Dancers

photo: Jon Green

BACKGROUND

THE PROJECT’S RESEARCH DESIGN FRAMEWORK

The project began with questions:

What is/are the function/s of higher degree dance research?

How can ‘master-ness’ and ‘doctorateness’ be defined? evaluated?

What languages, structures and processes exist to guide candidates, supervisors, examiners and research personnel?

What is the purpose of evaluation/examination?

What might the positive attributes of degree examination be? How can they be enhanced?

What inadequacies/inconsistencies impede examination?

How can academic/professional, writing/dancing, tradition/creation and diversity/consistency relationships be fostered and ‘educated’ to embrace change?

Such questions acted as the gravitational philosophy beneath the project’s pragmatic structure and continue to exert pressure at this juncture of the project’s own evaluation. This mini ‘thesis’ of ours will be subject to scrutiny by multitudes of examiners/readers, each one of whom is qualified to respond and therein become a force in the dynamic interplay of evaluation and the search for answers to difficult yet crucial questions.

Now to the solid grounds of process.

The collaborative, qualitative research project between three universities was conducted over a two year period in 2007-2008 with the support of a Priority Projects Program grant from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council. In 2007, chief investigators, Dr Maggi Phillips (Edith Cowan University, the lead institution), Associate Professor Cheryl Stock (Queensland University of Technology) and Associate Professor Kim Vincs (Deakin University), with research assistants, Jonathan Mustard (Perth), Dr Maria Adriana Verdaasdonk (Brisbane) and Dr Katrina Rank (Melbourne), interviewed 74 people across five states. The interviews recorded the responses of 40 examiners, seven deans and directors, three administrators and 32 candidates and graduates of higher degrees in dance and arts-related disciplines.

Each interviewee was given a pre-interview survey to complete, which provided some statistical data. The actual interview questions were open-ended, designed to solicit interviewees’ perspectives and experiences. Up to 26 questions were asked in each interview, which lasted from 30 minutes to one hour. Examiners, deans, administrators and candidates and graduates were asked different sets of questions about their experience of higher degrees in dance and/or related creative arts disciplines.

The project began in February 2007 with preliminary discussions between the chief Investigators and two days of intensive workshop sessions with an educational consultant, Associate Professor Allyson Holbrook and coopted Perth advisors. This consultative process determined the set of questions for each target group, methods for data handling and analysis and a range of issues relating to ethics clearance, extant guidelines, assessment literature and forums. The team embarked on two parallel methods of soliciting perceptions and experiences; face-to-face interviews with participants from the academic community and open Ausdance (The Australian Dance Council) forums where the focus was on how the dance profession viewed the function of dance research.Interviews and forums continued throughout the year, concentrating on Australian capital cities where higher degrees in dance are offered. Seven interviews were conducted via email. Face-to-face interviews were the preferred method so that a richer set of responses could be captured through conversations that could include supplementary requests for clarification and what became recognised as emergent data.

Interview transcription was undertaken by the research assistants in the three institutional settings and was completed by early 2008. The transcriptions were imported into NVivo™ in blocks of five to ten (NVivo™ is a text management database program designed especially for qualitative data analysis). Responses were ‘coded’ to the questions and respondents’ personal attributes were tabulated. The process of database coding was undertaken centrally, by the research assistant in Perth. The coding and tabulation enabled the investigators to search the database according to participant attribute, interview question or various combinations of the two. Further coding was undertaken once the initial analysis was completed, revealing the most prominent themes. This further coding enabled a greater range of statistical data to emerge, exposing the frequency of themes and the groups and sub-groups most concerned with particular themes, perceptions and experiences.

Simultaneously, a ‘manual’ analysis of interviewees’ responses in relation to small sets of questions (affectionately known as ‘chunks’) was conducted with each investigator responsible for analysing a particular group (supervisors/examiners dance; supervisors/examiners non-dance; candidates/graduates and research deans/administrators). These ‘chunk’ analyses (for instance on the ‘value of higher degrees in dance’ and ‘what is the relation between the written and the practice’) were triangulated by comparing the main responses to arise from each role grouping and additional matrix-like summaries constructed by the research assistants from the statistical data. Forum responses were also incorporated into the culminating summaries where pertinent. Triangulation refers to a method of analysis verification where one analyst’s results are compared with others by a three-way process to check parities/disparities. Most analytical differences in the triangulation process arose less from a difference in the actual themes identified than from how they might be interpreted and grouped for optimal effect. Summaries were also compared against current literature, extant codes, guidelines and documented procedures of universities offering creative arts degrees. Various workshops and forums conducted by ALTC additionally exposed the researchers to assessment issues across the wide span of learning and teaching and, together with countless informal discussions, kept the complex forces of diversity alive and well.

A draft code, Recommendations for Best Practice in Doctoral and Masters by Research Examination of Dance Studies in Australia, was formulated based on the generic guidelines for doctoral examination produced by the Australian Council of Deans and Directors of Graduate Studies, August 2005 and was launched at the World Dance Alliance Global Summit held in Brisbane in July of 2008, and subsequently distributed for comment and feedback to as wide an audience as possible. Responses from academics and artists in the field enabled researchers to refine or re-consider various issues arising from the draft and a principal evaluative thrust came from independent, international consultant to the project, Professor Susan Melrose (Middlesex University, UK). Attention to nomenclature, considerations of writing in relation to practitioner researchers and suggestions about the benefits of the UK protocol of the viva voce constituted Melrose’s main additions to the draft code and academic papers generated by the group.

The investigation’s culmination is this booklet, a website (www.dancingbetweendiversity.com) and a determination to keep the unresolved issues of higher degree examination flowing in a dynamic system of ongoing refinement. After all, this project is about the restless knowledge/s of dance and dancers, their commentators and makers and their ‘emergent premises’ ever in creation.