NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Creative PhDs, no one-way street?

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.

By Professor Craig Batty and Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington

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.

We can all recount times when we have chased ideas around corners, through contra flows, and even stop signs, and hit dead ends or – more rarely – on ramps to great ideas. The doctorate is no exception.

If you look at Technology Readiness Level diagrams – which seem to be the buzz in contemporary global thinking about research and research funding – you might be tempted to think of the doctorate, indeed of all research, as the journey from discovery to testing and application from within a university or organisation to the outside world. This linear, inside-out logic plays itself out in words such as “end user”, which dot cautionary tales such as Dr Ian Watt AO’s 2015 review of research policy and funding in Australia.

The Watt Review was strident in its criticism of the lack of end-user (namely industry) engagement with and impact from university research, especially in comparison to other OECD countries. It called for better mechanisms to encourage, facilitate and evaluate research collaboration with industry and other end users, including funding models that would incentivise such work and different approaches to research training. 

We see designers come into the museum space to better understand the visitor experience of the contemporary cultural venue; creative writers apply their craft to narratives of the climate emergency; and artists employ techniques to reveal and critique the politics of social media and people’s sense of self.

The truth is that the world of research has never been so, well, one way. We can all recount times when we have chased ideas around corners, through contra flows, and even stop signs, and hit dead ends or – more rarely – on ramps to great ideas. The doctorate is no exception. Of great assistance in those moments are other people. They – supervisors and those from industry or organisation – are not end users. They are partners in discovery.

Partners not only receive ideas; they also generate them. This makes it possible for us to think of research, and of doctorates, as outside-in or partnered.

While, for some areas of the creative arts (e.g., architecture and design, screen production), industry collaboration and end-user needs might be part and parcel of research and practice, for many the discourse around industry and partnering has signalled a loss of autonomy, a diminishing of critical thought, and a greying-over of blue skies. There are pitfalls and benefits to all of this, of course, but here we ask one key question: what does this mean for the creative doctorate?

At the University of South Australia (UniSA), one of the ways we have tried to navigate this carefully is the introduction of the project-based research degree (PBRD), and a greater emphasis on partnering. This follows earlier work that saw an active recruitment to supervision panels of industry and community partners. This has not been an easy process by any means, and there are still those who might scratch their head at the logic of it. The creative disciplines, though, provide a stronghold example of why it makes sense.

From this approach, we see designers come into the museum space to better understand the visitor experience of the contemporary cultural venue; creative writers apply their craft to narratives of the climate emergency; and artists employ techniques to reveal and critique the politics of social media and people’s sense of self. We can also see filmmakers engaging in community-partnered work to empower their members to navigate social issues; and journalists collaborating with refugees to produce important multimodal stories of survival.

Our point is not to dismiss contemplation, reflection and creative pursuit, or to diminish solo, personal projects. But we do owe it to our communities and fellow citizens to recognise their role in creativity. Innovation does not come solely from the inside or the outside of universities, but travels the laneways, desire paths, loops and roundabouts of a world in which perhaps one hundred years marks the point at which an idea has its time.

 

References

Benjamin, Walter. (2016 [1928]). One-way Street. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McGagh, John, Helene Marsh, Mark Western, Peter Thomas, Andrew Hastings, Milla Mihailova and Matt Wenham. (2016). Review of Australia’s research training system: report for the Australian Council of Learned Academies, at http://www.acola.org.au (accessed 29 May 2022)

Watt, Ian. (2015). Report of the review of research policy and funding arrangements. Canberra, Australia: Department of Education and Training. Available at: https://www.dese.gov.au/review-research-policy-and-funding-arrangements/resources/review-research-policy-and-funding-arrangements-report-november-2015 [accessed 29 May 2022].


Professor Craig Batty is Dean of Research (Creative) at the University of South Australia. He is the author, co-author and editor of 15 books, including Script Development: Critical Approaches, Creative Practices, International Perspectives (2021), The Doctoral Experience: Student Stories from the Creative Arts and Humanities (2019), Writing for the Screen: Creative and Critical Approaches (2nd ed.) (2019) and Screen Production Research: Creative Practice as a Mode of Enquiry (2018). He has published book chapters and journals articles on the topics of screenwriting practice, screenwriting theory, creative practice research and doctoral supervision.

Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington is Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Enterprise at the University of South Australia, and Honorary Professor of History at the Australian National University. A philosopher and historian, she is the author and editor of eight books, including Big and Little Histories: Sizing Up the Ethics of Historiography (with Anne Martin, 2021). She is currently editing a collection of histories written from the losing side with Professor Daniel Woolf and writing a monograph on machine-made histories.

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.

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.

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.

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]