Nurturing creativity within the PhD

bean sprouts

Creativity maintains an uncomfortable alliance within research. On the one hand definitions of research suggest that the process generates ‘new’ knowledge, while on the other hand, publication of research is imbued with traditions that sometimes discourage difference and creativity.
The recent article in the Times Higher Education supplement (Oswald, 2014)
http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/opinion/in-research-weird-is-wonderful/2014085.article
describes the early years when research on happiness was new and how those ideas were blocked by hostile academics and gate keeping journal editors. Oswald makes the point in that article that it can be very difficult to get a new idea published.
I would attest to Oswald’s (2014) proposition. From early in my academic life I have championed different ways of both doing and publishing research. I established my career as an action inquirer, once considered quite marginal, and developed that into practice-led inquiry. I have also championed cabaret as academic discourse. Perseverance pays off and after over fifteen years challenging some quite established traditions of research publication I find that my new ideas are welcomed in a variety of outlets, as is evidenced by the recent publication in The Conversation
https://theconversation.com/research-cabaret-come-hear-the-music-play-27010
Because of my stance with regard to creative approaches to publishing research I am often engaged in conversations with colleagues who both admire my drive to retain and celebrate creativity in my research and regret the road blocks that are placed in their path when they make attempts to nurture their own creativity. Ana Duffy is one such colleague. She is a PhD student investigating the creative writing of Argentinian author Luisa Valenzuela http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luisa_Valenzuela .

In a recent conversation with Ana she commented that while she reads and analyses this other writer’s creative work, she also grieves the apparent barriers in academic writing that prevent her from nurturing her own creative writing.
I encouraged her to write about that grief!
Below is the short story that Anna wrote.

The dead nun: a requiem for I. – Ana Duffy
Once upon a time I was told I could write. The day I wrote a composition on the Argentinean flag, it was read aloud. And after that came Independence Day or the May Revolution, the war or, on the following year, the flag again. And I wrote. I wrote for me and for my friends. My friends in need of written flags. My hand was easy and there was no such a thing as a draft. My flags had the colours right and my wars had Tom and Jerry bombs to fight with and missing match boxes to stop them. My wars were wrong but my words were right.
Once upon a time I was told I could write. And I happened to believe I could.
I got older, and the flag was a serious matter but my words could still say it. And they were right. But the nun died anyway. Mine was a nun’s school and the serious matters wore black and white and fondled holy rosaries. And they were mostly old, like everything above the seventh grade was then. A nun died and I was commended to write about her. Not that I knew her, not that I did fight any wars with or without matches. But I wrote the dead nun anyway. Words were wordy then, like a tomb stone, they were a couple of sizes bigger than me. But I could grab any word I liked and make them all mine. That was a nice death made into a poem, about some nun, written on demand. The war and the nun. Death was wrong but my words were right. Once upon a time I was told I could write.
I am a PhD student now. One that once upon a time believed she could write.
I am not a PhD student. There is no I. There is a We. We are a PhD student. We, with the name of I.
I cannot grab any word; there is a proper way to say things with the precise words. And definitely I cannot make them mine. Which makes it one major drawback. Neither I nor mine.
I cannot write Tom and Jerry wars, they are not even scholarly. Let alone peer reviewed.
I cannot say war is wrong, I have to find someone that says it is someone that says it is not. And be critical, form an opinion I cannot quite express. Because there is not I.
I cannot write the flag because I changed flags. And the flag around my language is a foreign one now. My words are flagless. The ones with a flag, I borrow. Still not mine.
I cannot write the dead nun. Or quote her. I did not know her, neither the academic world. She died outside my scope of work.
I am a We and a PhD student now. But is wrong. However is right. Furthermore is better.
Once upon a time I was told I could write. I cannot quote who said it. It was not the dead nun.
Once upon a time I could make any word mine. Even the ones from the tomb stone. Unquoted.
Once upon a time, a nun in a poem.
Once upon a time, I.
One dead nun. One PhD student that thought she could write.

At the moment this is one story that gives voice to a grief that I expect is familiar to many PhD students, that they also feel their creative spirit is crushed by some of the requirements of academic writing.

How can an advisor nurture a creative spirit?
When I think back over my own candidature, I can identify two key moments of support in which my advisors encouraged my creativity. That is not to say that there were many others but these two shine out!
The first incident was encouragement. One of my advisors attended a cabaret I performed and following this she encouraged me to include a cabaret in my doctoral publications as a means to give voice to my researcher’s journey. That cabaret was written and ‘Doing a Doctorate’ was performed just prior to my candidature completion and graduation.
A second incident relates to the performance of my ‘Doing a Doctorate’ cabaret. I did not witness this first hand but heard of a morning tea room conversation about my cabaret the morning after I had presented. There was discussion as to whether I should be awarded my doctoral degree for my cabaret. My supervisor set the assembly straight in explaining that the cabaret was one of many publications that emerged from my study, and that my degree was being awarded for the monograph, my dissertation not the cabaret which was but one part of the monograph.

I have taken these two forms of encouragement to heart as I have worked with other students to help them nurture their creative spirits through the doctoral process.

  1. Perhaps the most important factor is that I try to live out my espoused beliefs of alternate paths for researchers. I take a political stand in advocating practice-led inquiry and I put my own work on the line taking cabarets out to present them to academic audiences. I believe that modelling is one of the most powerful forms of facilitating change.
  2. A second important factor is providing time to read and comment on examples of creative work to help a research student plot out both a vision for the creative work and re-vision it into their research. I believe that creative expression provides an ideal strategy for a researcher to articulate their researcher’s voice.
  3. There is an early childhood pedagogy of provisioning the environment and that translates into my own perception of research supervision, that my knowledge of what is required for a doctoral degree helps to mould the student’s research and creative expression into something that it recognised for its PhDness. The environment has changed and new rules about what constitutes a research contribution have opened up so many doors for creative expression.
  4. A fourth factor is actively seeking opportunities to support their publication through creative means so that multiple examples populate the terrain.
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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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