[iDC] Praxis-based Ph.D.s

mark bartlett mark at globalpostmark.net
Sat Jan 13 17:40:22 EST 2007

chris and i are on the same wavelength and apparently writing  
simultaneously... her message came in just as i was about to send  
mine. since my comments generally reinforce hers,  i'l let the  
overlaps stand and leave the difference for readers to sort out.

My comments following the first 2 paragraphs may be a bit oblique to  
the pragmatic concerns of this thread. So I'll contextualize them  
with a few pragmatic observations first. I have been directly  
involved in and/or witnessed the making of several MA/ MFA program in  
art schools, and analyzed several models in that process. In the US,  
the MFA is considered a "terminal degree," and equivalent to the Ph.D  
in that sense, and in that it qualifies one to teach at the  
University level. European MFA's are not always accepted as the  
equivalent. Now there are several obvious problems with this model,  
such as comparing a 2 year degree to a normatively 6 year degree.  
That view, whatever validity it might have, still begs the  
epistemological questions, and cannot account for the quite different  
forms of knowledge construction found there. Another possible  
interpretation of this problem is that by taking the Ph.D. as a model  
for art-practice, it continues a troubling devaluation of the  
knowledges that artists indeed, unquestionably, have. 2 of the  
problems here that trouble me are the sociopolitical consequences of  
the deflation of the value of the MFA and of the knowledge practices  
of those who hold that degree, along with those who have no desire to  
get a P_B Ph.D, while simultaneously artificially inflating the  
latter; and second, imposing inherently wrong academic models, which  
effectively snuff out what is in fact, not just a series of courses  
and academic thresholds, but a culture of knowledge making practices  
that as with all cultures, are constituted by informal modes of  
producing themselves. Instead of setting up the conditions of a  
"degree race," from which endless new surveillance systems of  
evaluation of merit and pay will inevitably follow, leading to the  
obsolescence of the MFA degree, why not radically revalue it, in  
order to preserve the link with the thousands of individual who hold  
that degree, and maintain the knowledge cultures which they  
collectively produce? There is nothing necessary about revamping  
along the current lines of the Ph.D, and revamping along the lines of  
the MFA could not only achieve similar things, but, potentially, much  
more through transforming an already existent cultural and material  

Whatever happens, I think it is ethically imperative to avoid what is  
essentially a class war which, good intentions notwithstanding, falls  
into largely another marketing scheme, that could have unfortunates  
results for non-text oriented knowledge cultures. The charge that has  
been made against my position is that I'm ghettoizing the artist.  
This would be true as long as the MFA is considered "inferior" to the  
Ph.D, rather than being its true equivalent, while representing a  
different knowledge culture. If they were equivalent, those who  
wanted to also do a Ph.D, could without devaluing the MFA. It would  
be analogous to the MD-PH.D. -  MFA-PH.D. or, as i'd prefer to put  
it, Ph.D-MFA.

I've now carried on too long.... My main point is that this debate is  
a subset of a much larger historical problem that dates back, in my  
analysis, to 1840. I'm finishing a book with sets out to establish a  
genealogy for a specific epistemological practice that has emerged  
since then, but has not yet been recognized as a coherent discourse  
network ( roughly in  Foucault's sense). What I wanted to interject  
obliquely here is a statement of one of the problems that drives this  
work. It goes like this:

While scientists have scientific knowledge, and philosopher's have  
philosophical knowledge, artists do not have aesthetic knowledge in  
the equivalent sense, because aesthetics traditionally is only what  
philosophers have. Artists, traditionally, have objects but not  

In many ways, artists have never transcended the social status of the  
artisan, and socially and epistemologically speaking, are stuck in  
the 19th c. Now while this proposition is an overstatement to some  
degree, and it is unquestionable to some that artists do have  
knowledge, the statement is an accurate description of large segments  
of culture, which find no or only very limited value in the arts, and  
certainly, as this debate reflects, is true in the structure of the  
academy. The higher status that literary knowledge has, is a  
historical problem; it was instantiated during the Renaissance, and  
reinforced by the Enlightenment, which formed the backbone of the now  
universalized German University system, which accounts for the  
conservatism Simon describes. The post-1840 discourse network for  
which my work establishes a genealogy, constitutes a counter- 
tradition. It does indeed exist, but has not been recognized as a  
coherent discourse, in part because its elements lie scattered about  
and have never been collected.

The reason I was moved to contribute to this thread was because I  
think that there are historical contexts that need to be addressed,  
and on which to build and make the case for constituting structures,  
curricula, and evaluative strategies for praxis-based knowledges, at  
a theoretical - epistemological - level. I think this would be  
pragmatically useful for program proposals, along the lines of  
including a "history" section. And I think it is imperative to do so.  
My point is that there is a need to historicize these projects of  
curricula/structure design, that the genealogy i've extracted is but  
one among many, and i would like to see a taxonomy of such  
genealogies developed.

mark bartlett,( ph.d.)

On Jan 13, 2007, at 9:40 AM, Simon Biggs wrote:

> A whole range of pertinent questions are posed by Danny.
> In response to 1, it is true that there is no correct approach to a  
> PhD.
> Such an idea would fly in the face of what a PhD is meant to be. If
> something is to be presented as an original contribution then one  
> cannot
> strictly hold it to prior conventions. However, Universities are
> conservative institutions at heart. The manner in which knowledge  
> economies
> function are intrinsically conservative. New knowledge is welcome  
> but it is
> only accepted after rigorous review. When the knowledge is  
> conventional then
> that process of review will follow conventional paths. When the  
> knowledge is
> radically different then new processes of review need to be  
> developed. This
> takes a long time, not as a function of the methods themselves but  
> in the
> process of establishing a concensus around their validity.
> In the case of practice based PhD's this process is still in  
> development. It
> will probably never stop if such PhD's are of value, but as a new  
> approach
> to formal research this PhD model is in an intense period of  
> discovery and
> uncertainty. Evaluative methodologies are in flux and debate over  
> what is
> and isn't appropriate rages (as well as any academic debate can  
> rage?).
> But to address the specifics of your question. Practice can be  
> research in
> itself. This is a well established case in the area of music  
> composition,
> where the work or works composed can be presented as the main  
> output of the
> research. The argument is that as a language music can contain  
> knowledge,
> including new knowledge, and also present that knowledge within a  
> research
> context. However, I am a little uncomfortable with this. Having  
> studied
> music at University level I found this approach tended to stifle  
> creativity.
> I also find it strange that some institutions do not require an  
> analysis of
> the composition(s). This is a critical component of a conventional  
> PhD as it
> is the primary means of reflection upon value and where that value  
> is found.
> It is also where the main attempt is usually made to ensure that  
> knowledge
> is not personal but shared, this being critical to what the usual  
> purpose of
> a PhD is. Therefore one has to conclude that a PhD in music, as it is
> pursued in some institutions, is very different to a conventional  
> PhD. The
> question here is whether these PhD's are then perceived to be of  
> compromised
> value. My experience is that they are well received in the world of  
> academic
> musical composition, so I guess they meet the needs of that community.
> Perhaps here we have a suggestion of how a delicate balancing act  
> has to be
> established between the creative process as a means to research, as an
> object of research and as a research outcome. Too much of any one  
> of these
> and it is possible that the creative element will be snuffed out  
> through
> over formalisation. I like to think of this as a little like particle
> physics, where it is not possible to observe directly the thing you  
> wish to
> observe without recognising its non-existence. Therefore you need to
> construct complex systems that will engage with the phenomena you are
> seeking to study and then observe the resulting interactions. The  
> idea of
> the metanarrative here is important as it allows you this "other  
> system" to
> reflect on the work. The conventional medium of the metanarrative is
> language and the conventional form of that, in a PhD, is the  
> thesis. Whilst
> it might not be radical to contextualise the work with a thesis it is
> proven.
> The second question regarding Professional PhD's is a timely one.  
> These are
> becoming popular in UK institutions, particularly in traditionally
> non-academic subjects (business studies, nursing, engineering,  
> etc). They
> clearly have a role when they are properly setup (some are not and  
> these are
> in danger of compromising the perceived value of such degrees). Is  
> this
> model appropriate to creative practitioners? I have no direct  
> experience of
> this type of PhD, although I have attended study days where  
> examples have
> been presented and evaluated. I have also had colleagues who have  
> completed
> them. It seemed to me that the same issues around validity were being
> struggled with but that the methods involved in such research were  
> distinct
> from those involved in practice based PhD's.
> The comment on benchmarking of practice based PhD's is also timely.  
> This is
> in process in the UK right now. An independent academic study,  
> commissioned
> by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, was completed at the  
> end of the
> last calendar year addressing exactly this question. It has been  
> submitted
> to the AHRC and I hear they are currently digesting its contents  
> before
> making it public. Apparently it contains some difficult conclusions  
> for the
> AHRC and they need to consider it quite carefully. Whatever,  
> hopefully this
> document will be in the public realm soon and some concrete data and
> conclusions on the relative merits of various PhD models will be  
> available
> for discussion.
> I guess we just have to watch that space...
> Regards
> Simon
> On 13/1/07 04:01, "Danny Butt" <db at dannybutt.net> wrote:
>> A couple of questions which I think are fundamental to the practice-
>> based PhD:
>> 1) The PhD is fundamentally a research training qualification, and in
>> different countries and institutions the research/creativepractice
>> homologies are more or less developed. Is the practice component seen
>> as i) research in itself, ii) somehow equivalent to research but not
>> exactly the same, or iii) not research but a reflexive form of
>> practice which requires academic writing to secure its contribution
>> to knowledge (or transferability)? In my view, there are no right
>> answers to these questions but they are more or less determined by
>> the institutions responsible for the money, with governments taking a
>> much stronger role in the Commonwealth countries than in the US, and
>> a range of different approaches among the non-English speaking
>> countries which others will know more about than me. The point is
>> that one needs to have a viable definition of research, and be
>> prepared to make a strong case for the role that practice plays in
>> the research qualification.
>> 2) There are a whole lot of useful questions in other professions
>> that are relevant to this discussion. In particular, I'm intrigued by
>> why there isn't more discussion of professional doctorates such as
>> those found in disciplines like engineering, business administration
>> or clinical psychology; which seem to have similar issues about the
>> inseparability of the professional domain from disciplinary
>> leadership, and could provide useful models. My gut feeling is that
>> there is a lot of anxiety about branding and the PhD is surely the
>> most exclusive brand among research qualifications, with a near-
>> mystical appeal for the artist-academic who may or may not have a
>> very strong academic research orientation in their work. I'm
>> surprised at how little benchmarking with other professions seems to
>> have taken place with some of these qualifications (which vary
>> greatly from institution to institution as far as I can tell).
>> Another off the cuff:
>> 3) What role does laboratory practice and training play in the hard
>> sciences, and how would those be equated with craft skills in the
>> creative sector? Would this question have implications for how we
>> conceive practice-based creative research?
>> Anyone interested in this discussion may wish to check out the PhD
>> Design list which has a whole bunch of experienced people discussing
>> these issues:
>> http://www.jiscmail.ac.uk/lists/phd-design.html
>> Best regards,
>> Danny
> Simon Biggs
> simon at littlepig.org.uk
> http://www.littlepig.org.uk/
> AIM: simonbiggsuk
> Research Professor, Edinburgh College of Art
> s.biggs at eca.ac.uk
> http://www.eca.ac.uk/
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