Monthly Archives: December 2015

Making the familiar seem strange: does a PhD need to do more than this?

What’s the point of doing a PhD?

Unsurprisingly, if not belatedly, this question is now troubling me.

A fair amount is said about what doctoral research is for, especially about what makes it unique, why it differs from a Master’s degree, for example, and how different thesis formats can afford or constrain the sort of knowledge that PhDers have to ‘produce’ (I so hate using this verb, but I haven’t settled on a suitable alternative, yet).

Here are two examples of what examiners look for in a Social Science PhD:

  • Writing for Research: Patrick Dunleavy is looking for an existing idea that has been moved from a familiar context to an unfamiliar one. He uses the metaphor of the Gherkin in London’s cityscape to illustrate how architectural knowledge evolves.
  • Patter: a similar idea emerges from Pat Thomson when she advocates “making known things seem strange and unfamiliar”. She looks at the nightmare scenario of finding somebody who has done exactly the same research as you! Luckily, it is just that, a nightmare, so you do wake up from it.

However, the way it is for me right now – in the process stage, not the final stage – is not so much about trying to make the familiar seem strange, but about taking a familiar object and doing things to it and with it in order to find out what else this object could do, to find its potentials.

For example, a classic guitar:

244px-Guitar_1can be deconstructed and granulated


Pollock-style mess

until its contours re-configure, re-combine and re-emerge

to stretch the research focus so that the familiar object can be put to new uses and re-imagined to potentially create new sounds, new voices, new definitions of what counts as a ‘guitar’, as ‘music’. This novelty then assumes ‘a value’ (a warrant?), thus becoming more than simply ‘unfamiliar’:


The Yuri Moodswinger

Is the PhD process a worthwhile activity? Or is it mere indulgence?

I think it is worthwhile because the process of deconstruction increases our chances of discovering new uses and new purposes for what we find ‘familiar’. A tried and tested familiar object can then be put to new uses, ensuring that creativity strengthens and stretches our potential understandings and widens our pools of discovery.

But I worry about the entrepreneurial trends in higher education (as I have lamented here and here) and the effect that they will have on this process of explorative deconstruction and re-configuration: it is a process that is coupled with risk because who knows what the final outcome will be. It could be a process that leads to a cul-de-sac.

These reflections remind me of an article by George Monbiot who argued that Darwin would never have been funded under the current marketisation of Higher Education because he would not be able to measure and predict the ‘impact’ of his explorations.

Although I like the vision that Dunleavy and Thomson have of making the ‘familiar unfamiliar’ (above), I worry about how long their advice will still hold if the ‘unfamiliar’ becomes too unsettling to attract funding.

What kind of university do we want?

Valuing the imagination (Chapter 3, Ron Barnett)

This post is part of my rolling reflections on what it means to be a university in the 21st century in light of the U.K. Government’s decision to open up tertiary education to even more private providers.

Ron Barnett (2013) argues that current conceptions of the ‘university’ are too narrow because they are based on the model of an entrepreneurial university This model restricts the possibilities of what a university could be because business is an inherently risk-averse venture (in the sense that it will not take risks that could dent its brand image in the eyes of the customer, regardless of whether this ‘dent’ is perceived or actual). This is because business relies exclusively on customer satisfaction in order to justify its very existence; so the question is, can and should universities adopt such a business model and rely on their student-customers to sanction their viability?

I don’t think they can and I don’t think they should. As Athene Donald argues here, ‘a satisfied student-customer is not the same thing as an educated student-customer’. Others have argued in a similar vein.

Ron Barnett therefore imagines the following alternative models (pp. 39-44) to the entrepreneurial university, arguing that we need these alternatives to the  building of a ‘knowledge economy’ if we want “[T]he concepts of critical thought and [of] understanding” to be part of “policy debates” (2013, p. 36):

  • The University of Wisdom: this is a university that has ‘human value’ at its heart, eg. ‘Improving the world’ and ‘heightening well-being’;
  • The Philosophical University: this is a university that takes ‘responsibility’ for the new world order, to help create new concepts, new ideas for a ‘new world’;
  • The University of Dissensus: this is the university in which there is a forum for debate and ‘critical interrogation’ about ‘fundamental issues’;
  • The Metaphysical University: all the above create a sense of ‘a university-for-the-world’ (not simply ‘in’ or ‘of’-the-world) which serves “the wider world through its activities, rooted in inquiry” (p. 40);
  • The Concerned University: this is a university that realises “its imaginative potential neither as an end in itself, nor in the service of money or competitive advantage […] but in the service of the wider good of humanity” (p. 40);
  • The Transluscent University: this is the university that, like a fountain playing, gives ‘delight’ and ‘shimmers in the public space’; it becomes a thing of ‘beauty’, open to the public gaze, and made up of infinite complexity “with droplets intermingling in unpredictable ways” (p.44):
Fountain playing in the public space

Fountain playing in the public space

All of these conceptions need to have imaginative weight (p.41). They need to be rooted in the reality of administrative practices and economic forces, but they also need the critical freedom to ‘strike out’.


This is where Barnett reveals his sympathies with the theories of critical realism (especially the Roy Bhaskar version) claiming that:

critical realism is hard-headed; it believes that there is a real world, with pretty hard and powerful structures. It has a solid ontological component. And it recognises that there are many, perhaps an infinite number of ways, of interpreting the world. It is epistemologically open. This epistemological generosity allows the possibility of critique for it is possible for the world to be other than it is. No matter how firm the social and economic and other structures that are influential in shaping human life, they are far from being solid. Understandings of the world can rightly be informed by values and perceptions as to the possibilities inherent in the world. The two realms – of structures and ideas – are dynamically inter-related

(The bold in the quote is mine to remind myself that this is where my own reasearch plays out, in that ‘inter-related’ bit).

Reference: Barnett, R. (2013) Imagining the University, Routledge