NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

A case for communicative aesthetics: Challenging perceptions of the PhD in contemporary creative arts

This brief piece responds to the questions of how the PhD might be re-conceived and what necessary combination of changes might ensure its ongoing quality and appeal to a new generation of creative-arts scholars keen to challenge established boundaries in the public domain. In the context of communication and creative arts, aesthetics has something significant to do in relationship to generating and communicating research findings and presenting or challenging the facts of a matter.

By Associate Professor Toija Cinque

This brief piece responds to the questions of how the PhD might be re-conceived and what necessary combination of changes might ensure its ongoing quality and appeal to a new generation of creative-arts scholars keen to challenge established boundaries in the public domain. In the context of communication and creative arts, aesthetics has something significant to do in relationship to generating and communicating research findings and presenting or challenging the facts of a matter. Where it does so, a mode of aesthetic practice emerges as communicative aesthetics and can be used to draw attention to a number of dynamic options for the PhD including: (1) capacity for established creative-arts practitioners with an interest in, and capacity for, scholarly writing and research to complete a PhD by Prior Publication in Creative Arts; (2) examination by either  performance, exhibition or oral presentation (3) multi-discipline supervision teams including respect for what co-supervision brings in terms of increased expertise, support for the candidate and supervisors themselves. Underscored is prioritising epistemic jostling between different methods of/tools for interpretation that untangles official stories and pulls the loose threads from the fabrics of socio-cultural events and “things” to culminate in new modes of knowledge production and reception.

(1) PhD by Prior Publication in the Creative Arts

By way of support for the Viva Voce, its incorporation into the examination process arguably extends the degree’s academic rigour and develops candidate confidence when they are required to verbally discuss and defend their work to experts in the field.

The PhD by Prior Publication is a mode of candidature for exceptional candidates with the necessary industry expertise and experience (West, 2020; Butt, 2016). Deakin University introduced the PhD by Prior Publication in the Creative Arts (portfolio of creative product plus critical exegesis) as a sub-category of the existing PhD by Publication options in 2016 (see West 2018). The format allows those for whom the usual path to a higher degree by research was unavailable for reasons of gender, race, and/or work circumstances to be recognised for their creative outputs. The PhD by Prior Publication in the Creative Arts candidate is automatically given three years of credit to complete in one year. It is understood that these candidates bring with them knowledge gained through long-standing experience of their field.

Candidates are required to write a critical exegesis of some twenty-five to fifty thousand words to accompany their portfolio of creative product during their candidature for examination. Their creative practice might comprise the devising, development, production and often empirical analysis from audience/participant data-gathering and testing. The exegesis is a theory-driven and self-reflective critique of the creative practice component. For its part, the exegesis needs to address a research question or gap in knowledge in a scholarly manner, while in parallel, also incorporate an engagement with the accompanying portfolio of works/creative product that sets the outputs it samples within the context of the candidate’s career as a practitioner, professional artist and thinker for whom practice is a key method of inquiry (Balevičiūtė, 2018). 

A starting point for further elaboration is the distinction made between practice-based and practice-led research and Candy (2006:1-2) offers by way of detail that:

if a creative artefact is the basis of the contribution to knowledge, the research is practice-based and the research leads primarily to new understandings about practice. This allows practitioners to make a clear distinction between research on creative practice and research through creative practice. [my emphasis]

A trans-disciplinary and methodologically distinct approach to knowledge production is supported through a collaborative-supervision model. This … works with the primary goal to increase the impact and innovation potential of the knowledge outputs produced by PhD students.

Building from this understanding of practice is the Practitioner as Researcher (PaR) method that draws on experience to weave it into a study that meets academic standards (Dissanayake, 2021). These two components (theory and creativity) are interconnected such that when the PaR method involves a research project, practice is a key method of inquiry (Balevičiūtė, 2018). Taking it further, creative practitioners as researchers probably commit more labour and a broader range of skills in order to engage in a multi-modal research inquiry than do their counterparts following more traditional research processes (Nelson, 2013: 17-18).

(2) Research Process to Examination: Creative Artifacts, Work In Situ and the Vive Voce

While Deakin candidates may undertake the conventional written thesis or thesis by publication options, the institution (as do a number of others) affords alternative structures including a creative work plus exegesis or folio format. Accordingly, options for examination vary in the creative arts to include examination by exegesis plus performance or exhibition of creative artifacts wherein examiners are in physical attendance.

As it stands then, multiple protocols must be applied to the exegesis, and in the end, the examiner’s judgement must be both objective (how good is the scholarship) as well as reflective (how good is the creative artifact). The matter does not rest there, because the Deakin PhD also requires proof that the two parts are interconnected, that they cohere and show an overall unity. Deakin Alumni can attest to the success of such a program, but there could be an additional dimension to examination.

At Deakin University candidates undertaking a PhD over the typical course of three-and-a-half years are required at the nine-month point to present their work-in-progress verbally to an academic panel in a Confirmation of Candidature colloquium. For their part, candidates enrolled in the PhD by Prior Publication format also participate in a live progress meeting after four months. Yet, many Australian universities or their departments have a non Vive Voce model (a live, oral presentation and defence of the thesis) for examination at work’s end.

By way of support for the Viva Voce, its incorporation into the examination process arguably extends the degree’s academic rigour and develops candidate confidence when they are required to verbally discuss and defend their work to experts in the field. From empirical research conducted by Holbrook, Bourke, and Lovat et al (2011-2014) that specifically relates to connection with their peers, are the greater opportunities for collegial exchange during, and professional connection after, a Vive Voce examination. It additionally acts as a form of closure to the research process for students. The “Viva” is based around the examiners’ questions and the final outcome of the Viva reflects the decision of the university (or universities where there is a cotutelle arrangement in place offering a joint doctorate between at least two institutions in different countries).

(3) Collaborative Supervision

My case for the methods/tools that embrace communicative aesthetics turns now to the provocation that a trans-disciplinary and methodologically distinct approach to knowledge production is supported through a collaborative-supervision model. This collaborative-supervision model works with the primary goal to increase the impact and innovation potential of the knowledge outputs produced by PhD students. By way of one example, I offer my own involvement with a research group at Deakin University that is comprised of a cross-disciplinary supervisory team; I am a creative arts and education-led supervisor with one other colleague on a funded PhD project with eight additional supervisors from the respective fields of Science, Engineering, Information Technology, Health Sciences, Business and Law, and Ecology and the Environment. The project further collaborates with citizen scientists and has additionally attracted industry funding. The candidate has one or two associate supervisors per chapter and one principal supervisor leading. Each chapter’s team meets with the candidate for their expertise at regular intervals. The whole cross-disciplinary supervisory team meets periodically to discuss the overarching project. The outcomes along with the doctoral degree (research) will be published chapters co-written with the candidate and supervisors as well as an algorithm plus camera device to be deployed by industry that detects and categorises wildlife. The candidate is progressing well and actively meeting key milestones towards completion in a timely manner (hear the candidate’s testimony with regard to her PhD journey in conservation science).  

Such inter/trans-disciplinary team-supervision breaks free of the disciplinary “silo” to build from an enriched research ecosystem by drawing from different, but complementary fields. 

In summary, to be clear, where the PhD by Publication is 3 years (work is completed during candidature) the PhD by Prior Publication is one year (work is already published, but an accompanying exegesis is written). Deakin University’s School of Communication and Creative Arts (SCCA) has offered a PhD by Prior Publication option since 2016 to creative professionals including novelists, visual artists, documentary film-makers, public artists, animators, cross-artform practitioners and a recent candidate completing an exegesis to accompany virtual production outputs. This thesis format has validity and currency in the SCCA disciplines for the right, outstanding applicant, and their exceptional supervision team. Afterall, they need to convey a weighty project in (at least) one year, support creative endeavours as well as the writing craft, while navigating in parallel institutional expectations. Essential is clarity around the creative outputs to be produced and scope for their examination at project’s end, as well as consistent communication with regards to the guidelines, processes, and support services for applicants and their supervisors. To conclude and accent, contemporary universities need to turn their attention to the kinds of knowledge being made, the investigative mode/s (and the support mechanisms) that underpin such, and what important claims to truth are being asserted by creative artists and their collaborative others.

 

References

Balevičiūtė, Ramunė. 2018. ‘Artistic Research as a Quest of the New Knowledge. On Practice-Based Research in Acting’. In Oana Andreica and Alin Olteanu (Eds.), Readings in Numanities, 131-143. Springer, Berlin.

Butt, Maggie. 2013. “One I made earlier: on the PhD by publication.” TEXT Special Issue 22. Examination of doctoral degrees in creative arts: process, practice and standards. Eds. Jen Webb, Donna Lee Brien and Sandra Burr, October http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue22/Butt.pdf Accessed: 20 June 2022.

Candy, Linda. 2006. ‘Practice based research: A guide’. CCS Report, November, 1(2), 1-19.

Dissanayake, Charitha. 2021. Tuning-in to the migrant voice: Developing a new radio program format for ethnic listeners in Australia. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Deakin University.

Holbrook, Allyson., Bourke, Sid., Lovat, Terry., Kiley, Margaret., Paltridge, Brian., Starfield, Sue. (2011-2014). ‘Cross National Viva Study: A cross-national study of the relative impact of an oral component on PhD examination quality, language and practice’. ARC Discovery Project (DP110103007). Available at: https://www.newcastle.edu.au/research/centre/sorti/research/cross-national-viva-study Accessed: 24 May 2022.

Nelson, Robin. 2013. Practice as Research in the Arts: Principles, Protocols, Pedagogies, Resistances. Springer, Berlin.

West, Patrick. 2020. ‘The PhD by prior publications in the Creative Arts at Deakin University: Advancing industry engagement and social justice outcomes in the doctoral degree (research)’, TEXT: Journal of writing and writing courses, 24, 1 (April): 1-21. Available at: http://www.textjournal.com.au/april20/west.pdf Accessed: 29 May 2022.

West, Patrick. 2018. ‘A PhD in a third of the time: Deakin University’s PhD by Prior Publications in the Creative Arts’, NTRO, edition 16 (August). Availabale at: https://nitro.edu.au/articles/2018/8/24/a-phd-in-a-third-of-the-time-deakin-universitys-phd-by-prior-publications-in-the-creative-arts Accessed: 16 may 2020.


Toija Cinque is Associate Professor in Communication (Digital Media) in the School of Communication and Creative Arts (SCCA) at Deakin University. Cinque is HDR coordinator for the SCCA since 2021. She is an international and interdisciplinary scholar who combines theoretical and methodological research with applied practice in research areas including Media, Communications and Technology Studies with projects focussed on using immersive screens and digital technologies for educational effect and change. Her recent book publications include Materializing Digital Futures: Touch, Movement, Sound and Vision (Bloomsbury Academic, 2022, co-edited); Changing Media Landscapes: Visual Networking (Oxford University Press, 2015) and Emerging Digital Media Ecologies (forthcoming, Routledge, 2025).

More from this issue

More from this issue

If the debates about the state of the creative arts PhD appear to have slowed down over the last 15 years, it is perhaps not only due to a contraction of the sector, but because the questions being asked of it are no longer in sync with forces driving structural change, whether in the academy, the creative arts, or in the world more broadly.

There is a part to working in a university that I love – every week I get to work with at least one PhD or Masters (Higher Degree in Research or HDR) student. They are often guided by a sense of purpose and eager to find a way to be a part of a university. HDR students bridge the worlds of artistic practice, creativity and scholarship.

I recall thinking, decades ago, the introduction of Higher Degree Research (HDR) programs had reinvigorated the teaching and learning space. These programs added interactions for staff and candidates on topics of exciting diversity toward cultural insights.

Higher degrees by research, in any discipline, are significant but humble undertakings, and bring together a whole set of relationships and expectations, intersecting across and between the candidate researchers, supervisors, institutions, and the wider political economy and policy agenda in relation to research training and its funding. Invested and vested interests can get very partial or biased about the relevance of a research project or practice. The lack of a real or practiced arms-length approach to federal research funding in Australia is a problem.

As we inch closer to the 100-year anniversary of Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, it is timely to remind ourselves that journeys in knowledge are rarely linear or constructed from large waypoints. This great creative work, a masterclass in the relations of part and whole, is roughly contemporary with another creative work which is only now hitting it stride – the doctorate.

Graduate degrees in the performing arts are now well established in Australia, with graduates employed in various university departments. The exegesis/project combination of these degrees holds different weightings across the various universities that offer them … The unfolding of the relationship of writing to practice also occurs in vastly different modes across institutions.

By Professor David Cross — Artists with PhDs is the name of a blog by American art historian James Elkins founded some fifteen years ago to question the value and validity of the PhD in the creative arts. Framed around his “Fourteen Reasons to Mistrust the PhD”, Elkins has over time taken on the role of eminence grise of practice-based PhD scepticism believing that artists of any persuasion, but specifically visual arts should not be undertaking doctoral research.[i]