Background to the Project
Since the Strand Report initiated the inclusion of creative practice as a field of postgraduate research in 1998, over 30 Australasian universities have embarked upon what are variously called ‘creative practice’, ‘practice-led’, and ‘practice-based’ higher degrees by research (HDRs) in disciplines such as visual arts, performing arts, music and sound, design, creative writing, film and new media. A ten-fold increase in enrolments has occurred over the past decade (DEEWR figures cited in Baker & Buckley, 2009). It has been fuelled by the recognition of creative outcomes within the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) reporting framework by the Australian Research Council (ARC) in 2003, and the increasing recognition of the value of the Creative Industries to the economic and cultural fabric (Higgs et al., 2007). By embracing this significant change in HDR culture, and accommodating rapid growth in postgraduate enrolments, creative disciplines have not only recognised the opportunities that creative practice research offers; they have demonstrated a willingness to meet the challenges of a new, uncharted area of learning and teaching.
In a recent ALTC funded scoping exercise, Creative Arts PhD: Future-proofing the creative arts in higher education, Baker & Buckley (2009) identified an urgent need to develop a sector-wide understanding; a coherent approach to the form of the creative practice thesis (the written component often referred to as an exegesis); common guidelines for examination; and new approaches to supervision in this emergent field. An ARC-funded project has since focussed on the ‘practice-based thesis’ (Writing in the academy: The practice-based thesis as an evolving genre, Paltridge, Starfield & Ravelli, 2011) and two ALTC/OLT funded projects have focussed on examination (Webb, Brien & Burr, 2010 and Petkovic, Lang & Berkley, 2009). Until now, however, there has been little focussed research on the key learning and teaching aspect of creative practice HDRs: supervision. Creative disciplines across the sector have approached understanding this new field of supervision, as well as supervision capacity building, in an ad hoc way.
The practices of HDR supervision in longer-established disciplinary traditions, such as Law; Information Technology; Humanities; and Science, are not entirely transferable to Creative Practice HDRs, which differ markedly because they involve the production and presentation of creative practice ‘artefacts’ (creative works, products, events, or techniques) in conjunction with a written thesis for examination. This combination means that they diverge in terms of research intent; the types of research questions asked; the methodologies, practices, methods and processes of production employed; the types of new knowledge claims made; as well as ways of evidencing the value of the research (Hamilton & Jaaniste, 2009; Yeates & Carson, 2009). Given the unique framing contexts, processes and outcomes of creative practice PhDs, along with the experimentation that continues to occur in what is still an evolving field, the supervision of creative practice HDRs involves unique challenges.
The need to build learning and teaching leadership activities around supervision is not limited to the creative disciplines however. As Bruce and Stoodley (2013) have noted, there is a lack of definition, analysis, processes, and tools around HDR supervision more broadly. And, as Hammond J., & Ryland, K., & Tennant, M., & Boud, D. argue in a recent ALTC project report (2010), there is growing recognition that HDR supervision is a crucial aspect of learning and teaching given the growing pressure on universities, faculties, disciplines and supervisors to increase enrolments, diversify offerings and prioritise timely completion. They conclude that, “There is a need in many universities for greater emphasis on professional leadership in research education.” It is therefore our hope that, while the work of this project is intended to specifically address the needs of creative disciplines to effectively support unprecedented growth in HDR enrolments, it will be of benefit more broadly.
To enable leadership capacity building in research education we need to capture, articulate, and share the practices and effective strategies developed by supervisors and schools. As Hammond et al. argue in Building Research Supervision and Training across Australian Universities, “conversations [around supervision] need to go beyond issues of compliance to address quality of supervision and good supervisory practices.” They therefore recommend, “increasingly sophisticated and constructive conversations about supervision pedagogy that engage all supervisors, both new and more experienced” (2010: v). In line with this recommendation, this project has enacted a cooperative, cross-institutional and multidisciplinary strategy to capturing the insights and good practices of supervisors and HDR administrators from across the sector. From this primary research, it has set out to establish a shared understanding of HDR pedagogies in creative disciplines, initiate the building and dissemination of a set of resources, and establish key principles for the effective supervision of creative practice HDRs. At the same time, a distributed leadership approach has enabled the project to enhance the learning and teaching capacity and experiences of supervisors as the activities of the project have unfolded.
Through a co-operative partnership between five universities––Queensland University of Technology, The University of Melbourne, Auckland University of Technology, University of Western Sydney, and University of New South Wales, this project set out to gain an understanding of the contextual frameworks and administrative practices surrounding creative practice higher degrees by research. And, by capturing insights of supervisors and gathering exemplars of good practices, it set out to establish an in-common understanding of effective approaches to supervision. As a pilot project, its key aim was to develop a shared understanding of the field for the benefit supervisors and their students, and to enable creative disciplines to build further supervision capacity. It was also a primary goal of the project to provide a robust foundation for future work in resource building, sharing effective practices, and designing academic development for supervisors.
The project design has encompassed a multi-tiered approach. Contextual factors were established through a literature review of adjacent fields (namely HDR supervision and creative practice research); a contextual review of published materials and resources provided by partner institutions to students and supervisors; and surveys of administrators of creative practice HDR programs. An understanding of effective supervision practices and strategies was gained through interviews with experienced and new supervisors at partner universities. Principles and exemplars of effective supervision have been drawn from these interviews and resources. And wider insights, exemplars and case studies have been captured through a national symposium entitled Effective Supervision of Creative Arts Research Degrees (ESCARD) held at QUT in early 2013.
The principles of inclusion and distributed leadership have been central to this project, and this has distinguished its approach from a normative ‘top-down’ analysis resulting in a set of policy recommendations on higher degree research management, and standards. A simultaneous contribution and dissemination strategy has worked through a widening participation strategy, illustrated through the concentric circles in Diagram 1.
Diagram 1: Distributed approach to expanding data collection and dissemination network
This network began with the small, multi-institutional project team and expanded, via the networks of project team members, to administrators and supervisors at partner institutions. Recognising the influence that multiple tiers of leadership (university, faculty, discipline, and supervisor) exert on a candidature, this project set out to capture a multi-perspectival understanding. The project design then expanded further to include participation by representatives of universities across Australia, who in turn have contributed to material and insights and taken back them into the local networks of their universities.
The project design was underpinned by principles of distributed leadership. The rationale for this approach stemmed from two recent ALTC/OLT project reports on research supervision in Australasian universities. One recommends systemic change while cautioning that “mandated change can harm organizational cultures” (Bruce & Stoodley, 2013: 227) and the other concludes that the advancement of supervisory practices is more likely to occur at the level of disciplines and supervisors than in response to policy-driven governance and oversight of ‘quality assurance’ (Hammond et al., 2010). Distributed leadership provides a way forward. It allows us to move beyond ‘leadership’ as involving the top down implementation of policy towards a model that sees leadership as inclusive and generative.
The principles of distributed leadership were employed in various levels of the project design: to strengthen relationships between the multi-institutional project team members; to canvas insights from multiple tiers of leadership (research degree leaders and administrators, experienced and new supervisors); to build national networks by providing forums and scholarly opportunities for supervisors from across Australasian universities; and to sustain dissemination of project outcomes to supervisors, universities and national scholarly networks.