Practice-Based Research…Again

We had another departmental discussion on practice-based (and practice-led…the difference is subtle, but definite) research today.

The first time I heard GH’s talk on the subject, it was amongst a bunch of postgrads, most of whom were conducting some sort of practice-led/based research, who all stared up at the PowerPoint a bit slackjawed. Not much discussion sparked.

But today the discussion was held amongst staff and a couple of the PhD candidates who are venturing into this realm. A lot more came out of it this time:

It was interesting to note how traditional academics view this area of research. To them, it seems nebulous, hard to pin down, and somewhat arbitrary. Practice-based research, in particular, gave them difficulty. Do we want PhD candidates who have talent in a creative area, but who have little or no critical thinking capabilities? How do you evaluate a creative piece for PhD qualification? How does simply producing a creative piece contribute new knowledge to the field if it is not experimental, and if the critical element is simply an analysis of the piece itself according to established theory?

I think these are great questions, and as practice-based researchers, we can’t ignore them. After all, it’s this sort of rigorous application of standards that will improve the field, raise the bar, as it were. Many of us get laughed at by “traditional” academics and scientists, exactly for these reasons. Why would you want to pay tens of thousands of dollars/pounds to get a PhD for writing a novel or designing a game, when you can do it for free? Just for the slip of paper?

For one, it’s not just about the creative talent. As the field of practice-based research has been established, it seems a great majority of dissertation submissions have been an attempt at just that: “look at my awesome novel, let me tell you why it’s awesome.” The dissertations are sometimes just a novel and a glorified book report of that novel. I agree with those who think this isn’t quite PhD worthy. MA worthy, certainly MFA worthy (they don’t have MFAs in the UK, and I’ll get to that in a minute), but not PhD worthy. For that level of accomplishment, I think you truly should be contributing something new to the field, something different, something you can’t do without the influence of other researchers, discussion, input, and extensive research.

How do you evaluate a creative piece for a PhD? That I really don’t know – I’m probably not at that level yet. I know how I do it for undergraduate classes, and I imagine some sort of extrapolation would go into it. I don’t think, however, that the viva is the place to establish these criteria – at that point, you either award the doctorate or you don’t. We need to go way back to the beginning of the PhD study, back to the application and research proposal if need be. Make sure our doctoral researchers are starting off on the right path to begin with, and through supervision make sure the research is approaching the standards we want to hit. Otherwise, we’re judging these candidates unfairly.

From my vantage point as someone who has studied for terminal degrees in both the US and the UK, I can see why each has gone the direction it has. The US could be seen as a bit more rigorous in terms of its PhD standards – almost no university in the States offers a PhD in writing, and the Master of Fine Arts is considered the terminal degree. The art is the thing there, much less the academic quality.

In the UK, they have no MFA. They have no degree path you can follow to simply be a better writer. You go from undergrad to MA, which is of course a research degree, even if it can be practice-based, then to PhD. The critical component is always there, but it seems to me these ideals of practice-based research are not quite reaching many of these research students. They often see the course as a dichotomy, heavily weighted toward the creative piece, with a critical analysis tacked on the end. In an ideal research world, the two should be concurrent, feeding into one another, reflecting one another.

As mentors, as teachers, as artists, we need to continually make research students aware of these ideals, of these goals. It’s a new way of thinking, a new way of studying, especially for those indoctrinated by 20 years of traditional education, with creative and critical distinctly separate. We also need to have more than rhetoric and definitions – we need to be able to hand out samples of these standards so they can be open to the possibilities of practice-based and -led research. Which means those of us who are embarking on our projects in these early days of the field need to push back against tradition, against those academics who want to slot us into chapters and reference lists and familiar and comfortable dissertations to sit on dusty shelves.

Pioneers, we are. Go forth and conquer.

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