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

Colloquium offers PhD candidates a complex moment where they experience processes 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, I am ‘first in family’ to attend university, and it made this process somewhat mysterious. The colloquium*, as Deakin University names it, occurs at the ninth month of one’s 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 offers the opportunity for reassessment within three months if one is not confirmed at the nine-month mark. However, whatever 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.

The day was explained to me, by various people, as having in 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, the work in progress.

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.

While I was professionally ready for the event, I did have a few concerns about the process. 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, their proposed research offered nothing new to the Academy, and I became borderline petrified.

I had not initially approached colloquium as a negative event. 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 had also established PSST- Postgrad Students Studying Together! group. The name was meant 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 had been granted an opportunity to discuss problematic concepts, new research directions, ideas of interest. These moments were invaluable to my development as a PhD candidate.

So what had turned colloquium into a looming Boogie Man of moments? Well, in part, I believe the negative discourses that are currently in tension with academic kindness movement within the Academy: the representations online of ‘reviewer 2’ as the one that stops emerging scholars from being published, or moments when senior academics publically humiliate candidates at conferences to ‘toughen them up’.

As fate would have it, 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.

Associate Professor Helen Gardner 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 the Postgraduate researcher for productive development. The private sessions were exactly the 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 she had of being wearing a cape, she could not have been more a superhero in my eyes and that of my peers. 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 efforts would not be tolerated in this learning space.

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, had 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, 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 sociologist, 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 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 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 do not read enough new material to stay on trend or be informed about major developments in my chosen areas. What of working with the communities of which I write? It was an opportunity to identify what has been done right and what issues need to be addressed now.

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 and explained how it would work, 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, how to diversify my writing and the challenging task of revisiting core concepts to improve my understanding.

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
  • Connect with 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 the ideal. So, as much as I love being in the archives and reading journal articles, I have booked a holiday. Of sorts. It is going to be a dedicate period to read through that gradually increasing pile of graphic novels and fiction that steadily grown next to my bed, desk and in my lounge, since the end of last year- when this whole process began.

– Deborah Lee-Talbot