Discovering doctoral literacies: the emergence of new literacy events and relational doctoral practice

Dr Karen Gravett, University of Surrey, and colleagues

Critical perspectives on doctoral education and doctoral literacy practices are needed now more than ever. The last three decades have seen a rapid diversification in doctoral education and it is increasingly apparent that the prevalence of new routes for study, combined with an increasingly competitive academic landscape, have transformed what it means to undertake a doctorate (Gravett 2021), as well as reshaping the literacy practices that comprise a doctoral experience in new ways.

This research seeks to unpack the key literacy events, beyond the thesis, that comprise students’ experiences of contemporary doctoral study. This might include literacy practices such as the increasing need to write for publication, alongside or as part of a thesis. It might include writing conference papers, presentations, and papers for research groups, or literacy practices that comprise the confirmation process. This study will put to work the theoretical frame of literacy-as-event (Burnett and Merchant 2020), in order to examine these practices as literacy events, and to look at the relationality of literacy practices within a contemporary doctoral journey. 

The findings of this research will be useful in a number of ways. The research will enable educators to better understand doctoral experiences, disrupting conventional understandings of literacies that evolve around a monograph. Our study will foster meaningful ways to support researchers in their development of a breadth of literacy practices, including better signposting within researcher development services and literature as to the expectations for doctoral pedagogies. Although our study takes place within doctoral education, through developing our understanding of literacies as situated, relational, events, our research will enhance literacy education in its broadest sense, contributing to a broad conception of effective literacy education that will be of interest to educators in a multiple of settings.

FINAL REPORT

UKLA grant report – April 2023

Discovering doctoral literacies: the emergence of new literacy events and relational doctoral practice

Karen Gravett, Marion Heron and Adeeba Ahmed

The project

Critical perspectives on doctoral education and doctoral literacy practices are needed now more than ever. The last three decades have seen a rapid diversification in doctoral education (Carter, Smith and Harrison 2021). It is apparent that the prevalence of new routes and possibilities for study, combined with an increasingly competitive academic landscape, have transformed what it means to undertake a doctorate (Gravett 2021), as well as reshaping the literacy practices that comprise a doctoral experience in new ways that are not commonly understood.

This research sought to unpack the key literacy events, beyond the thesis, that comprise students’ experiences of contemporary doctoral study. This included literacy practices such as the increasing need to write for publication, alongside or as part of a thesis. It included writing conference papers, presentations, and papers for research groups, or literacy practices that comprise the confirmation process. Specifically, this study engaged the experiences of postgraduate researchers themselves, via a student-staff research partnership, with Adeeba, a PhD student.

This study also put to work the theoretical frame of literacy-as-event Burnett and Merchant 2020), in order to examine these practices as literacy events, and to look at the relationality of literacy practices within a contemporary doctoral journey. Following Burnett and Merchant, we suggest that thinking relationally prompts us to keep interrogating what is going on and to seek out other stories of what is folded into the flow of activity’ (2020, p. 13). Burnett and Merchant (2020) explain: literacy-as-event is generated as people and things come into relation; what happens always exceeds what can be conceived and perceived; and implicit in the event are multiple potentialities.

The study focused on addressing the following three research questions:

  • What are the key literacy events, beyond the thesis, that comprise postgraduate research students’ experiences of contemporary doctoral study?
  • How do literacy events overlap intertextually and relationally? How do they form socially and culturally situated practices?
  • How can these literacy events be made visible and supported?

Method

During the project, the researchers interviewed 12 PhD students currently studying for their PhD at the University of Surrey. Students were recruited from across the three Faculties (Faculties of Arts and Social Sciences, Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences, Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences and from across the PhD lifespan of 3-4 years (full time and 6-8 years (part-time. Our method employed semi-structured interviews which incorporated a critical incident (Tripp, 1993).

Using critical incidents allows the participant to focus on a specific event which occurs in their everyday literacy practices as a PhD student. The accounts are referred to as critical because they are “indicative of underlying trends, motives and structures” (Tripp, 1993, p. 25). The aim is that through articulating a specific incident from everyday practices, the familiar becomes strange (Lea and Stierer, 2009) and

through probing, the participant can reflect critically and articulate experiences, emotions, and events which are meaningful to them. The semi-structured interview as an approach allows the researcher and the participant to discuss further key concepts in PhD literacy experiences with the opportunity for further probing as required (Cohen, Manion and Morrison, 2013). The interviews were conducted online through Microsoft Teams. Ethical approval from the University’s Ethics committee was granted.

The recordings were transcribed and checked for accuracy. We then used a thematic analysis to code the transcripts looking specifically for experiences of PhD literacies and how students navigate these experiences.

Research findings and outputs

Our study enabled us to unpack the literacy moments, beyond the thesis, that comprise students’ experiences. Our data suggest we can understand doctoral literacies, not as bounded occurrences, but as assemblages of practices. Conceptualising literacies in new ways may be generative as part of the important move away from limiting notions of literacies as bounded skills, located or lacking within individual students. Rather we have demonstrated that adopting sociomaterial and posthuman sensibilities can enhance our understanding of the ways in which literacies may be more complex, emergent and nuanced than commonly perceived. Second, our study offers new insight into the ways in which doctoral students experience contemporary doctoral study. Enmeshed in assemblages of multiple and evolving forces, there is a need for supervisors to understand the diversity of literacy practices inherent in doctoral study, as well as to promote and support such engagement, considering potential barriers to equitable access to such practices.

Heron, M., Gravett, K. and Ahmad, A. (2023) Doctoral literacy practices as sites of connections, competition and discomfort. International Journal of Educational Research.

https://doi.org/10.1016/1.jjer.2023.102175 And: Gravett, K., Heron, M. and Ahmad, A. (2023) The doctorate unbound: relationality in doctoral literacy research. Literacy.

https://doi.org/10.1111/lit. 12325 The research also resulted in one conference presentation (UKLA

2023) and one dissemination workshop for staff and students held at the University of Surrey in

February 2023.

References

Carter, S., Smith, K. and Harrison, N. (2021) Working in the borderlands: critical perspectives on doctoral education, Teaching in Higher Education, 26:3, 283-292.

Burnett and Merchant (2020) Literacy-as-event: accounting for relationality in literacy research.

Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education. 41 (1) 45-56.

Carter, S., Smith, K. and Harrison, N. (2021) Working in the borderlands: critical perspectives on doctoral education, Teaching in Higher Education, 26:3, 283-292.

Cohen, L., Manion, L., & Morrison, K. (2013). Research methods in education. London: Routledge.

Gravett, K. (2021) Disrupting the doctoral journey: re-imagining doctoral pedagogies and temporal practices in higher education, Teaching in Higher Education, 26:3, 293-305.

Gravett, K., Yakovchuk, N. and Kinchin, I.M. (Eds.) (2020). Enhancing student-centred teaching in / higher education: The landscape of student-staff partnerships. Cham, Switzerland, Palgrave Macmillan.

Heron, M., Barnett, L., & Balloo, K. (2021). Exploring Disciplinary Teaching Excellence in Higher Education. Cham, Switzerland, Springer International Publishing.

Lea, M. R., and Stierer, B. (2009). Lecturers’ everyday writing as professional practice in the university as workplace: New insights into academic identities. Studies in Higher Education, 34(4), 417-428.

Massumi, B. 2011. Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Massumi, B. 2002. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. London: Duke University Press.

Massumi, B. 2015. The Politics of Affect. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Tripp, D. (1993). Critical incidents in teaching: Developing professional judgement. London:

Routledge.

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