Troubling the Academic Thesis – Process and Product

Yesterday I went on a little daytrip up to Glasgow. This was a fairly short notice affair after I had spotted a seminar intriguingly titled ‘Troubling the Academic Thesis – An Artist Teacher Public Seminar’ via Twitter. It promised the perspectives of Dr Chris Dooks, whose doctoral work included sound presented on three vinyl records, including sleeve notes with an essay on one side and story-board like image sequences on the other – find out more at his Idioholism website -, and Dr Nick Sousanis, whose thesis was developed and presented as the comic book/graphic novel Unflattening (Nick skyped in from Calgary). It was a really interesting conversation organised by colleagues from the University of the West of Scotland, which provided a lot of food for thought.

Maybe my favourite bit was a quote that Chris shared with us from Knowledge in Policy, a book by Richard Freeman and Steve Sturdy. In the Introduction they write:

Drawing a simple analogy with the three phases of matter – solid, liquid and gas, we argue that knowledge too exists in three phases, which we charaterise as embodied, inscribed and enacted. Furthermore, just as matter may pass from one phase to another, so too can knowledge be transfromed, through various kinds of action, between phases. (Freemand and Sturdy, 2014: 1)

This is surely to become one of the quotes I use all the time when talking about my teaching practice and Tactile Academia. I don’t know whether I agree with the three phases of knowledge they point out (I’m planning to read the book soon to find out), but what I really like about it is that it emphasises the idea, no the necessity, of transformation within knowledge and knowledge making. This is something that came up over the course of the seminar again and again (or maybe it is just something that I picked up on particularly because for me another PhD was in the mix, I am currently reading Stephanie Black’s PhD thesis on Illustration as a form of practice-led research, which highlights similar issues).

So, there is the process of doing research (in this case doctoral study of some kind), and then there is the finished product that is presented. Within the creative practices there is an ongoing discussion as to whether the academically written thesis should be a required product. I think there is a lot of insecurity about writing in particularly and there seem to be some insecurities as to whether one is (or maybe even we all are) ‘good’ enough to claim our place in the academy (whatever that might be). Very often it seems to me that writing in this case is cast as the obstacle – and usually here writing seems to mean putting together an academically written exegesis, ignoring the potential of writing as a process.

This made me think back to my own PhD thesis, which was a straight academic thesis based on some action research done through teaching, so one could argue it was practice-based, but you couldn’t really call it based on creative practice. One of the things this explored was the importance of writing for designers (and design students). While I was writing this I was concerned by a movement that seemed to try to almost get rid of writing within art and design disciplines, putting forward the photo essay and dissertation. I was concerned by this because the process of writing is incredibly useful in order to develop your thinking – as is the process of sketching (as Nick showed by sharing some of the development work of his comic not just with us at the seminar, but also in the notes/appendix section in the published book) and making other work (as Chris talked about). At one point Chris stated that a lot of the words that he wrote didn’t make it into his thesis (he decided to write a thesis to go alongside the work). I was thinking: “well, of course not!” I bet not all of the things he produced as part of his practical exploration made it onto his LPs either. This is the process, the knowledge going through the different phases – only a fraction ends up in the product to be presented. I’m a big fan of the concept of regenring (as explored by Dr Fiona English and mentioned elsewhere on this blog), and I think that works so successfully because it changes the phases of knowledge – but also because it is a process that generates more work, work that will not necessarily end up in a final piece.

So maybe the problem here is this weird ambiguity that seems part and parcel of traditional (Western?) educational systems: there is the learning that is all about the process on the one hand and then there is the ‘thing’ that gets presented and evaluated. At times these seem so apart that they could almost be called a dichotomy. Which is tragic, really.

So maybe we should try to put the process of research first and the ‘product’ (i.e. the physical outcome) last. Because the latter should develop out of the former. Don’t worry about finding an innovative or alternative way of presenting your research, find the most appropriate way of presenting the outcomes of your research. That might be through academic writing, or it might be something else. But on the way there, explore the different phases of knowledge (and here writing can be your friend!) and then see in what phase it seems to want to stay. I would argue that is what both Chris and Nick did.

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