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By Susan Carter with Fiona Lamont

Fiona Lamont is a Research Services Advisor at the University of Auckland. Her job entails assistance to researchers, and often these are doctoral writers.

Over the Covid 19 lockdown in New Zealand, Fiona and I (mostly Fiona) facilitated a digital workshop for students from the University of Auckland’s Creative Arts and Industry Faculty (CAI). That faculty spans disciplines where practice, performance or the production of artefacts make up the majority of the candidate’s original contribution. But candidates must also submit a dissertation or exegesis.

The need to write a doctoral dissertation when you are a skilled musician, artist, dancer, choreographer or architect means crossing semiotic systems, and that can be a frustration. To what extent could that dissertation itself map onto the creative work? Structure and voice in writing seem like the dimensions where the best fit between creative practice and text could be considered.

Over the lockdown, the university was off limits, so work in studios was no longer possible. Writing became the focus. In Cutting Edge, a series of workshops for CAI doctoral students, Fiona and I considered literature review and voice in the dissertations that accompany creative performance.

Fiona, as an expert in the field of finding and responding to literature, began there, since often writerly voice is slowly developed through reading the voices of others. She suggested that each author find new ways to review literature. This could include

  • Critiquing the relationship of each literature item to others;
  • Identifying conflicts and taking a position within them;
  • Locating inconsistencies in approaches and choosing where your research fits;
  • Prioritising literature reviewed in accordance with what most matters to your research project.

Then Fiona shared links to completed theses from the University of Auckland CAI faculty, with the intention that doctoral writers could look at these checking for voice. That list, with links, is below, and gives a good starting point for practice-based dissertation writers who want to see how others present their voice.

Following on, I made a few points about voice in the literature review. First, I ran through some pragmatics: author prominence, tense, quotation. You can privilege authors by including them in the body of your sentences (author prominence), like this:

Wheaton (2020, p. 67) reports that “global higher education is in a state
of disequilibrium… (Carter, 2020, p. 3)”.

Or you can relegate them to surname only in brackets or in footnotes (information prominence) as I did here:

Dislocated, dismembered, and progressively unbundled, the public university today exists in a state of chronic fragility, servitude and uncertainty that has left it… drained of autonomy and agency” (Shore & Wright, 2017, p. 18). Carter, 2020, p. 3

That choice spans the epistemological chasm between STEM positivism (the world is the same for everyone so individuals are not that important—go with information prominence) and non-STEM constructivism (the world is constructed by what we make of it, and so people are critical in that construction so ensure authors are prominent). Both positions will work well with creative practice depending on the focus of the research project.

The past tense must always be used for action in the past, but with words, thoughts, and ideas there’s an option to use the present tense of the fictional world.  This general guide is based on the same logic as the present tense an author uses to describe their own work ‘This chapter presents the theories that underpin my reading of data.’ In this intratextual case, you cannot say ‘this chapter presented’, and ‘this chapter will present’ is not quite right either because a reader can flip to and fro—what a chapter does is neither locked in the past or postponed to the future. It is always there, available to be held in the present tense of the reader’s gaze.  (The example I use often is that William Shakespeare died in 1616; his character Hamlet dies in Act V. Any time the play Hamlet is performed or read, Hamlet dies in Act V.) And I believe that there is a slight nuance of approval for what a previous author has written, the suggestion that you believe their words deserve ‘always true’ status in the context of your own work, when you opt for present tense. See too Cassily Charles post about tense for more on the semiotics of time signallers.

Then do you summarise or use direct quotation? It makes sense to summarise another author’s point when their argument, insight or idea is of use. However, I recommend looking out for great direct quotations, the times when someone else says something with clarity, rhetorical strength, and perhaps even with poetic beauty. Such language demonstrates critical analysis through an implicit criteria that links to arts and creativity values: respect for language in the same way one respects creative media. Even more than that, poetic resonance, and the use of figures of speech that ripple with connotative meaning feel to me like a linguistic equivalent to creativity in other media.

This point was my challenge to the group of creative practitioner doctoral candidates: amongst consideration of the pragmatics of language, can you find a voice whose use of language aligns with your own aesthetics? I’m curious about the extent to which dissertation writing can be treated as creative performance in its own right… Please share your ideas in comments—or email us to offer another post on doctoral writing and creative arts.

 List of dissertations that are part of performance-based doctorates

Dance Studies PhD – Katy Van-Reigle (2018) The effects of International Poi on physical, cognitive, and emotional health in healthy older adults


Fine Arts PhD – Nuala Gregory (2015) The Afterlife of Painting


Music PhD—Samuel Girling (2018) Curious virtuosity: the emergence and decline of unconventional repertory for timpani and percussion in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries


Architecture PhD – Jeremy Smith (2019) Unfinished landscapes: How can an understanding of the New Zealand landscape as ‘unfinished’ inform New Zealand’s residential architecture in the 21st century?


Planning PhD –  Elham Bahmanteymouri (2016) An Ontological Investigation of Urban Growth Management Policies under Neoliberalism

http://hdl.handle.net/2292/31353 –   Planning theses have different literary organisation to the body of the thesis – no separate literature review, review done within each chapter topic

Sword, H. (2012). Stylish academic writing. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com (Ch 4, Voice and Echo).

This Fine Arts master’s short thesis (essay) has a very interesting abstract, in terms of ‘voice’. Lotz Keegan, J.,  Seeing Myself Watching Myself,  2018.  See it here. https://researchspace.auckland.ac.nz/handle/2292/37141

I also saw briefly another example from musicology; the lit review could be a reference in Fine arts, maybe. This is: The Contrabass Sonatas of Johann Matthias Sperger, by Andjelic-Andzakovic, Darija, 2011 https://researchspace.auckland.ac.nz/handle/2292/6625   (or was it the topic that got my attention? 😊)