[iDC] The Future of the Humanities

Anna Munster a.munster at unsw.edu.au
Fri Jul 15 00:15:41 UTC 2011

Hi All,
> The PhD is a less formalised programme within the British system than
> elsewhere and does not include the concept of the habilitation, which adds
> another level of complexity. In the USA PhD's are often taught - unheard of
> in the UK where it is definitively an individual programme of research. The
> UK PhD can exist as the traditional DPhil but also a DMed, Professional
> Doctorate, DTheology, DEng and DArts. However, the DPhil is flexible enough
> to accommodate these variations so most institutions do not bother to
> discriminate. A few institutions do accept practice as the only outcome of
> the PhD but most require a hybrid of thesis (30-40k words) and a
> professional body of practical work, publicly presented within a critical
> context.
Chiming in from the Global South...err which is usually missing in this lists' conversations!!
In fact practice-based PhDs have also existed here in Australia for at least 20-30 years. As is usual, music has lead the way with compositional PhDs established for quite some time.
I have asked some composer friends of mine why they think this took off in this realm so early...they think its because 'a' composition can quite easily demonstrate where an original contribution lies in the field of, say, new music composition. the point being that 'new music' for example is a relatively contained 'field' of research, where developments and contributions can be mapped and tracked and with practioners having a good sense of who is doing what both historically and contemporaneously.

However, what I want to point to is something else about why in Australia, and also I think the UK system is similar, we have practice-based PhDs proliferating everywhere and now have a good 10-15 years of this in the visual and media arts..

1) Government funding for the arts, especially for new media/media arts collapsed in Australia during the 1990s. I mean it was never very good...but it really, really collapsed when an extremely conservative govt got in in 1996. Hence NO new programs for anything experimental, lots of senior public servant appointments for very straight conservatives in eg, classification boards etc ( implications are various computer games are given NO classification, which means they can't ever be sold!). So in general the experimental arts landscape was really dire for at least 12 years.

2)Fundamental changes to the ways in which research is funded at universities during 2000s. One of these is: lots more postgraduate scholarships available BUT Phd candidature maximum times drop from 5-8 years to 3.5-4 years AND universities only receive the bulk of research student load funding from the government when a student COMPLETES their PhD.

So this means: 1)lots of people who were artists now have no source of government funding and think getting a scholarship will at least pay their basic bills and maybe rent. This leads to  big influx of artists applying for PhDs at unis in Australia. 

2)Staff Researchers at universities pressured to take PhD students ( even if they are not in any way capable of undertaking a PhD) so that funding is secured. But they are not simply pressured to take them but must actually get them through the program in the ridiculous amount of time of around 3.5 years in order to secure completion funding. So staff recruit artists to undertake PhDs even though this often means pushing round pegs into square holes.

But what this has meant is that we ( ie staff and candidates together) have had to develop up our own resources and sense of how to get students through these programs and get a really good sense of what it means to make a 'contribution to knowledge' in: experimental robotics, multi-channel interactives; immersive embodied installations; art database projects; experiments with Flickr databases and machine vision etc etc to mention only a smattering of the kind of projects I have supervised in the last 10 years.

Technical resource have figured fairly lightly in all this...I have found that a really robust postgraduate seminar program with lots of both staff and student presentation and discussion of what is: 'new knowledge'; who are the players/thinkers in an area; what delimits 'a' field; what does it really mean to be transdisciplinary; do I really need to read a French philsopher ( most of the time NO!); what histories of computational science, information theory etc are relevant here.....
In concentrating on building up an ongoing critical discussion between students, staff and completed students across a period of time ( I am talking 10 years), this has been the most valuable resource.

While one can take an absolutely cynical approach to the economic, institutional and cultural changes that have occurred and say that the quality of 'the' PhD has been downgraded; that the expectation to complete in 3.5 years is absurd; that the student experience is awful and under resourced.....one can also say that 'we' have invented an incredible culture of tinkering and syphoning...of milking the system and of actually supporting incredible artistic projects that would never have gotten off the ground otherwise. 

I just think of it like I am a courtier in the Medici court...with one eye on what the Duke is up to next and the other on where the poison is being dispensed! 

A/Prof. Anna Munster
Deputy Director Centre for Contemporary Art and Politics
College of Fine Arts
P.O. Box 259
NSW 2021
612 9385 0741 (tel)
612 9385 0615(fax)
a.munster at unsw.edu.au

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