I just read a book (Trent Jacob’s The Authentic Dissertation) about alternative dissertations—-using art, fiction, dialogues, indigenous ways of knowing and so on for doctoral dissertations. I have to admit, my dissertation process was completely the opposite of anything vaguely related to “experimental.” My process was about jumping through hoops to try to please my committee. My first draft was all “me” and I was soundly criticized for it (I was painfully raked over the coals.). So after I recovered from the verbal scolding I completely changed gears, listened to what my committee wanted me to do, and proceeded to follow their directions to a T. After all, I wanted the degree and I didn’t really feel like engaging in a battle. I was at a traditional university (University of Chicago) where these venerable professors had been guiding students through the dissertation process for decades. In other words, I wasn’t gonna win this war. The positive result was that I completed a dissertation that they were happy with and I received my degree within the next year. The negative was that I finished my Ph.D. without feeling like I had done anything meaningful. My dissertation chair wanted me to publish my findings, he said that he felt the world needed this information. I looked at my dissertation and couldn’t understand what he was talking about. For me, there wasn’t anything there. It had been a vacuous hoop-jumping experience.
Students often ask me to give them guidance on Ph.D. programs. Up until recently, I had always suggested that they go to a well-known graduate school and get a solid foundation of traditional academic research underneath them, then start their real learning after they leave school. (This is what I did.). But after reading about all this arts-based research, I now see that there is another way to do higher education. The other way is to have the educational experience itself be a developmental journey where you are truly following your own inner voice. Although I’m happy with my degree, I admire the people who have used their graduate education to find their own voice.
(I’m not sure that there are many schools in the United States that really offer such an exploratory model–most of the example dissertations in Jacobs’ book were from Canadian and European universities–but I would like to think that the two graduate schools where I teach–Meridian University and Pacifica Graduate Institute–do offer an experiential, personal model of inner exploration during the Ph.D. dissertation process.)
The thing that gets difficult is that since it’s a Ph.D. degree, the scholarship for the dissertation needs to be rigorous, and if your dissertation is a novel–in my opinion–you have a more difficult task trying to demonstrate that you’ve done substantive research. (This point gets mentioned repeatedly in Jacobs’ book.) But in any case, it’s nice to see the experimentation.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the book on the importance of the imagination:
“How do new paradigms of thought come into being? It is not simply a matter of pouring isotopes into different test tubes and applying vacuum distillation to measure their rates of precipitation. The only vacuum distillation that exists for the human mind is the imagination.”