TEXT review

Josie Arnold, Practice Led Research

review by Sandra Burr and Penny Hanley


Josie Arnold
Practice Led Research: A dynamic way to knowledge
Rockview Press, Camberwell, Victoria, 2007
ISBN 0-9750240-6-X
148pp. AUD $12 plus postage
(Available from Swinburne Bookshop, Lilydale Campus, Locked bag 218, Lilydale, Victoria 3140)

Josie Arnold is currently Professor of Postgraduate Writing at Swinburne University of Technology, and supervises both PhD candidates and Master of Arts (Writing) students. She brings an academic lifetime of knowledge and experience to this book. That said, it is a most peculiar book both in content and arrangement. While the author's voice is clearly evident throughout, the contents are something of a jumble. It brings to mind clothes shopping at St Vinnie's; you find a quality designer jacket and an equally fabulous skirt but they come from two different outfits and don't quite match. Can you wear stripes with spots? As reviewers we found ourselves morphing into an academic version of the British celebrity fashionista duo, Trinny and Susannah, in our desire to effect a makeover, or at the very least give this book a better fitting bra and a pair of matching underpants.

Something about Practice Led Research: A dynamic way to knowledge is not quite right. It might be assumed from the title that here is yet another worthy polemic defending the rightful place of the practice-led research paradigm in the academy. Instead, it is at heart a nuts-and-bolts manual that explains how to do a creative PhD, with an assortment of other bits thrown in for good measure.

While Arnold acknowledges that the style and structure of the chapters in the two sections differ, the lack of unity is disappointing, given the expectation generated by the title that appears to promise a treatise on practice-led research. This book, however, is weirdly pear-shaped. Part I, modelled on Swinburne University of Technology's research by higher degrees requirements, demonstrates the creative PhD by artefact and exegesis. It addresses graduate students and has fewer than fifty pages, while Part II has three times that number of pages - in other words, the book has the body shape of a size 12 top attached to a size 16 bottom. While Part I is brief and simply stated, the reader suddenly slips into different territory in Part II which has a more complex, sophisticated, philosophical tone.

This second part is made up of papers originally delivered as lectures or academic presentations reflecting the author's developing thoughts about practice-led research, as well as salient critical and cultural theories that have influenced academia in the post-World War II years. This structure recalls the old B movie and main feature arrangement from the early days of cinema. B movies were intentionally shorter, more accessible, low budget films lacking the big stars or meatier themes of the main feature, yet they often displayed a high degree of craftsmanship and startling originality. Both had different things to offer and one was not necessarily superior to the other. So it is with this book.

It has a great deal to offer, particularly to beginning creative PhD students. At the 2007 Association of Australian Writers' Programs conference, the number of postgraduate papers preoccupied with process rather than content attracted some negative comments. Instead of talking about theories of writing and research, several postgraduate presenters described the obstacles and diversions encountered during their research journeys. While this phenomenon is hardly new, it is obviously an issue of considerable concern, particularly to creative postgraduate candidates, and perhaps indicates that it is time to turn our attention as teachers of writing towards assisting students by demystifying the creative PhD process. Josie Arnold clearly recognises this, and in practical fashion addresses the subject in this book which she tellingly dedicates to 'my students past, present and future.'

In Part I Arnold, using the Swinburne PhD by artefact and exegesis as her model, explains the structure of the creative PhD. In language that is friendly, forthright and sympathetic she examines and explains every step in minute detail, from the formulation of the research question to final submission. 'Surely,' she writes, 'establishing a research question, adding something new to knowledge in the area, reading widely and deeply in the academic literature, collecting data, and writing up is a large enough task in itself without also having to discover elements of the structure of the PhD' (11). Already we imagine creative PhD candidates everywhere exhaling with relief. They might greet with particular joy the chapter, 'Planning the PhD' - not necessarily to follow this prescription to the letter, but to see other ways of dealing with the challenges of this still relatively new research method, and to look at alternative methods of accomplishing the different stages of the doctoral journey.

It is always instructive to compare one's own creative practice with that of others. We disagreed, for example, on the value of maintaining a reflective journal, which is a central tenet of the Swinburne model. Without having heard the term 'reflective journal' before, Penny was already writing one. Her initial explorations of ideas - both for the creative component of the PhD, which is a novel, and for the exegesis - were formulated as private scribblings in notebooks; they were her way of teasing out ideas, exploring problems and working out her position on a whole range of confounding issues. She asks: How do I know what I think until I see what I have written? Sandra's reflective approach is entirely different. Keeping a journal was a stifling experience, abandoned after many diligent attempts, to be replaced by the more immediate practice of writing and reworking material for publication or conferences and for the exegesis itself. Both methods sit within the practice-led research paradigm, and no doubt there are many as yet undocumented paths to creativity being trodden by creative postgraduate candidates elsewhere.

Arnold's description of Swinburne's as a directive and supportive yet non-didactic program might be a little puzzling to those academic communities whose creative PhD requirements are less proscribed. There is a range of creative PhD requirements in existence in this country and one model does not represent them all. While Arnold is careful to make this point, perhaps the book should come with a more visible warning on the cover advising readers that it is intended as a guide only.

Part I will find an enthusiastic audience not only among postgraduate readers but also with their supervisors, who should find it both insightful and informative. The book will make them more aware of their responsibilities, and, without being in the least patronising, enlarge their horizons. As Arnold points out about her own experience supervising some inmates of the Dame Phyllis Frost Correctional Facility, 'In supervision pedagogy, as in any teaching, we are always learning from/about/through our students. As the PhD candidates take themselves further forward to be experts in their areas having made substantial contributions to knowledge, we too are taken forward in our own professional and personal lives' (50). She insists that supervisors need to be flexible because, 'As candidates' work matures, so their goals may change. It is an important aspect of the PhD pedagogy to recognise and support this' (29). Interestingly, Arnold explores the benefits of psychotherapy in this pedagogy and quotes that most engaging psychoanalytic writer, Irvin Yalom, to demonstrate the benefits of this innovative therapeutic alliance. Arnold's discussion of Freud's 'talking cure' when writing about the value of conversation between students, supervisors, colleagues - everyone - working or studying in universities brought to mind AS Byatt, who stated in her book, Imagining Characters: 'If you don't discuss, you don't understand' (Byatt & Sodre 1995: 254).

Most would agree that it is not enough that having survived a PhD themselves, postgraduates entering academic life will have automatically acquired the necessary skills and understanding to supervise the next generation of creative research candidates. Arnold, recognising that this is not always the case, offers detailed and thoughtful advice about supervision at this level. It might come as a surprise to some who see their responsibilities defined by the walls of their institution, for example, to learn that supervisors should act to enable marketing the candidate (29).

Part II is both dense (in the best sense of the word, being crammed with stimulating ideas) and substantial, although it lacks cohesion. Arnold does warn her readers about this:

The style and structure of the chapters in this section differ. Some are the basis for lectures and/or academic papers. Others are collections of my thinking in the area, which continues to evolve. A number of chapters use a narrative methodology and a discursive mode of discussion rather than a traditional academic discourse so as to exemplify some of the ideas that I am working within. (ii)

Even though the author signposts these problems in her introduction, the disjointed nature of this section is jarring. Each part, while on similar territory, comes across as separate and distinct. Chapters are transferred from their original source with only a cosmetic gesture to their new location in the form of brief introductions or closing statements. Having been told that many of these chapters were originally published elsewhere it would have been nice to have the publications details at hand, if only to trace their journey and the evolution in the author's thinking.

Arnold uses this second section to showcase her own interesting theories and philosophies on such topics as the relationship between readers and writers (the writerly reader); feminist poetics; practice-led research; and a range of cultural and critical theories pertinent to creative writing. It is evident that dilemmas for many new researchers, particularly mature age candidates or those with limited academic experience, arise from their lack of knowledge of research practices and critical and cultural theory. They constantly reinvent the wheel, frittering valuable time on blind alleys and wrong directions until they find their right path. This book is an invaluable atlas for contextualising thinking and research at this level.

Arnold notes, in her dual roles as a creative writer and a teacher of literature, her interest in the theories of Roland Barthes and the territory explored as fictional truth. Spanish novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafon writes a narrative of truth in The Shadow of the Wind that evokes Barthes' idea about the power of the readers over the life of the book: 'Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens' (Zafon 2004: 3). In a similar vein, American memoirist Patricia Hampl in her book I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the land of memory writes 'An unreviewed book is a struck bell that gives no resonance. Without reviews, literature would be oddly mute in spite of all those words on all those pages. Reviewing makes of reading a participant sport, not a spectator sport' (Hampl 1999: 185).

To maximise the ease and clarity of the reading experience the parts of an instructive nonfiction book should cohere into a logically ordered, satisfying whole. While that doesn't occur with this book, it could be argued that Arnold has deliberately chosen not to follow this traditional model. Instead she has gathered together her considerable expertise in the area of practice-led research, not into a seamless coherence but into a gluey mosaic of separate pieces. She thereby reinforces her content by demonstrating some of the same points in her style. Perhaps a more positive interpretation of the 'not quite rightness' and 'pear-shaped' character of this book is that readers will get value for money: two books for the price of one, and a real bargain at that, considering the miniscule $12 price tag.

Practice-led research is fast becoming a field of research in itself. To this end, a broader review of the relevant literature would have been both useful and appropriate. There are telltale sign of papers being quickly gathered together with insufficient editing. There is repetition, for example, such as identical expositions of Gregory Ulmer's theoretical 'mystory' in chapters 4, 11 and 12 - that disrupts the reading experience. There are also numerous mistakes, misspellings and inconsistencies throughout the book, for example, artifact/artefact, idealogy/ideology, Delueze/Deleuze and 'Guantonomo' instead of 'Guantanamo' to name just a few. There are also some careless slips that detract from the work of a scholar. The misspelling of Barbara Milech's surname, while consistent, points to a certain lack of attention to detail, as do errors in the list of references e.g., 'Gibb' and 'Gibbs' and 'Irigaray' and 'Irigary'. The lack of an index is a serious omission. The production values, while understandable for such a low cost book, are disappointing. The binding will never stand up to the amount of use this book so richly deserves.

It is to be hoped that one day, when the ground has stopped shifting, when we have a better understanding of and confidence about articulating creative practice within the academy, an enterprising person might undertake some comparative research on the creative doctoral degree requirements across Australia's academic institutions. In the meantime, Josie Arnold's book is an excellent beginning. In its next edition Trinny and Susannah advise some new foundation garments in the form of a stronger binding to support its rich contents and a smaller, more conventional, user-friendly size. And a new jacket to better reflect the cornucopia within would certainly not go astray.

Work cited
Byatt, AS & Ignes Sodre 1995 Imagining Characters: Six Conversations About Women Writers, London: Chatto & Windus return to text

Hampl, P 1999 I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the land of memory, New York, WW Norton return to text
Zafon, C Ruiz 2004 The Shadow of the Wind, tr L.Graves, London: Phoenix
return to text


Sandra Burr and Penny Hanley are both postgraduate writing candidates in the Faculty of Design and Creative Practice at the University of Canberra.


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Vol 12 No 2 October 2008
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb