Grasping the conditions and thresholds for criticality in doctoral education

Conditions for criticality

So far, I have illuminated how the educational conditions of labor, work, and political action are connected to different attitudes of criticality in terms of a questioning approach (in labor), an expressive approach (in work), and a relational approach (in political action). Each of these attitudes, in turn, has the potential to embrace all three forms of criticality (critical reason, critical self-reflection, critical action) if both critical and creative thinking are encouraged.

The ideal image would be an educational practice in which there is a delicate balance between labor, work, and political action, on the one hand, while critical reasoning, critical self-reflection, and critical action are also balanced, on the other hand. The outcome of such an educational practice would be doctoral students who are critical and creative, and who embrace knowledge, themselves, and the world with their questioning, expressive, and relational approach in an integrative manner. Presuming that all these components need to be realized for comprehensive criticality in doctoral students, a balanced and holistic image of this notion is illustrated in figure 16.1.

Unfortunately, such a balanced picture is quite far from how criticality is embodied in doctoral educational practice. This is due to the fact that creativity is seldom educationally encouraged in students at deeper levels.

Without doubt, this state of affairs can partially be explained by a range of external impeding factors for nurturing doctoral students' creativity. One such factor is the increasing standardization of doctoral education. No matter what subject or problem the doctoral student is investigating, the dissertation and courses should be completed within three or four years of full-time studies. Such rigid time frames require carefully prepared project plans before the student is admitted to doctoral education, which thereafter need to be strictly followed for financial reasons. Transformative transitions aligned with the student's development may thus be inhibited or made impossible.

The full scope of criticiality in doctoral education

Figure 16.1 The full scope of criticiality in doctoral education.

Furthermore, the monograph will soon be but a memory, at least in Sweden. At faculties covering the hard sciences, almost all doctoral writings consist of theses by publication. In the social sciences about a third of the dissertations are of this kind today, while the number of theses by publications is still increasing (Dellgran and Hojer 2011; Vetenskapsradet 2006). Even in disciplines well suited for monographic writings (e.g., within the humanities), the thesis by publication is beginning to take root (Sjostedt Landen 2012). This, too, can be a constraining factor for creativity as it precludes project ideas that cannot be cut into the smaller pieces of articles. Moreover, the financing industry can be another compelling factor restricting students' creative thinking; the scope of criticality is now seriously confined:

There was a study I made earlier, and I even wrote a manuscript to it, but in that case we got an explicit "no" from the industry as regards publishing the results because it put the drug in a bad light. I found the results very interesting, although they could absolutely not be published . . . That's critical. No, it isn't easy. But, when you want to get articles published, you want to defend your dissertation, you try to produce something that can be published and presented in broad daylight. (Doctoral student in psychiatry, Ps3)

Even though these circumstances certainly restrict doctoral students' creativity, and hence their potential scope of criticality, I assert that we have a bigger problem to deal with. Doctoral students are not only hampered by external forces but they are occasionally let down by the academic community as well, as a supervisor pointed out:

I would say that some discussions and problematizing are not encouraged, and the doctoral students have probably experienced some censure, from time to time. It's almost here we have the most dogmatism; you cannot relativize certain aspects of our research field for instance, and I'm very concerned about such limitations. You may not even suggest that there might be more urgent global problems to take care of, before we deal with the specific research problems of this doctoral school. (Interview with supervisor, Brodin and Avery 2014, 287)

The supervisor interview above was conducted in an interdisciplinary doctoral school, where the students were allowed to design their own research projects, choose their own theories and methods, and preferably combine knowledge from different disciplines. One might think that such an intellectual freedom would create favorable conditions for doctoral students' criticality at transformative levels. Apparently, this is not always the case.

Thus, it is not surprising that doctoral students are basically molded into questioning laborers rather than being socialized into political actors who embrace their fellowmen with their relational approach. The students learn how to express their critical thinking in their dissertation work, but they find it difficult to express their creative voice beyond the fact that they (re) produce new knowledge. Other creative processes, such as reading, take place in the background where the individual student becomes rather invisible. As a consequence, the most creative features of students' criticality will neither be encouraged nor made available to the scholarly community.

 
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