Friday, February 16, 2018

Self-assessment as PhD tool: some thoughts on process and pedagogy

Well this log hasn't been updated for some time. A part of me is disappointed while another is content with the reality of these past six months. This being the case, I decided to to collect my thoughts on self-assessment as a learning tool in doctoral studies. The following text is therefore highly subjective and somewhat personal in nature.

I became cognisant of monthly self-assessment as a meaningful tool during our doctoral program's start your studies seminar (Väitöskirja käyntiin) in 2014. This monthly review of progress was recommended by my good friend and longtime model for being a historian, Jaakko Tahkokallio. In his seminar presentation Jaakko talked about his process, the good and difficult and the bad. Ever so passingly he mentioned that at some point he undertook monthly evaluations to see, whether thing were progressing as planned. This was a revelation!

I'm a strong believer in developing process agilely. I prefer to understand the meta in any job I do and through that reflect where I need help, development, and tools for better command of my work. As far as I understand this relates to my highly rhythmic temperament. I do routine well and having understood this, can influence my life by intentionally and systematically targeting my routines. I didn't learn this during my studies but with help from significant others, when I decided upon a 30 something health overhaul. Still the same personal, psychological tools apply.

First, understanding emotions related to work, professional identity and professional community has been really hard. Finns (especially CIS men) tend to have built their identity around work and professionalism. This applies extremely well to me. Yet we don't always do emotions that well. Success, failure, interaction and status issues all apply on an emotional level. I found the linked column "Want to lose weight? Train the brain, not the body" by Laurel Mellin extremely helpful in this. As the title shows, this didn't happen in my academic training. Still that's what I've largely used it for. I also participated in a pilot program started by my pension fund (MELA) with TJS Opintokeskus (the info is only in Finnish). This put me in touch with professional work consultants used to operating with academically trained professionals and possibly more importantly with my peers, with whom I've been able to process practically everything.

Peer support is the second essential component I wish to stress herein. Various informal and formal networks have sprung up among PhD students in Helsinki and statewide during my studies. Still, these take time to develop and many can become unintentionally closed groups for friends. The support structures for unfunded doctoral students are still most fragile and many students can and do stay alone with their insecurities, unrealistically high expectations, fears and such. Participating in support structures takes active effort and so far projects like the one linked above, demand having a grant in the first place.

This leads me back to self-assessment. Why did I decide to take part? As I've noted before in an earlier post, it became a perceived need during a monthly review of progress. Mine follows this pattern:

  • How did the last month go? Emotions, successes, failures, whatever comes to mind.
  • PhD work progress in detail. What got done, what didn't, why?
  • Other studies, projects, events and networks: what's happening, what's taking time?
  • Content analysis: ideas, problems and possibilities related directly to my thesis.
  • Funding issues: I feel this needs to be addressed regularly in order to cope with the monumental feelings of deficiency and frustration involved.
  • To do: what's coming up during the next six months or so?
A colleague of mine has developed this further and uses a purpose built IT tool to manage todo-workload. Long to mid term stuff moves into short term lists during self-assessment and so forth. I just use a text file, so whatever works, works.

During my short stint in London, I was supervised in this process: monthly meetings with the professor and rundown on everything I had done and was planning to do. It felt a little heavy handed but this might be related to my own progress and process. Such close guidance will work for some, especially early on. It doesn't do away with personal development as that is a real development goal in learning to become a researcher. Still we could do more in recognising it as such and defending the necessary pedagogical resources involved. As it stands, I feel this issue is insufficiently addressed currently but as always YMMV.

Having said that, things are progressing and they must. The crunch in funding and temporal resources of doctoral education is putting a lot of pressure on university teaching staff and recent cutbacks have seemingly done nothing to help them manage their own responsibilities as support personnel and structures have been slashed and administration restructured. Academia is running up the hill, but is there cliff at end? I hope not.

Personal development in research education is necessary but it should not mean solitary development. Some academic survivors of yore may have learnt inopportune or even downright problematic survival mechanisms but that doesn't mean anyone, anywhere should. I hope recent programs, systemic pedagogical processes and peer help mechanisms survive and flourish. Should they do so, is entirely up to us and that is why at this late hour (in my PhD studies that is) I continue to participate.

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