Wednesday, 23 March 2016

What is the Ph.D for? Postgraduate supervision, social justice and research methods - by Puleng Motshoane

Michael Samuel gave a seminar in the SOTL @ UJ: Towards a Socially Just Pedagogy series, on the 17 March. He Michael started with an activity on three data sets with participants divided into three groups. Each group received a set of topics to decide if those were potential Ph.D. topics or not. The three topics were, from the University World News, the Daily Higher Education News and the third share was from the existing topics that were currently undertaken as Ph.D. studies. 

The groups had to answer the questions on whether the different topics could be undertaken as Ph.D. studies or not, and why they decided on the particular topics. The groups had to report back on the factors that drive the Ph.D. It was interesting to hear the different perspectives influenced by the different disciplines and contexts. Some participants said what drives the study is the issue of where people are located, real contextual problems or on how they would be able to find the data. Some said it is more of a convenience issue.

The question was, should the students be given the research topic or should they bring their own? In the Natural Science, the candidates are given a topic based on the project from the supervisor.

Professor Michael Cross commented that a number of factors play an important role in a Ph.D. study topic. He mentioned that academic knowledge production is no longer at the top of the agenda for a Ph.D. study and that is where we missing the point. He further remarked that the students could be guided on the topic at Honours and Masters level and not at Ph.D. It is unfortunate that the Higher Education system expects the Ph.D. candidate to complete in a less than four years yet in the South African context the majority of Ph.D. candidates are studying part-time and they have full-time jobs, which makes it impossible to complete in three years. Or else the supervisors end up with a prescription, as the students have to complete their studies quicker than it used to be the case. Thus, academic knowledge production is not at the top of the agenda anymore.

Ph.D. in Higher Education does not necessarily take the social justice agenda. We are aware that the focus of the study should be broad rather than narrowly focusing on a small case study. Students often think they can resolve a particular problem, but the Ph.D. should move beyond that.The theoretical underpinning should be developed as the study builds up. Students often think they can resolve a particular problem, but the Ph.D. should move beyond this thinking.

What is driving the Ph.D.?

The international discourses that are influenced by the international rankings would ask questions such as:
How many Ph.D. graduates does an institution like the University of Johannesburg produce? Or even the differentiated South African higher education context?
How are these issues contributing to redress, transformation and social justice issues? (Instead of the agenda of the knowledge production issues).
How do we ensure that knowledge production occurs?
How do we build the next generation of researchers (Holness, 2015)?
The outcome should be about knowledge production rather than throughput rates.
Individual students at the end get caught up in the different agendas that determine whether the institution is research intensive or not. Thus, the supervisors chooses the topics that will address the nature of the set agenda.

The agenda for the Ph.D. production is driven by other forces such as the National Development Plan, the Department of Science and Technology and the Council on Higher Education. The managerial considerations are also pushed in this framework. The agenda is mostly driven from the Higher Education system as opposed to from the institution. This agenda should rather be driven from the institution to the outside rather than the other way around. It's a problematic agenda from the Higher Education system that does not promote institutional autonomy.

Ph.D. Models
The different models of Ph.D. curriculum need to be introduced especially considering the current student protest of decolonising the curriculum. The range of Ph.D. curriculum options available needs to be executed, in terms of the different forms of doctorates available. We need to move away from the British model of one-on-one supervision and introduce other forms such as the cohort and team supervision. The different Ph.D. models, the Ph.D. by publication and the professional doctorate should also be encouraged. The  dominant Western worldview has made us believe that a Ph.D. education is about producing a written text and nothing else. Alternative forms of representation of what the Ph.D. would look like are documented in the Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework (2014) and should be explored.

With the Ph.D. by publication, the candidate needs to produce a minimum of four articles. The downside is that the average time to produce an article and get it published takes longer, so this is not an easy option as candidates think. Also, the Ph.D. by publication is more rigorous in terms of examination. In addition, the body of knowledge also moves as the candidates waits for the publication of the article.

The largest growth of the Ph.D. internationally is the professional doctorate, of which the idea is to move from context to theory. Unfortunately, some institutions and disciplines in South Africa are rejecting this option as it is seen as a lesser form of a Ph.D., which is not necessarily the case. A lot of institutions are suggesting that a theory-driven Ph.D. is superior as compared to a context-driven one. Some strong institutions see this as the watering down of the Ph.D.

The vast majority of our students would appreciate the professional doctorate as they do not have the luxury of studying full-time. They come from the world of work that seems to be pushing the agenda for the studies and not the higher education system. They have to address the daily issues that they face. There is tension between two worlds, which is misunderstood and seen in this particular way. All three form of the Ph.D. have to mediate the theory, the context and the practice, and, therefore, none should be seen as dominant over the other. 

One can ask, which model of the Ph.D. supervision is beginning to dominate and take hold? The models of supervision are crossing over and the cohort model of team supervision is becoming dominant, whereby the students work together. Michael Samuels' 2011 paper titled, Emergent frameworks of research teaching and learning in a cohort-based doctoral programme, argues for shifting the dynamics.

The candidates in the Natural Sciences have less to do independently as compared to the students in the Social Sciences. Their journey is not as lonely and they are able to produce more graduates. The joy in the Social Sciences, however, is to have ownership of the entire project and experience the doctorate emerging. The studies are moving away from the limits of policy implementation analysis

Can alternative methodologies generate new forms of social justice? We see a shift of agenda, of a move away from policy implementation and analysis. The tension is also between small scale studies that focus on the individual and large scale studies that focus on the system. Samuels argued that this  focus on the micro might be the beginning of a new narcissism.

He concluded by drawing from Wayne Hugo who argues that maybe this is the flip side of individualism, whereby we produce consumers rather than producers of knowledge. This is where the uniqueness of individual cases needs to be celebrated. Candidates at Ph.D. level need to be encouraged to solve the problems at a more systematic level, rather than a small case study. He closed comments by emphasizing that a methodology cannot ensure a new form of social justice. It can rather be a place to think about how we are self-critical about our own research agendas and how they come to be.

Michael Samuel

Michael Samuel is a Professor in the School of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal. He has served as a curriculum designer of innovative masters and collaborative doctoral cohort programmes locally and internationally. He has supervised to successful completion over 20 Ph.D. studies. He was a member of the Ministerial Committee on Teacher Education assisting the development of national teacher education policy in South Africa. He has served as former Deputy Dean: Initial Teacher Education and Dean (Faculty of Education, UKZN). His research interest focuses on teacher professional development, higher education, life history and narrative inquiry. He serves on several national and international editorial boards of educational journals. He is the recipient of the Turquoise Harmony Institute’s National Ubuntu Award for Contribution to Education.

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