More about doctoral study and academic identity

I’ve been finishing off a chunk of reading for the IDR unit, which I found interesting to varying degrees. Some thoughts:

Barnacle, R. & Mewburn, I. 2010. Learning networks and the journey of ‘becoming doctor’. Studies in Higher Education. 35 (4), pp433-444

I could dismiss this as an attempt to theorise the loss of one’s ID cards (I have lost my own so many times it’s become a non-event), but it is, I think, a suitable example of autoethnography that applies a theoretical framework (actor-network theory) to illuminate aspects of part-time doctoral study – in this the role of material things (artefacts, spaces, people) in the ‘network’ within which we act.

Inger bookThis paper was the only one of three which drew on photographic ‘evidence’ (see left). I found the photos engaging as I could very easily recognise similar objects and themes in my own experience. They emphasise and privilege the personal experience of the author, which I guess is the point of autoethnography, but I did find myself resisting being totally drawn into such a personal journey, scribbling questions in the margin about the implications for academia and knowledge itself. I think I wanted more explicit connections to be made between the experience of doctoral study and the overall progress of humanity…

The paper made me consider yet again the differences between being a part-time EdD student and embarking on a funded, full-time PhD. I wonder if EdD students tend to have more agency in choosing and building their networks, and perhaps we are more likely to have existing, well-established academic networks (and an academic identity)? If we are already experienced network-builders than there is not so much of a need for the university to take action to support us in doing this; we can initiate it ourselves; perhaps collectively. I recall the questions I had for the course team when applying to Brookes were network-focused; who am I going to be studying with? To what extent are our interests likely to overlap? I guess I imagined my EdD classmates would become more central to my network than they have been. One factor in this might be my absence from the annual EdD colloquium as I won’t give up Glastonbury for it (would you?!), and there has been a lot of activity around that that I’ve missed, including the Hawaii exchange. There’s no Glasto in 2017; I should probably prepare to maximise my engagement that year…

Cotterall, S. 2013. More than just a brain: emotions and the doctoral experience. Higher Education Research & Development 32 (2) pp174-187

I found this paper interesting to an extent. I didn’t feel it challenged my thinking, but it did cause me to ask some questions. The author adopts the view that emotions are learned behaviours, and points out that while some emotions promote motivation and focus, others (e.g. anxiety) can inhibit thinking. The study claims to adopt the theoretical lens of Activity Theory, with participants’ responses categorised against elements of the activity system (e.g. emotions about rules, the community, etc). It wasn’t obvious why participant responses had been grouped in this way. I thought the examples given could have been interpreted as applying to multiple elements, depending on how those elements are being interpreted in context (which I didn’t think was made clear). As Cotterall points out: ‘doctoral students participate simultaneously in multiple activity systems’ (p177). In short, I wasn’t sure what the activity theory framework added to the interpretation of participants’ responses; it seemed like a fairly arbitrary classification.

I felt there was a distinctive aspect of doctoral study being illuminated here, i.e. the different ways in which international students encounter prejudice. Accounts of ‘othering’, racism and language issues arose frequently. However, Cotterall writes that she did not set out to discover universal ‘truths’ about the experience of international doctoral students, but simply to highlight that emotions pervade the doctoral experience and need to be acknowledged by supervisors and departments (and presumably the students themselves?).

Hunt, C. 2001 Climbing Out of the Void: Moving from chaos to concepts in the presentation of a thesis. Teaching in Higher Education, 6 (3) pp351-367

I liked this one a lot. Why? Because it kind of proved me wrong. I thought this was going to be another paper on the unbearable pain of doing a doctorate (gahhhh) but it wasn’t; it explored with hindsight an extended hiatus in doctoral study that appeared to have been prompted by an unexpectedly critical feedback exchange. I liked that the references in this paper were familiar to me; that the same ideas had resonated with the author (e.g. Bernstein, Belenky et al., Reason). Hunt cites Heron’s (1996) phrase ‘delicious void’ on p364; maybe that’s what she should have called this paper; clearly she didn’t like being plunged into the void at the time, but she seemed to enjoy the process of lifting herself out of it.

Why such a shift in the tone of the adviser’s feedback from the first to the second draft? Why did Hunt ‘roll over and play dead’ rather than talk with him about it? I sensed there was more to the story than is revealed in this paper. I wonder how Hunt’s research – her contribution to knowledge – might have been different had her adviser simply acknowledged her second draft with a ‘well done, keep going’. Would she have made the necessary connections between the process and content of the thesis? Would she have gained such a deep insight into different ways of knowing? I liked the comparative table on p363. I would have loved to have seen the author engage in a kind of debrief with her ex-adviser where both reflected on the comments exchanged and the events that ensued. Risky, perhaps, but potentially an exciting way to explore Heidegger’s ‘Lichtung‘, the clearing in between people where meaning is constructed. Hunt has – to an extent – been able to learn from this incident and apply that learning to her own dealings with students, but this is only half of the story. We don’t know what her adviser learned from it.

Ian suggested we consider the evidence Hunt uses in this paper to track her development. I like the way the paper is written around a section of her final thesis; this is a key piece of evidence and it fits in well. She also presents the feedback she received from her original adviser on the first and second draft, the emotions she experienced receiving this feedback, and also the advice of the colleagues who supported her in resurrecting the work. She is openly cautious about presenting her original adviser’s feedback and did not seek permission to use it. I guess there is an ethical argument that exploring how the feedback affected Hunt and the development of her thesis has a social value that outweighs any potential harm to the individual concerned.

To summarise – these three papers presented a range of ways in which an individual’s experience can be used to illuminate an aspect of doctoral study (whether distinctive or universal). If I am to take something from them, it might be ideas for difference kinds of evidence that might be used; perhaps also that the application of a theoretical framework can be compelling, but only if its utility is obvious.

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