Advice / Commentary

Meeting in the Middle

This post is by Alicia J. Rouverol. Alicia is currently a PhD in Creative Writing at the Centre for New Writing.

I came to Manchester in 2012. Manchester’s Centre for New Writing, then known for Martin Amis (and now Jeanette Winterson), enticed me here from the States, and a North American Foundation at the University of Manchester (NAFUM) Award paved the way. A year later I received a Presidential Doctoral Scholarship to stay on for the PhD.

I wasn’t a stranger to studying abroad. As a child I had lived on the island of Corsica, where I was dropped into a local school, immersed in a language I didn’t yet speak and at 17 I moved to Canada to study at the University of British Columbia.

But this time—travelling from California to Manchester—I was no longer the child, I was bringing my own children. The UK Border Agency allots you just one month to organise what by all rights should take two or three. For weeks I scuttled across Manchester, paying desperate visits to school heads, while scouring the southern part of the city for housing. By some small miracle, on 17 September, nearly 30 days after our arrival, I walked into our MA Creative Writing student orientation, excited and ready, if not fully settled.

My transition to the PhD course – almost a year later to the day – was altogether different. Strangely I was more sleep deprived than when I first arrived in Manchester. The MA course had been a marathon: eight stories, eleven poems, new novel begun, substantial portions of an old novel revised. I’d finished my dissertation less than two weeks prior. I only slept in patches between. Shell-shocked, I spent the day in the Training Room, where Graduate School staff put us through the paces. Ironically this programme wasn’t what I’d come for initially—this was the surprise: the PhD.

So why do it now? My first few weeks in Manchester for the MA, I wandered in a happy daze around the campus, diving into Mrs. Dalloway and Waiting for the Barbarians; knocking through the hallways of Mansfield Cooper with my mates on breaks between the writing workshops, debating POV (point of view) and focalisation—all of which fed my decision to pursue the PhD. It grew out of my love of reading and writing, and my recognition that a career in teaching would enable all this to be my daily fodder. That, and my extraordinary experience in the intensive MA year: Jeanette arguing with us about Orlando or Gertrude Stein. Jeanette insisting that we bring who we are, utterly, to every text we write and read.

Moving forward on the PhD, I knew the path would be rigorous. I knew too that my supervisor relationships would be the essential glue.

From the first PhD meeting, supervisors John McAuliffe and Geoffrey Ryman (directing my 30,000-word academic thesis and 80,000-word creative thesis/novel, respectively) insisted on sharp critical inquiry, offering frequent injections of high expectation. I’d come to the MA course with a nonfiction book and a brief stint in publishing, but they had made it clear that I wouldn’t be allowed to sit down. In fact, Geoff Ryman pulled my novel right from under me the week after I started the MA, insisting I generate new work. In response I led the charge on ‘Sixers’—a writing workshop where MA students and I wrote a story a week for six weeks.

So what did I have to do to excel at the PhD? Would the bar be this high again?

The first term of my PhD, John and Geoff held bi-monthly meetings with me to help me get essential elements of the thesis in place. By January of 2014 they had sprung me free. They remain directive, but they allow me to assert my own vision, too. The combination of direction and freedom, I believe, has enabled me to thrive.

On-going communication with one’s supervisors is essential. But one cannot rely on one’s supervisors for this exclusively: it falls within our charge. Daily I ask myself as Australian-based trainer Hugh Kearns, suggests: ‘What is “the next thing”?’ We have to track closely our own progression. We cannot delegate that outside.

A first-rate supervisor will do as John McAuliffe does: He will guide, he will assert; but he will listen and respect your concerns and wishes. The supervisor-student relationship is built on mutual respect, trust, an understanding that the mark must be set high, but also the recognition that on the PhD course you are an academic-in-training. You are still finding your way. I set a high mark for myself, but John often pulls me back when the course I’ve set is too steep. A strong supervisor won’t let you fail; but a committed student will do her best to ensure she doesn’t. As Jeanette might say, you have to be willing to ‘show up’. Bring the best of who you are and your supervisor—a remarkable supervisor, like the two I have—will meet you precisely in the middle, precisely where you already are.

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