By Susan Carter
Cutting edge is a term for trail-blazing work that opens up intellectual frontiers. I’m generally enthusiastic about cutting-edge work that pushes the boundaries. I’m assuming that most of us savour innovation; I’m also assuming that supervisors have responsibilities for minimising student risk and that doctoral students want success.
For some years I facilitated doctoral fora and several times put together a panel of doctoral graduates who had won our Dean of Graduate Studies best thesis award. The intention was that they would give advice based on their own experiences to those still writing theses. Whenever the best thesis writers described their work, there would be something about it that diverged strikingly from conventional structure, methods or genre. It seemed as though it was often the well-controlled use of strategies from a different discipline that caused these theses to stand out as high quality.
Barbara Lovitts (2007: 36-38) has researched what comprises an outstanding, a very good, an acceptable and an unacceptable thesis, gathering characteristics from academics [n279] across ten disciplines. The qualities of an outstanding thesis include, amongst others, many pointers to innovation:
- Original and significant, and also ambitious, brilliant, clear, clever, coherent, compelling, concise, creative, elegant, engaging, exciting, interesting, insightful, persuasive, sophisticated, surprising and thoughtful
- Pushes the discipline’s boundaries
Our Dean isn’t alone, then, in evaluation of best theses: other academics agree that innovation marks an outstanding these. Not all of us are capable of achieving this level of excellence, but the good news is that we don’t have to: it’s reassuring to read what is passable—the characteristics of an acceptable thesis are not that high (Lovitts, 2007: 38).
Yet, I’ve also worked with doctoral scholars who aim for a non-standard thesis and the outcome is unfortunate, placing them at risk, causing supervisory angst, and resulting in fairly extensive revision once the examiners’ reports come in. Writing that aims to be ‘creative’ can be self-indulgent, satisfying for the author but frustrating for a reader. The thesis can present as tangled and jumbly, and reading it, like hacking through a dense jungle.
Lovitts (2007: 37-38) also has something to say there. Her characteristics of an unacceptable thesis include some that might be linked to those whose attempts at innovation fail:
- Is poorly written
- Presentation is sloppy
- Does not understand basic concepts, processes, or conventions of the discipline
- Theory is missing, wrong, or not handled well
- Data are flawed, wrong, false, fudged, or misrepresented
- Analysis is wrong, inappropriate, incoherent, or confused
Innovation is one of those polarising abstract nouns, potentially wonderful or troublesome. And discussion of it can be painful. It is hard to give feedback around the failure of prose to communicate when a thesis author is sure that they are producing something playfully artistic. Often, of course, and usually in some disciplines, evaluation is subjective. Nonetheless, safety fences need to be erected if there seems a serious risk that examiners interpret innovation as sloppiness or naivety about what a thesis should be and deem it not worthy of a doctorate.
Writers often struggle to see what it is that entangles their readers. Emotions then heighten—both the student’s and the supervisor’s. While it is hard to give feedback to a doctoral student who resents that you are not appreciative of their artistry, supervisors and doctoral students need to avoid angering an examiner with innovation that might be hard to recognise or understand.
So how do thesis writers and supervisors recognise what is strong because it is cutting edge, and what is at risk of falling off the edge into the abyss of failure? I also attended the best thesis award ceremonies, and know from the Dean’s eulogies that the award winners’ prose was fluent, clear and stylish, their work well-referenced and highly polished. There were almost no typos or surface level errors. At the same time as there was something novel in the construction of the thesis itself, there was unmistakable evidence of the authors’ scholarly authority and meticulous care. They demonstrated an unquestionable ‘insider persona’ (Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995).
Here’s the take home message, then. My recommendation is that when students hanker strongly for innovation, they need to audit their own writing skills and patience with revision.
In my experience, there’s a simple formula: the more non-standard the thesis, the stronger the writer’s fluency and authorial control must be if examiners and other readers are to remain sure that the thesis is not simply a mess.
It is likely to take more hours of work to produce a best thesis that leverages from its innovation. Doctoral students should be reminded that once they graduate, they have the material in the thesis to publish how they wish—one option is to save ideas for innovative presentation until after graduation. Publication is probably where they will make their mark within international discourse–they may find journals there that welcome the more creative version of work that was conservative in the thesis.
As is frequently the case, choice about the degree to which convention can be broken depends in part on an author’s levels of risk-aversion versus thrill-desire. The doctorate is a three to four year endeavour—it seems a mistake to take the project too near the edge of failure without being aware of what is needed for safety.
I’m curious as to how others experience innovation, either successful or troublesome. Maybe you have views on this based on your own risk aversion or delight in creativity? Post a comment!
Berkenkotter, Carol, & Huckin, Thomas N. (1995). Genre knowledge in disciplinary communication: Cognition, Culture, Power. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Lovitts, B. (2007). Making the implicit explicit: Creating performance expectations for the dissertation. Sterling, Virginia, Stylus.