The problematic nature of creative arts supervision: How well do we service our postgraduates?

By Professor Jeri Kroll

There is no denying that creative arts in the university have been successful over recent decades. Yet Jen Webb still asks, in a July 2018 NiTRO piece,  “Are we there yet?” - the ‘we’ being the collective staff and students of the creative and performing arts disciplines. Their status fluctuates, depending upon who asks about value and who answers. Every stakeholder has a personal and political agenda, whether debating the necessity for and usefulness of research degrees in the arts, the logic of Commonwealth funding or the significance of creative research.

Candidates require research-active staff yet the hybrid nature of the creative arts degree demands double the supervisory expertise. Can supervisors provide appropriate theoretical support? How many supervisors are 'domain experts' ... in all the art forms they manage?

I don’t want to recycle any of those arguments here, however. Instead, I want to site this discussion at the ground level where creative arts postgraduates and supervisors interact, the former desiring consistent oversight and expert mentorship and the latter struggling to provide it within an institutional system characterised by shrinking full-time staff numbers. That dynamic increases the pressure on arts academics to supervise a myriad of art forms that might also situate themselves within a collaborative and/or interdisciplinary framework.

I come at this subject after a long career in English and Creative Writing, as an Emeritus Professor (Flinders), and now an Adjunct Professor Creative Arts (CQU) and a Doctor of Creative Arts candidate (Wollongong). It is salutary to turn the tables on oneself and enrol once again for a degree. Although I designed the first Flinders Creative Writing doctorates, my own Literature PhD back in the dark ages was conventional. As someone with a creative and critical publishing history, I have a firm grasp of what I want from my supervisors but see my postgraduate peers sometimes unsure about what they have a right to expect.

A team would support creative arts postgraduates in as many areas as projects demand and maximise staff skills in a resource and cash-strapped university environment.

I wrote about this challenge in a 2016 chapter, ‘Researcher and Practitioner: A Refreshed Model of Supervision in Creative Writing Doctorates.’ In 2019 as both student and examiner I find my views unchanged about the drawbacks of postgraduate popularity and restricted supervisory expertise. Many high-profile writers in universities have either left their positions or curtailed their student numbers, finding that academic work compromises creative output. The diversity of postgraduate projects often results, therefore, in inadequate creative and critical oversight. A glance at global and Australasian best-practice principles emphasises this quandary.

Candidates require research-active staff yet the hybrid nature of the creative arts degree demands double the supervisory expertise. Can supervisors provide appropriate theoretical support? How many supervisors are ‘domain experts’ (Dacey and Lennon 1998, 81) in all the art forms they manage? How many postgraduates have they shepherded to completion? Does the university employ enough knowledgeable associate supervisors to complement principals? Without sufficient background in creative and/or critical domains will either supervisor know if students have identified relevant gaps and how their work compares with predecessors and contemporaries? Even if under-supervised postgraduates complete, the quality of their dissertations and subsequent publications reflect upon university reputations.

One strategy I believe would be beneficial involves establishing purpose-built supervisory teams. Aside from the two mandatory supervisors, formal and informal arrangements can be made that fulfil critical, creative and professional needs throughout candidature. University-wide and division-level generic and transferable skills courses can be useful, as can disciplinary methodology seminars, but they cannot replace the tangible and intangible knowledge of art forms possessed by practitioners (the masters who train the next generation of artists) or other professional insiders, such as editors, publishers, festival directors, theatre and gallery managers, among others.

Mentorship involves a range of competencies: professional and academic guidance as well as creative expertise and market acumen. Ideally, artists in the academy should be best placed to bridge the ‘fault lines dividing practice and theory, technique and expression, craftsman and artist, maker and user’ (Sennett, 2008, 11). But how many of them can? More than ten years ago Walker et al (2008) argued for wider distribution of responsibilities among the standard American panel - this within an educational structure that mandates coursework - and Australia would benefit from adapting this model given the burden its degrees place on supervisors. A team would support creative arts postgraduates in as many areas as projects demand and maximise staff skills in a resource and cash-strapped university environment. University managers need, however, to recognise the workload contributions required and address this matter appropriately before any introduction of a team approach. Otherwise, time-poor arts academics might baulk at additional calls on their expertise.

 

References

Dacey, J. S. and Lennon, K. H. 1998 Understanding Creativity: The Interplay of Biological, Psychological and Social Factors. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kroll, Jeri 2016 ‘Researcher and Practitioner: A Refreshed Model of Supervision in Creative Writing Doctorates’ in Old and New, Tried and Untried: Creativity and Research in the Twenty-first Century University.  Eds. Jeri Kroll, Andrew Melrose and Jen Webb, Champaign, IL: Common Ground Publishing, 55-76.

Sennett, Richard 2008 The Craftsman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Walker, George E, Chris M Golde, Laura Jones, Andrea Conklin Bueschel and Pat Hutchings 2008 The Formation of Scholars: Rethinking Doctoral Education for the Twenty-First Century. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching).


Jeri Kroll is Emeritus Professor of English and Creative Writing at Flinders University and an Adjunct Professor Creative Arts at Central Queensland University. Latest books are Vanishing Point (verse novel), shortlisted for the 2015 Queensland Literary Awards. A George Washington University stage adaptation was a winner in the 47th Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Recent critical books are Research Methods in Creative Writing (2013), ‘Old and New, Tried and Untried’: Creativity and Research in the 21st Century University (2016) and the forthcoming Creative Writing: Drafting, Revising and Editing. She is a Doctorate of Creative Arts candidate at University of Wollongong.