PhD 3.0 – Why research students have to be gardeners, curators, and selectors of knowledge

This blog is about skills that research students need to have today to make use of unprecedented learning opportunities and availability of knowledge via the internet.

I have just come out of a session I ran with UTS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences new research students. (These include PhD, Masters by Research, Doctor/Master of Creative Arts, and Doctor in Education, but I tend to use ‘PhD’ as a shorthand for all of these, because it seems to be what people search for most online).

My aim was to give them a sense of what is out there online for postgrad research students, as well as what is in the various UTS intranet sites (so they don’t have to annoy our staff with questions where the answers are already online).

From PhD 1.0 to PhD 3.0

PhD 1.0 was before my time (just) – when everything was paper based. Before the internet. Yes, people actually managed to make contributions to knowledge without email and online access to journals. They went to libraries and read hard copies, and have offices with shelves full of journals they paid to subscribe to.

PhD 2.0 was my era (I did my PhD 2003-2006). Lots of journals had started going online – new issues were often available digitally, although the older ones hadn’t been digitised yet. This made being lazy, staying at home or in my office, easier, but didn’t have the social interaction and user input we associate with the internet these days.

PhD 3.0 is what we have now. Nearly all journal papers and many books are now digitised (offering instant access, albeit with barriers around licences and payment that unequally and unfairly privilege some while disadvantaging others). But now, this is not just about one-way traffic, but about interaction. There are alt-metrics that track how many times people tweet or mention publications. There are webinars synchronously linking people all over the world, and blogs and twitter feeds that asynchronously allow us to have conversations and debates, as well as sharing resources with each other.

This is what I mean by unprecedented opportunity and knowledge flows. But with this comes new forms of skill, expertise and responsibility for students.

Decentred universities in virtually figured worlds

This all sounds rather hoity-toity doesn’t it? Well I wish I could claim the words are mine, but they’re not. They are from Russell Francis, with whom I shared an office when doing my PhD (happy days, Russ!). Based on his PhD he wrote a brilliant book (published by Routledge). He sat with students at uni (undergrads and postgrads) and watched what they did.

What he realised was that the uni, and face to face contacts, were not the ‘centre’ of their learning universe. They were an important part of a dynamic, adapting and evolving set of knowledge flows and connections that extended well beyond campus. His ‘virtually figured worlds’ included blogs, online and offline affinity groups, people interacting via emails, and other on- and offline platforms. An idea in this book points to the main thrust of this blog post, and what I was wanting to impress on our new research students today…

Cultivating and curating globally distributed funds of (living and digitally mediated) knowledge

More hoity toity words! But there’s a really serious point here, and this brings me back to my title.

With all that information out there, research students these days need to develop and deploy specific skills. Otherwise you’ll end up spending all day being busy reading twitter feeds but accomplishing nothing.

Gardening knowledge funds

What I mean by this is planting seeds, cultivating their growth, nurturing connections. This might be personal relationships with other students or academics around the world working on similar topics. This might be ‘software discipline’ in terms of setting up twitter feeds or automatic journal table of contents emails, but then modifying them as things come in and out of your sphere of relevance. This is definitely not about just adding more and more. You will have to cut, chop, weed out. Hence the gardening idea.

Curating knowledge funds

I like the idea of curating: it implies taking care, paying attention, management. This is not just about controlling what you’re bombarded with when you open your inbox, log into twitter etc. It’s about being respectful of yourself and the authors of the knowledge you are digesting. This might be adding a comment to say thanks for a really amazing blog post [hint, hint], or politely engaging in constructive critique to open up debate. It might be retweeting something you think is really useful to your followers. It is also thinking (as a museum curator would) about display – how you access, arrange, and represent all the information you’re dealing with, so you can cope with it and make good choices. Which leads me to…

Selecting knowledge funds

There’s *quite* a lot of information on the internet. You need to make choices. You need to make good choices. What counts as good will change, frequently. Back in PhD 1.0 there were lots of journals to read, but the physicality of it meant often part of the struggle was one of access rather than needing to filter out. Now more than ever, researchers need a really good filter: what to read (or what to read in full, what to skim, what to cheat read/pretend to have read), what not to read, what to reply to, what not to reply to etc.

This requires you to be discerning with your globally distributed funds of knowledge. What adds real value? What can you get there that you can’t get anywhere else? What is nice but not necessary?

And finally, a plug for my hero

Perhaps my biggest intellectual hero is Lev Vygotsky, a psychologist from the Soviet Union who died in 1934. I won’t get started on why his ideas are amazing. But there’s a real link here. He talked about how when we work on problems using tools (which can be ideas, concepts, twitter feeds, blogs etc), not only does that change our approach to working on a problem, but it changes us, too. Things we use to get things done (to do work), work back on us.

So if we use globally distributed funds of knowledge uncritically, and unthinkingly, then those actions work back on us and turn our brains into things that are full of unsorted, mixed quality (at best) sludge.

What we, as human beings, can do, is use this principle pro-actively. We can arrange tools, put them in place, make them available, with the intention that doing so will affect us or our behaviour in some positive way. You can put a link on your web browser to a blog you should read. You can set up a journal TOC alert so you don’t forget a particular aspect or topic. You can commit to a meeting with your supervisor so you can’t procrastinate any longer. You can stick a post-it on your wall saying ‘stop checking facebook!’ or disconnect your laptop when you’re writing so you’re not tempted to check emails.

These are all very Vygotskian practices: controlling ourselves from the outside in.

So, PhD 3.0 is about being a good ‘gardener’ of knowledge – from a range of sources (planting, watering, weeding etc!),  not just being a repository, a sponge that soaks it all up, but being Vygotskian and taking control of your own learning from the outside – whether that outside is another person you meet face to face, someone you email, a dead guy (like Vygotksy for me!), a twitter feed, whatever.

Make this 3.0

In your comment below, share where you get your knowledge from, how you know it’s good and worthy of your attention. What do you do to cultivate, curate and discern? Do you use any Vygotskian techniques – controlling your behaviour from the outside? Share!

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13 thoughts on “PhD 3.0 – Why research students have to be gardeners, curators, and selectors of knowledge

  1. Glenn Runnalls (@RunnallsGlenn)

    A couple of observations:

    With 3.0, the canon (if there is one) is constantly emerging. This means that literature review takes on a whole new hue.

    With 3.0, the rigour is in the wonder (John Law).

    With 3.0, Boolean searches are critical.

    With curation, the writer becomes more of a tour guide; its more about following an argument then making a case.

    Reply
    1. Glenn Runnalls (@RunnallsGlenn)

      To do 3.0 you have to embrace the heuristic; to be more articulative than eliminative (Nicolini, 2013). The researcher is making an argument that can be followed more than a case that must be closed. John Law (2004) speaks of method-assemblage:
      a process of bundling, of assembling, or better of recursive self-assembling in which the elements put together are not fixed in shape, do not belong to a larger pre-given list but are constructed at least in part as they are entangled together. This means that there can be no fixed formula or general rules for determining good and bad bundles, and that (what I will now call) ‘method assemblage’ grows out of but also creates its hinterlands which shift in shape as well as being largely tacit, unclear and impure ( p. 42).

      Assemblage involves a kind of ordering. Orderings are temporary though persistent. They are sensible though not universally so. In much ordinary discourse, orderings are suggested by the topics but not in any essential way. The topic of assemblage and ordering suggests a certain kind of choice and arrangement of words. Assemblage might be taken as an escape from rigor, but in the kind of assemblage work that Law models, the rigor is in the wonder: in exploring and elaborating the hinterlands, connections, and non-coherences that emerge whenever we organize a topic into a pool of order.

      Reply
  2. Meera Varadharajan

    Thanks Nick! Great blog. Enjoyed it.
    I am always inspired by John Dewey and his progressive approaches to education and educational philosophy. There were many ‘aha’ moments for me during my Phd days when I was able to deeply appreciate his philosophical ideas and its applicability and relevance even today.
    The PhD journey definitely does change you in some way or the other and sometimes, not knowing how or when this will occur is the beauty of it.
    All the best.

    Reply
    1. Christo

      Quite an enriching piece Nick. I would say to understand the foundation of a building, one need to stand under such building. Likewise for PhD level knowledge. To grasp what a second writer is trying to explain, I often search for the original source. It seems a good chance to actually understand the argument in question and, perhaps more important, insights the second writer may have omitted – for good reasons.

      Reply
    2. Bruce Blackshaw

      Hi Nick PhD 3.0 is a really hard way to travel albeit the current road we are on. It is so easy to get too much information and take a wrong turn down a one way street against what you are looking for. Temptation to follow extraneous lines are everywhere. I like the idea of control from outside. I use that but did not know it until I read your post. Thanks Nick. Bruce

      Reply
  3. Glenn Runnalls (@RunnallsGlenn)

    I cultivated my knowledge of the subjects I was researching through Boolean searches of “google scholar”; spending time in the bibliographies to learn who are the authors that matter; going to the online CVs of the authors that matter and exploring their oeuvre; becoming comfortable with the hoity toity words; looking for the contributions of the authors that matter to special issues and reading whatever and whoever else was included in the issue; going back to “google scholar” and search for who else is citing the authors that matter.

    Reply
  4. Glenn Runnalls (@RunnallsGlenn)

    I take curating to be about both the back and front end of research, that is i understand curating to be the collecting, organizing, selecting, and exhibiting of what matters. What matters is what can be made to matter. In commenting on the modern and postmodern museum, Huyssen (1994) noted that “there now is a verb ‘to curate,’ and it is precisely not limited to the traditional functions of the ‘keeper’ of collections. On the contrary, to curate these days means to mobilize collections, to set them in motion within the walls of the home museum and across the globe as well as in the heads of the spectators” (pp. 20-21). Brenson (1998) declared “the era of the curator has begun” and the term has taken on a band-wagon effect. On the other hand, Frank (2017) announces “the revolution will not be curated” arguing that those who resist the canon should also be resisting the curators. Nonetheless, I take 3.0 to be mostly about learning to curate, to collect, organize, select and exhibit what can be made to matter. And whether or not that work is revolutionary it can be part of the critical-emancipatory project.

    Reply
    1. Glenn Runnalls (@RunnallsGlenn)

      how do you know that the knowledge you are collecting is worthy of your attention?

      by curating it. the knowing-that and the knowing-how are both in the doing.

      in 3.0, this starts with using the technology and techniques that permit researchers to collect and arrange their findings and reflections. it requires that researchers practice mobilizing their findings and reflections as they emerge. those in residence at the university will be able to do this in class and in the many research mini-conferences that have emerged in the last decade. but it also includes finding digital audiences through blogging, discussion groups, and even social media. the researcher must find a place where they can practice child-like enthusiasm for their collection. “I’ve got something special, here let me show you, isn’t it wonderful!?”

      discerning in 3.0 begins with grasping that what matters is more than meets the eye. it means taking up vocabulary and syntax that permits us to work with the multi-sensorial, the multi-temporal, and the multi-spatial.

      Reply
  5. Rose Hendricks

    Cool post! I’m a PhD 3.0er, and you’ve put words to many of the skills and habits I’m working to cultivate. It’s a dynamic process, though – constantly testing and figuring out new ways to cultivate, curate, and discern

    Reply
  6. Russell Francis

    Thanks for sharing Nick. Interesting to read your thoughts and the many insightful responses. Certainly think the notion of knowledge ‘curation’ has become important for understanding the role of early years academics and knowledge workers more generally. However, for the sake of discussion, I thought I’d point out something I find problematic about the temporal PhD 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 schema you propose. Clearly communicative and epistemic practices have evolved in a dialectic with technological innovation over time. However, it’s not like everyone works in PhD 3.0 mode 24/7 these days. Emergent practices always complement, augment and displace (rather than replace) older genres of practice. Further, individuals may well have a vested interested in resisting adaptation. For example, today taking time away from the computer to read a book, listen to a lecture, chat over coffee or simply reflect remain (and should remain) fundamental to the PhD experience. But, of course this doesn’t challenge your main point. After all, unplugging is – in the Vygotskian sense – a form of taking control from the outside! A more serious problem, it seems, is that PhD students are under so much pressure to perform an academic identity, and use social media to appear research hyper-active, some of these less visible, quiet and contemplative practices are no longer valued to the same degree.

    Reply

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