Arts Week 2017: “Doing and thinking: methods in practice-based research”

Dr Maria Kukhareva, Educational Developer at the University of Bedfordshire reflects on the interaction of creativity and academia following a workshop as part of Birkbeck Arts Week 2017.creativity-academiaAs an interdisciplinarian (both by background and by own curiosity) I seek opportunities to be amazed by the way different disciplines and approaches interact, the conflict and tension borne out of this process, and the turbulent energy and questions it has potential to generate.

I recently participated in the ‘Doing and Thinking’ workshop during Arts Week, which gathered an exciting and diverse crowd of practicing artists, researchers, and artist-researches – both Birkbeck’s own and external enthusiasts, like me.

Here, I broaden the focus of the workshop and turn to the discourse around creativity, rigour and scholarship in higher education – and what it means for the creative practitioners and researchers, as well as the wider academic community.

“Is it alive or is it ref-able?”

What the workshop discussion demonstrated very quickly and relatively clearly, is that there seems to be a vast and deep ocean between the mysterious continent inhabited by the creative practitioners, and the equally mysterious land of “this is how things are done in academia”.

The ocean was represented by a heap of colourful cards with research (and life?) related words on our tables. As we were shuffling through them, we realised we could not agree on the meanings, values and emotions of some seemingly common words, for example:

impact (think: theatre performance versus academic publication)
serendipity and intuition as a driving force (think: visual arts versus systematic research)
discomfort and doubt (think: open creative process versus evaluation outcomes)

In fact, words and language in general continued to be the cause of frustration, namely the incompatibility of creative output (a painting, a book, a film) and the academic language accompaniment (a thesis).

One could almost imagine how creativity and its magic, so necessary for any artist’s existence, breaks into pieces on encountering the academic expectation. As if to become an academic scholar, an artist needs to give up a part of their soul in exchange for the gifts of rigour, systematic inquiry and strictly formatted self-expression and self-representation. As if the fruits of your labour can either be ‘alive’ or ‘ref-able.’

But… is this really the only way to cross the ocean?

“Follow your nose”

Let’s view creative practice – whether you are a professional artist, early researcher or an educator in any given field – as something you NEED. Whether it’s where you experiment, or where your intuition, or some other undefined drive pushes you to create news things. It’s where a part of your soul lives; it’s something that fuels your daily activity. It’s what inspires your signature pedagogy, your authorial voice and what gives it life – as demonstrated effectively by Emma Bennett, Katherine Angel and Catherine Grant.

If this is what your creative practice does, then not only does it not go against the ‘traditional’ academic activity, with its rigour, systematic approach, structure, format and language – rather, creative practice makes the academic activity possible and interesting, from teaching to publishing.

The messy, unstructured creativity with a mind of its own, should be preserved and nurtured, rather than ‘re-trained’ when entering the world of traditional academic boundaries and standards. As Thomas Fisher has pointed out, creativity can be a rigorous process.

In other words – ‘it’ needs to be alive to be ref-able.

I would like to invite the reader to consider the following questions:

  • How and where do your practice and research activity co-exist?How disparate or how close are these two preoccupations? Do they fuel or hinder each other?
  • Which one of these (research or practice activity) offers more scope for creativity?
  • How does your creative and experimental activity drive your signature approach?
  • And lastly, how can we preserve and nurture our creativity, while we are developing our academic identities and careers?

On that note, I am off to read Katherine Angel’s book!

Contact Maria Kukhareva:
University of Bedfordshire profile


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The Networked Academic: Social Media and your Research Identity

This post was contributed by Ceren Yalcin, Nelly Ali and Mayur Suresh, interns at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

Twitter, Facebook,, Youtube, Pinterest, Delicious, Foursquare and many more…The list of available digital platforms is long, but what is the value of social media for academics?

Dr Scott Rodgers, lecturer in Media Theory at Birkbeck College, spoke yesterday about what academics can do with and in social media. He suggested that we should think of social media, a networked media, not as just as a form of ‘networking’. Rather than looking at it as an arena in which we make contacts and disseminate our work and view the work of others, he suggested we look at social media as a different sort of academic environment that develops its own intertia and channels the production of knowledge. The structural logic of social media enables different methods and forms of academic knowledge. In his talk Dr Rodgers presented a variety of popular social media platforms and discussed what sort of academic life each one of these seemed to produce.

The speaker pointed out several things that make social media different from ordinary sites of knowledge production. First that social media is persistent, in the sense that there is automatic recording of whatever you post and this stays online for a long time. Second, replicability. Meaning that once something is posted online, people can, almost instantaneously, make copies and further post it. This leads to the third characteristic: scalability. By posting and reposting by multiple users, there is the collective amplification of material that is posted online. And lastly, searchability. The fact that material that is posted online is persistent, allows for it to be searchable.

When the speaker asked the audience to comment on their own use of social media, one participant pointed out that her activities on Twitter resulted in a successful, international research co-operation. Others stated that they found especially useful as it allows users to share papers and to receive feedback on work in progress. However, there were also some mixed feelings towards social media amongst the participants. One participant said that tweeting during a conference might be good publicity for the event but she found that it also made her less concentrated and distracted from the actual conference talks. Another interesting account came from an academic who pointed out how ‘addictive’ social media can be and how it can prevent doing other and more important work. Further, the discussants commented on the conflicts online profiles may cause. Here, a few participants expressed concern that their work and personal personae may meet, potentially causing embarrassment (we’ve all been there!).

Dr Rodgers pointed out some of the concerns and hopes he had for a networked academia. Some of the concerns included the fragmentation of writing (how do you get a theoretical argument to fit into a tweet?), the need to get as much posted as often as possible, and the view that being logged into these new forms was just another form of academic labour – that in addition to publishing and speaking, maintaining an online persona was another things academics, particular early career researchers, needed to do to. On the plus side, he hoped that new media would engender less formalized forms of academic expression, more honest and generous academia, and a (differently) publicly engaged academia.

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