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This paper is a tentative exploration of (a) ways of engaging students
in melding the creative and the critical, and (b) helping them control
the process and avoid pitfalls of excess in experimentation, by (c) revealing
to them criteria by which their work might be evaluated by critical reader/assessor.
A consequence of the latter might be a shared understanding by examiners
and supervisors of criteria implicitly and explicitly applied in examination
of creative/critical exegeses. I do not intend to rehearse at length the
many discussions of what is it to write hybrid/experimental/fictocritical
work, as the work of Dawson, Gibbs, Ryan, Brewster, Kerr and Nettelbeck
in this area are well known. However, I shall deal with this briefly because
it sets the scene and leads to consideration of some of the work emerging
from my own students and from those I have examined from other institutions.
Thus I can deal with what I have called the ways in which students, as
they experiment, as they write, 'make strange' their topic and indeed
their own ways of thinking and responding. What I see in their work is
the mark of autopoiesis - the process of self-creation and self-discovery
(often writ large) - particularly in the honours creative thesis, but
still determinedly in evidence in some postgraduate exegeses. The point
is, of course, that for student and supervisor the writing of the exegesis
is a journey as much to do with content as with subjectivities, with working
with disciplinary knowledge as with self and life experience, and with
presenting the known (what the student has read and absorbed) alongside
the newly discovered (and perhaps riskily presented).
Creative practice, that is the act of 'practical consciousness' (Williams
1977: 212), when plied by the honours or postgraduate student writing
an exegesis to accompany a creative artefact, is quite likely to generate
'many forms'. The exegesis can be seen as a 're
(Pope 2005: 84), a potentially disturbing, unnerving performance culminating
in a something re-fashioned, re-made, or newly made and perhaps madly
different. Students are seeking to take their work (perhaps fictocritical,
fictoautobiographical, autopoetic, autoethnographic) into shapes and forms
create or make the 'next work' (Williams' term).
Indeed Pope suggests that creativity as a concept needs to be re-written and thus we can see how fictocritical/experimental work might be part of that process in practice:
So I consider how students have fashioned their exegetical papers; for
example a fiction (to accompany a novel) in fantasy genre but one in which
is embedded a complex discussion of meaning-making, symbolism, semiotics,
discourse theory, critical theory and a wide-ranging incursion into cultural
theory and critique. Or a meditation on self and place, imbued with discussion
of literary theory, postcolonial critique and the construction of self
in fiction and autobiography; or a collage of image and texts of several
genres, which reveals the construction of a memoir in word and form so
that the content, text and format are explicated and understood as a whole.
I do not intend to go back over ground much tilled in the pages of TEXT (including the special issue of 2004) that deal specifically with the nature of the exegesis. Still, there Milich and Schilo suggest that there are three models of exegesis evident in creative thesis work; the context model, the commentary model and the research question model (Milich and Schilo 2004). However, these models do not deal with those exegetical works which, in the writing discipline, take off in mad new ways as creative artefacts in their own right. These papers may in fact work, as do conventional exegeses, from a research question, and provide contextual and theoretical commentary, at the same time as the author/researcher plays with the very text as 'creative practice' - beyond the postmodern moment, perhaps - finding ways of revealing their authority as a writer and thinker in ways which are quite challenging for the supervisor. The exegeses that I described briefly earlier do not fit neatly into standard models. Rather the potential of the fictocritical performance allows the postgraduate student the freedom to engage in what Pope describes as 're creation' because as Anna Gibbs notes:
If there is a challenge for the supervisor then there is surely a challenge
for the examiner. And as a supervisor I worry that an examiner might have
expectations of the exegesis, which is more conventional or at least as
conventional as the Milich and Schilo models still seem to be. So there
is a case for further discussion of criteria by which exegeses might be
examined, and certainly for the development of a shared understanding
by examiners and supervisors of how to read such work.
As a step towards this I aim to link several different ways of thinking
about writing and research, and draw on the criteria applied by scholars
outside the field of literary studies or creative writing for ways of
evaluating the new and surprising in student work. Again, I do not intend
to track back over the many discussions and debates about assessing the
creative exegesis, which have graced the pages of TEXT in particular
(eg, Kroll, Brophy, Krauth, Dibble and Van Loon).
I am interested in the process of developing in students the skills of
writing to link the creative and the critical, and to take risks with
their text, so that their understanding of theory can be revealed alongside
their creative work. The undergraduate and honours program in Writing
(Professional and Creative Communication) at the University of South Australia
(UniSA) has evolved to enable students gradually to build their capacity
for creative work as 'practical consciousness' and of 'tekhne' at work;
thus the linking of the craft and art of writing with the capacity for
making something of ideas and issues in order to produce a coherent and
We think of this rhetorical and scholarly process as truly as the 'arts
of discourse' and as a creative process for the everyday. In a recent
paper, Christine Owen makes a similar point as she acknowledges the creative
and critical aspects of academic and creative writing, when she notes
that 'For many students, writers and academics, there is no
inherent conflict between being a good academic researcher capable of
writing research papers, and a good writer producing a range of creative
works' (Owen 2006).
By the time they reach honours and then postgraduate study at UniSA, students have been on a trajectory that encourages both the conventional in academic writing but also the explosively different. The stepping stones include: rhetorical and stylistic awareness and analysis; being the ethnographer of situation (participant observation in real contexts; but also being the ethnographer of texts; reflecting on one's own process as a writer and reader; playing with texts through 'textual intervention' (Pope 1995) as a means of reading into and writing out of texts, in order to critique and also to create something new; the close observation of the texts of others (unpacking style); reading the practitioners of the observer's art turned to fiction/nonfiction (eg, Dickens, Orwell, Didion); playing around with critical approaches but performing this via presentations that mix media - visuals, voice, print - in a poster presentation; discovering ways of arguing that depend not solely on the conventions of academic discourse, or at least which subvert or dislodge them. So, for example, they might observe how researchers such as Cushman (1996) and Lather (1996) have written research for professional and public audiences. Here is Cushman describing her approach to an academic article published in College Composition and Communication:
She continues that the text she produces should be seen as a hall of
mirrors in which she notes, 'I use narrative voice to tell the story of
possibility' and 'The footnotes with various markers are the next set
of mirrors and reveal more background for my argument'.
The footnotes, endnotes and appendices continue this subversion of academic
conventions. The footnotes themselves contain her 'self-critical voice'
in which she critiques academic discourse. She uses numbered endnotes
to expound on the ideas of 'useful theorists' and to use her 'academic
voice' so that she can 'work within the system'. Finally Cushman uses
appendices 'to point to trends', and also to pen asides which she describes
as 'written out of anger' and in 'personal voice'. This voice is 'the
best translation of my street-tough, face-breaking, fight-licking voice
' (Cushman 1996).
Lather's text, an article in Harvard Educational Review, explains how she constructed a research report as a book with a very specific research aim: 'The form of the book cancels the distance between subject and object, reader and writer and written about' (Kumar 1987, in Lather 1996: 533). She continues:
Armed with a reading of such academic papers, writing students begin
to take immensely playful approaches to their texts: mixing media, blurring
genres, juggling formats, intervening at word and sentence level, inventing
neologisms to capture something to bridge the critical/creative divide
and stretching the possibilities of citation through vigorous use of conventional
scholarly apparatus - footnotes, endnotes, annotation and so on. Curbing
excess is something a supervisor has to do even when this exercise in
poeisis seems to touch on sensitive personal nerves and emerging scholarly
It is not sufficient to produce a text which plays around for the sake
of playing around - and we know that some students are only too pleased
to do this. They need to move beyond the mad moment as a writer and think
ahead to the reader and indeed the examiner.
For the PhD student the vital point - the creative artefact notwithstanding - is that the text of the exegesis must read well as a whole. In Peter Elbow's words, the text needs to be organised in such a way that it 'binds time':
'Whole texts need larger global pieces of energy', he says:
Calling for what he terms 'dynamic writing', Elbow suggests five organisational features that depend on time - narrative; dynamic outlines; perplexity - the puzzle that prompts the writing; language that enacts thinking (thinking in progress) rather than language that records past thinking; and voice. In brief these features are:
As an examiner of creative works including the exegesis, and as a supervisor,
I find it useful to consider Elbow's discussion of these five features;
effectively criteria for evaluating 'dynamic writing'. However I also
wish to throw into the melting pot several other ways of thinking about
the creative exegesis, and particularly the exegesis as fictocritical
First, I take the criteria implied in an assessor's report of an honours student's thesis written as an exercise in fictocriticism. Juliet's aims for the thesis included:
She combined chapters for a creative fiction - an exercise in 'chicklit'
- into which she integrated discussion of issues of theory with poetry,
and she included a final self-reflective and critically reflective essay
on her process and progress.
She seemed, in fact, to fulfil the criteria implied in Paul Dawson's definition of fictocriticism:
Her work can also be read as a demonstration of the writing of the self as Gibb's describes such fictocritical writing:
How might such a thesis be reviewed or examined? A reading of the examiner's report suggests the implicit criteria considered in the assessment:
Let's hold both Elbow's and the examiner's criteria for a while to explore
another relevant territory.
UniSA undergraduates in the writing program are introduced early on to
the notion of ethnography, in particular to understanding themselves as
writers/researchers who are the ethnographers of their own situation.
It provides a way of introducing them to qualitative research and to the
issues involved in research writing. As honours and postgraduate students
they encounter this in greater depth as they pursue qualitative research
and/or creative writing projects, often blending the two as they work
perhaps on auto/biography, oral histories or other non-fiction projects,
or organizational or communication research.
Their role as researchers and writers, as self-reflexive text and knowledge
maker, is central to how they construct their thesis/creative artefact/research
report/exegesis. So we introduce them to the debates about representation
(the so-called crisis of representation) in the social sciences and particularly
anthropological and ethnographic research, beginning in the 1980s but
still very much alive in the research literature today.
One such example is from Laurel Richardson, a champion of the significance of the personal, the reflexive and the experimental in writing social science research (1994 and 2005). In the Handbook of Qualitative Research (1994) she proclaims:
She writes of 'experimental representations' as an 'emergent and transgressive
phenomenon', with the accompanying problems of subjectivity/authority/authorship/reflexivity
and representational form (1994: 520). The Cushman and Lather articles
are just two of many examples from that period of debate and experimentation
in the representation of research findings. We in the writing discipline
would not find this surprising. However, what has happened in the social
sciences over the past twenty years, I suggest, has something to say to
us as we stake a claim for the creative thesis and its accompanying exegesis
Here is Richardson again in the 2005 edition of the Handbook, now writing of ways of reading what she terms Creative Analytic Ethnography:
She suggests the following criteria, drawn from the perspectives of science and the creative arts, for reviewing such research writing, noting that 'mere novelty does not suffice'. An article or report of research should demonstrate the following (see Richardson and St Pierre, 2005: 964, my gloss in brackets):
The element that (inevitably) emerges strongly in almost all of the fictocritical exegetical work I supervise and have examined is the autobiographical/autoethnographic. This is something beyond the self- reflexivity of the researcher/scholar/writer, which is of course a key element in social science research practice and writing (as Richardson's comments and the third criterion suggest). Willard-Traub summarises this rhetorical move:
As she notes, such texts are 'helping to reshape the relationship between
scholars and their readers' and 'helping to reshape the purposes of scholarly
writing more broadly'. We might add that this implies that reviewers of
scholarly accounts need to establish, as Richardson suggests, appropriate
criteria for reading such work.
If further evidence of such reshaping is needed, I turn to a recent volume
of the journal Reflective Practice. This journal is an example
of the reflexive and experimental turn in social science research and
is devoted, according to the journal's brief, to 'recent initiatives;
reports of works in progress, proposals for collaborative research, theoretical
positions; knowledge reported in poetic, diagrammatic and narrative form,
illuminated by line drawings and photography; provocative problem and
question posing thought pieces; reflective dialogues; creative reflective
conversations'. It is of interest then to see how the editor describes
the qualities he looks for in reflective writing.
The editor, Tony Ghaye, interprets and elaborates on what are described as seven da Vincian principles. (He has adapted these from Michael Gelb's 1998 book, How to think like Leonardo da Vinci.)
This offers food for thought for supervisors and examiners,
particularly when students 'push the formal possibilities of academic
prose to the extreme' as Paul Magee (Magee 2006) says,
citing as examples authors such as Certeau, Deleuze, Derrida, Adorno,
Barthes and Blanchot. To which we might add critic Walter Benjamin and
sociologist Zygmunt Bauman.
If we return then to what happens when students engage in fictocritical and/or other related experimental writing as part of their thesis or exegesis, we must conclude that it is an evolving form and that it behoves us to be prepared to accept the shock of the new and to recognise it for what is on offer. Barbara Bolt notes we need to recognise that:
Tellingly she offers a way of considering work, which is very much about re creation:
Writing students draw on their lived experience as they engage in mimetic
activity and in their writing of qualitative research. The exegesis is
of course a 'cultural production' inscribed by identity, gender, race,
sexuality, ethnicity, life experience; all those things, which mixed with
their ruminations on theory and theorists become the matter with which
they as writers play, giving form to the 'practical consciousness' - the
creative practice of which Williams spoke or as re
They take the opportunity to 'personalise the theory and make it over
in their own voice', as Ann Brewster says (Brewster 1996:
How then do we read and assess such work, which is marked as much by autopoesis as it is by the trappings of scholarship? A shared understanding of criteria, often implicitly understood and applied, would seem to be useful. To conclude this excursion into different criteria for reviewing research writing, and as a way toward assessing fictocritical or experimental writing in the creative exegesis I have attempted to chart the criteria suggested by these authors out of the disciplines of social science, literary studies and writing.
Criteria for analysing the fictocritical exegesis
I shall leave the discussion here with two quotes, which seem to me to speak to the heart of the matter:
And from Annie Dillard:
Readers, supervisors and examiners need to have some way of indicating what makes a piece of writing powerful and effective within the discipline of writing. Thus it seems to be worth undertaking a close examination of how scholars in a range of disciplines, now engaged in writing differently, read and evaluate the research writing in their fields.
List of works cited
Claire Woods is Professor of Communication and Writing and Director of International Programs in the School of Communication, University of South Australia. She has published extensively on aspects of teaching writing, literary practice and English studies. She is the coordinator of the Cultures of Conflict - Writings of War Research Group and is currently working on projects relating to war history, oral records, and Prisoner of War diaries.
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Vol 11 No 1 April 2007
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb