Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Tilling the field: Action research in postgraduate supervision

Susan Hall, Rosemary Coates, Paola Ferroni,
Michael Pearson and Sue Trinidad
Curtin University of Technology


The paper begins with some background to the project which is followed by a description of the purpose, structure, program and method for evaluating the project. Next, this description is substantiated with a case summary of each of the four supervisors' action research projects. Finally, the issues and finding/outcomes of the projects are summarised and indications of future developments are given.


Since the inception of the Unified National System for Higher Education in 1987-88 many Australian universities have experienced an increase in postgraduate research students. Curtin University of Technology is one such university, where lecturers are carrying a larger supervision load than they were in previous years. For some lecturers this has meant taking on more postgraduate students and for others it has meant undertaking research supervision for the first time.

In light of the above situation, Curtin, along with many other Australian universities, has identified the need to provide support for postgraduate supervision (Curtin University Strategic Plan for Teaching and Learning, 1995). Evidence from two other Quality funded research projects conducted at Curtin in 1995 indicated the need for collaborative support groups for both supervisors and postgraduate students (Reeves and Robins, 1995 and Barker, Chung, Hall, Low and Shoebridge, 1995). The EPSTAR project was initiated as a pilot project, in response to this need and at the specific request of one postgraduate research supervisor.

Description of the project

The project commenced in March 1996 when the facilitator placed a call for expressions of interest to supervisors though a campus-wide advertisement and it continued through to December 1996. It was designed to support a group of supervisors in enhancing their supervision through collaborative reflection and action between themselves and their students. It was also designed to contribute to a wider cultural change in the research supervision process at the University (see Hall & Exon, 1996). The envisaged cultural change was one in which the process of supervision would move gradually from an individual experience carried out in isolation to a more collaborative/reflective one in which:
  1. supervisor and student/s would reflect and act together on the supervision process during the course of their working relationship; and
  2. supervisors would collaborate with each other in the continual process of enhancing their supervision.
Therefore, two support groups operated within the project; a supervisor's action research group and a postgraduate student group [1]. The participating supervisor/researchers competed for selection through submitting expressions of interest in response the previously mentioned advertisement. The candidates' group consisted of the supervisors' students who volunteered to participate in the interests of improving their experience of the postgraduate research process. While the candidates' group was not resourced, it was assisted initially with two coordinated meetings in order for members to set up their aims and procedures for operating. Thereafter, they were provided with a meeting place and their contact with the supervisors' group occurred through their meetings with their own supervisors, as well as through an elected coordinator, and her contact with the project facilitator. Because of the funding stipulations, it was understood from the outset that the level of activity of this group would be self-determined. Therefore, the main focus of this paper is the supervisors' group.

The Supervisors' Group

The supervisors' group, was made up of four supervisors who worked within an action research-based program which comprised:
  1. individual developmental work wherein each lecturer reviewed and developed their supervisory practice through a cyclical process which involved planning, acting, observing, reflecting as described in Kemmis & McTaggert (1985);
  2. monthly individual consultation sessions with the facilitator in order to monitor and plan the action research methods;
  3. monthly group reflection and support sessions; and,
  4. collaboration with colleagues in the work-place.
In order for the supervisor/researchers to enhance their own practices and contribute to an envisaged cultural change, they, and the project facilitator, carried out disparate, yet complementary roles. These roles are outlined below.

Supervisors/researchers' roles

The supervisors' group worked within a mandate to:
  1. review and develop their own supervisory practices through an action research approach;
  2. reciprocate support within a facilitated action research supervision group which was run on principles of collaborative learning;
  3. elicit expertise and generate further interest amongst their colleagues in their respective work-places;
  4. disseminate information on the processes and outcomes of their projects within and beyond Curtin University; and
  5. assuming the success of the project, develop a modus operandi for continuing and/or extending as a support group/network after 1996.

The facilitator's role

To assist the supervisors in enhancing their supervisory practice as well as contributing to a change in the supervision culture at Curtin, the facilitator did the following:
  1. undertook a collaborative process in designing the project and the project submission for funding. By consulting with key stakeholders, support and publicity for the project was established;
  2. facilitated the project according to the action research-based program (above);
  3. systematically, passed information between the group and key stakeholders in the enhancement of research supervision at Curtin; and
  4. initiated and coordinated the process of disseminating the findings/outcomes of the project.


The project was piloted through both summative and formative evaluation approaches based on the illuminative and responsive case study approach (Parlett and Hamilton, 1972). This evaluation, which is currently in progress, will conclude in a summative report portraying:
  1. what practices were developed;
  2. how they were developed;
  3. why they were appropriate in the particular context; and
  4. what the impact was, as perceived by supervisors and students, respectively.
The supervisors' projects, which follow, demonstrate the implementation of the project as it has been described. While all are based on an action research approach, the particular methods used and the approaches to reporting vary in a way which is characteristic within action research groups. That is, each supervisor/researcher conducts the research in a way which reflects their epistemological position, discipline and work context. And all of the case summaries here represent researchers who are embracing action research as an extension to their previous research paradigms. Therefore, they are all engaged in something of a paradigm shift.

The case summaries

Case One: How Do We Become A Good Supervisor?

Sue Trinidad, Faculty of Education

The foci of my action research project looked at "what are the characteristics of a 'good' supervisor?". To investigate the concept of what makes a 'good' supervisor I used a variety of data collection methods to investigate, observe and search for characteristics of 'good' supervision. The questionnaires used to gather information were "The Questionnaire on Functions of Supervisors" and "The Role Perception Rating Scale" (Moses, 1992 in McCormack, 1994). This was a useful source of information gathered from other supervisors and students. The information also enabled me to work out a contract with both my students as to what my role should be as their supervisor. I also discussed with colleagues what did they liked and did not like about their supervisor and what models do you use as a supervisor? We were all of the opinion that we tend to supervise according to our own models of 'good' and 'bad' supervisory practice that we have had as a student. Within my supervisory practice during this project I conducted a situational analysis - to identify a focus point that I would like to evolve/develop and that was "how do I become a 'good' supervisor using the action research approach?" I also looked at ways that I could gradually generate interest amongst my colleagues and collaborate with them in developing supervising skills.

The action research approach which I used follows a deliberate, continuous, cyclical pattern including many 'moments' of planning, acting, observing and reflecting (Kemmis and McTaggert, 1985 in Hall, 1992).

The Supervisory Process

There are a number of steps we follow as a supervisor (Sharpie, 1996). These steps are assessing the student's purpose and negotiating needs, negotiating the student-supervisor relationship, managing the student-supervisor relationship, designing a theoretical framework and appropriate methodology, planning the research process, collecting and analysing the data, writing and finally examination. In light of my situational analysis, the questionnaire responses and my student's supervisory needs I chose three areas that were pertinent to investigate in the project.

The Foci Of My Project

The first main area of importance was managing the relationship - negotiate my student's and my own expectations of contact and guidance. As both my students were at the data analysis stage the second area of focus was analysing the data. The third area of focus was the writing generated by the students.

Findings From My Action Research Project

For me, part of the role of a "good" supervisor is to exert and retract pressure at appropriate times during the supervisory period. This would be in accordance with the particular arrangements made in the contract with students. During the project I found the student-supervisor contract needed to be re-negotiated at times according to changing circumstances.

As Sharpe (1996) states students often 'get lost' in their data and lose focus. As I explored the literature written on supervising postgraduate students, a number of helpful hints given by others guided me in my supervisory practice as my students moved through the data analysing stage. I found that taking a section of the data and helping the student think through it enabled them to be able to apply this process to other sections of data. It is important to help the students keep the research process focused by referring to and modifying their research plan. In the case of my students, time and reflection was needed for the writing which was done incrementally and often. I will encourage this from the first day with future students I supervise.

This project has been a most valuable experience for me as a supervisor. I found it most valuable having a support group as it is an excellent way to become a more reflective supervisor and develop or refine supervisory skills.


Grundy, S. and Kemmis, S. (1981). Educational action research in Australia: The state of the art (An overview). Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Australian Association for Research in Education, Adelaide, South Australia. Published in The action research reader, (1988), 331-336. Deakin University: Victoria.

Hall, S. (1992). Developing anti-discriminatory teaching practices in a primary school. Discrimination. In Government Policies And Practices. S.80 Report No. 9 Equal Opportunity Commission of Western Australia.

Hall, S. & Exon, A. (1996). Supporting research supervision: Action research support groups for dyads of postgraduate supervisors and students. Paper presented at the national conference, Quality in postgraduate research - is it happening? Adelaide: South Australia.

Kember, D and Kelly, M. (1993). Improving teaching through action research. HERDSA green guide 14. New South Wales: Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia Inc.

McCormack, C. (1994). Constructive and supportive postgraduate supervision: A guide for supervisors. Canberra: CELTS Centre for Enhancement of Learning, Teaching and Scholarship.

Moses, I. (1985). Supervising postgraduates. HERDSA green guide 3. New South Wales: Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia Inc.

Sharp, M. (1996). Best practice in research supervision: Strategies used by experienced supervisors. Paper presented at the Quality Postgraduate Conference - Is It Happening? April 18-19, Adelaide: South Australia.

Case Two: Preliminary findings of student supervision with a research requested from an organisation outside the university

Paola Ferroni, School of Social Work

Impetus for undertaking action research on my research supervision

The motivation to participate in this project was to:
  1. seek new opportunities to work collaboratively with colleagues;
  2. extend my knowledge and familiarity with qualitative research paradigms; and
  3. acquire new knowledge on research supervision through reflective praxis.


Although it may not be evident in this presentation, my experience of action research with this project was that acknowledgement, planning, reflecting, acting and observing seem to have occurred simultaneously in cyclic patterns which moved back and forth often giving me a sense of regression rather than moving forward. However, in writing this paper I have a sense of having attained a comprehensive map of this journey thanks, primarily to the ongoing reflecting process and a discussion in a meeting with "critical friends".

This paper will present the richness, the controversies, the conflicting goals and the process of a research initiated by request from an organisation outside the university. The process will show how the people involved, including myself, may have participated in a process of implicit rather than explicit interaction. The ongoing reflection shows the value of the latter for reframing communication and patterns of action.

Research background, reflection and actions

I was approached by the staff of an organisation asking for a postgraduate candidate interested in doing a research to evaluate new models of practice. In consultation with my student it was agreed that I would investigate the issue further to explore the request in greater details before committing the School or the student to the proposed project. My review of the early process beginning with the meetings between myself and the student, prior to attending the sponsoring organisation meetings, indicated the following considerations had been articulated:
  1. the need to negotiate research requirements including respecting academic policy and the student's learning process;
  2. guiding the student through the various loops of the research process; and
  3. negotiating my involvement in the field meetings with members of the sponsoring organisation to ensure the adherence to (i) (ii).
I believe it was agreed that the research would only be undertaken on the above stated conditions, and that I would be participating to the first initial meetings to ensure members of the sponsoring organisation were clear about fundamental university and educational tenets. It was also agreed that the university would fund the research process to avoid potential contamination associated with outside funding. On reflection, our communication may have been more implicit than explicit, including subsequent interpretation of what I thought it was agreed upon.

Reflecting, hypothetical considerations and action

Reflecting cycles and participatory activities have provided me with a greater insight about the complexities of research sponsored by an outside organisation including the potential for conflicts differing views, expectations and needs between the following participants: I began to hypothesise the inevitability of conflicts of interests. In this case, there is a strong potential for the stakeholders within the sponsoring organisation to have different and conflicting expectations with regard to the outcome of the research as they are from a multidisciplinary background, whose views, and daily activities are influenced by very different responsibilities and professional paradigms. For example, the world view and practice of a social worker may be very different from that of an accountant, a psychiatrist, a police officer or a judge. In retrospect, the questions that I needed to address explicitly at the outset were:
  1. Beside the people attending the meeting were there others in the sponsoring organisation who had the power to change or reverse the decision made by us as a group?
  2. Who initiated the request for this research?
  3. What was the reason(s) for requesting the research in the first place?
  4. What are the assumption of who or what drives the research process?
  5. Who and what will influence the outcome? and
  6. Who is the research likely to reward?
On reflection I noted that during the first meetings with the stakeholders from the sponsoring organisation none of the hypothesised conflict of expectations between parties emerged. The meetings were quite harmonious while working toward identifying, in broad terms, the: With hindsight I suspect that the pervasive state of harmony was influenced by the fact that we were focusing on macro aspects and were aware that we needed each other. The representatives of the organisation were cognisant of the fact that they: We could provide the physical resources, the research knowledge, and were pleased to undertake a research that we envisaged was going to have immediate applicability and usefulness in the community. A retrospective analysis and my intuition however, suggests that since the first meetings, there were times of subtle discomfort although this was never articulated. Recent events however, indicate this assumption to be quite correct. For example, quite unexpectedly, the student was asked to make new changes to the research protocol I also learnt there were additional members of the organisation that had the ultimate authority on decision making. I understand now that some players are indeed more visible than others, while others were totally invisible to me. This research activity is ongoing and I am still negotiating on a number of issues. Taking into consideration all that I had hypothesised whether intuitively or otherwise, from now on all communication will be qualified and ongoing. My participation will be re-negotiated to ensure tenets (i) and (ii) are properly adhered to. This early reflection highlights the essential role of explicit communication and the value of listening to my intuition when things are not as they seem.

Case Three: Supervising as a go-between

Michael Pearson, School of Design

Impetus for joining the action research group project

My challenge is a simple one. As a beginner at supervising, how do I know that I am providing Quality Supervision? My method so far has been simple enough - each semester has informed the next. At the time of writing I have completed two semesters of supervision, advising on the basis of what I felt was common sense. It soon became evident that this was not enough when I took on three students who were considered 'difficult'. I realised that I needed help as a supervisor because I was beginning to feel lost in the sense of clearly seeing what needed to be done in particular situations that were new to me. My first action was to do a "stock-take" of my situation.

Situational analysis

School management
The School of Design has undergone major changes in the last two years due to Quality Assurance measures which has resulted in a horizontal management system overlaying the traditional hierarchy. I like to think that I contributed to this wind of change. The result is a School with a vision and mission which we all own. My contribution within this new climate is as Chairperson of the School's Teaching and Learning Committee.

School Postgraduate Study
The history of postgraduate study has until now included Honours, Postgraduate and Masters by Coursework. Postgraduate courses are now being only offered to overseas students. The Honours program now leads to Masters by Coursework and Masters by Research and then on to Doctorates.

These changes have been due to the arrival of a Professor within the school who has a special interest in distance and open learning. The measures that he as put into place are putting the school in line with other academic practice.

My position in the School of Design is as a lecturer to first and second years teaching design process with particular interest in creative thinking and problem solving. I am currently on one yearly contracts which have been renewed. Until the beginning of last semester I was part-time.

The history of my supervision is one Masters by Coursework student, one postgraduate and two honours completed. I currently (pre 1997 intake) have two Masters by Coursework students under full supervision and I am co-supervisor to three more. They will all finish at the end of first semester 1997. With one exception all are staff members upgrading their academic profiles.

I was asked, in addition to take over supervising honours and postgraduate responsibilities to three students well into the second semester. I was informed that two international students were 'difficult ' and since this was my area of interest they would probably respond to me as "a male or father figure" it would, therefore, be appreciated if I took them on. My influence "would shape them up." The third student passed on to me was an honours student whose topic was outside most of my colleagues' interest. These students have now successfully completed their courses.

I believe I did help them, and yet I felt that there were times I didn't know what I was doing and that the student was aware of my uncertainty . I needed to see my supervision from a distance and gain some comparison. I therefore began my literature review for this project with some enthusiasm.

It was an enthusiasm which I can best describe by illustrating with the following observation: I like watching what I call interesting television programs -magazine articles etc; and yet the experience for me is so much better if I can share my enthusiasm. It is beyond count the times I have shouted "Stop what you're doing and come and see this!!"

Act: I treated my reading in a similar manner and made the literature on-line for my colleagues. I had thought the process easy. I recall that it was not. The project eventually faded away because lack of memory on the server in the office made the machine crash every time it was accessed. I had to move it back on to my hard disk.

Reflect: I continued to have difficulty finding a focus for the project - and yet I recall being rather happy because I began to see myself as a 'Go Between' (Jenkins, 1996) - a sort of interdisciplinary expert advising my colleagues on pedagogical issues from other domains; which indeed was the case for my masters by Coursework students. I really enjoyed sharing my interest with my students. How did they feel about me? What do my students think of my supervision?

Observe: The verbal feedback from students and colleagues is that I facilitate creative thought very well.

Reflect: I wondered then, why I could facilitate others' developmental thinking so well and yet couldn't clarify what it was that I was doing. I therefore started to consider the distinction and similarities between facilitating and being facilitated; how easy it was to gain perspective when one is distanced from a project, how that disassociation exaggerated the flaws in argument and debate. How points of view which you think are obvious remain hidden and uncommunicated.

Reflect: I realised that I needed a "critical friend" in my work-place to offer me the distance and disassociation to bring these issues to the surface.

Plan: I also needed to ask my students to write down what I have done for them - their comments about my supervision. This information, compared to the literature would inform me of my strengths and my weaknesses which I could share and discuss with my critical friend in order to put into place strategies to improve my practise.

Act: I therefore, asked each student still within my responsibility if they would mind writing a short paragraph giving whatever feedback they felt like giving to me about my supervision of their programs. These 'students' are in fact my work colleagues. I am advised by my critical friend that I should not take their comments too seriously because they have a vested interest in me hearing what I want them to say. With this in mind I reflected on what they wrote. I am apparently seen as:

So my current students are certainly positive in their feedback; and yet I must make certain that what is said is true. To do this I must triangulate the feedback. I therefore quickly enlisted a critical friend. Triangulation would then be appropriately formed through my critical friend, my reading of the literature and continued feedback from my students.

This situation so far, is also reflected in the literature; I am learning to be a supervisor in the traditional manner. I have been assigned honours, postgraduate, and masters by Coursework students and I have experienced the kind of feelings that every new supervisor experiences (Reeves and Robins, 1995).

Plan: Now I am ready to begin focusing on my supervisory practice in a triangulated and directed way. I plan to continue with the project through semesters one and two of 1997 when it no doubt will merge with other projects on their way to completion.

Case Four: The role of the Thesis Chair

Rosemary Coates, School of Physiotherapy

Under Curtin University's regulations for higher degrees by research, there is a requirement that a small committee be established for each candidate, comprising the supervisor and associate supervisors and an independent chair. The Chairperson is called the Thesis Chair. As that person within the School of Physiotherapy I was interested in ascertaining whether or not supervisors fully understood my role and what expectations they might have with regard to my responsibilities. The long term objective was to enhance our reputation for high quality and relevant research through the provision of best practice supervision. As part of the evolution of thinking on the matter the question of retention rates and successful completion was raised. The answer to this question, (3 drop-outs from a total of 107 completed) led to the other questions about what factors ensured a high success rate and how was progress monitored.

With the aim of ascertaining supervisors' perceptions of my role and to assess their needs, a survey was conducted using an open-ended questionnaire design. The questionnaire was developed, trialed with the members of the action research group and then administered to all supervisors in the School.

Eight questionnaires were sent out and there was a 100% response rate. Because of the open-ended nature of the questionnaire, responses were collated into themes. The profile of the level of experience of respondents shows that there is a range from first year of supervision, with one Honours and one Masters student, current, to 18 years experience with 13 Masters and 10 Doctoral students completed and a similar number current.

Questions asked had to do with supervisors' perceptions of the role of the Thesis Chair, their expectations of that role, how often they would like contact with the Chair and under what circumstances. Respondents were also asked to make suggestions as to how the Chair might nurture new supervisors. By sorting the responses into categories based on themes the following topics have now become the focus of attention.

Standards of supervision

The notion was expressed that one usually has only one model of supervision, namely from one's own experience as a research student, and there was a general desire, from the less experienced supervisors, to have some mentoring and feedback on their work.


Respondents saw a significant part of the Chair's role was to act as mediator when disputes or difficulties arose, either between supervisor and student or between staff.


There was a variety of requests for the Chair to provide ways of reviewing supervisory practices, giving advice and generally mentoring supervisors.

Bureaucratic procedures

All respondents expected the Chair to deal with all bureaucratic procedures and to facilitate the passage of students through the entire process. As part of this a number of respondents indicated that they believed it was the Chair's task to ensure that students met the deadlines.

Two respondents made special mention of the needs of non-English speaking background students and had requirements of the Chair in that regard.

Reflection and action

Generally supervisors had a fair notion of my role, although there was some variability in how much they believed I should be involved in some of the more mundane tasks.

The responses led me to review the procedures that I had in place. I have documents that provide both supervisors and students with information in regard to their process through the system, these are now being revised. One omission came to light in that a new supervisor had been in the School for nine months and I had failed to provide him with this useful information. Procedures have now been put in place to ensure this does not happen again. An outcome of the project is that a handbook for supervisors will be prepared and more frequent meetings will be implemented in 1997.

FINDINGS: Issues 'Unearthed' and Redressed by the Researcher/Supervisors

The four preceding case studies have presented a summary of the foci, processes and outcomes-to-date of each of the action research projects. They have raised many issues in relation to the research supervision process. In summarising, these issues and the way in which some of them have been redressed, are listed below.
    Case One:
  1. Managing the supervisor/candidate relationship - developing the skill of gauging when to exert and when to retract pressure;
  2. Assisting with analysis - working through a sample to establish the appropriate method;
  3. The writing process - the need to write incrementally;

    Case Two:

  4. Controversies and conflicting goals in supervising research carried out with agencies - the need to elicit explicit social/political information at the outset;
  5. Vested interests - the need to establish them at the outset;
  6. The need for supervisors to listen to and trust their intuition;

    Case Three:

  7. The difference between facilitating and being facilitated - the need to disassociate;
  8. The need for a "critical friend" in the workplace;
  9. The importance of seeking and judging the status of feedback - feedback is shaped by relationships;

    Case Four:

  10. Supervising in the way we were supervised;
  11. Requests for mentoring for supervisors;
  12. The Thesis Chair as mediator of disputes and difficulties;
  13. Requests for the thesis chair to help with reviewing and developing aspects of supervision;
  14. The Thesis Chair as handler of bureaucratic procedures - an in-School handbook for supervisors.

Outcomes to date

Through this project each of the supervisor/researchers has made substantial progress in enhancing their practice in research supervision. Furthermore, the strategic efforts by project members to generate interest and expertise amongst colleagues has increased the number of lecturers who are influenced by the project. And plans are in place for this collegial activity to increase in 1997 through expanding the discussion group, continuing to disseminate and publish the action research findings, continuing to reflect on the supervision process with their respective postgraduate candidates and keeping the channels of contact open with the candidates' group. Finally, the intention to continue with collegial activity in 1997 also means that the project has the potential to influence the culture of the University, developing a unique postgraduate experience based on high quality supervisor/student working relationships within reflective supervisory practice.


Barker, M., Chung, A., Hall, J., Low, J. & Shoebridge, A. (1995). Improving the quality of postgraduate supervision at Curtin University. Report on project supported by Quality Fund 1994 -1995, Curtin University: Western Australia.

Curtin University (1995). Curtin University of Technology Quality Portfolio. Perth: Curtin University.

Kemmis, S. & McTaggart, R. (1985). The action research planner. Deakin University Press, Geelong: Victoria, Australia.

Hall, S. & Exon, A. (1996). Supporting research supervision: Action research support groups for dyads of postgraduate supervisors and students. Paper presented at the conference, Quality in postgraduate research - is it happening? Adelaide: South Australia.

Reeves, P. & Robins, J. (1995). Quality fund 1994 -1995, Postgraduate supervision project report, current practice: needs and opportunities, facilities and resources, institutional and organisational questions. Teaching Learning Group, Curtin University: Western Australia.

Parlett, M. & Hamilton, D. (1972). Evaluation as illumination: A new approach to the study of innovatory programs. Occasional paper No 9, University of Edinburgh: Centre for Research in the Educational Sciences.

Curtin University of Technology Teaching Learning Group (1995). The Curtin University of Technology strategic plan for teaching and learning. Curtin University: Perth, Western Australia.


  1. Because most of the six students were mature-aged professionals, and some were members of staff at Curtin, the term 'candidates' was chosen as being more appropriate than 'students'.

Please cite as: Hall, S., Coates, R., Paola Ferroni, P., Pearson, M., Trinidad, S. (1997). Tilling the field: Action research in postgraduate supervision. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p132-143. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/hall2.html

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