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By Claire Aitchison

My February started with a two day symposium at Queensland University of Technology, in an impressive high tech building adjacent to the tropical oasis of the city’s botanical gardens. But I digress – I really wanted to share my enthusiasm for the symposium with the clunky title of Effective Supervision of Creative Arts Research Degrees (ESCARD).

The event was for supervisors, administrators and academics of practice-led creative arts higher degree research. Its purpose was to share evolving practices, challenges and rewards of supervising creative practice research. ESCARD is part of an OLT grant from the Australian government’s Office of Learning and Teaching http://www.olt.gov.au/grants-and-projects  led by Associate Prof Jillian Hamilton and Dr Sue Carson from QUT.

The creative arts disciplines (eg visual arts, performing arts, design, creative writing and media) have experienced a tenfold increase in higher degree enrolments in Australia since 1998. The newness of these degrees and their rapid growth has led to some great innovations – and some unique challenges.

The symposium showcased the vibrancy and diversity of creative arts practices being researched, but also of the diversity of form, intent and execution of creative arts research degrees.  (Doctoralwriting will advertise the website with the symposium presentations as soon as it becomes available.)

The two days were characterised by frank and open discussion about the sometimes prickly, sometimes contested and often challenging relationship between artistic practice and academic scholarship.  What was of particular interest to me, was how, right from the first presentation, ‘writing’ featured as the site where this contestation was played out for the student and the supervisor. Irrespective of the integrity of the creative practice component, the envisioning and execution of the written component so often seemed to be the locus where the expectations of the academy and the creative industry, needed to find resolution.  What a big ask of the text – and its author!

Like many others, I was intrigued and frustrated in equal measure when I began working with researchers in creative practice doctorates. The challenges these scholars faced were typical of many humanities and social science scholars. They include for example, the need to find the best methodology and theoretical frame, to connect with the right literature, and to construct a textual structure that best enables the story of the research to be told. But, unlike many other scholars, these students (and often their supervisors too) struggled to find useful models of how others had achieved these objectives. The creative practice research scholar not only has to find their way with the writing, they have to find a way to connect that writing to the practice component. The absence of a body of creative practice doctoral writing due to the brief history of this kind of scholarship, made the doctoral journey doubly hard.

It’s better now, but in the early days, there were few guidelines about what was, and wasn’t, acceptable regarding the kind of text (form, style, format, size), the content and purpose of the written component and its relationship to the practice component (to explain, theorise, mirror, deconstruct?). Frequently creative arts researchers were professionals in their field with little or no experience of the academy, academic research or research writing. Other students came with undergraduate experiences (e.g. visual arts, dance, drama) with little no academic writing or research scholarship. Sometimes the same could be said of their research supervisors.  All of this made for a wonderfully rich and explorative experience of doctoral study, but these uncertainties also created some very stressful situations for students, supervisors, administrators and those of us who work with student texts.

There’s some fabulous literature and research emerging from this field. Brian Paltridge, Sue Starfield and Louise Ravelli have done some really wonderful work investigating the written genres of practise-based doctoral theses in the visual and performing arts  http://www-faculty.edfac.usyd.edu.au/projects/writing_in_academy/index.php?page=home.  And of course if you’re working in this field, you can’t go past Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt’s fabulous book Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Practice-Research-Approaches-Creative-Enquiry/dp/1848853017  I’ve also enjoyed Robert Nelson’s The jealousy of ideas: research methods in the creative arts:   http://www.writing-pad.ac.uk/photos/21_Resources/08_The%20Jealousy%20of%20Ideas/04_jealousy1.pdf

Love to hear from others on writing and practice-led doctoral research.

PS I also attended the extraordinarily fantastic Australian Pacific Triennial of contemporary art (PPT) at the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art.   If you can get there, you should; http://www.qagoma.qld.gov.au/exhibitions/current/apt7_asia_pacific_triennial_of_contemporary_art