Friday, July 11, 2014

The DIY PhD and the Transformation of Intellectual Life

NYC - MoMA - Andy Warhol's Do It Yourself (Lan...
Andy Warhol's Do It Yourself (Landscape) (Photo credit: wallyg)

My point is that the way in which higher education changes is very complex but that the converging movements of graduate students into the system is crucial to understanding the dynamics we find within it.

The issue patter’s post raised for me, which I’ve obsessed about from time to time but struggled to articulate clearly is: are graduate students becoming more reflexive and, if so, what are the implications of this for higher education?

For younger graduate students, I’d argue this reflexive imperative reflects a broader set of social processes, though would certainly accept the reality of social inertia being facilitated by privilege. I’d argue that pursuing education at a later age is inherently reflexive (see the late John Alford’s PhD thesis which I’d love to help get published at some point).

But does higher education itself lead to an intensification of this reflexivity and, if so, what are its implications for the system itself? This is where I found patter’s post so thought provoking and helpful. The post is definitely worth reading in full.
The plethora of advice books (Kamler & Thomson, 2008) were probably the first major indication of the trend to de-institutionalise doctoral education through DIY pedagogy. The advent of social media has exponentially accelerated it. Doctoral researchers can now access a range of websites such as LitReviewHQPhD2Published and The Three Month Thesis youtube channel. They can read blogs written by researchers and academic developers e.g. Thesis WhispererDoctoral Writing SIGExplorations of Style, and of course this one. They can synchronously chat on social media about research via general hashtags #phdchat #phdforum and #acwri, or discipline specific hashtags such as #twitterstorians or #socphd. They can buy webinars, coaching and courses in almost all aspects of doctoral research. Doctoral researchers are also themselves increasingly blogging about their own experiences and some are also offering advice to others. Much of this socially mediated DIY activity is international, cross-disciplinary and all day/all night. We know too little about how doctoral researchers weigh up the advice they get from social media compared to that of their institutional grad school and their supervisors. We also don’t know much about how supervisors engage with this DIY sphere, particularly about how much they talk with their supervisees about what they are doing online. We don’t know what support doctoral researchers get to work out what is good and bad online advice. We don’t know how supervisors and academic developers build on what doctoral researchers are learning elsewhere.
As someone who is engaged in this DIY field with books, blogs and twitter, it seems pretty apparent to me that something is happening here and we (collectively) don’t know what it is. It’s largely outside the normative audit oriented training processes that Green and Lee were so concerned about. It’s a field which is fragmented, partially marketised, unregulated and a bit feral. But it’s big, it’s powerful, more and more doctoral researchers are into it, and it is profoundly pedagogical. I’m concerned that British universities are generally (and of course there are exceptions, but mostly this is the case)not helping supervisors to think about this DIY supervision trend and what it means for how doctoral education is changing – and crucially, what the implications for their supervision practices might be.
I find the implications of this fascinating. If DIY educational practices are becoming a dominant feature of postgraduate education then what are the implications of this for how disciplines reproduce themselves and how higher education reproduces itself?

I think there’s important work to be done both in mapping this trend empirically - clearly the social media sphere is integral to this (it has been to my own DIY PhD) but it extends much more broadly.

Are there more reading groups, informal seminars, DIY conferences than have previously been the case? Do universities support these activities or are people creatively using the affordances provided by social media to organise outside of their institutions? Is the nascent industry of online coaching and training likely to grow and what are the implications of this? How do ‘para-academics’ and ‘alt-academics’ figure into this trend?

To what extent do precarious working practices explain this tendency and to what extent are they reinforced by it? If it’s becoming more common (note the if, I’m conscious of the risk of assuming a linearity to a change) to work as a research assistant outside the context of your doctoral education then how does this change your orientation towards your PhD itself?

Does the reflexivity made imperative by a precarious labour market devoid of full time work (let alone ongoing contracts) for postgraduate students inculcate a greater degree of reflexivity about their studies?

Is this intensifying the significance of peer socialisation in doctoral education and, if so, could we securely say that this is a good thing? What are the implications of these trends for intellectual quality and endorsement of the (conflicted) norms in virtue of which we seek to assess that ‘quality’?

There are lots of fascinating questions here. Not for the first time I find myself frustrated to realise that there’s another topic I’d like to do serious work on but, only having so much time and energy, I can’t given my existing commitments. Reflecting on my own experience (and resisting the urge to dignify it with the epithet auto-ethnographic) I think that a DIY PhD has proved inimical to specialisation.

The range of experiences it has encompassed have expanded my awareness of intellectual variety (things to do, stuff to read, places to go, people to talk to) in a way which makes the necessity of patiently focusing upon one topic a deeply frustrating one. I wonder what other people’s experiences of a DIY PhD have been?

(and don’t even get me started on the politics of the DIY PhD).

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