Guest Post ~ Jessica Wing: ‘Beyond the Supervision as a Gendered Space’

GETF is very pleased to welcome our first guest blogger! Jessica Wing is a third-year undergraduate reading English Literature at Homerton College; she is a committee member of the CUSU Women’s Campaign, and Disabled Students’ Officer on the CUSU Disabled Students’ Campaign. In this blog she examines notions of accessibility, how they play out in Cambridge and in the supervisory system, and how [graduate] supervisors might go about addressing them.


Beyond the Supervision as a Gendered Space

Notes toward identifying issues of accessibility across intersections & practical adjustments in a supervision environment

Jessica Wing

Reading the “Mind the Gap” report released by CUSU Women’s Campaign this year has clarified for me some thoughts on the gendering of supervision spaces, something which has irked me since coming to Cambridge in 2012. There exists a problem of “male spaces” at Cambridge, an argument defined and defended comfortably within the report and which will here be, as in the report, used as a baseline for a partial understanding of the intricacies of group dynamics in supervisions across the University. But beyond this, intersections of gender, disability, class, and race are my concern. I shall talk from my own experiences, and therefore not comment specifically on race – but I acknowledge that the experiences of BME students are unique and can yet follow the trends I identify given the particular hegemony of the University space. Lazy or uninformed supervision praxis will reflect the University at large as a bastion of the white middle class heteropatriarchy. Ethically minded approaches to the supervision – a format of teaching and learning that I should not have to underline as being something that I am immensely grateful for the existence of – will bear in mind notions of accessibility that are routinely left out in academic settings as well as society at large.

The supervision does not begin when all are in the room and the supervisor begins talking. It begins instead when the supervisor makes first contact with their students. The tone with which they will address their students, the openness and warmth and personality injected into any email will be encouraging for all (particularly students less confident in their own abilities, and this runs along certain outlined intersections…), but, most importantly, certain aspects must be broached well in advance of the supervision if we are to work to create an “equal” supervision space before the fact. They all revolve around a notion of “access” which is mostly alien to the works of CUSU and the University’s constituent colleges but more familiar to disability campaigners and, more recently, feminists too. I’ve never had a supervisor ask in an initial email if a student has any particular physical access requirements – perhaps this is done by word of mouth, via a Director of Studies. Or, perhaps the supervisor (shocking to me, given my albeit anecdotal experiences) actually reads each student’s DRC-issued Student Support Document, outlining these needs succinctly [1]. I am not this optimistic though; supervisors should by default choose supervision locations that are level access, if on upper floors have a properly functioning lift, and so on. Cambridge notoriously lacks these and disabled students face considerable backlash when they ask politely whether they might be able to enter colleges at all, like their abled peers (I remember one case where the porters at a certain college required a week’s notice if we wanted their ramp to be put up for an event). It doesn’t have to be this way, and a supervisor can in their own way work against this grain, booking accessible rooms by default when they are available, and also providing accessibility information within emails that outline a supervision’s location [2]. Similarly, Student Support Documents should be heeded, and the reasonable adjustments outlined therein accommodated.

Access is not simply physical access; it concerns anything which impedes a student from participating fully in a supervision, beyond a definition that is exclusive to disability. On an axis of gender, for example, awareness of and adherence to each student’s personal pronouns is vital, and such an issue can be easily fixed by setting a precedent. In the first supervision, introduce yourself with your name and pronouns (she/her, they/them and so on), and invite others to do so in a circle. Make a note of them for each student and stick to them. A supervision can become an inaccessible space to a student who has been repeatedly misgendered (i.e., the incorrect pronouns being used for them), and it is the responsibility of a supervisor to use the correct pronouns when addressing their students in the third person. [3]

Members of several faculties are recently beginning to champion the provision of content warnings on what is potentially triggering or upsetting material. Content warnings usually constitute a brief note that the text in question contains explicit discussion of (for example) sexual violence, death, or suicide. These topics are not merely emotive, but can be fraught and triggering for some students. The provision of content warnings makes no difference to anyone who is unaffected by the material in question, but can make a world of difference for a student who is then able to more adequately prepare themself for the discussion, or else engage with the material differently, or not at all. On this point, I draw a link between what that content warning might mean in the context of a PDF document attached in a supervisor’s email (“read this before we meet”) and in the case of the supervision itself. A student who experiences distress in the case of subject X is still likely to haul themself along to the supervision anyway to show willing, and in an effort to avoid intrusive questions being asked. Part of a supervisor’s ability to control supervision dynamics lies beyond making sure men aren’t overbearing (although in this case, this ability might be a part of it). A supervisor must be respectful of a student’s triggers, and therefore, while not shying away from the topic, be careful to control and mediate other students’ reactions to it, and challenge them should they be insensitive. Make a conscious effort to reformulate the conversation in a way such that it goes down less harmful and more productive routes. As an example: if, in discussing an act of sexual violence present in a text, should any student discuss the excerpt in terms of the perpetrator being “crazy” or “mentally ill”, it would be prudent to remind them that people with mental illnesses are actually far more likely to be victims of abuse than to commit it. There are ways of positing such remarks without falling into the trap of anachronism, but such comments can be a pragmatic way of silently supporting the student who finds the subject distressing. I believe it is a supervisor’s responsibility to lead a discussion delicately but purposefully through material that contains potential triggers, and this must be reflected in an intimate knowledge of the text(s). A supervision becomes inaccessible if potential trigger topics are discussed in insensitive and harmful ways. In the case of hammering the point home to potentially uncooperative students, I can only recommend perhaps a verbal note at the beginning of the supervision (as well as in the initial email) to encourage respectful and thoughtful discussion.

The gender dynamics of a supervision invariably fall along class & race lines. I recall an anecdote from my first year: a female English undergrad with a thick regional accent would on occasion pipe up and make a point in supervisions, but the remark would remain unregistered until the male student would pick it up, re-spin it in his flawless RP, and be verbally rewarded by the supervisor. One can see how factors of gender and class intersect to create an unwelcoming and indeed inaccessible supervision environment.

I have noticed that supervisors are often put in difficult situations when the supervision begins: the most common problem is that no student has anything to say to begin a discussion with (or, more likely, that they don’t trust that their words are worth hearing). In any event that I’ve seen this happen in (and, in my experience, it happens a lot), it is usually the male student within the group who jumps forward with a generalist approach to the text at hand, barely reformulating it in his own words, and placing the onus on the supervisor (again) to take that wad of unnecessary leakage and make it relevant to the non-men of the group. Observing supervisors who I’ve felt to be particularly successful at managing group dynamics, I notice that they do not ever let a supervision begin in such a frighteningly open setting. As we know, the supervision is a gendered space, and this inequality goes beyond gender; it is only neutral for those for whom the University was always intended. That initial openness might seem to invite equal say in the matter of approaching a text, but in reality it causes many to close up and not wish to intrude or – heaven forbid – lead the way in a potential reading of the text. A far more inclusive approach to opening a supervision would be to ask each student in turn for their initial responses to the text, note them down, and then revisit them and let them explore their thought processes out loud on their own terms (without interruption), getting used to the sound of their own voice as the other inhabitants of the space listen. After an initial development of their original point, invite other students to discuss it, and then move on to the next. This can create an exciting breadth of reading but also simultaneously act as a way of creating confidence in (often female) students who might be used to being talked over or not being able to find a suitable pause in a man’s rambling to make her own incisive comments.

These thoughts and suggestions are by no means exhaustive, nor are all of them applicable to all disciplines: supervisors in STEM subjects, for example, will have different concerns and needs to those in humanities or arts subjects. All supervisors, however, must devote time and energy to thinking through the accessibility of their supervisions. Within a Cambridge context, the term “access” contains meaning beyond the notion of ensuring step-free routes into buildings (although this, in itself, is routinely neglected). It is the case that for most Cambridge students, the term is instead associated with the University’s efforts to widen the pool of applicants to include more young people from BME and/or working class backgrounds. But access issues do not cease to exist when the student arrives at Cambridge, nor are they negated by the existence of support such as the Disability Resource Centre or pastoral tutors. Accessibility is an ongoing and crucial part of the supervisor’s role, and it is vital to take this seriously and keep it in the forefront of your mind at every stage of the supervisory process. I have outlined some ways in which supervisors can do so in this article; there are many more, and I encourage you to seek out other aspects of accessibility yourself and incorporate them into your teaching praxis.



[1] The Disability Resource Centre run PPD events on the SSD through the Centre for Personal & Professional Development, but the most recent one was cancelled.

More information on Student Support Documents (Text adapted from the DRC’s report on their Aspberger Syndrome Project) :

SSDs are clear, concise and consistent documents which communicate support needs and ‘reasonable adjustment’ recommendations in line with disability equality legalisation (Equality Act 2010) for individual students with disabilities. Student feedback strongly supported the implementation of such documents. These were developed in collaboration with colleges and departments and designed to ensure that essential information, advice and guidance is available to staff and others with ‘a need to know’ when teaching and supporting a disabled student. (Confidentiality protocols are explicit). A Student Support Document is produced in consultation with the individual student, supported by their medical or specialist evidence and often their Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSAs) Needs Assessment Report.

[2] CUSU Disabled Students’ Campaign have an online “access statement generator”, a very useful resource that creates text clearly outlining a room’s accessibility for the user from a few small inputs

[3] For more information on the importance of personal pronouns and the context surrounding them, CUSU LGBT+ have created a “Trans 101” document that will answer any questions.


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