[iDC] Praxis-based Ph.D.s

Geoffrey Alan Rhodes GARhodes at hotpop.com
Fri Jun 29 10:58:32 EDT 2007

Whoa-- a blast from the past!
I've been talking to people recently about this older thread on the  
listserv, and still feel like there's some ideas left to be hashed  
out.  So for those that are interested, here's Praxis-based Ph.D.s 2.0.

Praxis PHDs in 'Media Philosophy/Art' from another side:

I am in a different position, bridging a few of these worlds, but  
from the other side of the fence.  I completed my MFA in the U.S.  
(SUNY Buffalo Dept. Media Study) and have now been in Canada for a  
year and a half in an interdisciplinary PHD program that emphasizes  
(or desires to emphasize) a combination of practice and theory (York  
University's Dept. Communication & Culture).  There has been a much  
greater transition than I expected between what my actual practice  
has been as MFA student and PHD student, and I find that really the  
key elements are money, time, and community.

I agree with some that there is a fundamental disconnect between PHDs  
in the humanities and art practice.  I think one reason that PHDs in  
media arts have experienced good success in the technical realm, and  
in longer standing, such as MIT's Media Lab, is that engineering and  
science have a long tradition of practice as scholarship.  The  
humanities, on the other hand, has no accepted epistomology of art,  
and I find that PHD work, still, has to pass through the filter of  
'scholarship' which is all language based.  Though art creation can  
be part of your scholarship, I think conceptually it takes on much  
the role that art already has in scholarship, as example.  All work  
must pass through language, be couched in language, and be critiqued  
and evaluated in language; in the case of media arts, this means  
theorists, and media philosophers.  This is not a new distinction; it  
is the same that has existed in the Art and Art History divides,  
where the corresponding MFA and PHDs have already existed.  It is not  
that I doubt the importance of media theory at PHD level of  
accredited scholarship, but I do wonder if practice has a role in  
it.  I think the area that really cries out is 'Media Philosophy', or  
'Visual Studies', or 'Semiotics', or, as my department is ambitiously  
called, 'Communicaiton & Culture'.  But being in a PHD program makes  
me understand the MFA and its role as a shorter, sort of bastard mule  
between PHDs and BFAs.  MFAs are really a special entity, that draw  
on the resources and structures of graduate school to give time,  
space, training, and facilities (and money) to artists to improve  
their practice, in exchange for the necessary "vocational" (as it is  
frequently called, though I think this misrepresents creative skills  
that are in large part immutable between mediums, just as chemistry  
can be used to build bombs or bubble gum, so can photoshop be used  
for billboards or gallery art) pedagogy.  In my experience of an MFA,  
I understand now that the department in large part was giving lip  
service to the graduate school, dressing up it's wolf in sheep skin  
to pas through the accounting office, but in fact what was being  
emphasized and supported was creative work.  I find the PHD much more  
true to its form.  And I do not completely enjoy it.  Though I find  
scholarship in general stimulating, I also resent the time it takes.   
But, I infact find it completely resonable.  I think teachers at a  
university should be so adept at language, because their role is  
communication and teaching in langauge, and there is another system  
set up to fund and distribute non-text communication of ideas in the  
gallery.  What I have discovered as a PHD student that it is instead  
the MFA that needs to be preserved, because it is the valuable scam  
(or, perhaps the art mafia will also infiltrate the PHD).

On Jan 16, 2007, at 5:22 PM, Simon Biggs wrote:

> I am not sure I would be envious of the UK model. The economic  
> envelope here
> is so much smaller than the US, with consequent implications for  
> the scale
> at which things get done. Many Universities here have also been
> corporatised, although most of the older (research oriented)  
> institutions
> have not had the pressures upon them that leads to this.
> In the UK there is no tension between the MA and PhD options. The  
> MFA is
> another question, but we do not have that. Therefore the PhD does not
> threaten any existing paradigms of pedagogy, although it does  
> disturb some
> notions about what an artist can do, how their role can be  
> constituted and
> why they do what they do. Some people find this disturbing, others  
> exciting.
> Personally I am not risk (or change) adverse and am always open to  
> give
> things a go, so long as you have a backup where you can revert in a  
> crisis.
> Regards
> Simon
> On 16/1/07 17:41, "Christiane Robbins" <cpr at mindspring.com> wrote:
>> Thanks so much for this response, Simon which has proven, once again,
>> thought provoking.
>> I realize that the situation in the UK is very different ( and I am
>> somewhat envious! )  In the late 90's, I had held various programs in
>> the UK as models for what could be seen as viable in the States.  The
>> post colonial patterns of power be what they may, my own shortcoming
>> was not realizing truly how wide the cultural difference really is
>> between the UK ( and perhaps the EU and Canada) and the States.  This
>> cultural difference has expanded in the past few years, with the
>> culture here in the States becoming increasing constricted and
>> regulated.  To a foreigner, it does not seem to have taken hold quite
>> as deeply in the UK and there is much more acceptance and
>> respectability for what has is known in corporate jargon as "working
>> outside the box."
>> In considering this entire debate and my own role in creating such a
>> curricula in the late 90's/early 00's, I have been forced to come
>> face to face with my own reframing of the visionary opportunities
>> possible within a University framework.  In my earlier proposals of a
>> PHD in digital media arts, I/we had viewed DMA as a cross-
>> disciplinary program.  In this case it was intended for the Schools
>> of Cinema, Art, Communication, Music, Theatre, Engineering and
>> Computer Science within a University.  It was not seen as a
>> replacement of the MFA for a specific visual art or media program -
>> much as a PHD in Economics is not seen as a replacement for an MBA.
>> It was viewed as an augmentation for advancing a specific new
>> language and forging the foundation of what was then an
>> epistemological exercise.  Of course, this had the support of a
>> University wide Presidential initiative for interdisciplinary study
>> and programs - which continues today- almost a decade later.
>> Unfortunately or fortunately, as the case may be,  I have to run but
>> thanks again for this discussion -
>> Best,
>> Chris
>> On Jan 16, 2007, at 4:13 AM, Simon Biggs wrote:
>>> A quick response as at this time I am overseeing the move of 56
>>> (practice
>>> based) PhD's from one building to another.
>>> On 16/1/07 03:04, "Christiane Robbins" <cpr at mindspring.com> wrote:
>>>> This debate  has revolved around questions/responses such as:    
>>>> What
>>>> is the purpose of a PhD within the context of the arts and the
>>>> university structure? Why is ithe PHD only being considered for
>>>> digital media artist sand not for artists in general?
>>> -----
>>> The situation in the UK is very different. Practice based PhD's
>>> across the
>>> creative arts are now well established, with painters, sculptors,
>>> dancers,
>>> choreographers, musicians, landscape architects and all sorts  
>>> pursuing
>>> research degrees in a range of institutions, from older research led
>>> Universities through to the new Universities (ex-polytechnics
>>> where, due to
>>> historical reasons, many art schools had been located since the
>>> 1970's).
>>> So far as I am aware this is also the situation in Australia, New
>>> Zealand
>>> and perhaps Canada (is anybody from Canada participating or lurking
>>> in this
>>> discussion?).
>>> I am not sure how many creative arts PhD's have been completed in
>>> the UK,
>>> although I did see some figures a year or so ago. I seem to
>>> remember that
>>> there were approaching 200 currently registered with 600 completed
>>> - but do
>>> not hold me to those numbers. These might only be the numbers that
>>> have been
>>> funded by the research councils. Othr PhD's would not have been
>>> auditted at
>>> a national level.
>>> An aside to this is that many UK practice based PhD candidates are
>>> from
>>> outside the UK (and more commonly from outside Europe, with the new
>>> economies of Asia especially well represented). There is of course
>>> a subtext
>>> here concerning the value of knowledge and post-colonial patterns
>>> of power.
>>>> What research
>>>> or “practice” will create the expertise required for a PhD? And,  
>>>> will
>>>> this be the only benchmark of future professors of art who are  
>>>> deemed
>>>> experts in their field of research and inquiry?
>>> -----
>>> As I mentioned in a prior post, in the UK many academic posts in
>>> University
>>> art departments now require candidates to have completed or nearly
>>> completed
>>> a PhD. This is not for Professorial posts but relatively junior
>>> lectureship
>>> positions (probably equivalent to Assistant Professorships in the
>>> USA - in
>>> the UK only full Professors, in the US sense, are known as
>>> Professor). For
>>> Professors it would be assumed you hold a doctorate (or equivalent
>>> experience) and significant senior research experience beyond that.
>>> For the research oriented art schools here around 50% of income  
>>> can be
>>> derived from research funds whilst the traditional stream of  
>>> teaching
>>> related income can be below that. Institutions are also funded
>>> relative to
>>> the doctoral candidates they host, and this feeds down to subject
>>> areas.
>>> Thus there is a perogative to have a healthy PhD cohort and to have
>>> this you
>>> need resources. A key resource requirement is supervisors and
>>> generally
>>> supervisors need a PhD. Thus we have a (virtuous) circle of
>>> dependency, with
>>> departments hiring practice based post-PhD's to supervise the next
>>> generation of practice based PhD supervisors. "It's the (knowledge)
>>> economy,
>>> s****d" (Clinton).
>>>> How does this PHD
>>>> allow for an artist to evolve throughout a career that is  
>>>> constituted
>>>> by a diverse body of determinate factors other than the University?
>>> -----
>>> I don't think it does allow for this. Gropius's arguments, which
>>> you quoted,
>>> support this position. The PhD is a degree for academics, allowing
>>> them to
>>> progress to the higher rungs of the research career ladder. It is
>>> not a
>>> degree for artists, nor should it be. This would be a waste of time
>>> for the
>>> artists and a corruption of what a PhD is and what it is for.
>>> However, this
>>> does not mean that artists cannot do, nor gain from doing, a PhD.
>>>> My interest in the sites and practices of art is not only  
>>>> personal …
>>>> it is professional in that I have long been fascinated by the  
>>>> system
>>>> (s) by which the arts are offered:  the compilation of
>>>> representations, values, beliefs that are embedded into curricula,
>>>> class assignments, studio crits, visiting artists, panels/
>>>> conferences, and role models (otherwise known as faculty,)…. how  
>>>> the
>>>> identity of the artist is constructed by the discourse of the
>>>> University system.  In this case it is the implementation of the  
>>>> PHD
>>>> – in which I clearly see merit as well as some reasons for concern.
>>>> This may ring true for a number of us.
>>> -----
>>> Professionally I perceive myself as an artist, first and foremost.
>>> However,
>>> I have this other hat I wear which is an academic research hat.
>>> Happily my
>>> practice and research concerns generally overlap. If they didn't
>>> then I
>>> would leave academia. Within the institution I imagine I am
>>> perceived as
>>> both an artist and a research academic. I wonder which one garners
>>> more
>>> respect? I have a suspicion it is the artist's hat. Other academics
>>> perceive
>>> this as a very particular and socially quite special role. On the
>>> other
>>> hand, the visual arts are not held in the highest academic esteem
>>> and whilst
>>> the research councils now recognise creative practice as a form of
>>> research,
>>> and will fund it as such, it is also the case that many academics
>>> in the old
>>> research subjects take a dim view of this. Many, I suspect, would
>>> consider
>>> this a waste of good money. Thus they wouldn't take the idea of a
>>> Professor
>>> in art very seriously (Professor in the UK sense, which  
>>> conventionally
>>> implies a research leading post). Nevertheless, I find plenty of
>>> academics
>>> in the "old" subjects (physics, anthropology, chemistry, maths,
>>> medicine,
>>> etc) very open to art practice as research as well as to
>>> interdisciplinary
>>> debate and even research collaboration. That there are specific
>>> research
>>> funds available for this type of thing in the UK does function to
>>> focus
>>> people's attention.
>>>> What becomes a salient point in our current debate is that we  
>>>> are now
>>>> confronted with a relatively nascent arts discipline ( digital  
>>>> media
>>>> arts ) which harkens back not only to the notion of  “manual
>>>> dexterity of the craftsman” as currently epitomized by programming,
>>>> digital imaging, etc.
>>> ----
>>> An interesting and very specific example of the inverse situation
>>> could be
>>> enlightening here. I was working with a physicist at Cambridge on
>>> developing
>>> some new "smart" materials. These were theorised using maths and  
>>> then
>>> synthesised in a chemistry wet-lab. As part of the latter stages of
>>> the
>>> development process significant amounts of time were involved in
>>> physically
>>> manipulating the stuff (with your hands). He got a real kick out of
>>> doing
>>> this and we discussed, at the time, the physical "craft" skills  
>>> he had
>>> developed in this research. I have also observed this sort of
>>> practice in
>>> other hard science areas, not least computing. Therefore I see
>>> craft as
>>> something practiced in many professions and not something that is
>>> definitive
>>> of or particularly related to arts practice. Thus the implicit
>>> duality in
>>> your argument above might not hold.
>>> Regards
>>> Simon
>>> Simon Biggs
>>> simon at littlepig.org.uk
>>> http://www.littlepig.org.uk/
>>> AIM: simonbiggsuk
>>> Research Professor, Edinburgh College of Art
>>> s.biggs at eca.ac.uk
>>> http://www.eca.ac.uk/
>> Christiane Robbins
>> J e t z t z e i t
>> Los Angeles  l  San Francisco
>> CA  l USA
>> ... the space between zero and one ...
>> Walter Benjamin
>> The present age prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to
>> the original, fancy to reality, the appearance to the essence for in
>> these days illusion only is sacred, truth profane.
>> Ludwig Feuerbach, 1804-1872,
>> German Philosopher
> Simon Biggs
> simon at littlepig.org.uk
> http://www.littlepig.org.uk/
> AIM: simonbiggsuk
> Research Professor, Edinburgh College of Art
> s.biggs at eca.ac.uk
> http://www.eca.ac.uk/
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