Rigour? Or rigor mortis?

Image: Robert Leslie

My husband is presenting at his faculty’s speed research day today – a fact which has spawned a number of conversations. He’s doing a creative practice doctorate (more info here for the confused), and his research today is presented entirely in musical form (a performance of one of his compositions). Watching this process evolve for him has highlighted how unsatisfactory traditional research is for me.

Composition is perhaps one of the purest forms of research. It is exempt from the administrivia and extreme processing of traditional text-based research. One is able to explore and digest the theories, ideas and works of others, draw new connecting threads and produce an original product as a result. One does not stop every 5 bars to reference an influencing composer in correct APA 5th style. One is not criticised if the writing style is not sufficiently formal, or if too many original ideas are had without quoting a source. A research product is produced for the sheer joy of creating something new as a result of exploration.

This is what I want for my research. I want to trade in big ideas. I want to make things happen. Make things. I want my energy to be devoted to the creation of something new and exciting, not to ensuring that commas are correctly placed and a sufficiently high number of quotations have been taken from existing papers. Steve’s comment here was that ‘people don’t want new and exciting. New and exciting isn’t measurable’. This is where research comes undone. Commas and citations are quantifiable. Ideas are not. And yet the exploration of new and exciting ideas should be a fundamental definition of the concept of research. Instead, we have the concept of ‘rigour’. I am beginning to suspect that so much is lost to ‘writing about doing’ instead of ‘doing’. Where do the big ideas go that don’t fit into traditional research paradigms?

Consider Heston Blumenthal. The amount of research that goes into the creation of each of his experimental dishes is astonishing. He makes completely original connections in his exploration and as a result creates crazy things that challenge people’s concept of food, but are still satisfying to eat and really engage people in the eating process. If he were to seek a traditional qualification for this research, though? It would be a 100,000 word print thesis entitled something like ‘From Ancient Rome to Adria: a gastronomic journey through the history of culinary innovation’ and not involve the creation of any food at all. He’s chosen the route that does, in all fairness, result in people calling him a crazy bastard, but it carries the satisfaction of true synthesis of research, rather than the text synthesis of a rigorous and systematic approach. I would certainly prefer to garner the term ‘complete nutter’ than ‘rigorous scholar’.

Steve pointed out that perhaps I should be doing a creative practice degree rather than a traditional research degree. My response was that it wouldn’t happen; education is not considered a creative discipline. And therein lies the problem – if ‘creation’ and ‘creativity’ are restricted to the performing arts, and the rest of us must engage in text-based theory grounded in methodology, where is the scope for true innovation? As long as we continue to deal in words rather than products, I don’t know what the answer to that is.

6 Replies to “Rigour? Or rigor mortis?”

  1. One thing to consider: what will the original contribution of your thesis be? It can be methodological, content, or presentation. There’s lots of discussion about this in the literature on PhD. You can do a conventional study in an original way (which is kind of what I’ve done), or you can present it in an original way – even in education! You might be interested in this: http://www-faculty.edfac.usyd.edu.au/projects/writing_in_academy/index.php?page=symposium-november-2011 It’s free, because it’s part of an ARC-funded project. I’m going to be there.

  2. Much nodding of the head to this. My initial suggested, informed on some recent reading, is that you adopt Alan Kay’s suggestion

    Don’t worry about what anybody else is going to do… The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Really smart people with reasonable funding can do just about anything that doesn’t violate too many of Newton’s Laws!

    If I ever get back to academia, you can count me in.

  3. Thanks M-H and DJ. I hadn’t thought about the fact that an original contribution could be methodological – one gets so tied up in trying to fit into existing paradigms that one forgets that somebody had to come up with them in the first place :).

    Hadn’t come across Alan Kay before, but after a quick Google I like him already. Now I just need to get me some reasonable funding.

    1. I accidentally went to a workshop about writing the non-traditional thesis that changed my thinking completely. It was taken by Barbara Grant from Auckland who was just passing through: her thesis is about tropes and metaphors of supervision and is available online (Auckland Uni, 2005). Who knew that you could basically do what you liked and present it however you liked, provided you could convince the examiners that it was a valid way to investigate and report your idea? Convincing a supervisor, though – that can be a problem. Shop around for the best one – one who will be excited by your ideas and will work with you – but prevent you from falling off the edge if you get too far out!

      1. Sounds like something I would also like to accidentally attend. I’m fortunate to at least have two supervisors who are very supportive of my cowboy thinking – from their point of view my issue will be convincing the powers that be (who incidentally have just reinstated a paper-only-submission mandate – sigh).

  4. Precisely! But education was once a creative discipline. When Plato, Newman, or Dewey wrote about education (just to pluck three out of the air) they did so from then perspective of creative speculation, humanities style. Education has been hijacked by the social sciences, which in turn have been colonized by those who confuse “measure” with “understand”

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