I’ve never met my supervisor. We know what each other looks like because we’ve exchanged photos but our only communication has been through email or over Skype. You see, I live in New York City and she lives in Ireland. On our last Skype call she asked me how I felt about our (rather unconventional-my words) pairing. I was stumped but managed to say a few jumbled words. I’m not dissatisfied by any means. On the contrary, things have been quite smooth, maybe so smooth that the mere unconventionality of it has gone right over my head. The relationship between a Grad student and a supervisor is an important one so I decided to give her question some more thought.
Undoubtedly, I feel supported and encouraged by my supervisor which goes a long way in assuaging PhD anxieties. I’m given honest, constructive, useful and insightful feedback about my work, something that is invaluable to any Grad student. She advises me on matters related to, but outside of, my research. Fantastic.
But, relationships are funny little things, especially new ones. It’s human nature to use everything in our arsenal to gauge the other person in interaction. Language is just one of the tools we use. But what we say often gets lost in translation so we tend to rely heavily on body language and facial expressions to connect the dots. We’ve all been the giver or receiver of emails or texts that are terribly and unfortunately misunderstood. We’ve all spoken with someone on the phone only to be met with dead air or had a virtual conversation where the words communicated are not the same words received. Without the body we are left with just the mind and we all know what happens when the mind is left to its own devices. The wheels start spinning out of control. Our critical inner voice starts questioning. We wonder, what does the pause mean or why that choice of words. Some people, a lot of people, would just speak up, fill the silence or seek clarification. Others, like myself (and I’m working on this) struggle with speaking up in certain contexts. Awkward situations have been known to shut me down. The body really does bring to life the words we use to describe and define things big and small. It’s something of a buffer or a filter between our egos and the rest of the world. It helps to keep the mind in check. This might sound absurd to someone who takes a more functional view of the body but if you just think about it you might see that it does quite literally ‘bring’ perspective to a space. I’m a ‘body’ person so I’m a fan of its many wonders. I research it, read about it, talk about it, write about it. This is probably why my biggest challenge in this virtual (non-bodied) experience is not always knowing as often as I would like or as soon as I would like because I don’t have the physical interaction with my supervisor to orient me. Luckily, as I said, she is honest and not usually at a loss for words and as a result doesn’t leave me guessing…well, not too often anyway, but then that’s just part of this process I imagine.