Footnotes and fancy-free

We should teach PhD students how to balance the conflicting demands of scholarship and dissemination, says Peter Barry

November 27, 2008



PhD supervision files on my computer were under the heading "research" until a couple of years ago. Now I have them under "courses and teaching".

Supervising a PhD isn't a course, but it is teaching, although deciding how and what to teach at this level is increasingly difficult, mainly because of the rapidly changing demands of the profession for which the PhD is supposedly (and among other things) a preparation.

The problems arise from the uncertainty surrounding the question of who and what postgraduate work is for, and this is especially so in the humanities. The dual-support system for research means that research is supported both by the research councils and by "QR", or quality-related, funding distributed by the research assessment exercise (RAE) and its successor, the research excellence framework (REF).

But the two partners in dual support are pulling in opposite directions. The RAE pursues an ideal of pure academic excellence. This is based on the assumption that research of four-star quality is recognisable as such by competent peers in its own field, who alone are able to decide that a piece of research is, according to RAE documentation, "an essential point of reference in its field or subfield and makes a contribution of which every serious researcher in the field ought to be aware".

On this measure, the opinion of the wider world is of no account at all; the gold standard is what a small group of fully competent fellow professionals think. Hence, the accolade "international" (which is applied to top-quality research) need not - rather bizarrely - "assume any necessary international exposure in terms of publication or reception". Parodying this stance (although only slightly), we can call it the "Ivory Tower" standard of research excellence.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) measure of excellence is completely different. To receive grant funding, AHRC applicants must be aware of the demands of "knowledge transfer", which means "interaction with other audiences".

Applicants must keep in mind "the economic, social and cultural benefit of the UK", and produce research that is "widely disseminated" and seeks "interaction with other audiences, including the public and voluntary sectors". The example given is "knowledge interaction with the museums and galleries and heritage sectors" (all these phrases are taken from the AHRC's own mission statements). The AHRC measure of research excellence, then, can be called (again with slight parodic intent) the "Shopping Mall" standard.

Both these measures of research excellence have merit, and both have a valid claim on our attention. But that is not the point. The point is that it is enormously difficult to meet both standards simultaneously. If we consider postgraduate work in the light of these conflicting standards, the pedagogical problems become apparent. The implication of the Ivory Tower standard is that the goal of the PhD is to secure the approval of one's "field or subfield" by achieving the pure scholarly excellence that only fellow subfielders can truly measure or appreciate.

Seeking to meet this standard will involve writing and arguing in a particular way; for instance, densely referenced and footnoted work will be required, and there will be constant detailed engagement with the arguments of predecessors in the field. Relatively little attention will be given to the need to write in such a way as to interest and inform people beyond the subfield.

By contrast, the Shopping Mall standard demands a piece of work that seeks to extend the readership beyond the existing subfield - for instance, by making connections with other fields and subfields, and foregrounding the wider disciplinary and interdisciplinary implications of the local and specialised investigation that has been undertaken.

That kind of work will probably need to be less densely referenced, somewhat brisker in pace and less formally academic in tone. It might be thought that there is no problem about all this, and that obviously the thesis should be predominantly Ivory Tower, while the subsequent book-of-the-thesis should be predominantly Shopping Mall. But a moment's thought will show that this is not a possible solution.

The PhD is an apprenticeship; when it is successfully concluded, candidates rightly assume that they must be doing what the profession requires. Most will continue to hold those values and write in that way for the whole of their careers. It makes no sense to tell postgraduates, as soon as they have doffed the red robe and funny hat on graduation day, that from now on they are in a completely different ball game.

There is a further (and related) anomaly: research funding bodies such as the AHRC devote an increasing proportion of their funds to large thematic programmes with such titles as "global uncertainties", "religion and society", "dynamics of ageing" and so on. These schemes seek to fund collaborative and interdisciplinary work, putting increasing pressures on researchers in all fields to move in that direction.

This is very much at odds with the nature of postgraduate work as it is organised at present, which typically provides a three- to four-year apprenticeship in individually based, monodisciplinary work. The funding bodies have been saying recently that PhD work is in fact collaborative because supervisor and student are collaborators on the project.

Likewise, many humanities PhD students claim that their work is interdisciplinary. But supervisor and student are not collaborating in the same sense as co-researchers collaborate on a joint project, and few students are jointly supervised by academics from other disciplines. So the urgent question is this: why spend a year on a monodisciplinary MA then three or four years more on an individual monodisciplinary PhD if the future is collaborative and interdisciplinary? If interdisciplinary collaboration is so self-evidently good - which is what we are constantly being told - why wait until postdoc level or beyond to get started on it?

As PhD teachers, how should we react to this changing situation? First, it might be wise to try to edge the PhD training a little closer to a position midway between the Ivory Tower and the Shopping Mall. We should constantly encourage students to find a way of balancing the conflicting demands of scholarship and dissemination, a balance that might usefully be encouraged by a modification of the examining process.

The external examiner would continue to be the "scholarly scrutineer", as at present, ensuring that the thesis is a genuine contribution to knowledge in the field or subfield. But the role of the internal examiner could be modified. At present, this person is usually a member of the candidate's own department, and merely provides a pale shadow of the external examiner's subfield expertise, with no distinctive examining brief of their own.

This kind of internal examiner might be replaced by a "dissemination scrutineer", whose job would be to ensure that the thesis communicates beyond the subfield, meets basic criteria of readability and accessibility, and establishes links beyond its micro-specialist area. They would be from outside the department but within the same faculty of the candidate's university. Internal examiners would be paid the same small fee as external examiners, with whom they would thereby gain a notional equivalence of status.

The effect of this change might be to close the gap a little between the thesis and the book that most candidates hope eventually to develop from it. If the examining system were adjusted in this way, something would have been done to reconcile the conflicting demands of the Ivory Tower and the Shopping Mall, and it might then be possible to devise a pedagogy that would reflect that change.

A corresponding adjustment to the departmental research culture might also be helpful. At present, most departments put on a programme of research papers by internal and external speakers, and these set the ideal and are the example of the department's research aspirations.

In my experience, good as these sessions usually are, the example set is nearly always mainly Ivory Tower, with speakers often reading from a current chapter, with little attempt to situate the material within any broader context of inquiry. Thus, medieval papers do not provide much that could interest modernists, and vice versa, and the material often seems more suited to a subfield or single-author colloquium than to the broader audience that a departmental research series actually represents.

A series that set out to be more balanced about the opposing demands of scholarship and dissemination would be based on prior discussion within the department about what the programme is seeking to achieve. If a change were made, the invitations sent to both internal and external speakers would need to be more specific about what is wanted than is usually the case.

Along with a modified form of examining and a modified programme of research papers, there would be a "supplemental pedagogy", with specific attention given to the writing process itself. There have recently been changes in thinking about how to teach postgraduates, but much of it has centred on the notion of "research skills", as if we could supply these in advance of the experience of doing research. But just as we can't learn "swimming skills" before getting into the water and trying to swim, so in research work it isn't really possible to learn how to solve a problem in advance of encountering it.

In this way, an emphasis on the writing process itself seems more promising, and at my own institution this takes the form of an annual postgraduate residential writing school (organised by my colleague John Morgan). It brings together postgraduates from all faculties and has input from Royal Literary Fund writing fellows, from creative writers and from writing enthusiasts from all over the university.

Often we find that postgraduates have very rigid ideas about writing practice - they believe, for instance, that everything must be meticulously planned before any writing can begin, and that years of investigating, note-taking and data-collecting must come first.

When all the investigatory research is over, they (and often their supervisors) believe that there follows an end-game called "writing up" in which all the actual writing is done over a period of a couple of months. Whether we are in the arts, the sciences, the social sciences or the humanities, this procedure is a recipe for writer's block, panic and breakdown because the more data we accumulate, the more impossible the task of "writing it all up" begins to seem.

Instead, we encourage a "write-as-you-go" policy, in which data and findings are converted into real sentences, paragraphs and draft chapters while the investigation is still in progress. Students, we believe, should write on their topic every day as a matter of course so that writing ceases to be something fearsome and instead turns into their best means of thinking about their topic and analysing concepts.

The aim is to make the act of writing the place where exciting realisations, and even discoveries, are just as likely to be made as in the laboratory, in the archive or out on field-work. The work we do with postgraduate writers also includes an emphasis on readers.

Most postgraduates write exclusively for an imagined external examiner figure, a being unlike any I have met, who is a kind of super-reader, impervious to boredom, who can never have too much detail or too many examples, who never needs reminding what has been established so far, and can see without being told which way the argument is going. They anticipate that this figure will question them minutely and relentlessly on Judgment Day about the scholarly detail of particular points and data. This can happen, but a much more common style of questioning is to ask the kind of questions that lay people would ask - they want to know what it all amounts to, why it matters, what, in a nutshell, has been discovered, and how it alters the viewpoint we already have.

So we sometimes ask students to write for a different audience (for instance, to explain a crux in their research to a friend in a different faculty or a teacher who taught them at A level or high school), and we ask them to do it without footnotes or references. The point of the last stipulation is that much academic writing seems to hamper its own flow by footnoting, quoting or citing in almost every sentence. Its own argument never gathers any proper momentum or direction, like a car being driven with the brakes half on.

Constant self-interruption ("as X has argued", "as Y points out" and so on) makes it seem that the subject is being viewed through a dense wire mesh, and the sentences seem to have been written disjointedly, one by one, in isolation, with long pauses in between to check references and quotations.

Of course, there are particular sections in most forms of academic writing that have to be densely annotated, but it is ruinous to the development of good style and conceptual fluency to give students the impression that academic writing, in order to be "scholarly", should be like this most of the time.

So if we are asked whether a postgraduate pedagogy exists, we will have to admit that it doesn't - yet. But we need one, and these are just a few of the considerations we need to be thinking about. l


Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.