‘Judge, reflect, learn’- colloquium in a nutshell.

Colloquium offers PhD candidates a complex moment where they experience judgement, reflection and, most importantly, learning. In this piece, I discuss my experience of a colloquium at Deakin University and conclude with recommendations as to how the negative discourses of the Academy can be suppressed in favour of academic kindness and academic rigour.

One day in November 2019, I stepped out into the fierce heat of the midday sun, and I realised two things- if I were a character in a novel I would be ‘walking with a bounce’ along the footpath and my jaw, which I didn’t know I was clenching, became loose as a smile spread across my face.

I felt nothing less than magnificent as my PhD candidature had just been confirmed.

My journey to confirmation was an interesting process. As I have mentioned previously in this blog series, I am the ‘first in [my] family’ to attend university, and it made this stage of education somewhat mysterious. The colloquium*, as Deakin University names it, occurred at the ninth month of my candidature. From the PhD blogs and Twitter accounts, I read as part of my preparation process I understood this to be a formal process of assessment. It offered an opportunity for reassessment within three months if my research plan was not confirmed. Whichever way you look at it, the colloquium is a looming appointment, if not an outright moment of judgment about one’s abilities to be an academic. I was petrified. It was a moment when I learned about ‘imposter syndrome’.

The experience of the colloquium was explained to me, by various people, students and tutors, as having two parts. The first aspect, the public presentation, provides an opportunity for candidates to test their public speaking skills. The ‘public’, is an audience consisting of supervisors, experts, academics and the occasional friend or family member. These people have an opportunity to question candidates about their literature review, research methods, theories, and content. The private panel is a forum where the experts that had been provided with the candidate’s sample chapter, brief literature review, methodology and planning document could question, or ‘interrogate’ as one person told me with relish, my research.

While I was professionally ready for the event, I did have a few concerns about the process. As discussed in another piece, I consciously worked towards improving my public speaking skills. The colloquium document, consisting of an introduction, chapter sample, project plan, and chapter outlines was a document I had been working on creating throughout the year. I had been told, by other candidates, about students being questioned without care by academics from different disciplines. Add this knowledge to my recent experience of attending a colloquium where I saw a senior researcher tell the PhD candidate, unapologetically and harshly, that their proposed research offered nothing new to the Academy, and they saw no point in approving the project, I became borderline petrified.

What stopped me from becoming a complete mess in the lead-up to the event was the support of my peers, faculty and supervisors. The Arts and Education Faculty had worked hard, and well, to create a series of practical workshops that provided a skills-based framework to understand what was expected of me, in both my colloquium document and at the presentation. During the course of the year, I also established PSST- Postgrad Students Studying Together! group. The name was chosen to provide a giggle, with the representation of professional researchers whispering to each other like primary school children. In a manner of speaking, that was what we were doing; we claimed a space for ourselves to be unsure, but, at the same time, we shared our soft skills and expertise in other areas. Most importantly, during supervisory meetings, I was granted the time and space to discuss problematic concepts, new research directions, and ideas that had caught my interest. These moments were invaluable to my development as a PhD candidate.

Despite this support, underpinning my colloquium experience was the negative discourses that are currently in tension with the academic kindness movement within the Academy. The representations in online discussion spaces, such as Twitter of ‘reviewer 2’ detail an academic gatekeeper. One who delights in stopping emerging scholars from being published. Worse still are stories told about conferences where senior academics publically humiliate candidates, to ‘toughen them up’.

These are not approaches supported by my faculty. On the day of my colloquium Associate Professor Helen Gardner, one of my supervisors chaired the public session. She clearly defined the rules of engagement for the public session. Those asking questions were to be considerate and recognise public critique may not be the best avenue to position a postgraduate researcher. The private sessions were designated as the best forum for such questions and comments. It was not that questions were not to be posed, but think about why and where you are.

If Gardner had of being wearing a cape, she could not have been more of a superhero in my eyes. She named, in that room, the destructive elements of the Academy and how some have the inclination to humiliate or disrupt the equilibrium of emerging scholars in public. It was clear such approaches would not be tolerated in this learning space.

Sometimes, Fate can be exceptionally kind. I shared my public presentation session with two people from the PSST! group. It was fantastic to be together, to talk over game plans for our presentations (‘if you get nervous look at me and remember the work we have done to earn being here!’; ‘when you get to the end of a slide, tap your toes three times and acknowledge the time you need’) and determine how the technology functioned.

I think the public presentations went well, it remains a bit of a blur. My supporting supervisors, Associate Professor Tiffany Shellam and Dr Joanna Cruickshank, were there too. They offered smiles and words of encouragement prior to the session. There were questions, some were able to be answered and some were not. There were also comments, and notions to think about later as the project moved forward or stalled. I had initially been petrified of this moment. My thesis is a very interdisciplinary work, being it takes an ethnohistorical approach and draws on the work of sociologists, historians, anthropologists, linguists and theologians. I had heard that some anthropologists did not look kindly at historians “stepping” into their disciplinary space. However, my lived experience of this moment was very different. I found this section particularly useful as there were at least four different disciplines in the room- sociology, history, anthropology and international relations- so there was a lot of different expertise to draw on and the comments made had me think about what I was willing to defend about my thesis and what I was willing to concede, and what aspects need more elaboration and exploration.

When the public session was over, the chair for my private panel, Associate Professor Cai Wilkinson approached me and took the time to explain what was going to happen. That the session would be guided by me. If I wished, I could speak briefly about research issues that concerned me, or areas I would like to explore further. She emphasised, again, that the panel would be guided by me. This was wonderful news to me. I had spent the past two weeks attending conferences, symposiums, and public lectures and, in consequence, had a lot of questions about the concepts of decolonisation and feminism. Plus I was worried I had not read enough new material to stay on trend or be informed about major developments in my chosen areas. What of working with Indigneous communities? The private assessment was as much as an opportunity for me to identify what has been done right and what issues need to be addressed as the assessors.

On the walk to the private panel, I met another expert member, Katharine Massam. As we sat down and made small talk I was nervous, but there was also that underlying joy that I feel when researching too. I felt like a geek in, well, a room full of experts. This, I think, can be equated to being like a kid in a candy store.

After Associate Professor Wilkinson had opened the meeting I asked my questions. I remember thinking ‘who knew being able to ask these questions would be so liberating?’ What followed was a very generous and positive conversation from the panel. When it was over, when I was ‘bouncing along the footpath’, I was happy thinking about the new books to read, new articles to locate, the two new scholars I hope to remain in touch with as their research sounds fascinating. I was interested now in working to try and diversify my writing. I also had the challenging task of revisiting core concepts to firm up my understanding.

It was a good day.

With the notion that we are always learning, I have some suggestions to others that will support the creation of other positive colloquium experiences:

  • Chairs, in public and private sessions, can work to define and maintain clear boundaries for criticism. They can also provide the candidates with a clear sense of autonomy by advising them they do have the right to reply.
  • Candidates, attend workshops about planning, public speaking and compiling colloquium documents
  • Students should connect with other PhD students, especially those from other disciplines
  • Be kind to yourself. Yes, you are completing a terminal degree, but you have not graduated yet; recognise you are still learning to be an academic!
  • Audience members, before you raise your hand in that public form, consider for a moment are you asking a question to illustrate your knowledge/research or to genuinely find out more about a candidate’s project.

Finally, in the days after my colloquium, as congratulations were offered, I also received the unexpected advice to take a holiday, or at the very least a weekend, before continuing with my thesis. My primary supervisor had been making noises about me having a holiday for the past month or so when we met, but I want to finish my PhD within the three years that I am allotted funding*. If I do not take holidays, I may finish within this time frame! Receiving comments from her and from my peers, to acknowledge this milestone and rest, gave me pause. Then I acknowledged I was falling, without realising it, into a process where the work-life balance was not ideal. So, as much as I love being in the archives and reading journal articles, I booked a holiday.

– Deborah Lee-Talbot

  • Update: With the pandemic limiting my access to archives, I did not finish my thesis in three years. I did, however, learn how to adapt a research project to suit drastically different circumstances.