SUPERVISION IS A DANCE – OR A CAGE FIGHT? Understanding the impact of conceptual and subconscious metaphors

This post is by Dasha Dayter – a postdoctoral researcher at the English Linguistics department at the University of Basel, Switzerland. She was lucky enough to have a great supervisor during her PhD (about how people brag) who was equal parts easy-going and inspiring, and always ready to talk. This got her thinking, however, how a student could start a conversation about supervision style if everything is not so rosy – and the post below is a linguist’s take on this question. Dasha blogs about her research and quirky linguistic quotes at

I have a confession to make: I’m a linguist.

It means that not only can I figure out a Dutch menu based on my knowledge of the High German Consonant Shift, but I also compulsively apply linguistic concepts to random situations, for instance, to supervision practices.

One of the things that got me hooked on linguistics in the very first graduate class I’ve taken was the conceptual theory of metaphor and metonymy. CTMM is a theory proposed in 1980 by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (you might know the former by his book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things – admit it, the title alone is enough to make you into an aspiring linguist!). Lakoff and Johnson suggested that the way human perception works is fundamentally metaphorical in nature. This means that a metaphor is not just a literary flourish to be found on p. 6 of As You Like It; it is a cognitive device that allows us to make sense of things of which we have no direct sensory experience.

Here is an example: time. It is impossible to talk about time in its own right, since no one really knows what it looks like and how it works. English simply does not have words to describe its essence and properties. And yet we talk about time all the time (no pun intended)! To cope with this problem, our brain did the clever trick of equating time with something a lot more tangible: movement through physical space. This parallel, in Lakoff and Johnson’s terminology, is the underlying conceptual metaphor TIME IS A MOVING OBJECT. If you try to come up with a few examples of time-related talk, you will notice that almost all of it rests on the different aspects of the MOVING OBJECT metaphor. “In the weeks ahead of us…”, “it’s all behind us now”, “the time will come when…”, “the time for action has arrived”, “I look forward to the arrival of Christmas”, “let’s meet the future head-on” – the list is endless. The same is true for many other abstract or hard to understand concepts: mind, love, ideas, emotional state, and so on.

An interesting wrinkle is that as two concepts become connected in our minds, it is not only the relevant traits of the source that rub off on the target. With time, the two grow so closely together that the source, initially used to describe or explain, begins to structure the activity itself. Consider a metaphor that is very pervasive in Western society: ARGUMENT IS WAR. We attack weak points in each other’s arguments, describe them as indefensible, win or lose arguments, shoot down or demolish someone’s proposal. Phrases such as “okay, shoot!” and “your criticism is right on target” come to us completely naturally, not as verbal embellishments on the same level with “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players”. The domain of WAR brings a whole lot of things to our understanding of ARGUMENT which, if you think about it, are not there to begin with: participants are adversaries, there are stages of planning an attack, defending, maneuvering, retreating, counterattack, along with situations such as stalemate, truce, or surrender. Most importantly, the goal of the enterprise is victory.

It is here that Lakoff and Johnson come up with an ingenious example of how conceptual metaphors are arbitrary. What if we did not think about an argument in terms of war, but, say, a dance? The participants would not be adversaries but partners, and the purpose would be to perform in a collaborative, aesthetically pleasing way. Take a minute to imagine the society in which parties in every argument would try to follow each other’s conversational lead and pirouette together around points of contention, rather than throwing themselves into the battle. That would change the way we live! “In such a culture,” Lakoff and Johnson argue, “people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently and talk about them differently.”

Of course, trying to overthrow a deeply ingrained conceptual metaphor is a hopeless quest. But knowing that a subconscious metaphor can lead you to assume things that are not necessarily true can be a useful coping mechanism when you feel that you and your student may as well be speaking in different languages.

As a mental exercise, you could try figuring out how you think about a supervisor-supervisee relationship, and maybe switch things around for some fresh perspective! This can also be a great starting point for a talk with your student about how you see your work together, and what could be improved to make you feel more comfortable. Much too often this complex relationship in which you are neither a boss vs. employee, nor entirely peers, nor friends, gets squeezed into one of those boxes.

Here are some of my suggestions for conceptual metaphors: your supervisory relationship…


Imagine you and your student as classical dance partners, swirling around the dancefloor in a Viennese waltz. You are trying to read the subtle movements of your partner who directs you without bossing you around, otherwise the whole dance would look strained and jerky. You trust them to avoid other couples who might be working on a similar research project, or be evil conference questioners. And although working together to create this beautiful dance is not easy, you both thoroughly enjoy the process!



Instead of The Nine Walkers out to deliver the ring to, you know, the doctoral committee, there are only the two of you fighting against the odds. Out in the badlands, it is important that you can rely on each other completely: you don’t want to fall asleep with your supervisor keeping watch only to find out in the morning that they published a paper with your research results. This sort of thing can break down the team, and the ultimate goal of your quest, to save the world, will be in peril. You will encounter various obstacles on your way – a participant will withdraw consent, an experiment won’t work out; you will have glorious adventures in faraway lands on conferences; and you will walk together for a really, really, really long time. Remember that this is a long game and that both of you must be patient with each other’s faults, otherwise sharing a tent for three years will be very tedious.


Every one of you brings something to the table. Hopefully you contribute enough so that no one leaves hungry, but also don’t try to throw together tuna fish and green jello.


Ok, this one is a little bit arcane. I added it because I’ve recently got into climbing and it strikes me as a perfect metaphor to structure your supervision relationship around! In a rope team, you always have two people. One of them climbs, and another stays on the ground to belay the climber, i.e. to hold the rope and make sure that if the climber slips s/he does not get hurt. But during a climbing trip, both parties switch from climber to belayer and back many times; the more experienced one may lead complicated pitches, while the newbie would take over the easier bits to build up skill. Or one climber may be better on technical stuff and the other on the routes that require strength, so they split the pitches according to their aptitudes. The better climber may go first, hang up the rope and allow the follower to climb the same route in the “safe mode”, telling him or her exactly what to do.

In a PhD tandem, the supervisor would be the leader most of the time, but as the student masters research instruments, gain ownership of the literature, and understand the workings of academia, the student will be allowed to lead more and more often. Moreover, the student is probably more of an expert in the very specific field chosen for this PhD than the professor is (at least that’s the case in the humanities), so there will be situations in which the student will take the reins despite being a novice. And most importantly, the student can experiment with things, take risks, and try to get to the top their own way – but your supervisor should always have their eyes on their student and be ready to catch them if they fall.

I’d be interested to hear which conceptual metaphors for the relationship with your student /supervisor you can come up with! Or maybe you had a bad ride which you can now describe as SUPERVISION IS A CAGE FIGHT?

Please share in the comments!

Image is courtesy of Sandy Astill, formal dancers at night in a beautiful hall in the UK. 


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