NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Creative Practice Research and our degrees of research: Technologies of the imagination

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.

by Associate Professor James Oliver

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 in that regard. This brings with it the instability and uncertainty of a “boom and bust” economy with research and research training, somewhat subject to ideological orientations.

There is a nascent and necessary humility that is inherent in a higher research degree that works relationally with the uncertainty of not knowing, and with embodied learning in the practice of research, and with producing knowledge with imagination yet embracing uncertainty.

We need not be so partial: individuals, disciplines and governments are all prone to this though, particularly when cultures of commodification and competition are privileged, and therefore prevail; this promotes an underfunding, undervaluing and ultimately undermining of the very idea of fundamental research, in all disciplines, which is fundamental to research training. We appear to have a zero-sum funding game that can sometimes seems so very certain and controlling of what research is and maybe lacking the humility of not knowing, which is, of course, fundamental to research and research training. It is also crucial to the evolving of cultures of respect and ethical and safe practices.

As I stated above, a higher degree by research is a humble undertaking. There is a nascent and necessary humility that is inherent in a higher research degree that works relationally with the uncertainty of not knowing, and with embodied learning in the practice of research, and with producing knowledge with imagination yet embracing uncertainty. Research training is about the provisional situation of knowing. To make an analogy, a higher degree by research it is not a singularity: in research terms, it is neither infinite in research mass, nor zero in its research volume. If doing research thrives on humility, then becoming a researcher is about not being a singularity; that is only ever the exception, and an overdetermined one at that.

Higher degrees by research are not just a personal project but a culture of research training, of evolving a practice of bringing things into relation, to contextualise and situate an enquiry, amid relative uncertainty and not knowing.

Creative Practice Research degrees can be as exceptional or as mundane as any research project or practice across the wide spectrum of higher degree research. The focus here of course (and in the context of so-called non-traditional research) is to not reproduce binaries and false dichotomies. Of course, it is also easier to see the rigour and beauty in research practices and projects that we have come to understand better than others. So, it goes without saying (I would hope) that whatever the experience or maturity of our own work, we should not practice (or think of) our research in terms of exceptionalism, of somehow being beyond a dialectic of scrutiny, such is being extractive (or neo-colonial). If that were the case – ultimately a lack of the reflexivity in the research praxis, which is of critical importance in creative practice research – it would be deeply contradictory and problematic in the context of Higher Education, where the potential for chauvinism will always emerge, whether through disciplinary exceptionalisms or indeed across paradigmatic differences and divergences. 

Whatever the research training horizon brings, some things seem clear enough and are not unrelated to the overview above: impact and engagement which are proxies of value, but they also emphasise relationships, human and more than just human. Variables abound, of course; and not all research can be sensed the same way, even in similar contexts or across similar questions, hence originality is not as elusive as some might think. All this certainly applies within the fields of Creative Practice Research, which involves our human action, creativity, and creation – material, metaphorical and ideological – as well as the contexts and situations of more than human relations. The complexity and uncertainty of this alone demands some humility: climate change, intercultural understanding, alternative economies, energy, mental health, anti-racism. In these terms, strengthening research training is fundamentally ethical, important, relevant, and situated, even if not always tangible to all people in all places always. 

Higher degrees by research are not just a personal project but a culture of research training, of evolving a practice of bringing things into relation, to contextualise and situate an enquiry, amid relative uncertainty and not knowing – to articulate stories of our human and more than human situation and futures. To that end, Creative Practice Research and all disciplinary higher degrees by research have one thing in common, they are technologies of the imagination. 


James Oliver is an Associate Professor in the School of Design at RMIT University. He has been involved in the examining, supervising, and training processes of creative practice research degrees since working at The VCA in 2011, then later at MADA/Monash and now RMIT. James is a Hebridean Gàidheal, which has informed a life-long and evolving enquiry of practice-as-research and ways of knowing. Initially this was at the nexus of his native culture, language, place-based belonging and configurations of identities; increasingly, this is becoming more about ontologies, creative and cultural practices of emplacement and ethical relations.

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.

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]