By Susan Carter

It is so exhilarating to come across research that pushes the boundaries. Human ingenuity is alive, fresh and daring in such work. I say ‘daring’ because, in every boundary stretching instance I know of, there are always some risks and costs. ‘Pioneer’ is something of a cliché, but researchers who step into the unknown are pioneers in the most red-blooded, riskiest sense.

I want to use three examples of pioneering theses.

Example 1: Recently, and prompting this post, the tale of the comic book thesis circulated on the IDERN network. It’s worth reading for two reasons. Firstly, anyone working with theory is likely to be wowed by how cleverly theory is shown visually in comic strip format; this is a staggeringly stylish and advanced representation. Secondly, the article describing it spells out some of the tensions involved in doctoral innovation that I am thinking about here in terms of how it relates to doctoral writing.

Example 2: At my own institution, one of my favourite theses is A.K.L. Poulsen’s (2009) Another way with words: language as twentieth-century art practice. Structured like a medieval commonplace or day book, it has twenty-six chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet. Each of these chapter heading words is theoretical: as with a commonplace book, what looks simple is designed as a pleasurably deep-level exegesis. It is an exquisite demonstration of expertise.

Example 3: In New Zealand, I’m aware of two theses coming through on the use of Māori language in Education. One is written in English. One is, unusually and excitingly, written in Māori, in te reo. Because New Zealand education is governed by the Treaty of Waitangi, we have an option to use Māori language in many situations, including in education. Whether to take this up is a decision bristling with political positionality.

But if you choose to walk the political talk and talk in te reo, the reality is that your audience shrinks immediately. Other indigenous scholars won’t have access to your ideas. On the up side, your leadership within your own community may be firmly established, and you may be able to make real changes to how New Zealanders perceive education.

My instinctive reaction to pioneers is to applaud. Innovators are heroic figures. They make the world a more promisingly complex, puzzlingly rich place as they engineer rules, and change configurations. I join others who suggest that examiners need to be open to frameworks other than those they already know and use, and welcoming of people who expand the boxes we work within.

Secondly, though, I worry whether doctoral students will be strong enough to survive the risks of pioneering. Sometimes it is hard to find examiners for their work who will be as flexible as the work itself. Will institutions welcome the new graduate as a leader or appoint someone a little more central, a little less risky? Does the student have the psychological stamina to forge a new path forward? And, perhaps most importantly, are their writing skills sophisticated enough for the execution of stunningly innovative ideas?

I know some academics are clear that they will only supervise theses  within their own methodologies, where they feel comfortable that they have the expertise to guide them. And I know some others who relish working with pioneer innovators who want to takes risks and push the boundaries.

I’d be interested to hear whether others have strategies for identifying how you best guide and produce research outside the box. And please let us know of any other examples of pushing those boundaries!