#AcBookWeek: The Future of the English PhD

On 12 November 2015 a dozen PhD students working in literary and creative writing areas came together at De Montfort University, Leicester, in order to consider the future of the PhD in English from as many different angles as possible. This guest post, written by Richard Vytniorgu (English PhD candidate, DMU), captures the day’s main points of discussion.

The day asked: To which tune are English PhDs dancing? And whose?

The day asked: To which tune are English PhDs dancing? And whose?

During the one-day workshop, considerations of the English PhD included:

  1. Its place within the wider scope and roles of HE more generally in twenty-first-century society.
  2. Possibilities for more creative approaches to the writing of the thesis/output(s).
  3. The demands of REF (and potentially TEF) and further authorial activity in HE contexts, and how these affect the English PhD.
  4. What academic publishers are looking for in the academic (literary) book of the future.

In order to stimulate small-group discussions later in the day around these topics, we were joined by a number of academics or stakeholders in literary studies/ creative writing at HE level, who offered thought-provoking positioning pieces from their own perspectives and experiences.

Nicholas Maxwell (UCL) tackled the first issue from the perspective of his career-long mission to adjust the aims and methods of university-level inquiry. Drawing particularly on his two books, From Knowledge to Wisdom: A Revolution for Science and the Humanities (1984, 2007) and How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World (2014), Maxwell reiterated the need for academia to shift from a knowledge-inquiry-based paradigm of learning to one of wisdom inquiry:

‘(a) to arrive at some kind of consensus as to what our most important problems of living are, and what we need to do about them, and at the same time (b) to carry on a sustained, lively, imaginative, and critical, intellectually responsible debate about these matters’.[i]

The essential shift here is from responsibility toward problems of knowledge to problems of living, while recognising that some problems of living are also problems of knowledge.

John Schad (Lancaster) went on to offer a précis of contemporary work on ‘creative criticism’ – a genre similar to creative nonfiction, but nevertheless distinctive as pertaining to literary study specifically. Schad admitted that it was difficult at present to adopt more creative instincts, approaches, and methods to the genre of literary criticism and scholarship. But by reading some of his own work, such as Someone Called Derrida: An Oxford Mystery (2007), he was able to demonstrate to an audience partly composed of creative writers who were also writing critical PhDs, how one could architect and execute that subjective presence so often felt in ‘creative criticism’.[ii]

After lunch the day moved in a more pragmatic direction by turning our attention to issues of REF and publishing. Ben Johnson (HEFCE) was unable to make it on the day, so we were very grateful to Deborah Cartmell (DMU), who stepped in to provide a concise summary of the REF and the general expectations for early career researchers, using her own experience at DMU to give some useful anecdotal reflections. Deborah was followed by Ben Doyle from Palgrave, who offered tips on publishing and turning the English PhD into a book. From Ben Johnson’s advice given in advance of the day and also from Ben Doyle’s talk, it was clear that those outside the academy are looking for more creative and innovative work that is somewhat loosened from the intense specificity and remoteness of some topics chosen for monographs.

The rest of the day was given over to small-group discussions, following a worksheet I devised in order to steer conversation around the four topic areas the day was devoted to. I collected the sheets at the close of day and I hope to publish a commentary on these proposals for action and areas of concern in the near future. This will be refracted through my own research into the wisdom quest and aesthetic experiences with literature, as a theory and ‘metaphorisation’ of literary study at HE level.

For the moment, the following were identified as issues worthy of further attention by students and academic staff alike:

  1. The necessity in practice to ‘re-write’ the PhD in order to publish it in book form.
  2. The lack of clarity surrounding creative writing and REF.
  3. The dearth of discussion on ‘English Education’ at PhD level: its qualities, aims, methods, outputs etc.
  4. The difficulties inherent in intense specialisation.

We are grateful to The Academic Book of the Future for supporting our discussions and for enabling us to invite speakers to assist these. The workshop-seminar was a refreshing departure from those glass-half-empty forecasts for the future of literary studies at HE level: the difficulties of proceeding in this line of work, etc. If I came away with one new conviction, it was probably confidence in the need to continually assess the status quo. As young academics it can be tempting to assent to the way things are simply because we assume we have no power to change things. But as one of my PhD subjects, the educator and theorist Louise Rosenblatt, continually asserted, this is the highroad to authoritarian regimes. Democracy invites us to collaborate when we lay aside our competitive natures; to be honest about our lived (rather than imagined) situations; to reject what seems to be anachronistic or harmful, to keep what nourishes and affirms, and to put forward proposals for change based on principles of mutual aid. We hope that in the future more PhD students in English will feel emboldened to question, and, eventually, to work for change from the starting point of their own lived situations.

 

The participants in the day were:

Hollie Johnson (University of Nottingham)

Jerome S. Wynter (University of Birmingham)

Becky Cullen (Nottingham Trent University)

Jo Dixon (Nottingham Trent University)

Lynda Clark (Nottingham Trent University)

Sean Donnelly (University of Birmingham)

Katie Hamilton (University of Nottingham)

Richard Vytniorgu (De Montfort University)

Emily Heathcote (University of Nottingham)

Richard Bromhall (Nottingham Trent University)

Hannah Murray (Nottingham University)

Martin Kratz (Manchester Metropolitan University)


 

[i] Nicholas Maxwell, How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World: The Urgent Need for an Academic Revolution (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2014), p. 17.

[ii] See Stephen Benson and Clare Connors (eds), Creative Criticism: An Anthology and Guide (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014) for more discussion on this genre of writing.

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