Is your PhD a monster?



The other week I got a chance to just sit and chat with a group of new ANU PhD candidates. The subject was problems. As you can imagine, I totally loved it because as the students talked I wrote about 20 blog posts in my head.

Amongst the many topics we discussed that night was the difficulty of doing interdisciplinary work. There was a lot of angst in the room about it. It’s difficult for anyone to provide provide clear cut, actionable strategies to the problem of interdisciplinary work. Partly because problems seem to be on multiple fronts: method, disciplinary culture, writing the thesis, supervision.

In other words – all the usual problems, but with the volume turned up to 11.

Later that night I sounded out my Twitter followers on the subject and got even more ideas to ponder. @a6ruled wondered if learning to write (and think) like a scholar in an unfamiliar discipline is like learning to write in another language. @absent highlighted the difficulty of trying to integrate the styles of different disciplines in a single body of work; @jayscoh agreed and talked about the danger of displaying ‘shallow knowledge’ of another discipline. @deirdremcgowan warned that reconciling conflicting advice from supervisors in different discipline made the process difficult. She went on to describe the problem of “single discipline hostility”, where every term had to be defined, literature reviews had to be multiple and methodology was “madness”.

@cosgrove_s summed it up the whole thread nicely when told us how his supervisor warned him that interdisciplinary work carried the danger of “going down over international waters”.

That supervisor is right you know. Publishing can be difficult for those working between disciplines, as can the examination process. As I mulled the problem over I started to wonder: is the interdisciplinary thesis an academic monster?

My mind went to monsters because I was reading a draft of Evelyn Tsistas fascinating thesis, where she compares hybrids, chimeras and cyborgs to mythical figures like Vampires and Werewolves. Evelyn points out that the figure of the monster in literature represents our fears of crossing boundaries, of being (or becoming) other than human.

Just as the figure of the monster is often also an outcast, the writer of an interdisciplinary thesis can become intellectually homeless. As Kamler and Thomson put it in their seminal book “Helping Doctoral Students Write”, text work is identity work. As we write the thesis, they argue, we also write the scholar – and who wants to be a scholarly monster?

Well, plenty of people. And for good reasons.

The fact of the matter is, making new knowledge is much harder than it used to be. Back in the 17th century all you had to do to get a PhD was know everything. Luckily, in the Christian West at least, all knowledge was contained in the Christian Bible. Now knowledge is a vast and sprawling city, not a provincial country town. Mastery of subject knowledge is no longer the ‘gold standard’ of thesis examination. Originality has now come to take centre stage and making a contribution (with a capital C) has become the aim of every PhD student, everywhere – regardless of discipline.

If we follow the import/export theory of creativity, Interdisciplinary ‘cross breeding’ is a good route to new original knowledge. Both there’s original and too original. Your contribution might be so original, so novel or challenging that people can’t, or wont, accept it.

How do you do an interdiscplinary thesis and avoid being othered?

Plenty of people do it, so there must be some tricks.

Let me switch gears momentarily to one of my favourite TV shows featuring monsters, Buffy the Vampire slayer. As you might remember, Buffy is the one girl in all the world blessed (or cursed) with the ability to kick Vampire butt, so, of course, for the purpose of dramatic tension, she has to fall in love with one or two vampires along the way.

Buffy’s first love is Angel/Angelus, a vampire who has a soul and is therefore good – most of the time. The problem with Angel is he can become the evil Angelus if he experiences a moment of pure happiness. For this reason Angel/Angelus (conveniently) spends a lot of time on screen, in tight leather pants, either smouldering and brooding.

The clever thing about the Angel/Angelus character is that he is recognisably human in either state of being. In fact, when he flips over from good, but tortured, Angel to evil, devil-may-care Angelus he is perhaps more human – and definitely more fun. The audience is invited to love Angel / Angelus for his human-ness and his tight leather pants.

Stay with me – I’m going to get to the point soon I promise.

In her thesis, Evelyn describes hybrid monsters “deeply elusive” because they make us question what makes us human in the first place. Likewise the inter-disciplinary thesis is uncomfortable precisely because it makes us wonder – what is knowledge anyway? If academic knowledge depends on disciplinary methods and procedures, how much can you colour outside disciplinary boundaries and still end up with something that is recognisably a thesis at all?

The key to being successful in this interdisciplinary thing, I think, is to colour outside the lines and end up with something that is recognisably a thesis. To create a loveable monster, like Angel/Angelus, you need to tap into the thrill of the exotic other, without bringing too much of the disturbing otherness.

In other words, if your text is not recognisable as a scholarly contribution, to at least one discipline, your thesis-monster will not be welcome at the disciplinary dinner table. If becoming a recognisable scholarly creature is your aim, the onus is on you – even more than usual – to imagine how your audience is consuming your thesis as you write it.

My own thesis was on gesture in architectural education, which sat somewhere between architecture, education and sociology. The way I dealt with my multiple audience problem was to take a leaf from the web designers’ handbook and imagine my audience using ‘personas’. A persona is an imaginary person who you create by means of profiling tools and processes. I based my profile on two possible examiners for my thesis.

One was ‘Jan’, a communications specialist and the other was ‘Johanna’ an architectural historian, teacher and educationalist. I worked up profile ‘stories’, complete with photos, for both and stuck them on my wall. As I wrote I would look at the profile and ask myself: “what would Jurgen think of this?”, “would Johanna agree with that?” and so on.

Sometimes Jan would not need to read a whole lot of stuff that Johanna already knew, so I sign-posted it for her, i.e: “readers familiar with the history of architectural education can safely skip the next chapter and go straight to chapter four where I sketch out the history of research on gesture”.

What I ended up with was two and a half literature reviews, multiple methodologies and an uncomfortable, fence sitting kind of conclusion which left at least one of my examiners didn’t really like. In retrospect a far safer and more sensible strategy would have been to ‘stand’ firmly in one discipline: just write the thesis for architecture educationalists and reach for techniques and ideas from communications into it. But that’s the problem with a the thesis, just as with life, there’s no do overs.

I’m interested to hear from those people who are writing, or have written an interdisciplinary thesis. Do you have advice for anyone else who is trying to make a loveable monster?