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How writing skills can be transformed through a shared personal tragedy

By Angela Jones and Tara Brabazon - posted Friday, 5 September 2003


- Angela Jones -

The journey of a PhD student can be a daunting and lonely experience. This is due to the lack of a classroom, fellow students and on-campus activities and research. As a supervisor is often the only link with the university world, the connection between student and supervisor is of great importance. Because of this unique relationship, if tragedy strikes, it needs to be handled with delicate sensibility. In recent months, I was involved in such an incident, one that tested the dealings between supervisor and student.

- Tara Brabazon -

I am a supervisor of 13 doctoral candidates. This work gives me angst and frustration, but also pleasure and pride. As the waves of students pass through my office, they become part of an extended family. We share edited highlights of our lives, loves, agitations and disappointments. Most of my postgraduates are 20-something women, with some outstanding men and mature aged students stirred into the mix. We are accustomed to the rhythm, flow and energy of relationship breakdown, family fights, sexual disappointments and professional development. There is a power in their sharing, and I learn what I need to know from them. But, as the supervisory leader of the pack, I was not prepared for a tragedy that overwhelmed my research team in 2003.

One of my youngest postgraduates, Angela Jones, became pregnant on her 21st birthday, just before she enrolled in a PhD. Angela, the epitome of cool contemporary femininity, accepted this major life change in her stride. We made plans to ensure that, with the support of her partner Dave, her thesis would be written around and through the pregnancy and child rearing. The other postgraduates were thrilled. We all became invested in 'the bump' - as we termed Angela's growing baby. Eleven of my 13 students do not have children. Most of these women have no intention of becoming pregnant. At 34 I have publicly expressed my commitment and belief in remaining childless. But we were so happy for Angela. This pregnancy became a bond that tethered all the students together as we tried to protect and care for her and 'the bump' as best we could. We became less like a cultural studies research unit and more like a family. We accessed a bigger, brighter and bolder future, where the coldness and professionalism of this neo-liberal age were warmed by complicated, living, breathing students who hold passions, loves, desires and fears. Many who work at my University whispered that she would not finish her PhD. But in our minds, we knew such nay-saying was nonsense. With our support and that of her great family, Angela and the baby would be supervised to the completion of their respective projects.

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Throughout the pregnancy, Angela worked extremely well. Chapters were completed, interviews conducted and a fine thesis statement and argument emerged. As a supervisor, I relaxed: this non-traditional candidature was progressing better than I had hoped. She looked healthy, committed and focussed on the task. One of our Wednesday meetings - at seven and a half months pregnant - saw Ange complete the first draft of a six thousand word chapter. Our plans and systems were working. I exhaled.

- AJ -

I was five months into my first year of postgraduate study and seven months pregnant when baby Morgan died. I not only had to give birth, but also had to deal with death and attend my first funeral. The topic of my PhD involved perceptions of the female body. I had just completed the first chapter, pregnancy anecdotes and all. The first person I asked my mum to tell was my best friend. The second, my supervisor.

- TB -

Two days after receiving her fine chapter, I received a telephone message from Angela's mother. Her voice was jagged with emotion but, upon gruesomely replaying the message, it was clear that she said that Angela's baby had died in her womb on Thursday. In horror, I dialled the number with mechanical and shaking precision. We cried together. I am crying now, remembering that call. All the joy, hopes and energy of a brilliant young woman, who was going to concurrently give birth to a thesis and a baby, died before my eyes. My physical memory is of being kicked - hard - in the stomach. That feeling has never gone away. After that telephone call, I remember standing up, taking a breath and realising that I would have to tell all the other postgraduates. I was the grown up, the research leader. I straightened my back and went into work.

- AJ -

It was a very fragile time and how others treated me was paramount. I sent out a bulk email to everyone I knew to let them know what had happened and the date of the funeral. It was easier to explain events through writing. People forwarded the email on and it became the medium through which most people sent their condolences. It was also how I kept in contact with the outside world.

Date: Sun, 15 Jun 2003 14:38:14
From: Angela Jones

Dear Friends and family

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On Friday the 13th of June at 10.33pm a beautiful baby boy named Morgan Thomas-Jones was stillborn. Dave and I will let you know when the funeral and wake will be held. Thank you for all your cards, flowers, phone, emails and text messages at this sad time they mean so much to us.

Love always
Ange and Dave xx

- TB -

I could not use the telephone or see the students. I did not want my postgraduates to hear the despair in my voice or see the coloratura of my cheeks. I emailed them all - slowly and methodically - so that the words would wash over their screens. I needed the words. I needed the backlit lettering to make this stark horror real.

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Article edited by Nicole Howarth.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.



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About the Authors

Angela Jones is a postgrad researcher at the School of Media, Communication and Culture at Murdoch University.

Tara Brabazon is the Professor of of Education and Head of the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Angela Jones
All articles by Tara Brabazon
Related Links
School of Media, Communication and Culture
Tara Brabazon's home page
Photo of Angela JonesAngela JonesPhoto of Tara BrabazonTara Brabazon
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