NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Never mind the Research Statement: read the lyrics

The sleeve notes for a 12 inch vinyl record – or the ‘liner’ as it’s known in the US – comprise on average 700 words ... thrice that of the ‘textual descriptor’ – the Research Statement - which is all that’s allowed when describing the content of a non-traditional research output [the INTRO] for the forthcoming research assessment exercise...

By Professor Paul Gough

 

The sleeve notes for a 12 inch vinyl record – or the ‘liner’ as it’s known in the US – comprise on average 700 words, roughly the same as this brief article, and thrice that of the ‘textual descriptor’ – the Research Statement – which is all that’s allowed when describing the content of a non-traditional research output [the NTRO] for the forthcoming research assessment exercise, habitually known, but in a different acronymic order, as ERA.

Photo: Paul Gough

Photo: Paul Gough

Unlike Research Statements, which many of us will have been crafting and drafting in recent months, sleeve notes are rather a dying format. They belong to the era of the pre-gatefold long-playing vinyl record: the ‘LP’ as it was lovingly called, or ‘Album’ if you were brought up in the 1970s.

Scratch any vinyl LP and you’ll rue the day forever. Scratch any practicing academic and you’ll discover the agony aroused by having to draft an ERA-ready ‘research statement’. As a guaranteed way of bringing a practitioner out in a rash it shares much in common with its distant cousin, the ‘Artist’s Statement’, and ranks only a little behind ‘The Impact Case Study’ for arousing deep and lasting consternation. Cue the sound of foreheads being clutched and pencils chewed.

The venerable US music writer Dan Morgenstern … advised that writing ‘should not be unmusical, it must not be poorly and clumsily expressed; a bad liner would be one that indulges in exaggeration and puffery’. It’s a valuable lesson for those charged with writing any form of statement for ERA, whether it be 2 digit, 4 digit, impact case study, or statement.

So, can sleeve notes lend some succour to stressed practitioner academics as they agonise over their statement?

Once regarded as the cherished way into the world of popular music, many readers will recall poring over every precious word of the sleeve, learning the lyrics and dedications, the potted biographies and the name of the 3rd trombonist. Not forgetting the standard advice on how often to change your stylus. Unlike ERA, however, I don’t recall many occasions when I was ever in doubt and had to ‘consult my dealer’.

In the USA (where there is no such thing as a national research assessment exercise) the sleeve note ‘liner’ has long been celebrated. Indeed there’s even a Grammy Award for ‘Best Notes’. Awarded to the words that offer the judges an impeccably researched, definitive statement about the actual content – where it was made, its field of interest, its origins and intentions, perhaps even its contribution to originality. Beginning to sound familiar?

In a previous life I was part of the academy (in the UK) that agonised over research engagement and impact. We looked to Australia for a best working practice – namely the ‘Research Quality Framework’ in 2009 – when this fair continent had nearly grasped the nettle of impact, and then stepped away at the last minute. Along with my leadership peers in UK we agonised, we argued, then we accepted that ‘Impact’, just like ‘Research Statements’ was a lived reality. We simply had to fully prepare and future proof our institutions in the lingo of translational research, B to B, and the ‘Pathways to Impact’ that the research councils promptly (and in retrospect quite wisely) added into every pro forma for grant funding.

In truth, sleeve notes were pretty variable. The venerable US music writer Dan Morgenstern, who wrote 500 covers, amongst them Grammy Winners, advised that writing ‘should not be unmusical, it must not be poorly and clumsily expressed; a bad liner would be one that indulges in exaggeration and puffery’.

It’s a valuable lesson for those charged with writing any form of statement for ERA, whether it be 2 digit, 4 digit, impact case study, or statement. Hyperbole, rhetoric, mild exaggeration for effect is a no-no. If Cicero were around today he’d find it tough in academia. He would have to adjust his demagoguery to create a language that is categoric (but not deadpan), factual (without being soulless) and informative (but not exhaustive, or exhausting).

In 1969 Cash won a Grammy for his notes on the Folsom Prison concert album, with the memorable words – which may resonate with those of us still agonising over a pile of draft ‘Impact Statements’ – “The culture of a thousand years is shattered by the clanging of the jail door behind you.”

It’s easy to get it wrong, though our sector has radically improved on those clumsy early days. Many years ago I recall one respondent had answered the question in the pro forma about the ‘location of the work’ (meaning ‘Where was it exhibited, displayed, screened?’) and had replied ‘Still in my studio’.

So take heart in your writing. Think of the factual creativity of the best sleeve notes. Some institutions hire journalists to help draft them; some employ journal editors. Perhaps we ought to work with poets, just as Paul Weller did recently with Simon Armitage. Or other musicians? Bill Evans wrote insightfully about Miles Davis. And Johnny Cash wrote wonderful sleeve notes about his own music and others, including a fine poem for Bob Dylan’s ‘Nashville Skyline’ album. As music writer Laura Barton notes, he had to convince ‘the farmers, felons, and folkies’ who idolised Country but were suspicious of Dylan’s shape shifting, that here indeed was another musician worth their cautious attention. In 1969 Cash won a Grammy for his notes on the Folsom Prison concert album, with the memorable words – which may resonate with those of us still agonising over a  pile of draft ‘Impact Statements’ – “The culture of a thousand years is shattered by the clanging of the jail door behind you.”


Paul Gough is Pro Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President at RMIT University. He is executive head of the College of Design and Social Context.

A painter, broadcaster and writer, he has exhibited globally and is represented in the permanent collection of the Imperial War Museum, London; the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa and the National War Memorial, New Zealand. 

He has published widely in cultural history, cultural geography and heritage studies, and has written or edited eight books, including monographs on the war artists Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash. He has also published on peace gardens, sites of remembrance, and the street artist, Banksy.

More from this issue

More from this issue

Like many of us who supervise research in Creative Arts practice, I spend a lot of my time navigating what I do not know. Perhaps this is part of the attraction of mentoring research at this level. Although I have been supervising Creative Arts PhDs for almost 20 years, I have become aware in the last decade of a rich interface between our disciplines and indigenous inquiry

The extraordinary growth in both quality and quantity of Asian arts education arrived with a distinctly new edge in 2017. After more than 15 years of identifying needed aspects of Western contemporary arts and arts training, the last decade has been focused upon catching up, on inviting Western experts to teach, sending staff abroad, and in establishing conferences that allow arts training to be discussed within Asia. There is now a wealth of quality arts colleges and universities across Asia, and activities and publications on arts education now surpasses Australasia.

Friends, relatives, colleagues and past students are mourning the death of Debra Porch, until recently an Associate Professor of Fine Arts at Queensland College of Art.

I’m writing in the weeks following the end of Singapore Art Week 2018, and the full schedule of exhibition tours and meetings with international museum, gallery and education professionals it marked at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore. The ICA Singapore is the curatorial division of Lasalle College of the Arts. Art Week’s many and various artists and visitors are reminders of the increasingly global context for our programme but also of the capricious field into which Lasalle fine arts graduates will emerge.

The arts have always been at the center of human life and civilisational progress in African communities. In the pre-colonial period, the arts defined cultural expressions, mediated community structures, and facilitated the generation, articulation and flow of knowledge within communities

A conversation between Clive Barstow, and Professor Chen Huagang, Dean of Art & Design at Guandong Baiyun University in China (with thanks to translator Jie He).

An ongoing state of wonderful “little ease” might be the best way to sum up 2017. What that ongoing state of “little ease” continued to reveal and what is exciting moving forwards is the very extraordinary ways in which dance training produces truly ‘agile beasts’ – capable, intelligent, resilient, adaptable and inspiring collaborators and artistic leaders.

Thinking about tertiary creative arts in 2018, it is worth reflecting on the 2017 ACUADS Conference at the ANU School of Art and Design, which probed the theme ‘Value’. At a time when Australian tertiary art and design schools are facing increasing economic and political challenges, this was a vital focus, and resulted in the sharing of key research, and productive discussions.

Art and research, typically, have their own focal points and contextual understanding of relevance for their fields. But there is at least one strong overlapping area, and artistic research is at the core of this today. Artistic Research is multi-coloured, curiosity driven, open to apply and adapt methods and reach out for topics challenging the given

As we settle into the 2018 academic year in Australia, surrounded by the confused faces of new students (and staff) and enmeshed in ERA statements, research impact and engagement justifications and the uncertainty of government plans for teaching and learning funding, we can forget that our world of creative arts education is bigger than the institutionally created boxes that immediately surround us.

I was recently introduced to a verb I hadn’t encountered before. I was attending—as a supervisor—a session looking to create opportunities for doctoral researchers (mostly of a STEM kind) . . . . the session (for me) had one good outcome, and this was learning this new verb. Angular, gauche and graceless, with zero poetry, it is however precise and pulls no punches: to self-select-out.

Following a period of research consolidation in 2015 and 2016, 2017 saw the Australian Screen Production Education and Research Association (ASPERA) ‘up the stakes’ with regard to its capacity for disciplinary research and, importantly, its future. We launched the report Screen Production Research Reporting: An ASPERA Scoping Project ... to capture some of the long-standing discussions and issues the discipline was facing.

On Tuesday December 12, 2017, in unceded Wurundjeri territory, a group of 40 artists/designers/researchers/curators/educators from Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand came together at RMIT University to start to discuss the future of Social Practice in Art and Design. Using human relations as method and content across art and design, social practice connects creative practitioners with communities, industries and institutions to address contemporary social and political issues.

Here in Australian higher arts education, we are presiding over some ‘interesting’ times ourselves. With a divided polity, seemingly, but not only, separated along education and value and belief system lines, we are finding an astonishing and baffling suspicion of ‘expertise’ and what has been called ‘wilful ignorance’ or the US legal term ‘wilful blindness’.