For the past five or six years I’ve been on various iterations of the same committee — one charged with rethinking the PhD. Our more specific charge has been to investigate what doctoral-level training should mean at an institution that regards design, artistic production, and media-making as intellectual pursuits — research-based, informed by theory, and potentially theoretically generative. While we were having our discussions, lots of other professional organizations and institutions were having similar conversations about “praxis-based” PhDs, and some schools (like Carnegie Mellon) even put such programs into place. Of course Australia and the UK (and schools in a few other places) have been doing this sort of thing for years.
Last year, the Provost charged me with filtering those years’ worth of experience and dialogue (including, most recently, with the wonderful Lisa Grocott, Clive Dilnot, Simone Douglas, and Joseph Heathcott) into the creation of an official formatted-in-accordance-with-state-requirements proposal for a new PhD program. I worked for a couple months with an external research organization to flesh out our committees’ “environmental scans” of the various design-, arts-, and praxis-oriented doctoral programs around the world, then set to work on the proposal. There are quite a few parts of that document — including all the stuff about budgets and faculty workload, etc. — that I’m not qualified to complete. I’ve done what I can, so now I wait for the “operationalizers” to help me workshop these ideas and address the nuts and bolts. I’m not sure when, or if, that’ll happen. But because I dedicated a good part of the past several years of my life to this project, I kind of want some of these ideas to see the light of day. So, here are a few excerpts from the proposal:
Design/Media Praxis PhD
What defines and distinguishes this program are: 1) its orientations toward praxis, that is, the integration of theory and practice in the active creation of new artifacts, processes, and understandings; and 2) its embrace of a wide variety of research methods, creative approaches, and means of dissemination.
- At its core is the conviction that various forms of practice – including but not limited to designing, media-making, curating, art, performance, and writing – can generate new knowledge and understanding of the world, and therefore can constitute fully legitimate pathways of scholarship.
- Forms of acting, making, and practice outside the traditional limits of doctoral research require inquiry as much as do the classic academic disciplines. This is acutely the case in the arena of complex problem-solving/possibility-seeking – of central importance in The New School’s mission – where creative, transdisciplinary practices are well suited to exploring solutions through the production of new artifacts, processes, and understandings.
- The advanced reflection made possible through this mode of doctoral study allows the exploration of knowledge through creative practice, without forsaking scholarly rigor.
Students enrolled in the program would propose and pursue a project germane to any of the fields of study represented at the graduate level at The New School, subject to approval by their advisors and programs/departments.
- All projects would be hybrid, incorporating both writing and some form of practice or action-research. The form of such projects could range from a designed object or system to a documentary film to a written dissertation with supporting media, depending upon the student’s objectives and the project’s demands.
- The form of the dissertation in turn informs, and is informed by, the choice of methods, which might range from traditional qualitative methods to iterative and performative approaches to experimental design research.
- The program emphasizes the careful selection of multimodal methods and means of dissemination, and the applicability of students’ experiences to fields and professions that may extend beyond, but are in meaningful partnership with, the academy.
- The dissertation project can be designed to prepare the student to practice not only as an academic, but also professionally as an informed high-level actor in the increasingly complex spheres of action that will emerge over the next decades.
The relation of the Praxis PhD to the traditional PhD
- Students wishing to complete traditional dissertations in the social sciences or in urban policy may pursue a PhD through one of our existing programs in the New School for Social Research and the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy. The Praxis program will serve students interested in transdisciplinary projects that employ methods, and make use of modes of presentation and dissemination, that are not typically employed in traditional doctoral programs.
- The Praxis PhD program will emphasize the process of scholarship. As part of working collaboratively, faculty will address methodologies of collaboration and team-management. Participants will consider socialization within and between various fields and professions, as well as the range of knowledge/s and practices desirable in a collaborative community. Students will of course cultivate particular areas of expertise and skill, but will also develop proficiency in various methods of inquiry, forms of production, and modes of dissemination.
- The Praxis PhD will emulate the commitment of traditional doctoral training to doing work of breadth and depth with a small group of advisors and peers. However, unlike the traditional doctorate, which tends to frame the dissertation as its primary end-goal, the Praxis PhD program will regard the dissertation also as an exploration of the intellectual skills and competencies we want student to develop through their education. The dissertation, and the research process, will allow students to demonstrate both the expertise and understanding gained in a particular field, and the knowledge gained about what it means to be a scholar-practitioner working in a collaborative, interdisciplinary environment…..
The process of scholarship will be an emphasis of the program. As part of working collaboratively, we’ll address processes of group-building and methodologies of collaboration and team-management. We’ll consider how we socialize within and between various fields and professions. We will also consider the range of knowledge/s and practices we’d want a collaborative community to have. Students will of course cultivate particular areas of expertise and skill — they will enter the program with Masters degrees, which certify that they’ve cultivated a solid foundation in a particular area of specialization, and they’ll further develop that knowledge through elective cognate courses — but will also develop literacy in various research methods and modes of publicizing or disseminating their work.
There has been much debate over the length of time and the cost that U.S. students invest in completing PhDs. We aim to decrease time-to-degree without sacrificing rigor, by offering more flexible scheduling options, including minimal residency requirements and instructional formats that aren’t constrained by the traditional 15-week course.
The Praxis PhD program will consist of 30 credits, distributed across three years of coursework and supervision. Students are required to be registered full-time, and in residence in New York City, for the first year of study. Years two and three can be completed remotely, but students must return to New York twice each year, for two two-week workshop/conference/exhibitions. The distribution of courses is as follows:
Year One / Semester One
- Core Studio I (required 3-credit praxis studio): A team of faculty will guide students through a case study requiring interdisciplinary investigation and engagement. In this semester, students will focus on problem definition, design research, and methodology. In the process, students will learn about collaboration strategies, including how to build international partnerships; project and team management, how to “do interdisciplinarity,” etc.
- Methodologies and Epistemologies (required 3-credit seminar/workshop): This seminar examines how epistemologies and methodologies are mutually informed; offers an overview of methods represented within the humanities, social sciences, design, and fine arts field; and helps students develop strategies for choosing among methods – and particularly choosing from among the methods courses available at The New School – as appropriate for their own dissertation projects, and in other applications and contexts. We will also examine how the myriad media and design modalities – from documentary and data visualization to field recordings and various approaches to prototyping – can function as research tools and techniques. In addition, during this course students will begin to develop their Literature Reviews / Environmental Scans, and their Portfolios/Process Journals (about which more below), which they will maintain throughout their enrollment in the PhD program, and which will be an integral part of the submitted dissertation project.
- Praxis Symposium (required 3-credit symposium): Each week students will meet with two faculty from across The New School, paired to highlight their common concerns and disparate approaches, or with representatives from various faculty research clusters, labs, or centers, who model the type of interdisciplinary, collaborative work that Praxis students are preparing to do. Faculty will discuss practical and ethical issues germane to their practice, lead students through close readings of texts that are central to their work, and lead workshops on methods that are likewise integral to their practice.
- Elective: In consultation with an advisor, students can choose from among all graduate courses at The New School. Elective credits might be used to develop a cognate area or to cultivate new design or production skills.
Year One / Semester Two
- Core Studio II (required 3-credit praxis studio/workshop): A continuation of Core Studio I. In this semester, students and faculty will employ the methods they’ve chosen in Semester I, evaluate the results, and iterate. They’ll also examine the variety of means through which students can disseminate their work – e.g., traditional or experimental publication, video documentaries, interactive platforms, curated exhibitions, designed artifacts and systems. In the process, students also explore how they can continue to uphold rigorous academic standards, including citation and peer review, in these diverse modalities.
- Three Electives: In consultation with an advisor, students can choose from among all graduate courses at The New School. Elective credits might be used to develop a cognate area or to cultivate new design or production skills.
- Students must enroll in six credits (at no cost?) of Internship, Applied Fieldwork, and/or Research Methods (about which more below). If the Internship/Applied Fieldwork involves intensive research that allows for the development of a strong set of research methods, students need not enroll in separate Research Methods courses. These determinations are to be made on a case-by-case basis in consultation with the student’s advisors.
- Students are welcome to audit additional Elective courses to further develop their cognates or cultivate their design and production skills. If they remain in New York, they can choose from among all graduate courses offered at The New School or from any local consortium institution. If they are working remotely, students can take a graduate course at a local institution. Or they can design an independent study with a New School advisor.
- Each semester students must participate in online Professionalization Workshops (about which more below; no credit)
- Students entering the program with limited design and/or production experience must participate in a self-directed summer tutorial(?). (How will we level the playing field for students who enter the program with different skill sets? Should this be a concern — or should we simply allow students to learn from one another in the first-year courses, and to fill in their individual gaps via Elective coursework?)
- During the second semester of their second year, students must submit an approved Literature Review / Mediagraphy / Environmental Scan.
- During the second semester of their third year(?), students enroll in Dissertation Proposal Supervision (no credit) with their dissertation supervisors. They defend this proposal publicly during the summer Praxis PhD Conference/Exhibition.
- Each semester beyond successful defense of the dissertation proposal, students must enroll in Dissertation Supervision (no credit) with their dissertation supervisor. The faculty member and student determine how frequently they will meet, either in-person or virtually. The student is also responsible for maintaining his/her Process Journal, about which more below.
- Each Fall, students must participate in the annual two-week Praxis PhD Workshop (should this have credits attached to it?), on-site in New York.
- Each Spring/Summer, students must participate in the annual two-week Praxis PhD Conference/Exhibition (should this have credits attached to it?): Here students demonstrate their annual progress and receive feedback from their student colleagues, all Praxis PhD faculty, and a group of external critics, designers, scholars, and other professionals.
Internships / Applied Fieldwork
Students are required to complete at least three credits’, but no more than six credits’, worth of internship(s) or applied fieldwork. The program faculty and External Partnerships Administrator (EPA) will cultivate relationships with various New York-based design and media production companies, cultural institutions, not-for-profits, development organizations, etc. — all potentially eventual employers of graduates of the PhD program — and identify opportunities where our students’ particular areas of expertise and skill sets could be put to good use in addressing real-world problems. Students are also welcome to cultivate their own external partnerships and propose their own internships.
Students must submit, and have approved by both their advisor and the EPA, an extensive proposal, developed in consultation with the external organization, that offers (1) a description of the specific project(s) the students will undertake in partnership with the external organization; (2) a list of the student’s responsibilities and expected time commitment; and (3) a discussion of the cognate knowledge, research methods, design and/or production skills, and modes of dissemination the student will likely cultivate through completion of the internship. Each student’s advisor and the program’s EPA will ensure that the nature of the work is appropriate for doctoral-level students, and that it will support the student’s course of study. If the proposal is approved, external organizations must sign a contract agreeing to the nature and extent of work the intern will undertake.
Students may also propose to undertake self-directed (but faculty advisor-supervised) Applied Fieldwork, potentially involving partnerships with multiple organizations. For instance, a student might choose to investigate the design of urban interfaces for the new Hudson Yards development project in Manhattan; his or her work might involve liaising between various government agencies, design and technology firms, and the city’s data managers. Again, students are required to submit an extensive Applied Fieldwork proposal, which must be approved by the student’s advisor and the program’s EPA.
Students will be able to choose from a variety of variable-credit methodology courses represented within the humanities, social sciences, design, and fine arts fields – ranging from qualitative methods to iterative and performative approaches to experimental design research – based on the nature of their dissertation projects. The New School already offers a suite of such one-, two- and three-credit graduate methods courses, some dedicated to a particular method – interviewing or content analysis, for example – and others dedicated to the integration of a variety of methods for a particular application – e.g., participatory design research, or data gathering and analysis. Praxis PhD students are welcome to take these courses, provided they are offered for graduate credit. The PhD faculty will also develop new courses based on student interest and need; many will be offered online and/or during intensive summer or intersession periods. In addition, a core requirement for the Praxis PhD will be a methodology seminar, to be taken in students’ first semester, that discusses how methodologies and epistemologies are mutually informed, offers an overview of the various methods options available, and addresses strategies for choosing and mixing methods as appropriate for students’ individual projects.
Professionalization Workshops (need a better name!)
While students are working remotely throughout years two and three, the program will host monthly online workshops on various aspects of professionalization – e.g., team-building, grant-seeking, event planning, software for project management, job-seeking. The workshops will allow for asynchronous discussion and occasional synchronous presentations with Q&A.
There is, of course, much in traditional doctoral education that is worth retaining – particularly, the commitment to doing work of breadth and depth with a small group of advisors and peers. However, unlike the traditional doctoral program, which tends to frame the dissertation as its primary end-goal, our Praxis PhD program will regard the dissertation also as an exploration of the intellectual skills and competencies we want student to develop through their doctoral education. The dissertation, and the process leading up to it, will allow students to demonstrate both the expertise and understanding they’ve gained in a particular field or practice, as well as the knowledge they’ve gained about what it means to be a scholar-practitioner, particularly one working in a collaborative, interdisciplinary environment.
To this end, the dissertation must be accompanied by an online Process Journal in which students reflect on and analyze their work process – their choice of methods and modes of representation, their integration of lenses from myriad disciplinary fields and practices, how collaboration and professional work have informed their project – throughout the dissertation development process, and after the dissertation has been successfully defended. Students are encouraged to explore various forms of writing and modes of presentation in this journal.
All dissertations will be hybrid, incorporating both writing and some form of practice or action-research. This work represents, in the words of Clive Dilnot, a “critical reflection on, and analytical translation of, enacted practice into knowledge.” The form of such projects could range from a designed object or system to a documentary film to a written dissertation with supporting media, depending upon the student’s objectives and the project’s demands. The dissertation project can be designed to prepare the student to practice not only as an academic, but also professionally as an informed high-level actor in the increasingly complex spheres of action that will emerge over the next decades. Thus, students are encouraged to partner wit external organizations – design firms, cultural organizations, etc. – in the design and evaluation of their dissertation projects.
Dissertations are intended to address significant real-world or practice-based problems, rather than focus on the students’ own self-defined design and/or creative work. As education journalist Andrew McGettigan writes in regard to the art practice PhD, “a frame has to be constructed that places the practice in relation to a significant problem and thereby escapes the solipsism that might result by beginning from one’s own work…. Research that advances knowledge goes beyond a personal exploration and requires a clear sense of how what is being pursued will be of significance to a broader community of academics and practitioners.”
During the annual Praxis PhD Workshop, in the Fall semester, students in the second year will participate in a Dissertation Proposal Lab. They must submit a dissertation proposal by the end of the following semester, and that proposal will be defended – in front of the dissertation committee and two or three external reviewers – within the two-week period of the annual Praxis PhD Conference/Exhibition. For the third – and, if necessary, fourth – year, students will enroll in Dissertation every fall, during the annual Praxis PhD Workshop and Conference/Exhibition. Students will also present their work-in-progress each spring at the Praxis PhD Conference/Exhibition, where they will receive feedback from their committee and a panel of invited guests.