An Exploration of Darkness within Doctoral Education: Creative Learning Approaches of Doctoral Students

An Exploration of Darkness within Doctoral Education: Creative Learning Approaches of Doctoral Students

Søren S. E. Bengtsen (Aarhus University, Denmark)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0643-0.ch012


In doctoral education, the formal structures include the Graduate School system, PhD courses, and supervision contracts, etc. Doctoral education also takes place on informal and tacit levels, where doctoral students learn about the institutional regulations, the research field, academic craftsmanship, and research design by observing how their supervisors talk, act, and handle issues in the professional community. However, the formal-informal divide is not adequate if we want to understand the sprawling, mongrel, and diverse forms of student engagement, coping, and learning strategies within doctoral education today. By drawing on the empirical studies of cross-level institutional voices, as well as international studies into similar grey areas of student learning in doctoral education, this chapter argues that learning spaces of educational ‘darkness' hold unrecognised potential for enhancing learning experiences, harnessing professional competences, and enriching the depth of research in the PhD life that implies significant contributions to future doctoral education development.
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Introduction And Background

This chapter explores creativity within doctoral education, focusing on the creative learning approaches and learning spaces that doctoral students apply and activate during their PhD life, but which are largely overlooked and ignored within formalised doctoral education. This study applies the concepts of ‘darkness’ and ‘non-formal learning’ to highlight the student activities and learning strategies performed within doctoral education, and links these peripheral activities and learning approaches to concepts of creativity and creative learning. In this way, creative problem solving skills are not something that educators, supervisors, and institutions should invent. On the contrary, they are already existing and applied by the doctoral students themselves in everyday doctoral education, so we just need to catch sight of them and acknowledge their relevance, subtlety, and implications for how doctoral education can be further improved and match doctoral students’ actual needs for support.

The way doctoral education is organised institutionally influences how we expect doctoral students to learn, and therefore also how supervisors approach the task of doctoral supervision. Issues of global drivers including formalisation, massification, and quality assurance, etc. also influence doctoral education. Graduate schools emerge and become still larger entities with the aim of creating administrative cohesion, knowledge sharing across disciplines, and centralised support systems on a divisional level (Andres et al., 2015). The body of literature on how to ensure quality in doctoral education and professionalise the research supervision of doctoral students is growing, including books on how to advice students about writing up their thesis (Murray, 2011; Trafford & Leshem, 2012), how to assess the doctoral thesis (Pearce 2004; Tinkler & Jackson, 2004), and how to guide and prepare doctoral students for the viva (Murray, 2009; Morley, Leonard & David, 2010). The underlying logic of this formalisation of doctoral education rests on the understanding that doctoral education can be a messy process and spin out of control for students and supervisors, which is why doctoral education should be ‘tamed’ and rationalised into formalised procedures and contracts.

Students are met with guidance on how to manage their personal circumstances and skills development (Cryer, 2006), and told to “be aware that you must accept the responsibility for managing the relation between you and your supervisors. It is too important to be left to chance” (Phillips & Pugh, 2012, pp. 108). Lee connects this aspect of formalisation with what she calls “functional teaching and supervision” and links it to a “managerial approach” (Lee, 2012, pp. 31). Grant describes formalisation of doctoral education as “a matter of technical rationality” (Grant, 1999, pp. 2), which she argues is “attractive, particularly to university bureaucracies (and their funding bodies) who want predictable outcomes and timely completion” (ibid). Formalisation of doctoral education is enacted to prepare for the unexpected and keep students on the right track by inviting them to document and reflect on their research and learning processes step by step. This is seen in every day doctoral education in the use of electronic logs and evaluation systems, in the rules and regulations of doctoral education in the different national contexts, and in formalised structures such as research programmes, PhD programmes, departmental guidelines, and formalised learning environments such as obligatory and voluntary PhD courses, seminars, and workshops.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Doctoral Pedagogy: The teaching and counselling strategies used by doctoral supervisors in their doctoral supervision. A doctoral pedagogy specifically builds on underlying understandings of learning and teaching.

Formal Learning: Learning activities and approaches clearly defined and initiated by the institution and Graduate School – usually in the form of courses and supervision.

Informal Learning: Learning activities and approaches tacitly defined and initiated by the discipline and disciplinary community of which the student is part.

Darkness: A term describing that which lies in a blind spot for the institution or discipline regarding challenges, opportunities, and activities that may be a central part of the doctoral experience.

Non-Formal Learning: Learning activities and approaches defined and initiated ‘outside’ the formal and informal learning environments, e.g. enacted in or influenced by the private sphere (life world) of the student.

Cross-Level Institutional Perspective: A research approach that explores several levels, or layers, of the organisation or institution in the same study, with the aim of conducting a comparative analysis of these levels.

Learning Environment: The physical spaces, facilities, locations, and technologies offered students as work spaces and areas.

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