Tara Brabazon: Research for research’s sake

The point of a Masters or PhD is not to create art but to build evidence, writes Tara Brabazon

October 9, 2009

Conversations about academic workloads are as common as finding a dirty coffee cup in the staffroom. No matter how intricate the algorithm or expansive the spreadsheet, particular scholarly tasks always slip off the screen. These include teaching preparation, creation of online content, developing distance education materials, open-day organisation and assisting first-year students who have not managed to leave the bar to collect a student card or locate the library.

At this time of year, I always – to cite C.J. Dennis – “dips me lid” to a special group of co-workers: the supervisors and examiners of MA and MSc dissertations. These academics embody the invisible workload. They supervise students throughout the summer, sharpen thesis statements, verify methods and maintain postgraduate motivation. In the rugby scrum to submission, these supervisors put their own research aside to ensure that students meet the deadline.

These scholars are unusual because their academic year does not end. The busiest period of thesis submission coincides with the moment new students arrive on campus. As one group races into our offices with energy and excitement, the other cohort drifts away from us. It is an emotional process. The “super year” of MA and MSc – composed of 15 months – creates great camaraderie. Just when it feels as if these students have moved permanently into our consciousness, they submit their theses and go on with their lives.

The contribution made to universities in the summer “break” by students, supervisors and examiners in masters-level programmes is lost in the rush to leave the campus after the final examination board. Managerial attention is focused on funding council-monitored doctoral completions or the standard of undergraduate degrees as judged by student satisfaction. However, our masters courses are instructive in a bigger issue: doctoral candidature management.

Masters-level education is a canary in the scholarly mine. This is not a casual metaphor. Future trajectories for research degrees are mapped in MA and MSc programmes. The battle between intellectualism and vocationalism is at its most staunch. The conflict between staff’s multiple responsibilities and the needs of students is at its greatest intensity. It is instructive to ponder the impact and application of these undervalued degrees.

My major intellectual interest – that occupies my mind while stir-frying vegetables, cleaning the bath and vacuuming stairs – is how to create equivalence between diverse modes of doctorates. There are four distinct doctoral programmes in our universities: the “traditional” PhD comprising 80,000 to 100,000 words of text; a practice-led qualification; the PhD by prior publication; and an array of professional doctorates. The Doctor of Creative Arts (DCA) wavers unstably between professional and practice-led projects.

The fundamental question is how to construct regulations and protocols that acknowledge this diversity but also build a “culture of equivalence” in examination procedures and outcomes. In other words, how do we ensure that a PhD in one form is equal in scholarly merit to another? The answer is – in reality – that such a goal is almost impossible to achieve. Regulations may be precise. Supervisors can be trained with professionalism. Still, there are specificities in these doctoral modes that are methodological and theoretical but also raise concerns about scholarly rigour.

This disquiet has increased over the past 30 years. When humanities doctoral candidates entered an archive filled with documents to construct a print-based thesis, assessed by examiners who were previously evaluated through the same process, the criteria and expectations were clear. Strange results still emerged in reports, but the debate was triggered by doubts in approach, rigour, repeatability, bias, theoretical perspective, method or the absence of a key monograph.

With a range of non-print-based media cited as source material, a gap emerged between the type of evidence cited and the document presented for examination. Both my honours dissertation on the Goon Show and my MA investigating The Beatles included a sonic appendix featuring “aural footnotes” at the end of the written work. These were submitted when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, so the auditory material was presented on an analogue cassette packed in a foam capsule at the conclusion of the dissertation. The (traditional but inspirational) historians who examined these dissertations treated the tapes as a quirky extra, adding a sonic element to research about radio and popular music. Yet the written dissertations remained the core documents evaluated.

This was a transitional period, building on many debates about media choice in the presentation of oral history research. The translation of interviews into print bled meaning and emotion from the testimony. Although the goal of oral history was to render the invisible visible and “reclaim the voice”, the sonic texture was often lost – and certainly edited – for the page. Such debates foreshadowed new concerns as popular cultural studies candidates started to enter doctoral programmes. How were these scholars to prove to examiners – in form as much as content – that they understood the complexities of popular music beyond lyrics, dance culture beyond a secular hagiography of a great DJ, and film beyond the auteur?

As these debates bubbled through popular cultural studies, practice-led research started to generate controversy. There were many reasons for the disquiet, but those of us who have been in doctoral examination boards know that split decisions between examiners were and are very common in this mode of PhD. I have a theory for this stark division in results. The wider the gap between media submitted for a doctorate, the greater the likelihood of a variation or “split” result from examiners. Safe theses reference printed sources from established archives and constitute an original contribution to knowledge based on footnoted evidence. More risky are the candidatures that mobilise popular cultural sources. Most challenging are those doctorates composed of two or more separate objects or artefacts, as it is necessary to co-ordinate them into a streamlined analysis and argument.

There are other reasons for differential results between doctoral modes. Practice-led PhDs are flooded with assumptions about art, cultural value and quality. It is as if postmodernism never happened. Too often supervisors, examiners and managers of postgraduate programmes confuse and conflate “art” and “technical” skill. Competency in a medium – words, sound and/or vision – must be a condition of entry into any candidature. The capacity to abide by scholarly protocols is a similarly crucial imperative. Too often, claims for “art” sideline a confirmation of academic standards.

PhDs, practice-led or otherwise, may be described as “art” outside a university. That is not a designation or label for an examiner to use. In procedural terms, candidates submit two or more components that – when combined – create an original contribution to knowledge. The “object” is tethered to the exegesis and has no independent role beyond developing evidence.

Estelle Barrett offers an informative, if disturbing, statement about “creative arts inquiry”: “we propose that artistic practice be viewed as the production of knowledge or philosophy in action”. There is a slippage between method and epistemology in such a maxim, along with a confusion of evidence and interpretation, object production and knowledge production. Even if her statement is taken as true, then an odd relationship emerges between the resultant exegesis and the artistic practice that has “produced knowledge”. The focus is on the creation of “art”, rather than the scholarship that framed and scaffolded the research process. Put bluntly, doctorates that investigate the “how” of research are of a lower intellectual order than projects investigating “why”.

One way to ensure that assumptions about cultural value do not mask a discussion of academic value is to transform the vocabulary of practice-led research from “art” to “artefact”. Through such a shift, students will have transparency in the evaluative criteria of their examination process. The artefact is not assessed in isolation. The exegesis is not evaluated independently. The relationship between the two elements configures the research project. Too often, practice-led candidates prepare for their oral examination thinking that they can talk about “their art” for two hours.

I have handled this problem with brutal clarity during orientation days for new candidates. If a student would like to make a film, then I wish them well. I tell them to walk off the campus. Make a film. Do not assume that a film is inevitably and intrinsically “research”. It may be, but the scholar must make the case. Making a film is not the same as constructing a doctorate. A film may be “great” and “important”, but it will not necessarily be relevant to a PhD programme. This premise is as true for words as for vision. Because a student can write does not mean they can write a doctorate.

If postgraduates use mixed media in their research, then they must ensure that they manage the movement between these platforms technically, theoretically and methodologically. They must ensure that all elements of the submitted doctorate are co-ordinated into a tight, precise and convincing intellectual bundle that constitutes research. Claims for “artistic quality” are not enough.

When the language of practice-led research transforms from “art” to “artefact”, and exegeses explore the “why” of scholarship rather than “the how”, then there is greater parity between doctoral modes, facilitating rigour through examination. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Frascati Manual from 2002 offered careful and significant advice for “experimental development” in research. It supported “creative work undertaken on a systematic basis in order to increase the stock of knowledge… and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications”. The choice of language in this statement is instructive. The aim is to create artefacts (a “stock of knowledge”) that constitute new information. Chicken stock is not a meal. When added to soup, it provides flavour. Art is not a doctorate. It can create a new way to think about evidence. It is the basis of research. It is not the research.

Carole Gray, a great supporter of practice-led research, described this type of scholarship as “initiated in practice, where questions, problems, challenges are identified and formed by the needs of practice and practitioners; and secondly, that the research strategy is carried out through practice, using predominantly methodologies and specific methods familiar to us as practitioners”. If research is defined as that which we do not know but are motivated to discover, then Gray’s definition is inadequate. She has forgotten that PhD students are part of higher education. All modes of doctorate must slot into the regulations of a university and demonstrate parity with other equivalent qualifications. They are not about “the needs of practice and practitioners”. Consider postgraduates in business schools investigating the contemporary banking system. While their research may be of interest to the financial sector, should it be shaped by the “needs of bankers and banking”, or criteria valued by the international academy? The relevance of “gown” to “town” (or “academy” to “city”) may emerge. It may not.

Those of us involved in candidature management must log the difference between “technical skills” with a camera, software or hardware and mouthing (theoretically and politically unsustainable) claims about the value of “art”. Neither popular culture nor high culture is research. They may offer evidence, models, modes or metaphors. But the mechanism for connecting an object with a scholarly environment should be stated, not assumed.

Masters-level dissertations are taking on these challenges and providing correctives to problems with “practice” and “research”. The use by postgraduates of Web 2.0 environments, Flip video cameras, zoom microphones and other mobile devices are capturing data in new ways and summoning innovative dialogues between text, sound and vision. Oral history programmes conducted by my MA students have been enhanced, blended, augmented and transformed by this theoretical and technological hybridity. They have tested the parameters of auditory literacies through movements between sounds, words and ideas. Scholars investigating city imaging constitute precise links between urban sociology, photography, moving images and soundscapes. None of the resultant theses separated the object from the exegesis or justified its work through claims of artistic quality.

These students did not choose between a “traditional” dissertation or an artefact and exegesis. We now have a continuum of research opportunities where students create objects with their mobile phones and recorders and read old theory through new media. Their use of 2.0 platforms confirms that definitions of technical expertise are changing. It has never been easier to use a camera or editing software. Students are not creating the next Fellini or Kraftwerk masterpiece. That is not their aim. The point of research is not the creation of art but the building of evidence.

As I look back on the last year of MA teaching and forward to the next, I know that these special students are building new knowledge for new times. It is important that this research is visible. A trajectory for our doctoral programmes is scouted by these short, challenging and passionate masters dissertations. Students are agitating conservative notions of art to build integrated models of writing, filming, referencing, recording and thinking. Only by understanding what our MA students are teaching us may we apply their lessons to those who follow.

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