Research Advisory Group Session Leader, Collaborative Practices in Research, Chinese Arts Centre

Research Advisory Group Session Leader, Collaborative Practices in Research, Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA).

Manchester, 21st March 2013.


Let us begin by considering the space in which we find ourselves today. How our intention is to activate the discourse surrounding research, research dissemination, developing stronger research collaborations for the future, and discussing how we can continue this within and beyond the cultural institution but also as part of the researcher’s independent career development as an academic practitioner. Or as Goldsmiths College Graduate School webpages call it: “wider academic practitioner.”

This session will deal with questions and issues that would be familiar to many who undertake the PhD in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. I will concentrate on the PhD in the arts for the session so that we might all be able to share and develop an understanding of the mutual benefits, the concerns and positive outcomes of collaboration both from the perspective of the researcher, the academic institution and the cultural institutions. Specific discussion will concentrate around training for students in order to become professional academic practitioners within and beyond their affiliated educational institutions. I will then continue the discussion on collaboration, which will bring us back to the original key ideas.

We will consider how this discussion might better place the researcher into the role of Wider Academic Practitioner, while we discuss the contradictions and positive flow between the activities of private and private research, collaboration beyond the academic environment and within the cultural institution, and how we might take these experiences to foster new approaches in which a cultural institution might develop research as part of the activity of the HEI. Taking the specifics of the environment we find ourselves today we will consider how to develop shared goals between HEIs and the cultural Institutions.

The researcher, the Higher Education Institution, the cultural institution
Firstly, what sets the PhD in Art apart from a PhD in Art History or Visual Cultures, for example? This question allows us to consider the distinct differences between the types of researchers and concerns of departments. For many students working towards their PhD in an Art Department the practice as an artist, a writer or a curator, is a crucial aspect of their submission for examination. Therefore, while the student is expected to submit a written element, they will also be examined on their practice.

When practice becomes embedded within the structure of a PhD, whether it is the negotiation of this through one’s own project and development within a broader community or a means for reconsidering how research functions beyond academia, there are questions and concerns raised that could encourage a positive collaborative approach. What one has to consider is how this collaboration can function in a positive way with respect to the student’s research and career development, as much as to the advantage of the academic and cultural institution respectively.

To approach some of the issues Rachel asked me to consider, I began by looking at the webpages for the Art Department at Goldsmiths College. Overall, the focus of the department is on the work of artists, curators and writers mostly engaged in practice as well as the “social, philosophical, historical questions they seek to determine through theoretical research carried out in academic form.” There is no mention of a concern beyond the academic environment accept for reference to the alumni of former students. As an art research student, one can register for research based on practice and written elements, or for research by written thesis only. However, the generative and reflexive activity of practice is central to the Department’s research culture, and it sees the first category of research as reflecting its academic strengths. However, practice is primary and research must exemplify and locate ideas developed in conjunction with the written part of the thesis. The website states: “At research level, the Department’s aim is to support reflection upon its central concern with practice, both within the contexts of contemporary art and within the academic environment. As a research student, you should be concerned to contextualize your practice in relation to other cultural production. Empirical research is understood as essential to innovative practice.”

We can consider this in terms of the issues surrounding and qualifying for funding. While the student is told that obtaining research grant funding is essential for one’s employability and career progression, and should be priority alongside expansion of one’s publication record, for many, funding is felt to be off-limits, especially in the Arts. Therefore, other sources of employment, often in an area unrelated to areas of research and unrelated to development as an academic, is necessary. Applying for relevant roles involves specific skills and experience, while it becomes increasingly difficult and competitive with success rates as low as 5-20% in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

Discussion one – The researcher, the Higher Education Institution, the cultural institution
So I would like to begin this session by opening up the discussion somewhat. Outlined are several questions that one might ask about collaboration between the academic practitioner and the HEI and/or the cultural institution:

  • Should all areas of research result from the ambitions of the Higher Education Institution?
  • How might the PhD in the arts affect the expectation of the supporting bodies and cultural institutions?
  • Might it be necessary for academic practitioners to be able to develop concepts and ideas beyond these expectations in order to aid broader intellectual and creative activities within the cultural sectors and beyond in to education, politics, social and civic environments etc.?
  • Do researchers, regardless of gaining or not gaining scholarship, have a responsibility to remain ‘present’ beyond the academic institution?

Academic Practice – Case Study
The Academic Practice course designed by the Graduate School at Goldsmiths College is intended for PhD students beyond their first year to enable them to develop as “wider academic practitioners.” Students who attend the whole course and successfully complete the assessment task are awarded a certificate stating that they have done so. The course is accredited by the Higher Education Academy at Associate Practitioner level.

Aimed at students who are currently doing very little or no teaching at all, the course provides a focus on self-development in the early years as an academic practitioner. A key element of this course is that it brings together a varied group of researchers who can share different methods for development beyond the academic environment. The course provides insight into the variety of roles that an intellectual vocation might involve today, and an understanding of different areas of academic activity, core kinds of academic knowledge and appreciation of professional values, while exploring the relationship between the changing nature of the University and the frameworks that structure academic practice today.

In order to gain an accredited qualification, each student had to attend all sessions unless provided with an exemption, thus potentially affecting the earnings of self-funded students. However, on a positive note, this necessary commitment helped students to foster and consolidate their role as an academic. Experience of working with other researchers and taking the time to be within the university environment is a positive aspect. Given that isolation, which often manifests itself in a struggle to connect to the university and possibly the broader cultural sectors connected to one’s field of research, this is a merited activity often overlooked. Engagement of any kind is extremely positive and this course provides students with the vocational tools to extend beyond their research to the institutional spaces outside the university and therefore, an engagement with the community at large. This is a positive way of engaging students with methods for approaching funding and employment in and out of the university setting.

Discussion two: academic practice

  • What are the positive and negative aspects of an ‘academic practice’ training for art practitioners and how might we sort to reconcile this?
  • How might practice-based researchers in art differ from practices in other research fields, and what might be learned from either side?
  • Are the concerns of integrity to one’s own creative and intellectual processes and progress as prevalent in other areas of research?

Researcher and researcher, Higher Education Institution, cultural institution
So we have established that continuing to develop a practice through and beyond the PhD thesis is a way in which one can activate collaboration between individuals and institutions beyond the academic setting. Let’s consider the pros and cons of this. For example, we might consider the logistical issues of working in this manner, not only financially but also with regard to how one conducts their working life. Key to the discussion surrounding the collaboration between the researcher and the cultural institution are issues of context, presentation and dissemination that run alongside a continuing conversation that is specific to debates surrounding the purpose of academic research and whether it can in fact translate comfortably beyond the academic environment. Let’s up these discussions and consider how we might continue on from the event today to foster collaboration in the future.

Discussion three: Collaborative practice – researcher and researcher, Higher Education institution, cultural institution

  • So leading on from this last point, let’s begin by considering our engagement with each other within the context of CAC (you might wish to look at CAC as a specific example or as a general example of a “cultural institution”). I would like to ask how the collaboration might be established and continued in a way that supports the individual’s ambitions for self-development against the institutional expectations of the HEI, funding bodies and cultural institutions?
  • How might we activate more inclusivity into our activities? Do we feel the need to build inner and wider communities?
  • From the perspective of the academic practitioner, how does one negotiate their research beyond the academic environment if one does not have a “practice” that is easily positioned within a public setting?