and anti-science rhetoric. The only difference was not an abstract example on someone else’s timeline, but a very real post by a healthcare professional I knew personally. I wholeheartedly believe that we all have an obligation to tackle information disorders wherever possible, particularly when it is perpetuated by those close to us.

In our exchange, the poster (Person X) justified their sinophobia by referring to the reported brutalities of the Chinese government and the cultural differences in animal consumption between Western and Eastern societies. However, this is both an example of othering and whataboutism that only seeks to divert the attention from the racism and sinophobia under question. As Jonathan Kolby states in Coronavirus, pangolins and racism: Why conservationism and prejudice shouldn’t mix “environmentalism and conservationism are noble and vital pursuits” but “dialogues about coronavirus should not allow the topic of wildlife conservation to provide a smokescreen for prejudice”. Gerald Roche gives a superb discussion on the wider societal effects of this in The Epidemiology of Sinophobia, but this is not what I want to focus on for this post.

On top of trying to justify their prejudice, Person X posted follow-up comments with information that was more scientifically sound but in direct contradiction to the original post. Person X justified this by saying that they were not an expert in this field, that the original post was copied and pasted from an unknown source, and that their intention was to present information from both sides. The interaction between myself and Person X ended with the following comment, after I questioned why in the midst of a pandemic a medical professional would choose to share false information that could easily have been verified before posting:

Person Y came to the defence of Person X stating that we are all entitled to our own opinions regarding the virus, and that they are “not really phased what that is” but “when [I] sit behind [my] phone or laptop and comment away while people are putting their lives at risks and in the trenches fighting all over the world, just be careful what [I] say. If [I] know everything about the “claims” then [they] would recommend going to assist with fighting this virus, fruit salts.”

The sentiments of both these people raise three questions:

  1. Does sharing information from multiple sources in an effort to present all sides of a story make one guilty of contributing to an information disorder if the information is factually incorrect?
  2. Is everyone entitled to an opinion, no matter how falsified it is?
  3. By virtue of their work, are frontline workers above criticism for their opinions?

To answer these questions we need to look with both a scientific and legal mind, which is a unique opportunity the COVID-19 pandemic provides us. At the time of writing this, at least eight people had been arrested for being in violation of COVID-19 Disaster Management Regulation 11(5). This regulation states that “any person who publishes any statement through any medium, including social media, with the intention to deceive any other person about a) COVID-19, b) COVID-19 infection status of any person, or c) any measure taken by the Government to address COVID-19 commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months, or both such fine and imprisonment”. What is important here is how intent is defined. In this instance the legal definition of intent is not just a person meaning to deceive others by sharing false information (Dolus directus), but also a person seeing the possibility of others being deceived before sharing the false information (Dolus eventualis) or a person genuinely believing the shared false information to be true themselves (Dolus indirectus). The three legal definitions of intent align quite heavily with the three categories of information disorders.

This legislation places a responsibility on all of us to check the validity of the information we are spreading, and I hope going forward this experience places this responsibility in the forefront of our collective conscience. If we do not know enough or are not willing to critically evaluate information that is presented to us, a safer option would be to not perpetuate the information at all. In The Salmon of Doubt Douglas Adams penned, “All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others”. A central tenant of a democracy is the right to hold an opinion, but these opinions should not shielded from criticism and debate. In fact, one of the health indicators of a democracy is the quality of the debates. In doing this however, we must critically assess which opinions are worth debating, discarding those not founded upon evidence instead of debating for the sake of debate.

I believe the desire to share all sides of a story is a result of how the media has approached presenting complex stories in the past. All too often we see panels consisting of experts such as medical virologists and meteorologists seated alongside non-experts such as anti-vaxxers and climate-change denialists, for the sake of “balance”. This gives a false legitimacy to the side whose opinion is not supported by scientific evidence. I advocate for deplatforming people who hold opinions and beliefs that go against established scientific theory, such as the safety of vaccines, the effectiveness of genetic modification as a breeding tool, or the impacts of anthropogenic climate change. This is not to say that I don’t believe that these complex topics have nuance which needs to be unpacked debated, but rather that we would make better use of our time debating amongst experts over said nuance rather than with those who reject reality. This includes “front-line” workers of all types.

I believe the responsibility of ensuring your opinion is backed by facts is heightened when you are in a position of perceived authority as a front-line worker. In this instance I regard anyone who works directly with the public as a “front-line” worker, as these professions will have the largest influence on public opinion. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, when front-line workers such as nurses and doctors share false information, they undermine the work and credibility of the entire industry that supports them. The is includes everyone from the virologists working on understanding the virus, to the research groups working on developing a vaccine, to medical researchers working on developing treatment protocols, to government agencies trying to coordinate disaster relief efforts and reduce the spread. In perpetuating false information, these front-line workers reduce public support for these highly coordinated efforts, eroding the public’s trust in the scientific establishment, increasing tensions both locally and globally, and ultimately costing us lives as the public becomes less likely to follow guidelines aimed at reducing the spread of the virus.

Too many lives have already been lost from information disorders surrounding life-saving technologies such as vaccines and biofortified GM crops. If there is only a single positive thing to come out of the COVID pandemic, I truly hope that it is us a society taking the threat of information disorders more seriously.

Richard Hay

@HaysHarvest