Problematising knowledge which has been drawn from experience

Research practice has a long provenance dating back to the Ancient Greeks. During the Enlightenment period, the emergence of scientific method so influenced research practice that for some time this was the accepted approach. This dominance was challenged during the paradigm wars and out of this challenge emerged the multitude of ways of undertaking research that has become the familiar ground in contemporary research practice.

Throughout this provenance, the value of practical or experiential knowledge has been consistently devalued. The Greeks preferred intellectual knowledge over practical knowledge. During the Renaissance, written intellectual knowledge had precedence over practical knowledge. The emergence of scientific method was the point of ascendance of scientific knowledge and continued degradation of practical or experiential knowledge.

Since the paradigm wars, experiential and practical knowledge has found a new epistemological popularity in university based research. There have been a range of investigations into a variety of practices. In the recent Excellence in Research (in Australia) performative practice also joined this array of practices which can be investigated through the rigour of a university research process. The increasing acknowledgement of experiential or practical knowledge within rigorous research generates a need to problematise it.

Undertaking an investigation into any form of practice involves an amount of reflection. In order to know what we do in any practice, there is a need to think about and articulate what that practice involves. Regardless of the practice being investigated, this form of reflection generates a stream of consciousness which can provide lots of information about a given practice but, unless this knowledge is in some way systematised, it can be overwhelming for a reader, and the value of this knowledge for other practitioners becomes questionable.

In my own investigative practice I am regularly drawing on experiential or practice based knowledge to better understand a given practice. One approach I have used to systemise the volume of knowledge that emerges from this sort of reflection is what I call naming elements of a practice – giving names to aspects of what is done in a practice – and framing the practice. Framing a practice involves establishing some way of sorting all the knowledge about a practice into a format so that other people can learn about it. Sometimes this framing can be chronological – first you do this then you do this. But, not all practices fit this sort of systematisation. Research supervision is a good example of a practice not fitting a chronological system and hence in this blog, which is intended to articulate knowledge about research supervision practice, I have provided a framework of four elements of research supervision practice. A different investigator might generate a different framework, but having the framework is an important part of attempting to make tidy what is otherwise a complicated practice.

Suggesting naming and framing as one approach to reflecting on practice also helps to identify two other methods:

Provenance is a term more commonly used in antique dealing. It details who has made and previously owned items of antiquity. When I apply this to practice it suggests that a practice has a general provenance – a history of where that particular practice has evolved from and developed – along with a personal provenance – how a particular practitioner has developed their practice. If I again draw on the example of research supervision, it could be said that it has a general provenance that draws on the ancient Greek pedagogy along with aspects of the Medieval Guilds that fed into the Medieval universities. If I think about my personal provenance: I came to research supervision after completing a Master’s research degree followed by a doctoral research degree, after which I began supervising other research students who were presenting for professional doctorates similar to the one I had completed.

Criticality is a third way in which one can organise reflection about a practice. Once you have named and framed the practice you can begin to ask yourself why you make certain decisions about the delivery of that practice? What is the belief system that underpins your delivery of a particular practice? What is the philosophy behind your practice? These questions all allude to a deeper reflection about a practice that from a reflective practice perspective can be described as critical reflection. In my own research supervision practice, when I ask myself why I spend so much time finding out what a research student already knows, I can answer that this is part of my pedagogy of research supervision and is my way of affirming and building on a research student’s prior knowledge.

Thinking about different ways to reflect also begs a further problematising of drawing on experience for knowledge and that is considering how one writes about practice. When I wrote my dissertation exploring the practices of doing a doctorate, I used my personal story (provenance) of undertaking a previous research degree to provide the initial stream of consciousness. I then named and framed that collection of ideas about doing a doctorate into a framework of

  1. research practice,
  2. writing practice,
  3. supervision practice and
  4. examination practice.

I further used a form of footnoting in my stream of consciousness to document my  criticality with my reflection on the practice, generating a thesis that some practices in doing a doctorate (such as the anonymity in dissertation examination), were incongruent with the stated inquiry paradigms.

In my current research into the performative practices of cabaret, this framework of naming and framing, provenance and criticality provides a way to draw together a vast amount of reflective material into some sort of knowledge platform to help other cabaret artists understand how to develop and deliver a cabaret.

…so what can a supervisor do?

Given this way of thinking about knowledge arising from practice, what might be the role of the (research) supervisor?

  1.  Help your student to articulate their practice.

For many people investigating practice there is a sense that some aspects of practice are taken for granted. These aspects of practice need to be teased out so that they become both explicit and open to critique.

A good example is the teacher investigating their practice who suggests ‘I just go into the classroom and teach!’. This statement can be elaborated and articulated with the supervisor asking the leading question ‘so what does that involve?’.

  1. Help your student to arrange their reflection in a way that helps to make a contribution to knowledge.

Students themselves may begin to create a framework for ordering their realisations about a practice. As a supervisor you might help them create names for their collectives of practice or draw their attention to literature which has already established a framework for arranging ideas in this practice.

  1. Helping a student to document their provenance.

Helping a student to note their own provenance of practice can be somewhat like an archaeological dig: the more you reveal the more is open to be revealed. The question ‘How did you come to do this?’ can be answered with a brief chronology and as you discuss the elements in this timeline it can reveal more experience as well as literature to which a student may have been exposed during their development of practice and which has consciously or unconsciously informed their practice.

  1. Bring to bear criticality.

One of the key outcomes of a doctoral investigation is critical thinking and as a questioning supervisor you can help a student to develop this. You can point out anomalies and parallels in what they have told you and written about. You can draw their attention to decisions they have made and question why they believe these decisions were made.

….and as an afterthought, these ways of working with you research student are also ways that you can apply to yourself to explore your own practice of research supervision. This will help you to concretise your own practice.


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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One Response to Problematising knowledge which has been drawn from experience

  1. Thanks for this question. it is a very pertinent one.
    Because most of my writing is about practice I tend to trust the experiences will lead me into what I need to write. That means that I take note in conversations about things that i am talking about that might end up being some record of practice. Sometimes I need to sit down and ask myself what I have been doing for the past day, week, month in order to being to focus on my practice.
    I carry a note book and in this I write things that might be interesting. Some of these turn into full blown descriptions and investigations of practice: others sit there for a while.
    Sometimes I will write a skeleton of what I am thinking particualrly if I am trying to make an argument of my description. Perhaps the hardest one for me to write is conclusions. Or more correctly articulating the conclusions. They are often in my head but they don’t come as easily ot the paper.
    Finally I advocate recreation time to get the brain cells going – a walk, a cup of coffee, definately invigorating conversations. Sometimes I try to arrive early for a meeting at a coffee shop becasue there is something in the atmosphere that helps me begin to write – maybe its the sence of the Philosophy Cafes from paris during the time of the enlightenment only they invigorated themselves with wine!
    Hope this helps to explore your question.

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