By Professor Stacy Holman Jones and Professor Cat Hope
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 range of weightings is quite startling, with written theoretical components ranging from 10,000 to 40,000 words, and the artistic practice component also varying in nature and scale. The unfolding of the relationship of writing to practice also occurs in vastly different modes across institutions.
One of the challenges of supervising practice-based PhDs is finding a mode of inquiry in which practice, reflection, analysis, experimentation and knowledge building are entangled in mutually productive ways. For artistic researchers working in non-language based or focused disciplines (music, visual arts, dance, and post-dramatic performance), PhD researchers must also find a form of representation that makes the entanglements of creating, reflecting, analysing, experimenting and making claims to and on knowledge building manifest on the page for readers. In this way, practice-based research requires interdisciplinary literacies in theory and practice, inquiry and output. Writing in the Canadian context of research creation, Natalie Loveless (2019) argues that such boundary-crossing and breaking work “insists on the ‘double-headedness’ of multiple outputs” that have “equally weighted value as objects of knowledge production and impact within university communities and their assessment practices” (p 30). This work faces challenges where the relationship between thinking and action has been subject to much debate (Candy, 2020, p19).
With this “double-headedness” in mind, we encourage practice-based PhD researchers to embrace the performative or constitutive nature of their written theses, or what Loveless (following Thomas King) term the material-semiotic events that both impact and configure scholarly-artistic worlds (p 21). Autoethnography is one possible methodological approach to making research writing perform as a material and semiotic event that takes into account practice-based inquiry as a multi-faceted approach to knowledge production and impact.
Before we outline what autoethnography offers to practice-based PhD researchers, we should say what autoethnography is not. It is not a methodological approach to self-reflection on personal experience or practice or a method for studying the self. Rather, autoethnography is a methodological literacy and practice that brings together context (culture, discipline, geography, history, and theory) and experience (sensory, embodied, emotional, recalled, and speculative). Taking into account autoethnography’s ability to challenge entrenched beliefs, practices, and ways of understanding both experience and practice, we believe that critical autoethnography in practice-based research sees theory and practice, inquiry and outputs as “ongoing, movement-driven process[es] that link the concrete and abstract, thinking and acting, aesthetics and criticism” (Holman Jones, 2016, p. 2).
Robin Nelson (2013) offers a helpful framework for understanding just how autoethnography can help PhD researchers approach the double movement and double-headedness of creating and sharing practice-based research. Nelson proposes three processes of knowing and doing in autoethnographic practice-based research (or autoethnographies of practice):
Knowing-how, or “doing knowing,” which includes complex actions that, once we learn them, we “just do,” like dancing or riding a bicycle. Knowing-how includes the procedural knowledge processes of autoethnographies of practice – how we plan, design and do autoethnographic inquiry – and also focuses on how autoethnographic knowledge about and through practice is embodied, gained incrementally (like a dancer learns technique over time), and surfaces tacit understandings (Nelson, 2013, pp 41-43). For example, practice-based researchers can use autoethnography to explore and analyse the mundane or everyday aspects of practice, the surprises and “happy accidents” that happen in practice, as well as the tacit and difficult to access or difficult to “language” aspects of experiences. Knowing-how also encourages practice-based researchers to use words, images, sound and embodiment to get close to the somatic, emotional, and felt-sense of this experience. In this way, autoethnography helps practice-based researchers manifest the unsayable aspects of experience in the page.
Knowing-what, or critically reflecting on doing-knowing by reflexively “pausing, standing back, and thinking about what you’re doing” (Nelson, 2013, p 44). In autoethnographies of practice, knowing-what includes giving an account of our position within the research and making explicit our processes of relating. Knowing-what asks researchers to stand back, reflect, and seek other perspectives by reviewing existing research and writing about practice in use and thought. This includes bringing together theoretical or conceptual frameworks as languages available to us to understand and write about processes of rehearsal and performance. Knowing-what also does the important work of unsettling habitual (and sometimes harmful) ways of thinking and making by engaging with other standpoints and modes of working (Nelson, 2013, pp. 44-45).
Knowing-that makes propositional claims on both the tacit know-how and explicit know-what of practice autoethnographies. Knowing-that is a process of shifting from concrete (tacit, embodied and “close”) knowledge to abstract (explicit, conceptual and “distant”) knowledge and back again to clarify and enrich the insights generated in our practice autoethnographies (Nelson, 2013, pp. 45-46). Knowing-that is a process of ongoing engagement with the entanglements of thought and action, context and experience and the ways theory and writing helps us to find language and share stories about these dynamics in practice.
These approaches create a way of knitting together the conceptual with the practical, the theoretical with the reflexive, whilst simultaneously erasing these binaries. They assist PhD candidates in breaking out of habitual thinking and exploring new modes of making and framing, enriching graduate experience and outcomes.
Autoethnographies of practice are material-semiotic events that, in Loveless’s words, “unmake as much as they remake how we understand we are doing as maker-thinkers in the–disciplined and disciplining–university today” (p 37).
 For a more detailed discussion of autoethnography as a methodology and its practice in performing arts scholarship, see Adams, Holman Jones & Ellis (2021 and 2014) and Holman Jones and Adams 2022.
Adams, T.E., Holman Jones, S., & Ellis, C., eds. The Handbook of Autoethnography 2nd ed. Routledge
Candy, L. (2020). The Creative reflective practitioner. Routledge.
Holman Jones, S. (2016). Living bodies of thought: The ‘critical’ in critical autoethnography. Qualitative Inquiry 22(4): 228-237. doi:10.1177/1077800415622509
Holman Jones, S. & Adams, T.E. (2022). Autoethnography as becoming-with. In N.K. Denzin & M. Giardina, eds., The SAGE handbook of qualitative research, 6th ed. Sage.
Loveless, N. (2019). How to make art at the end of the world: A manifesto for research creation. Duke University Press.
Nelson, R. (2013). Practice as research in the arts: Principles, protocols, pedagogies, resistances. Palgrave Macmillan.
Stacy Holman Jones is Professor in the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music and Performance at Monash University. Her scholarship focuses on performance as socially, culturally, and politically resistive and transformative activity. She is recognized for a collaborative and impact-focused research program that integrates theory and creative practice as a means of critique and transforming lives, relationships, ways of living, and communities. She has published 13 solo, co-authored and edited books and more than 100 articles, book chapters, reviews, and editorials.
Cat Hope is a composer, musician and researcher who has been supervising artistic research PhD candidates since 2010. These have traversed fields as diverse as timbral spatialisation, opera, electronic music, dance, theatre, composition and performance across art music, jazz and experimental forms. A co- author of ‘Digital Arts – an Introduction to New Media’ (Bloomsbury, 2014) she is Professor of Music at Monash University and a partner on the European Research Council’s global ‘Digiscore’ project.