The PhD must change

The PhD must change

At the time of this posting, the all-time most read and commented on article in University Affairs (UA) online magazine is one entitled, “The PhD is in Need of Revision” (Tamburri, 2013). I couldn’t agree more, and in this blog I’d like to explain why.

.     At the age of 30, I can remember living without the internet, and at the same time I can’t envision living without it anymore. As we know, the information age boasts many affordances, the greatest of which might be accessibility. Case in point: In my undergrad years only a decade ago, I carried pounds upon pounds of library books and journals home with me from university to reference as I wrote papers, and I bought a 2 megapixel digital camera (that probably also weighed at least a pound) to capture images to reference as I composed paintings. Nothing could be further from the method I now employ as a graduate student: As I write this blog (something most of us had never heard of 10 years ago, me included), I am concurrently at work on a series of YouTube videos (something else we had no clue about), where most of my reference material—whether textual, visual, auditory, static or dynamic—is located online, freely available in the public domain. I doubt I even need to verbalize this (it’s so obvious), but I much prefer today’s methods.
    Accessibility is not just convenient, it is an assertion of values. Open access internet publishing, in its various manifestations, supports democracy, free speech, and contributes to the global knowledge economy. Although the UA article doesn’t even mention these reasons, it is for these reasons most importantly that I think the PhD must change. As-is, the expectation is that PhD hopefuls will produce a written dissertation of about 90,000 words that will sit on a shelf in a library with an extremely limited readership. Dr. Daren C. Brabham (2011) says frankly, “No one will read your dissertation . . . . Seriously. No one.” (para. 1). Dr. Dan Cohen (2010) writes on his blog,
.      your work can be discovered much more easily by other scholars (and the general
.      public), can be fully indexed by search engines, and can be easily linked to from
.      other websites and social media (rather than producing the dreaded ‘Sorry, this
.      is behind a paywall’). . . . When you publish somewhere that is behind gates, or in
.      paper only, you are resigning all of that hard work to invisibility in the age of the
.      open web. You may reach a few peers in your field, but you miss out on the broader
.      dissemination of your work, including to potential other fans (section 4, para. 1–2).
Similarly, art-based researchers Sameshima and Knowles (2008) write, “There must be a commitment to making the work accessible to the audiences beyond academe” (p. 116). Richardson (1997) writes, “it seems foolish, at best, narcissistic and wholly self-absorbed, at worst, to spend months or years doing research that ends up not being read [or viewed] and not making a difference to anything but the author’s career” (p. 87). Last, Hedges (2009) writes, “the contemporary self . . . wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible” (p. 22). I have argued along these lines time and again during the course of my doctoral studies—why put in the effort if no one will pay attention? With the support of my supervisor, Dr. Jennifer Rowsell, I was able to make a case for preparing my comprehensive portfolio in the form of a website, www.rebeccazak.com, (Zak, 2012), which I successfully defended last year. By putting my work online (then and now), I circumvent the silo effect and allow for global viewership to help and inform whoever may be interested in my line of work. I know as a scholar I would have appreciated having an example of an alternative online comprehensive portfolio like mine to reference as a precedent. At the time of this posting, people from 53 countries have visited my portfolio website. So if it worked for the portfolio, why not look at online alternatives for the dissertation too? Dr. Graham Carr (as cited in Tamburri, 2013), president of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, has expressed his support for just that: “The default position has always been that the dissertation should resemble a manuscript that will become a book. Is that the only appropriate vehicle?” (para. 14). Surely we must be able to capitalize on the technology available to us today to come up with more innovative forms that capture and showcase more effectively what knowledge and expertise a PhD candidate has acquired. In my research (which has yet to be officially approved at the faculty level), I am mining the collective intelligence of YouTube (Jenkins, 2006) for video clips explaining diverse educational models and how they account for creativity, before remixing them into a new YouTube video to address my research question. Jenkins (2006) explains,
      collective intelligence[:] None of us can know everything; each of us knows
.       something; we can put the pieces together if we pool our resources and combine
.       our skills . . . . Collective intelligence can be seen as an alternative source of
.       media power (para. 6)
By using the voice of the general public and aiming my research at the general public by situating it within social media, this is how I can have my best chance at effecting change in my area of research (Wells, 2008).
.      YouTube is shifting the way people think and come to know (Jenkins, 2006) not just because it makes information easy to find and consume; it is also accessible in the sense that YouTube supports dynamic, highly visual content. Visuals can fill in the gaps to create a more complete, less abstract picture (literally and figuratively), thereby facilitating communication. Kress (as cited in Jeff Bezemer, 2012) argues, “writing actually gives you merely a partial account of what’s going on. It’s like sentences that aren’t completed . . . . If you say, ‘I’m only interested in writing,’ you’ve made it impossible for yourself to answer the question that’s being asked by your PhD” (n.p.). Eisner (1995) writes, “research with no coherent story, no vivid images, and no sense of the particular is unlikely to stick. [Artistic research formats account for this by offering] us a narrative that helps us to make sense of what would otherwise be incoherent complexity” (p. 5). Images provide alternate points of entry via multimodality that provide “diverse ways to access ideas [to] empower readers” (Loi, 2008, p. 90). In the case of digital video, multimodality means I am layering various kinds of static and animated visuals, sounds, and text together to produce differentiated supercommunication to enhance understanding. Since words can’t justifiably explain what I mean here (Kress, as cited in Jeff Bezemer, 2012), I have prepared a multimodal digital video trailer to elucidate my ideas, below. I am by no means the first academic to implement video and multimodality in my work; recently, many scholars have begun to produce video abstracts of their papers to generate interest and community (AmerGastroAssn, 2009), while others have taken to “dancing” their PhD, in which an explanation of their work is acted out through movement to help clarify the major ideas (TEDxTalks, 2011). Besides all of this, videos are engaging to watch, which I believe will lead to extended viewership. “Engagement” is probably one of the most frequently used terms in teacher jargon because we know from research and firsthand experience that engagement begets learning (Csikszentmihalyi, 2004; Deci cited in TEDxTalks, 2012; Holt, 1989). I believe that by prioritizing “engagement before information” (Cohen, 2010; i.e., presenting my dissertation research as a documentary-style YouTube video), this will be more powerful for those whom the research will affect most (e.g., children, parents, teachers, etc.).
Engagement → viewership → learning → transformation.
Video trailer: “How can we nurture creativity in educational contexts?”  (July 2011)

.    Another area in which the PhD is in need of revision in my opinion is in regards to objectivism. Education research in particular is perhaps more flexible than other academic fields when it comes to the perspective from which a researcher writes, thanks in part to emergent methodologies like narrative inquiry and art-based research. As an art-based researcher myself, I resonate with Polanyi’s notion of personal knowledge: “The personal [is] not to be minimized but understood as the element that [is] essential, the one that [leads] us to break out and make new discoveries, and not at all an unfortunate imperfection in human epistemology” (Gelwick, 1991, p. 48). It’s no wonder that in art-based research there is an emphasis on, or an awareness of, the researcher’s presence in the work; no artist creates anything without naturally infusing him/herself into his/her creation. It is the same for writing. Sameshima (2008) opines, “we are no longer mere creators of text, we are text ourselves” (p. 154). Indeed, considering how far technology has advanced and how fully it has infiltrated our lives since my undergrad days, considering how willfully mediated our lives have become through YouTube, Facebook, blogs, and the like, it does not seem like a stretch to say we have become texts ourselves: published works with (a) message(s). I will be appearing in the videos I produce because the overarching message the videos will convey is something that is personally important to me. The idea for this research originated from my lived experience as a student, a teacher, and an artist learning independently. I am comfortable and feel it’s important to discuss creativity in education from my personal vantage point for that reason. By having my own narrative (me as artist/researcher/teacher) running through the video, I can evoke a personal connection with the viewer, making the issue of creativity in education feel close up and authentic (Wells, 2008). Lee (as cited in Lee & Gouzouasis, 2008) reports that many artist-scholars find the boundary between their work and themselves quite blurry; I believe I’m no exception, and I believe this makes my work stronger. The PhD shouldn’t shy away from showing its subjective side.
.      What I think all of this (i.e., online access, multimodal access, subjectivity) amounts to is that the PhD must adapt to allow for creativity and flexibility, to create conditions under which researchers can be themselves, trust themselves, and thrive. As Tamburri (2013) reports, at present the way the PhD is constructed shows that academia is more concerned with conformity and tradition than it is with imagining new possibilities. Dr. Jay Doering (as cited in Tamburri, 2013) states,
.       Part of the problem, I think, is that a large part of the academy
.       still believes they are creating Mini-Me’s or clones . . . . The only
.       way I see it changing is to get a buy-in from the vast majority of
      the academy that this is a problem” (para. 24).
Research has demonstrated that control is no way to motivate learners; instead what works is autonomy and support (Deci as cited in TEDxTalks, 2012). It is ironic to me that my dissertation will attempt to uncover the best educational methods for fostering creativity from within a framework that quite obviously requires reform itself. Tamburri (2013) tells us, “the dissertation is one of the major impediments responsible for high attrition rates and long completion times in the humanities” (para. 15). By the time graduate students get to the dissertation stage, they must know what they’re doing, what rigourous work looks like, and they must undoubtedly be disciplined and have set high standards for themselves. All of this being the case, they must be trusted to construct appropriate models for pursuing and presenting their research; if this were to happen consistently, perhaps the dismal attrition stats would soon dissolve. Ricci (2012) writes, “A child, like an adult, learns most and learns best when he or she learns according to his or her will. Following her own will leads to the development of her ‘willed curriculum,’ her entirely personal, customized education experience” (p. 1); Gray (2012) writes, “Ultimately, the purpose of education is that of finding meaning in life, and each person has to do that for himself or herself” (p. 2). In my opinion, the illuminations from my research (in answer to the question, “how can we nurture creativity in education?”) can and should be appropriately applied to all levels of learning, from young children to PhD candidates like myself. Policy-related decisions that are made bureaucratically must be loose enough to account for the personal decisions made individually that matter so much to how research is carried out and conveyed, and ultimately, what kind of impact it can have on the world.

 

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