[iDC] Praxis-based Ph.D.s

Kathy High kittyhigh at earthlink.net
Sun Jan 14 22:01:09 EST 2007

Dear All,

I thank you for these posts and the discussion about practice based PhDs. It has been useful to me to consider all of the above mentioned – from the more critical view of the glut of the market with MFA degrees thus necessitating the inflationary degree to a PhD, to the trans-disciplinary nature of evolving cross-studies. So thanks.

I am a video artist who came to academia full time just five years ago. I had been teaching for years as a Visiting Lecturer, etc., and only succumbed to the full-time job because of a position open at RPI (Troy, NY) in the Arts Dept. The Department was of interest to me, partly because it was situated within a traditional engineering/science based university, but also because of the make-up of the Department: self-defined as an integrated electronics arts dept. where combinations of computer musicians, video artists, tactical media artists/interventionists, community activists, performance artists, interactive installation artists, theorists and more. This eclectic grouping is what intrigued me, and the combination of politics alongside the “fine” arts – this was some unique fusion that mirrored (for me) a moment in early media art history. (This is the same department that Mary Anne Staniszewski writes about!) 

Because I came from years of arts management working with non-profit organizations and ad hoc arts institutions and collectives prior to academia, I fell neatly into administrative roles at RPI. I am now Head of the RPI Arts Department (have been for two and half years) and served as the Graduate Director for two years prior to this position.

I will now proceed to be pragmatic regarding the PhD, because it is my nature (and currently my job). (To echo Tom Sherman’s posting)…The situation in the States has been one where the funding to support the arts has been shrinking drastically over time. So now artists gravitate either to commercial galleries where they can sell their works, or to academia for teaching jobs – if they are lucky enough to get a full-time tenure track job. Now that I am in such a situation as the later, I can see clearly how this model is built to prepare students to follow suit and after they complete their MFA to continue in academia themselves. But with the 10,000 MFA graduates per year in the U.S. where can they all go? Now they can go back to academia for another degree… it does make me a tad cynical and wary of degree inflation. 

As Head of a department I worry about things like what the addition of PhD candidates will do to the already hard working faculty. I quite like Pam Jennings’ model of the mentor (in the Arts) vs apprentice (in Computer Science): “The student teacher relationship in the MFA is one of mentor to mentee. The student teacher relationship in computer science is one of apprenticeship.” I am afraid that the mentor version within our department will become really taxing for the practicing artists who teach here, adding PhD students on top of that will be further time consuming. It will open areas such as further and lengthier collaborations with said students, more developed Teaching Assistantships, but will also consume faculty for an even longer duration regarding mentoring.

Another concern I have is that our Arts department does not bring in “research” funds as of yet. So the traditional model of supporting PhD candidates beyond their 3rd year is not possible within the institutional model. There will be more grants available to these students than there are now for the MFA funding, but it is limited. So I worry that the students will be stuck with no support at the critical point of needing to complete their dissertation/thesis project. Or, as a Department, there will be increased pressure put upon us to develop large grants to support graduate students as there are supported in the Sciences and in Engineering.

I also wonder what it will do for the artwork itself.  The most successful models I have seen to date are with artists who have been practicing for some time. The foray into the PhD allowed them time to “sum up” and articulate a strong position for their work that was most likely welcome to curators, historians, and the artist themselves. For example, I am personally interested in perhaps pursuing a PhD because I have become involved in biology and biological technologies and am curious to study systems biology and the like and to take the time to examine the ethical issues around working with animals etc. This would be of great value to my work. But had I done this earlier I am not sure I would have had the time to develop the working methods I already have in place, and to understand my cycles of production/non-production. I am not trying to romanticize my process here, but to clarify that because it is a kind of cultural production that is undervalued in our culture in the States, it took me some time to appreciate the process of this work, and to value its differences (momentum, inertia, etc.) – say from the administrative work I am tied to as Head of the Department.

And finally an off-the-wall concern: 
Lately I am interested in creating a situation where collective and collaborative works can be acknowledged within academia. It is difficult for degree programs to honor this kind of working relationship as there needs to be autonomy and identification of work as one’s own. But currently some of the most interesting works are being produced by artists working collectively, not by simply produced by one author. This model goes against the grain of the academic model – where to gain tenure and promotion the work of one person is assessed and evaluated for its merits and contributions within the field. Will we ever be able to grant collective degrees to multiple parties acknowledging this model of cultural production? Or is this simply too absurd. This calls into question the idea of the conservative nature of academia (which has been raised already), but makes me nervous that we are locked into one system… I want mobility…

I do appreciate a combined synergistic approach to theory(research) and practice and have learned much from the filmmakers/video artists who have worked to make clear their engagement with the tools they work with, thus clarifying their questions THOURGH their work. So, if this “practice” of working and theorizing can be made clearer through this process of PhD work, then more power to it. I hope that on each of our departments we can make room for any and all of these approaches, and not succumb to the limitations of professionalism and certification that lives well in academia. Artists need to write and articulate their own processes these days and I am excited by this approach.

Ok, I will sign off here because I need to get back to some other works. Thanks for a stimulating discussion. Thanks Margaret for mderating and summarizing...

Kathy High



Kathy High, Head of Department of Arts  
RPI / Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
518.209.6209 cell     

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