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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Doctoral Borderlands: an exploration of doctoral education and its possible futures

by Namrata Rao, Anesa Hosein, Rille Raaper, Harry Rolf, Karen Gravett, Karen Smith, Neil Harrison and Susan Carter

At the SRHE conference 2021, we (Karen S, Neil and Susan) facilitated a symposium in two parts on Doctoral Borderlands. Together, the parts gave a guided tour through doctoral borderlands, the metaphor underpinning the Teaching in Higher Education Special Issue: ‘Working in the borderlands: Critical perspectives on doctoral education’ (Carter, Smith & Harrison, 2021). The reference to borderlands, drawing from Gloria Anzaldúa’s (1987) work, emphasised the transitionary and liminal nature of doctoral education, the crossings into the unknown, and the emergence or surfacing of (multiple) identities. In the symposium, ten authors shared overviews of seven of the Special Issue articles as starting points for open discussion around doctoral education and its future possibilities.

This blog post picks up three doctoral borderland trajectories taken by some of the SRHE symposium presenters. First, Karen Gravett starts by looking at how the form of the doctorate is changing and its impact on perceptions of the doctoral journey. Then Namrata Rao, Anesa Hosein and Rille Raaper discuss being, becoming and belonging, particularly in the context of precarity. After this, Harry Rolf considers power in doctoral education, from the starting point of doctoral publishing.

Karen Gravett

Critical perspectives on doctoral education are needed now more than ever. It is increasingly apparent that the prevalence of new routes and possibilities for study, including professional and publication-led doctorates, combined with a competitive academic landscape, have reshaped the doctoral experience in new ways (Gravett, 2021). What it is to be a doctoral student and what it means to do a doctorate is evolving, and traditional stereotypes, of young, full-time, funded students are no longer fit for purpose.

And yet, the literature on doctoral education is rich with metaphors that describe doctoral study as a pathway or trajectory, while institutional rhetoric often evokes ideas of linearity and regularity. In my recent work (Gravett, 2021), I explore the power of these tropes and depictions, in order to ask: what do spatial narratives do? Are conceptions of linear journeys, or pathways from student to academic, from novice to expert, still fit for purpose? I invite readers to think with two of Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) theoretical concepts, rhizome and becoming, to foreground the multiple and messy becomings that researchers experience, as they evolve throughout a doctorate and beyond.

In reconsidering narratives of the doctoral journey, I offer an irruption to widely accepted notions of learning as a linear pathway with a fixed end-point, and reflect on how new and traditional forms of doctoral study might be understood differently. Thinking differently about doctoral study offers new opportunities for writing: offering spaces to disrupt the traditional monograph that has dominated the doctorate to date, and openings for intertextuality and connection.

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Just as the form of the doctorate and the pathway through it are changing, the context in which doctorates are done and the impact on doctoral students’ identities are also changing, picked up by Namrata, Anesa and Rille.

Namrata Rao, Anesa Hosein and Rille Raaper

The marketisation of higher education (HE) has seen a growing number of HE staff being employed on short term hourly paid contracts, which has also triggered much of the recent University and College Union (UCU) Four Fights Campaign in the UK. Our paper (Rao, Hosein & Raaper, 2021) explored doctoral students engaged in HE teaching in an era of precarity; within this context of increasing casualisation, the doctoral students, ‘the budding academics’, are seeking ways of getting their foot in the door and ‘becoming’ an academic. This desire for ‘belonging’ in the academy has seen them take up casualised contracts with the hope that they would one day land up a permanent contract.

Aside from the damage often caused by such casualised contracts to their developing professional identity, there is a growing concern that the precarious employment circumstances lead to them developing a fractured ‘cleft’ teacher identity, where they are continuously straddling the demands of being a researcher (as a doctoral student) and being a teacher negotiating the uncertainties created by such working conditions. Doctoral students’ understandings of university teaching are often framed by their own experiences of being a university student. We suggest their teaching should be shaped by a professional development programme. Access to such programmes is limited due to the nature of their casualised contracts and often very disparate depending on the institutional context.

These structural inequalities and precarious support practices compromise candidates’ holistic development as researchers and teachers. It’s more difficult for them to be fully productive university teachers, which in turn has a knock-on impact on the quality of university teaching and their experience as doctoral students. Therefore, there is a pressing need for universities to consider ways in which doctoral students can belong to and become and be (remain) active citizens who are aware of their responsibilities, but whose rights are addressed both as students and aspiring academics.

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Doctoral student engagement with and in the academy is underpinned by power, a theme continued by Harry.

Harry Rolf

The landscape of doctoral education is contradictory and conflicting, shaped by invisible power structures and taken-for-granted practices arising from research performance and productivity measures. An emphasis on publishing in doctoral pedagogy means that this is increasingly a landscape that doctoral students must cross to achieve academic and future career success.

My analysis (Rolf 2021), applying a lens of data feminism to publications by doctoral students at an Australian university, shows a borderland where crossings by students and supervisors were frequent but where few stayed for long. Travellers crossed in teams which over time exhibited different approaches to the practice of publication, from teams led by a strong ego-centric researcher to teams where publication was a collaborative effort, but where power was not evenly distributed. Travelling with an experienced guide provided doctoral students with greater access to networks, and if they travelled frequently, more opportunities to publish along the way.

The analysis raises important questions about power and experience in doctoral supervisory and publishing teams, including questions that go beyond the scope of publication data; for example, what does good collaboration look like in doctoral supervisory teams, how are those doctoral supervisory teams formed, what practices do those supervisors bring, and are more diverse expertise or experience brought to supervisory teams and properly recognised? And looking beyond the immediate supervisory team, how can doctoral students find other networks and teams with the knowledge and tools to help them find safe passage, and success, on their borderland crossing?

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Our 2021 SRHE conference symposium managed to cover many of the uncertainties, transitions, dangers and hopes of doctoral borderlands, doing pretty well at representing the Special Issue, which houses thirteen full articles and two Points of Departure (think-piece provocations) covering a range of topics relating to doctoral education. The Teaching in Higher Education Special Issue, the stimulus papers and the discussion in the SRHE symposium that followed demonstrated the changing landscape of doctoral education in terms of the different forms and format of the doctorate, the context of doctoral study, the nature of doctoral research with research that crosses disciplines and professions, the roles and responsibilities that doctoral students have and the expectations that are placed upon them, and the different backgrounds and multiple identities that doctoral researchers bring to their studies. This changing landscape means that doctoral students have different challenges to negotiate, and that the guides through the landscape, and the guidance and support for doctoral students needs also to change. Such changes can open up new possibilities for future doctoral education, which, as the SRHE symposium showed, will benefit from productive professional conversations about doctoral pedagogy and its development.     

For more information, please contact Dr Karen Smith, School of Education, University of Hertfordshire, email: k.smith27@herts.ac.uk

References

Anzaldúa, G (1987) Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute

Carter, S, Smith, K, & Harrison, N (2021) Working in the borderlands: Critical perspectives on doctoral educationTeaching in Higher Education, 26 (3): 283-292 doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2021.1911098

Deleuze, G, and Guattari, F (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia London: Continuum

Gravett, K (2021) ‘Disrupting the Doctoral Journey: Re-imagining Doctoral Pedagogies and Temporal Practices in Higher Education’ Teaching in Higher Education 26 (3): 293–305 doi:10.1080/13562517.2020.1853694

Rao, N, Hosein, A & Raaper, R (2021) ‘Doctoral Students Navigating the Borderlands of Academic Teaching in an era of Precarity’ Teaching in Higher Education 26 (3): 454–470 doi:10.1080/13562517.2021.1892058 

Rolf, HG (2021) ‘Navigating Power in Doctoral Publishing: A Data Feminist Approach’ Teaching in Higher Education 26 (3): 488–507 doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2021.1892059


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