University management should take creative practice research seriously … before it’s too late

By Professor Craig Batty

It was heartening to read QUT Vice-Chancellor, Margaret Sheil, write in support of the arts and humanities in the last edition of NiTRO. In it, she noted the “growing trend towards treating research as a purely transactional investment, blind to benefits that accrue outside the ledger”, and insisted that universities “must foster the creative arts and the human and social sciences, not only alongside the sciences but in concert with them”. She continued: “Art that moves us, that speaks to the human condition, will continue to require human creativity - often enabled, but never replaced, by technology”.

Imagine, for example, being told that you can’t submit your novel for review as a research output because it didn’t come out of a theoretical problem written about in a peer reviewed journal article. Or that you can’t submit your award-winning short film because it’s not long enough.

It’s the human aspect that I want to pick up on here. Not just the human side of art/practice making, but the human side of being a creative practitioner in the academy, in what is an increasingly managerialised space. Comforted by the fact that Sheil’s support comes from her position as a VC at a high-ranking research intensive university, I want to ask: why is it that some creative practitioners flourish in the academy, while others flounder? From my experience, it is to do with management.

I consider myself very fortunate to have worked for seven years at a university that greatly supported creative practice research. In fact, it was at that university that I developed strong leadership skills in creative practice research - formally and informally - through targeted support from my dean at the time, financial and human resource investment from the three deputy deans (research) I was lucky to work with, and being surrounded by many colleagues with similar interests, experiences and ‘stakes’ in the area. I felt like we thrived there, and looking back, a big part of this was because management believed in what we did. In fact, they wanted us to do even better at what we did. Creative practice research as real and valuable was never in question.

Perhaps this experience is not typical. I regularly hear horror stories of creative practice researchers being isolated, cut off from opportunities, denied workload points/allocations - even mocked because of the format of the research they are conducting. This inconsistency was indeed a finding from the ASPERA project we conducted in 2017, which outlined that while some universities have robust processes for mentoring creative practice researchers and recognising their outputs, others had no processes at all. The report concluded with a series of recommendations to empower creative practice researchers to attempt change within their institutions, to quell many of these inconsistencies. But let us be honest here - it is not just about inconsistency. In some cases it is about injustice. In other cases, it is nothing more than insulting.

... creative practice research is a very real part of the Australian research ecosystem ... It’s time to own up to the inadequacies of internal systems and - quite frankly – the injustices that have been carried out.

Imagine, for example, being told that you can’t submit your novel for review as a research output because it didn’t come out of a theoretical problem written about in a peer reviewed journal article. Or that you can’t submit your award-winning short film because it’s not long enough. Or that your music composition doesn’t contribute to innovations in the form, because it was broadcast commercially, so you’d better retrofit it as doing something with theories of identity - because someone has written about that. Perhaps worse, your two feature films will be packaged as one work because they’re about the same topic - you won’t get double the research allocation, but it looks better for ERA. These examples are drawn from the stories I hear and things I witness regularly. And in most cases, the advice is both technically wrong and morally compromised.

The fundamental error here, and something all universities must acknowledge, is that in many cases, creative practice research is being led by those outside creative practice disciplines or by those who haven’t immersed themselves in the debates and discourse. They are coming to it from a skewed position. This isn’t to say that these people can’t or shouldn’t lead or advise on these matters; rather, if they’re going to do it, they need to know what they’re working with. And they need to build teams who can fill the internal knowledge gaps and be external advocates for creative practice research. Gaming the system is one thing; having integrity to perform well in the system is another.

Not that it’s all one way, of course. Creative practice researchers should be lobbying to join committees and help develop policies and processes - taking up the mantel of leading where leadership is clearly needed. To go back to Sheil, and here I’m angling towards investing in people and believing in human beings who know stuff: “Innovation does not come from purely transactional investment in the applied sciences, but from considered, long-term investment of time and resources into the people, institutions and processes that constitute Australia’s research ecosystem.”

As Jen Webb clearly outlines in here 2018 NiTRO article mapping its history in the academy, creative practice research is a very real part of the Australian research ecosystem. It’s not an adjunct and it’s certainly not frivolous - though many university managers still see it that way. It’s time to own up to the inadequacies of internal systems and - quite frankly - the injustices that have been carried out. Not only have people’s workloads been affected by such behaviour, their careers, morale and, I imagine, general wellbeing have also been stifled. This is not just unproductive for universities - it’s destructive for the people working and studying in them.

Jen Webb again: “We have, as a community of creative academics, learned how to play the game pretty well, and we’ve come a long way. But - are we there yet?” My reply would be - no, not yet. But we know what ‘there’ is and we know how to get to that place. It’s time for things to change.


 Professor Craig Batty is Head of Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. He is the author, co-author and editor of 11 books, including Writing for the Screen: Creative and Critical Approaches (2nd ed.) (2019), Screen Production Research: Creative Practice as a Mode of Enquiry (2018) and Screenwriters and Screenwriting: Putting Practice into Context (2014). He has also published over 50 book chapters and journals articles on the topics of screenwriting practice, screenwriting theory, creative practice research and doctoral supervision. In 2016, Craig won an Australian Awards for University Teaching (AAUT) Citation for PhD supervision in Creative Writing.