The Art and Craft of Research: How do we locate and evaluate knowledge?

By Professor Craig Batty

While the sector has a pretty broad understanding what creative practice research is – and how its outcomes align with the ARC’s definition of research (e.g., new materials, devices, processes, understandings) – there are still conflicting views about where the new knowledge resides, even from those doing the work. For example, is it found in the creative work itself, or in the reflection on the process of creating the work? Indeed, what form does new knowledge take in a creative research work? How do we know what to look for, and how do we assess it? While it might be assumed that these questions have been answered, I think there is still some way to go before a sector-wide consensus has been reached. How, then, can we consistently evaluate new knowledge if we do not fully agree on where it resides? Here I want to explore the idea of craft – specifically as opposed to art – and problematise why people often shy away from it in a research context.

"Art" is typically a preferred term over "craft", possessing as it does a more academic – indeed, mysterious – quality over the technique of an industry or professional practice. But if we acknowledge the performative nature of craft, does actually this stack up?

Anecdotally, there are varying viewpoints across the sector about whether craft can be claimed as new knowledge. Are concepts and ideas in a work the only measure of research, or can research also include the way the work has been put together? The embodiment of research findings in/through craft. For example, can crafting a fictional character be evaluated as new knowledge? Is the craft of designing a set a research outcome? ‘Art’ is typically a preferred term over ‘craft’, possessing as it does a more academic – indeed, mysterious – quality over the technique of an industry or professional practice. But if we acknowledge the performative nature of craft, does actually this stack up? Do we need to move on from this divide?

Some examples might be useful here, drawn from the many conversations I have taken part in over the past 10 years. One: research into the representation of a particular demographic reveals problems about, and gaps in, how that demographic has been portrayed; then, on the basis of this research, a new (counter) representation is developed and crafted through a screenplay – the character’s personality, worldviews, action, dialogue, etc. How is this not research? Two: rigorous research into colour and mood has been undertaken, and from this a particular technique of painting theatre sets has been devised. How is this not a research outcome? Do we have to examine these things through Bakhtin, Deleuze or Derrida for them to count? Or does their systematic enquiry not, by default, define them as research?

As Allyson Holbrook and I wrote in an article on contributions to knowledge in the creative writing doctorate, “There is general agreement that doctoral research should show ‘originality’, but there is less agreement about what that means or how it is distinguished from “contribution”. There is also a strand in the literature that attests that different disciplines, especially relative newcomers to the doctorate such as the creative arts, privilege different qualities of originality and forms of contribution” (2017, p. 1). This prompted us to ask, “what forms do understandings of originality and contribution take in creative fields?” (2017, p. 2). In other words, where is the new knowledge in a creative work? And how are people articulating it? In terms of the art vs craft debate, should we be more flexible about what new knowledge looks (or sounds, feels, smells or tastes) like? Should we acknowledge that while, for some, the concepts and ideas are what is new, for others it is the craft or technique that has been developed and enacted

Might examiners or reviewers revert to what they feel about the work – not on research terms, but against industry/professional/artistic standards? The complication here, of course, is that the craft of the work might very well be the way to judge industry/professional/artistic standards – in which case, does research evaluation require a framework that acknowledges the craft origins of a work?

Looking to the literature, we might consider Darren Newbury’s (1997) report on what new knowledge looks like in art and design; and Jerry Wellington’s (2013) article on what contribution looks like in the doctorate. In short, new knowledge can be a new method or process; a novel or innovative way of practicing; a new model; empirical novelty; a material outcome (as well as an academic outcome); implications for practitioners, policy makers or theorists. If a contribution to knowledge can therefore be various, how do we assess contribution types? Can the sector agree on evaluation criteria for creative practice research outputs and outcomes? These questions are not just academic ones. For doctoral candidates and examiners, for example, they raise real questions about the quality of a creative work. If the craft is not ‘good enough’, should we be requesting more substantial revisions than we typically do? (It is common knowledge that most examiner emphasis is directed towards the exegesis.) These questions also impact on how ERA reviewers conduct their assessments – what are they looking for? This flags the importance of the research statement in helping to pinpoint the new knowledge.

From a screen production perspective, Leo Berkeley, Smiljana Glisovic and I (2018) have debated the need for accompanying text to evaluate knowledge within a creative work. This included a note on the potential danger of letting the creative work “speak for itself” – which, like art vs craft, is often a point of contention in the academy. While art tends to invite interpretation, should research do the same? Or, does a creative research work require textual framing to pinpoint and explicate the new knowledge? Without such framing, might examiners or reviewers revert to what they feel about the work – not on research terms, but against industry/professional/artistic standards? The complication here, of course, is that the craft of the work might very well be the way to judge industry/professional/artistic standards – in which case, does research evaluation require a framework that acknowledges the craft origins of a work? Or, unless we do something about it, will “artistic” concepts and ideas always prevail – to the detriment of some researchers?

All of this is to say that just as a new contribution to knowledge can take various forms in creative disciplines, so too should the way that this is evaluated. My strong sense is that we do not yet have the confidence to frame research through the lens of craft – so should this change? Do we need to go back to definitions of research and make bolder claims about knowledge that takes on a performative or material outcome? Just like “practice-led research” has, arguably, a different meaning to “research-led practice”, does artistic research have a different – but equally valid – meaning to craft-based research? If, as some of the interviewees in Jenny Wilson’s study (2018) outlined, research is sometimes about process and sometimes about outcome, should we be pushing for a more nuanced and inclusive framework for evaluating the work of creative practice research?

References

Batty, C., Berkeley, L., and Glisovic, S. (2018). A Morning Coffee in Melbourne: Discussing the Contentious Spaces of Media Practice Research. Media Practice and Education, 19(1), 8-17.

Batty, C. and Holbrook, A. (2017). Contributing to Knowledge in Creative Writing Research: What, Where, How?. TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses, Special Issue 44, 1-16. Available at: http://www.textjournal.com.au/speciss/issue44/Batty&Holbrook.pdf

Newbury, D. (1997). Research and Practice in the PhD: Issues for Training and Supervision. Birmingham: Birmingham Institute of Art and Design.

Wellington, J. (2013). Searching for “Doctorateness”. Studies in Higher Education, 38(10), 1490- 1503

Wilson, J. (2018). Artists in the University: Positioning Artistic Research in Higher Education. Singapore: Springer.


 Professor Craig Batty is Head of Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. He is the author, co-author and editor of 12 books, including Writing for the Screen: Creative and Critical Approaches (2nd ed.) (2019), The Doctoral Experience: Student Stories from the Creative Arts and Humanities (2019) and Screen Production Research: Creative Practice as a Mode of Enquiry (2018). He has also published over 60 book chapters and journal 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.