It is a bold move to loosen moorings to formal academia while retaining a desire to undertake valuable practice-based research. Even more audacious, perhaps, is to seek to sustain, yet transmute, the scholarly standards and disciplines that characterise doctoral-level work, while surviving and thriving as an independent community of practitioner -inquirers. Our aim is to inquire in ways that enhance practice and practitioners while also articulating and communicating original work into the public domain. Here, we expose the ways we attempt to bring emerging structure to the workings of our 3-year Research Fellowship track, what we call our ‘barefoot doctorate’, as we learn what is needed along the way, from enrollment to completion.
We find it takes a couple of months to reach the point when a sense of commitment to joining the RinA community on the Research Fellowship makes sense on all sides. Central to this, beyond early exploratory conversations, is asking an applicant to write a reflexive narrative that introduces her or him to one of our core research methods. We ask for a narrative of some 3,000 words, that responds to the following:
standing at the threshold of embarking on 3 years of work that aims at doctoral-level inquiry, turn around and select a few scenes, events, or encounters that now seem critical in bringing you to this point as a practitioner. Describe as precisely and evocatively as you can what was happening then, with the telling detail that brings these happenings to life. Communicate what now seems important to you, what doubts, disquiets, glimpses and moves these events inspired- whatever leads you to perceive them as markers in your trajectory as a practitioner.
as you write, notice what may be informing the way you make sense of these events—the reading, conversation, education, training and experience that disposes you to lean in certain directions. Try and weave these reflections in.
finally turn around and consider how you might phrase the inquiry that animates you currently, as you consider taking first steps in your work as a researcher. What practical opportunities can you envisage? How will you begin?
Writing, sharing and discussing drafts of this narrative with potential supervisors, mentors and peers in the community is the work of a couple of months. This experience allows us all to get a sense of whether the kind of support and stretch this community offers, begins to bite. Does this look like a timely and appetising prospect from all sides?
Only then do we make the mutual commitment to the full engagement that joining the research fellowship track involves: monthly small peer groups, monthly individual supervision with two mentors, and twice yearly full community meetings. All with the agreed intention to nurture an inquiry that places an original piece of work into the public domain, of value to fellow practitioners.
Free of the often rather inflexible monitoring protocols that accompany traditional PhDs, our researcher-practitioners can go exploring, but the need to express and give form to their discoveries and pinpoint how these discoveries matter reamins. The demand to communicate with others within and beyond the community, who are new to their work of inquiry, acts as a challenge to each researcher to construct a ‘gateway’ session for themselves, as a passage that may stimulate a step-change in their inquiry.
After about 12-15 months we ask members to go back over the work they have produced and documented so far, an iteration, a reflexive turn, that asks: what, after all, have I actually been doing (whatever I thought, as I began)? Re-reading, looking again, gathering together, what do I now see running through the work? What is being disclosed? What insights are emerging? Why does this matter to me as a practitioner? To whom else might this, should this, matter? What is the larger conversation my inquiry may contribute to? Where to go next and how?
Each member decides on one or two people within the community, but not in their peer group, and one or two people beyond the community, who they will invite to respond to the gateway session. It is up to them to make these invitations, selecting people they judge will offer guidance from different angles. It is up to them to ensure people understand what is being asked of them (to respond during the session and to provide written responses afterwards) and to set viable dates. They also decide on what, if any, preparatory material they wish to send, and on the format of a 2-hour online session they will initiate. Mentors and peer group members attend as silent witnesses and the session is also recorded, so that a full reflection on the experience of the Gateway can happen later.
Around two years into their research we invite submission of a contribution to our RinA ‘Thinking in public’ series, pieces that we call Previews. Doing this makes a further call on a researcher to develop an aspect of what is emerging in their research into a coherent piece for potential publication on this website. This offers the experience of shaping communication that ‘will take others along’, hopefully influencing other practitioners in a field. This provides training in all the stages of preparing and submitting work against specific guidelines, becoming clearer who the researcher is addressing, then receiving, digesting and responding to comments and critique from reviewers, corresponding with editors, and crafting re-submissions.
Creating this small scale publishing experience (where members also get to practice reviewing submissions) is intended to help a researcher to start meeting a larger world with their own work; learning to bring their way of thinking and expression into the conversations and discourse of other communities without losing their own voice; listening to, and learning from, how their work is received at this stage, to help inform them going forward.
After a minimum of 3 years, researchers gather together a selected portfolio of material that tracks their inquiry. This ‘portfolio’ may include various media and take a variety of forms such as a book, a collection, an exhibition, a recorded performance etc., accompanied by a reflexive synopsis that locates the work in a wider context, discusses the emergent insights and their implications for particular fields of practice. This is submitted to a panel chosen by Schumacher Society to assess the work for the award, an assessment that includes a viva component.