A whimsical look at a PhD journey

* An essay I wrote for my Postgraduate Certificate in PhD Supervision. It was considered too whimsical.

Codes of Practice for a PhD in Law: The Story Unfolds

Abstract: The essence of a PhD thesis is the story of a journey of exploration in a particular field of endeavour. Stories are important. “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around. Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.” (Pratchett, 1992) That is the potential power of a code of practice. It is the narrative causality to the PhD journey. Typically, narrative causality refers to the sequence of events in a story of any medium, be it book, movie, play, or, in this case, a PhD thesis. All fictional realities have this underlying principle to one degree or another. However, a theory has developed which states that once a story has started, it takes a shape. Things happen because the plot says they should. In the example of a PhD thesis at Bournemouth University, this shape is reflected in MyBuild. Terry Pratchett expounded on this idea in his novel Witches Abroad (1992) where he used it to refer to the ‘power’ of a story’s archetypes and clichés. Narrative causality will be explored here via the Code of Practice and how it relates to the completion rates of postgraduates.

I. Introduction

The doctorate as a research degree was born in Germany in the early 1800s. It was further developed in the United States from the 1860s onwards. Finally, it was introduced into the United Kingdom in 1917. Since then doctorates have been introduced in many countries, and a number of different types of doctorate have developed here in the United Kingdom. In recent years the nature of the doctorate, and its fitness for purpose, have been questioned in America and Australia. Although there have been calls for such a debate in the United Kingdom over the past two decades, it has yet to happen, even though many commentators have noted tensions and confusion about the role and purpose of the doctorate in the United Kingdom. (Doctorate Debate at http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/ourwork/policy/doctorate)

Lately, the situation has become more complicated. As universities strive to remain competitive, their doctoral education has attempted to respond to a variety of major changes from the new emphasis on skills, training and employability to the introduction of national benchmarking, codes of practice and the European Charter for Researchers. These produce further tensions between product (thesis) and process (researcher development), between timely completion and high quality research, and concerns about, amongst other things, funding, the international reputation of UK doctoral graduates, harmonisation of degrees across Europe (the Bologna process), employers’ needs and student debt. (Id.) There are several complementary ways of describing effective postgraduate research environments. Among them are descriptions of those areas (a) where the doctoral students report high levels of satisfaction, (b) where aspects of codes of practice such as those developed by the QAA are thought to be exemplary, and (c) that the departments consider to be providing a high quality research context. A fourth, and also complementary, way is to describe the doctoral students experience of aspects of the research environment in those departments considered to offer high quality research environments assessed against outcome indicators, such as completion rates and examiners’ reports. (Trigwell, 2008)

What does this mean for Bournemouth University? The Graduate School’s Mission Statement states that it is “to provide excellence in postgraduate research and enhance the researcher’s experience by creating the best environment for academic and personal development.” A PhD is a journey of exploration for the researcher. The end product will be a map (thesis) of what he has discovered. However, to begin with he will need an itinerary (Code of Practice) and a diary (MyBuild). He will need a guide (supervisor) to keep him out of trouble and to inform or remind him of the rules. Not only will he have developed a map by the end of the journey, he will have a story too. What is really important for completion rates is the story.

II. Itinerary – Codes of Practice

Sir Issac Newton taught us that our universe runs on rules. His were mathematical and were labelled the ‘laws of nature’. Law may be too strong a word for the patterns of how the universe works. But human beings like to formulate these patterns and use the resulting descriptions to work out some aspects of nature that would otherwise be mysterious and exploit them in order to develop tools, vehicles, and technology. (Stewart and Cohen, 2002) Codes of Practice are the formulated patterns by which a PhD can be produced. They were developed in response to the Harris Report (1996) which was a landmark in the development of postgraduate education in the United Kingdom. (Green, 2001) Bournemouth achieved this via its Code of Practice which “. . . sets out Bournemouth University’s policy and procedural framework relating to research degrees (MPhil, PhD, DBA, DProf) and should be read in conjunction with the relevant University Regulations, Policies and Procedures and additional School specific information.” (BU Code of Practice 1.1, 2008) This Code of Practice is the set of rules by which a PhD will be accomplished.

What are rules though? Do they really tell us how the universe works or how to write a PhD? Or are they just patterns that our brain seeks out? There are two main points of view regarding this. One is fundamentalist at heart, like Southern Baptists or the Taliban. The exquisitor Vorbis in Small Gods (Pratchett, 1994) stated his fundamentalist position thus: “. . . that which appears to our senses is not the fundamental truth. Things that are seen and heard and done by the flesh are mere shadows of a deeper reality.” Scientific fundamentalism holds that there is one set of rules, the Theory of Everything, which does not only describe nature but is nature. The philosophy behind this view is called reductionism. It proceeds by taking things to bits, seeing what the bits are and how they fit together, and using the bits to explain the whole. This is a very effective research strategy. It has served so well for so long that the deepest theories of science have been reduced down to quantum mechanics and relativity. Quantum mechanics explains the world on a very small scale; whereas, relativity explains the world on a very large scale. Unfortunately, the two theories disagree on a fundamental level about the nature of the universe and rules it obeys. The Theory of Everything hopes to modify both theories so that they can be unified at which point it will have reached its Ultimate Rule of reductionism and all is completely explained. The extreme alternative view of this is that there are no rules to speak of. What we call laws of nature are human approximations to regularities that crop up in certain specialised regions of the universe. Rules can only be contextual. They explain why things work the way they do in terms of what is outside them.

Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen (2002) provide an example of how these theories relate. A stone rolls down a bumpy hill, skidding on a clump of grass, bouncing wildly off bigger rocks, splashing through muddy puddles, and eventually coming to rest against the truck of a tree. If fundamentalist reductionism is right, then every aspect of the stone’s movement, right down to how the blades of grass get crushed, what pattern the mud makes when it splatters, and why the tree is growing where it is anyway, are the consequences of one set of rules, that Theory of Everything. The stone ‘knows’ how to roll, skid, bounce, splash, and stop because the Theory of Everything tells it what to do. More that that: because the Theory of Everything is true, the stone itself is tracking through the logical consequences of those rules as it skitters down the hillside. In principle, you could predict that the stone would hit that particular tree, just by working out the necessary consequences of the Theory of Everything. As for a PhD, the researcher would begin with a plan which would be supplemented with directed reading leading to an outline which would then be fleshed out into a rough drafted that gets polished by discussions and feedback from the supervisor until a finished product (thesis) is produced. Again, in principle, the finished product could be predicted by working out the necessary consequences of the entire process using the Theory of Everything.

This picture of causality implies that the only reasons for things to happen are because the Theory of Everything says so. The alternative is that the universe is doing whatever the universe does, and the stone is in a sense exploring the consequences of what the universe does. It does not ‘know’ that it will skid on the grass until it hits some grass and finds itself skidding. The alternative thesis is arrived at by exploring all of the possible permutations of the subject matter chosen by the researcher who then randomly jots down letters of the alphabet with some grammar which is then presented as a finished product. And so on. Then people come along and look at what the stone has done and start finding patterns, starts telling stories. The human level rules are approximate descriptions which were invented along with Codes of Practice.

There is disparity between writing down a Theory of Everything and understanding its consequences. There is a mathematical system that demonstrates this point called Langson’s Ant. (1990) The Ant wanders around on an infinite square computer grid, the square changes colour from black to white or from white to black, and if it lands on a white square then it turns right, but if it lands on a black square then it turns left. As such, the Theory of Everything has been defined in the Ant’s universe. The rules that govern its complete behaviour have been fixed on this small scale which, in turn, allows for everything that happens in that universe to be ‘explained’ by that rule. Moreover, when one watches the Ant in motion, what is seen are three separate modes of behaviour. Everyone can spot them, not just the mathematicians who designed it. Something in the human mind makes us sensitive to the difference which has nothing to do with the rule. It is the same rule in three distinct phases:

Simplicity: During the first two or three hundred moves of the Ant, starting on a completely white grid, it creates tiny little patterns which are very simple and often very symmetric. The first conclusion to be drawn is: “Simple rule, simple pattern. Therefore, everything should be able to be described simply.”

Chaos: Then, suddenly, the pattern changes. Big irregular patches of black and white squares emerge and the ant appears to be wandering around randomly. There is no discernible structure. For Langton’s Ant this kind of pseudo-random motion happens for about the next 10,000 steps. This leads to the conclusion that the whole thing is random and the rule is pointless. This is the wrong conclusion because the ant is still obeying the same rule, the result merely looks random.

Emergent Order: Finally, the Ant locks into a particular kind of repetitive behaviour, and it builds a ‘highway’. It goes through a cycle of 104 steps, after which it has moved out two squares diagonally and the shape and the colours along the edge are the same as they were at the beginning of that cycle. This cycle then repeats forever. (Id.)

These three modes of activity are all consequences of the same rule, but they are different levels of the rule itself. It demonstrates emergence. Simple rules may lead to large, complex patterns. One can create a system, and give it simple common sense rules which would seem to lead to a predictable outcome but instead leads to complex features which were not immediately predictable. There is no possible way to know this apart from watching the results. The Ant must dance.

Emergent phenomena, which cannot be predicted in advance, are just as causal as the non-emergent one. They are the logical consequences of the rules. The term ‘phase space’ or ‘possibility space’ becomes useful at this point. ‘Phase space’ is a system in which the space of all possible states or behaviours, all the things that the system could do, not just what it does do. This is also called Ant Country, which can be thought of as a computational form of infinite suburbia. To understand an emergent feature one must find it without traversing Ant Country step by step. Unfortunately, human beings do not understand things that way. They understand things by keeping them simple. Here, is where narrative causality or narrativium becomes useful. A little narrativium goes a long way: the simpler the story, the better you understand it. Storytelling is the opposite of reductionism; 26 letters and some grammar are no story at all. (Stewart and Cohen, 2002)

The Codes of Practice are one such system, a way to traverse Ant Country, if you will. The untrained PhD supervisor will tend to either copy (or avoid copying) the way that they were supervised themselves. (Lee, 2007) The Codes of Practice give a simple set of rules which will allow for the student to produce an original and valuable contribution to knowledge (Wisker, 2005) as well as develop employable skills within a timely completion (Pearson and Brew, 2002). Brew outlined a phenomenon which he found by quantifying supervisors’ conceptions of research. The table below outlines them.

Research is interpreted as: Foreground: Model of Supervision
Domino Conception A process of synthesising separate elements so that problems are solved, questions answered. Lists of atmonistic things: techniques, problems, etc linked in a linear fashion Functional
Layer Conception A process of discovering, uncovering or creating underlying meanings. Data containing ideas together with hidden meanings Critical Thinking
Trading Conception A kind of social market place where the exchange of products takes place. Products, end points, publications, grants, social networks. These are linked together in relationships of personal recognition and reward. Enculturation
Journey Conception A personal journey of discovery, possibly leading to transformation. The personal existential issues and dilemmas. They are linked through an awareness of the career of the researcher and viewed as having been explored for a long time. Mentoring
Adapted by Lee (2007) from Brew (2001)

Pearson and Kayrooz (2004) suggested that supervision could be framed as a series of tasks and responsibilities that can be clustered and operationalized. Bournemouth University has collated the range of supervisors’ styles and goals and arranged them according to Pearson and Layroozs’ suggestion within its aims and objectives of its Code of Practice. Section 2, the Aims of this Code:-
• To ensure that postgraduate researchers (PGRs) at Bournemouth University are effectively supervised so that the full potential of their research ability may be achieved and their research completed within an appropriate time period.
• To ensure that PGRs and staff have a common understanding of their respective roles and responsibilities.

• To promote policies and procedures which protect the academic standards of the University’s research degrees.

BU does this with a range of tools including MyBuild. MyBuild is a diary for Ant Country traveller working on their PhD.

III. Diary – MyBuild

“The human imagination is an amazing thing. As children, we spend much of our time in imaginary worlds, substituting toys and make-believe for the real surroundings that we are just beginning to explore and understand. As we play, we learn. And as we grow, our play gets more complicated. We add rules and goals. The result is something we call games. Games cultivate – and exploit – possibility space better than any other medium. In linear storytelling, we can only imagine the possibility space that surrounds the narrative: What if Luke had joined the Dark Side? What if Neo isn’t the One? In interactive media, we can explore it.” (Wright, 2006)

Although MyBuild is not a game, it is an interactive way of providing academic guidance through key milestones and reviews. It provides a narrative background structure to the development of the PhD. It harnesses the potential chaos of masses of research and causes it to be focused. MyBuild helps to create purpose and intention by forcing documentation of key milestones and reviews. Human beings are social animals. They like to communicate with each other. A PhD is not a very sociable activity. MyBuild provides an opportunity to be more social and interactive with others. How do people interact and communicate? They tell stories.

Stories, however, once started, take a shape. They pick up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been. This is why history keeps on repeating all the time. “A thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods. A thousand wolves have eaten grandmother. A thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story. It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed. Stories don’t care who takes part in them. All that matters is that the story gets told, that the story repeats. Or, if you prefer to think of it like this: stories are a parasitical life form, warping lives in the service only of the story itself.” (Pratchett, 1992) Terry Pratchett calls this the theory of narrative causality.

The more narrative is used in human affairs or specifically in the production of a thesis, the more evident it is that the world revolves around the power of story. We build our minds by telling stories. But we do not just tell stories, we listen as well. Granny Weatherwax is a character in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. She is keenly aware of the power of story. She refuses to be trapped by the story’s narrativium. She uses the power of the story to mould events according to her own wishes. Politicians, scientists, priests, teachers, and journalists do the same thing in our world. They use the power of story to persuade or manipulate people in particular ways. The ‘scientific method’ is a defence mechanism against this type of manipulation. A researcher is taught not to believe things merely because they want it to be true. Proper research requires the robust efforts to disprove any new discovery or theory, especially your own. By using MyBuild to record these discoveries and theories, the researcher can develop their own narrative. The search should always be to try to find a different way to explain the same things.

IV. Stories

Stories are important. They tell us how the world could be. Diaries are important. They tell us how are world is seen by ourselves. Tropes are important. They are storytelling devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations. But people remember badly. “Societies remember well, the swarm remembers, encoding the information to slip it past the censors of the mind, passing it from grandmother to grandchild in little bits of nonsense they won’t bother to forget. Sometimes the truth keeps itself alive in devious ways despite the best efforts of the official keepers of information.” (Pratchett, 1993) MyBuild helps the swarm. It is the repository of all the stories and narratives which have passed between the researcher and the supervisor.

Stories are “great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time [which] have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling…stories, twisting and blowing through the darkness. [T]heir very existence overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.” (Pratchett, 1992) This concept is much more complex than deus ex machina, where events are altered by the interference of some external power, whether that be Fate, Providence, the gods or the author. The story itself has a desired and desirable shape. Normally the future is branching off at every turn and it is only possible to have the haziest idea of what is likely to happen. But here on Discworld there were stories coiled around the tree of events, bending it into a new shape. This idea comes from the work of Claude Levi-Strauss who developed the idea of ‘structuralism’. Structuralism is the idea that patterns of thought and behaviour are determined by characteristics of the human brain which remain fixed wherever it may live. (Lichfield, 2008) MyBuild provides a structure for anyone who wishes to embark on a PhD. It helps a researcher to find the story, to analyse any persistent patterns in the chaos of their research.

Stories are not told just to rehash the past, but they are also told to re-examine the impossible. In a recent interview, Pratchett explains a long-standing character of a werewolf who works in the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork. “You don’t have to do a scientific treatise here. Because we all know there is no such thing as a werewolf. But culturally, through novels and the movies, we have a vague idea what werewolves are and how they work. Can we invent a physiology, a history for werewolves that fits in with all those things that popular culture has said werewolves are? Do werewolves have kids? What are they born as? What happens if a werewolf marries a human? All these things are really, really interesting because you can talk about other things in the guise of fantasy. You don’t actually necessarily know you’re doing it, but you’re usually dealing with something actually germane to us in the here and now. But you are doing it through sock puppets – carefully written sock puppets. And indeed, actually, thinking seriously, that’s what Discworld is. Discworld is taking something that you know is ridiculous and treating it as if it is serious; to see if something interesting happens when you do so.” (Pratchett, 2008)
This is the fundamental nature and culmination of research and analysis.
V. Conclusion
The essence of a PhD thesis is the story of a journey of exploration in a particular field of endeavour. Stories are important. “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around. Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.” (Pratchett, 1992) This is the power of a code of practice. It is the narrative causality to the PhD journey. Typically, narrative causality refers to the sequence of events in a story of any medium, be it book, movie, play, or, in this case, a PhD thesis. All fictional realities have this underlying principle to one degree or another. However, a theory has developed which states that once a story has started, it takes a shape. Things happen because the plot says they should. In the example of a PhD thesis at Bournemouth University, this shape is reflected in the MyBuild. Narrative causality is the key to the successful completion of a PhD. The Code of Practice provides the structure to facilitate a successful narrative.

References:

• Bournemouth University Code of Practice, 2008
• Brew, A. “Conceptions of Research: a phenomenographic study”, Studies in Higher Education, vol 26, no 3 (2001)
• “The Doctorate Debate” at http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/ourwork/policy/doctorate
• Elins, M., Dream Machines: Will Wright Explains How Games Are Unleashing the Human Imagination in Wired April 2006. Will Wright is the creator of, among dozens of other games, The Sims
• Green, H., Recent Developments in Postgraduate Education in the United Kingdom, paper presented at Postgraduate Education in Europe past, present, and future, May 2001 at Linköpings Universitet, Sweden
• Higher Education Funding Council for England, Committee Vice-Chancellors and Principles, Standing Conference of Principles (1996). Review of Postgraduate Education, HEFCE, London (Harris Report)
• Langton, C., “Langton’s Ant” at http://www.math.umd.edu/~wphooper/ant/
• Langton, C. “Computation at the edge of chaos”. Physica D, 42, 1990
• Lee, A., Developing Effective Supervisors: Concepts of Research Supervision, SAJHE 21 (4) 2007 pp 680-693
• Lichfield, J., Grand Chieftain of Anthropology lives to see his Centenary, 29 November 2008, The Independent p. 38
• Orr, D. interview with Terry Practchett “Fantasy Figure” in The Independent Magazine, 29 November 2008
• Pearson, M. and Brew, A. “Research Training and Supervision Development”, Studies in Higher Education, vol 27, no 2 (2002)
• Pearson, M. and Kayrooz C., “Enabling Critical Reflection on Research Supervisory Practice”, International Journal of Academic Development, vol 9, no 1, (2004)
• Pratchett, T. Witches Abroad, (London: Corgi Books, 1992)
• Pratchett, T. Lords and Ladies, (London: Corgi Books, 1993)
• Pratchett, T. Small Gods, (London: Corgi Books, 1994)
• Stewart, I and Cohen, J., The Science of Discworld, (London: Ebury Press, 2002)
• Trigwell, K., “Characteristics of high quality research environments at The Oxford Learning Institute” found at http://www.learning.ox.ac.uk/oli.php?page=243
• Whisker, G., The Good Supervisor, (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2005)

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