Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere: The Epistemic Turn in Doctoral Education

Somewhere in Advance of Nowhere: The Epistemic Turn in Doctoral Education

Where is knowledge headed? AI gate-crashed our thinking, leaving this question on everyone’s mind. The answer is probably not surprising: wherever the thinker wants it to go, more Rorschach test than prediction, as assumptions about desirable scientific trajectories dictate our response.

I have been thinking about knowledge a lot these days. Along with the rise of AI, two of my PhDs defended their dissertations, and a third is flirting with their viva committee. Their temperament, projects, and methods could not have been more different, yet, each flourished, honing their research credentials along the way. Not only were their doctorates far different from one another, but their doctoral education departed drastically from my own, leaving me with questions—and assumptions—about the shifting sands of knowledge production.

An exchange with a prospective PhD also prompted this intervention. After sharing a sharp proposal on Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL), we met to assess our compatibility as collaborators. When I asked about their professional ambition, the researcher confessed doubt about a future in academia. “Everything has been written about everything,” they blurted, from a place of consternation rather than glibness. Have we hit peak knowledge? I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface. Still, the tsunami of information we are drowning under is intimidating to everyone, let alone an early career scholar who must plot a course through the abyss.

As academia metamorphoses, our understanding of knowledge and doctoral education changes as well. I have thus cobbled together some reflections on knowledge production, centring the implications for researchers. I drafted this text with a sense of optimism and adventure. The revolutionary moment we find ourselves in places early career scholars in a unique position: incited to pursue doctorates informed less by our doctrine and more by their imagination.

Epistemology: Once Seen…

Universities produce knowledge, however, what kind often goes unanswered. Knowledge is layered, sided, and infinite, requiring a scholar to contemplate epistemology when designing a project. Four illustrations will explain this claim.

To some (social) scientists, knowledge is objective truth. We know the world through observation and analysis, like Galileo and Newton did. Scholars of this predilection favour a empirical evidence and a structured outlook, where round pegs slide into round holes and square ones do not. Researchers find comfort in being right—being wrong too—and being able to tell the categories apart.

To others, knowledge is a social construct. Processes, relations, and cultural artefacts foretell our existence. Since constructs such as language are socially contingent, knowledge is dynamic, subject to experience and re-iteration(s). Sylvia Tamale is useful here:

Neutral knowledge does not exist. Knowledge production or what and how we understand “reality” and “truth” is an extremely political process. What is “reality” or “truth”? How do we know this “reality”? Is there only one reality or are there many of them? Are these “realities/truths” universal? In the world we live in today, knowledge structures are mainly shaped by colonial ontology and epistemology.

Sylvia Tamale, Decolonization and Afro-Feminism (2020, 280).

Situated knowledge gazes inwards and outwards, cultivating our understanding of both.

Increasingly in the academy, we also treat knowledge as professional-cum-practical expertise. Scholars are cognitive craftspeople, tasked with producing research and teaching in abstract and applied ways and doing so on demand. There is a public quality to practical knowledge as we use it to progress defined social purposes: information transmission, problem-solving, career progression, innovation, and future-building figure high in our priorities. It also possesses a private character as we employ it to improve professional practice and industrial activities in service of individual and corporate interests. Despite the purported division between universities and the real world, researchers produce knowledge destined for assembly lines and boardrooms as well.

Most influential of all the forms is knowledge as identity. The knowledge we internalise is intimate, comparable to the comfort of touch. Our identification with what we know provokes powerful emotions and even sturdier commitments. Cedric Robinson, ever the wordsmith, was on point when linking knowledge to consciousness and identity:

The shared past is precious, not for itself, but because it is the basis of consciousness, of knowing, of being.

Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism (1983 / 2000).

While this trait is natural and defensible, blurred lines between knowledge and belief encroach upon research. Empirical evidence might take us part of the way, but personality, perspective, and prejudice complete the journey, often a journey of no return.

These four forms of knowledge—there are others—align with discrete research paradigms. The appropriate methods when excavating realities, can never be the same when adumbrating reality. Likewise, a hypothesis that engages researcher bias will differ from one that ignores it altogether. Each of these forms also lends itself to abuse. Knowledge as objective truth centres testing and verification, and the rigour of the scientific method is a matter of celebration. Equally, this perspective transforms knowledge into a cudgel used to bludgeon those whose cognitive frames do not cohere with the universal™. When confronting claims to objective truth, we must safeguard against the falsification of data (occasional) and its misrepresentation (constant). The Iraq dossier the Americans and Brits bamboozled the UN with provides a damning indictment of objectivity’s latent mercenary tendencies, a lesson paid for in pools of blood.

Whether informed by social construction or belief, situated knowledge enjoys a phenomenological edge. To illustrate, an objective definition of racism is constructive; experiences of racism, however, are illuminating. They vary according to colour, gender, class, and status, not to mention the role the parties play in the violence: victim, ally, perpetrator, or spectator. The risks of phenomenological knowledge are also ever present. If all experiences are equal, the culprit of racist hate can assert the legitimacy of the knowledge that triggered their assault. Prejudice is always within thinking distance, and research possesses no natural immunity to its manifestation.

Last, while the advance of industrial know-how can become a collective good, we cannot divorce the rise of professional knowledge from its capitalist handmaiden. Like the paywalls of publishers, the enclosure of research coveted by industry converts public knowledge into private rent-seeking. It introduces another predatory dynamic into research and knowledge production (while also creating novel opportunities for subversion).

Awareness of knowledge forms is invaluable to researchers. By integrating knowledge of knowledge into their research, doctorates become savvier about the assumptions they make and the ones they should avoid. It also enhances their methodological, ideological, and epistemological wherewithal. We have not attained a place of epistemological equivalency and, frankly, the intimacy of knowledge makes this a fantastical quest anyhow (this past week, one of my students championed Eurocentrism’s civilisational superiority… I had to pinch myself). Regardless, the academy’s epistemic turn is elevating scholarly and public debate and, once seen, epistemology is impossible to unsee. Omitting epistemology from a dissertation today feels like handing a cassette tape to the DJ.

Transforming Doctoral Education: Gradually and Then Suddenly

Like knowledge, doctoral education is in flux. While its sterile German origins have been dying since birth, the trend sped up two generations ago. Both the massification and internationalisation of universities altered the demographics of doctoral cohorts, surely forever. These were not mutually exclusive actions, with changes to the external environment sparking the prairie fire.

Central to neoliberal economics was state-flight from social goods—such as education—forcing institutions to turn elsewhere to keep the lights on. With the higher fees they command, international students became a key target. Admitting more students from sundry places would always jolt the institutions and their doctoral programmes, but the speed of the makeover spurred a severe case of sectoral whiplash. Today, international students represent the highest proportion of postgraduate enrolments across British academia, and in most disciplines. Though they write in English, they think in myriad languages, introducing a mix of cultural traditions into scholarly debate.

Creativity does not happen inside people’s heads, but in the interaction between a person’s thoughts and a sociocultural context.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1993)

When seen through the lens of knowledge, the outcomes are epistemically transformative. For example, not only is there (late) recognition the academy—much like life itself—is of African origin, but researchers are probing African philosophy to tackle the world’s most pressing problems. Theresa May, Priti Patel, Suella Braverman, and their fellow nativists fail to appreciate they are probably a century too late. Barricading the barn when the horse has already sprouted wings will not alter the path of scientific evolution, though it may hamper British participation in it. Ironically, it was the neoliberal assault on university education that pried open Eurocentrism’s stranglehold over the academy, creating the conditions for the epistemological frenzy prospering in doctoral circles. Law of unintended consequences and all that…

Alongside international students, universities turned to industrial partnerships to shrink the budgetary shortfall, further altering the landscape. They streamlined the experiential into undergraduate degrees, promising to prepare the next cadre of knowledge workers. With Pandora’s box now open, it was only a matter of time before the same happened to PG programmes, professional placements and industrial supervisions materialising in the brave new doctorate. More than just a source of funding, professional and industrial partners recast the meaning of knowledge and scholarly practice. Research in partnership with industry is a trigger point for many, though opposition is diminishing with scholars begrudgingly accepting the benefits of these partnerships. Two reasons stand out: history and pragmatism.

Corporations have been central to human development since East India companies marauded across the Asian continent. They associate with universities through endowments, board, and chairs. Doctorates look upon them as subjects in their projects and, increasingly, as participants as well. Because of this twist, opponents caution against the spectre of corporate propaganda with some justification, though it need not always be the tail wagging the dog. Genuine investigations designed to redress some of the corporation’s pathologies are possible, as seen in attempts to institute a human rights imperative in business. Baby steps, to be sure, and without rethinking the corporation’s legal personality (human) or its modus operandi (shareholder value), class suicide is a pipe dream. Still, populating corporate spaces with researchers capable of injecting critical, empirical, and epistemological perspectives might curb some of the corporation’s worst impulses.

Moreover, even with a monstruous investment in tertiary education, our institutions would be incapable of absorbing the glut of doctorates we graduate. Demographics change course with the grace of oil tankers and birth rates are mostly unfavourable to our sector. Are we to cut loose our newly minted doctors, wishing them well in a precarious market of eternal post-docs and fixed-term teaching contracts? Or might we recognise the value of transversal skills and support them along professional trajectories beyond our own? With safeguards, professional and industrial partnerships can enhance the worth of certain forms of knowledge production.

A third significant change in doctoral education is its newfound association with the wider public good, partially achieved through the escalating impetus on public communication. Rationalisation is also responsible for this new priority as ministries of education try to squeeze value for money (sic) in the race to justify further cuts. Unheard of a generation ago, the rise of the impact study clatters and crunches with the elegance of a Michael Bay film. However, like with private sector partnerships, not all smoke prefigures fire. While engagement and impact sound like managerial hoops, boosting the university’s support for the public good is a commendable undertaking, the bloviations of MPs notwithstanding. With this shift away from self-sufficient research, the nature of knowledge production has also mutated. Students of Luhmann may long for the safety of a tower or cave, but supervisors increasingly impress upon early career colleagues the need to social embed and to publicly communicate their research.

We should not underestimate the implications of this shift for doctoral education. Consider this example. While we expect candidates to dialogue with other academics, we also recognise the insufficiencies of the traditional literature review. The co-creation of reviews using participatory action or community-based participatory research approaches would promote a more inclusive understanding of sources. Likewise, by scoping both heterodox and orthodox literature, doctorates would accentuate the power of critique alongside its doctrinal counterpart. Data analytics and translation software could facilitate a meta-synthesis of qualitative studies conducted globally, complementing the cause of epistemological equivalency. And, perhaps my favourite, the application of auto-ethnographic methods further brightens the meaning of situated knowledge, responding to the contexts in which research happens and where researchers live.

Epistemological equivalency, professional doctorates, and social embeddedness are just three examples of changes to doctoral education underway. Once change began, it took hold of our institutions, gradually and then suddenly. The combined impact on knowledge production is vast, urging early career scholars to develop cross-cultural and cross-epistemic fluency, practise transversal skills, and engage with non-academic audiences. Because of its expediency, I dedicate the concluding section to public communication.

Everything Has Been Written About Everything

The prospective PhD I mentioned in the introduction was not being glib. With the spread of non-traditional media platforms, it feels as if scholars snorted a giant bowl of cocaine. Frankly, even traditional academic outlets produce a scale of scholarship that rivals the world’s landfills. I am not ashamed to admit I cannot keep up with the literature in even niche areas of research. And, if this wasn’t problematic enough, the emergence of AI academic tools will revolutionise the landscape: scholarly production will speed up just as it will change course as the tools help scholars draw connections we did not see before. I believe the proliferation of publications and the arrival of AI are helpful to early career scholars, though I only write about the first today (my enthusiasm for AI merits a post of its own).

Everything has been written about everything is symbolically hyperbolic. It captures two-levels of anxiety that afflict doctoral candidates: first, whether they will ever develop the expertise to produce knowledge worth publishing and, second, if a career in academia is worth it at all. With the benefit of experience, the first type of anxiety is a distant memory (mostly). I do not wish to mislead: some editors insist I revise my submissions, just as others reject them altogether. The difference is that the vetting process has little bearing on my enjoyment of research or the value I ascribe to the knowledge I produce. I research and write because I am curious about the world, and I adore sharing what I learn with others.

The saturation some lament is pivotal to the freedom others and I feel. I can publish on Opinio Juris, Afronomicslaw, and Just Security (well, maybe not JS); I can post on Medium, Substack, and my personal blog; I can record podcasts and video casts, in brief clips or long episodes; and I can disseminate all the above around the world using social media to spread the word. Public platforms promote public communication and strengthen the university’s social purpose. While promotions committees remain anachronistic, over-valuing peer-reviewed articles that meet certain arbitrary standards, my fulfilment as a scholar is not contingent on this type of affirmation. I think early career scholars—and supervisors—overlook the value of these pathways to both knowledge production and mental health.

Most PhDs begin their degrees with joy, commitment, and confidence. They are primed for the type of work they undertake, and it behoves both candidate and supervisor to preserve this self-belief. Researchers now enjoy direct lines of communication with policy makers, industry, professional associations, and the public, multiplying the avenues for real-world impact. A candidate motivated to advance the welfare of communities and individuals is thus positioned to achieve their aim. When we combine the wealth of platforms early career scholars can access, the communities they can interact with, and the research they can build upon, knowledge production is more manageable and meaningful, albeit not any easier (even writing a blog is a slog).

Even if everything has been written, saturation poses no impediment to research. To the contrary, public communication pathways can help us locate enthusiastic audiences for our work, ensuring someones reads the “rubbish” we produce. Edward Said would be thrilled and mortified in equal measure.

“No research is value-free; therefore, all intellectual labour is political.”

Steven Osuna

I conclude where I started: knowledge has many identities, perhaps personalities. This plurality means that reflections on knowledge are essential to those involved in its production. Doctoral programmes, however, remain organisationally wedded to an epistemically stunted conception of knowledge, stifling the innovation PhDs can achieve. The consequences are significant: as observed in a recent Nature editorial, early career researchers graduate ill-equipped for the cross-disciplinary thinking that characterises cutting-edge science. This limits their options for professional and personal growth, exacerbating doubt about the versatility of knowledge production.

Despite academia’s seemingly endless winter, I look upon the future of doctoral research with a sense of revolutionary optimism. Much of what I describe is taking place; the rest feels just around the corner. To paraphrase Jayne Cortez, we might say the new goal of universities is to educate doctorates to envision “somewhere in advance of nowhere.” If we begin to conceptualise doctoral projects as small dreams about unknown futures, with researchers venturing into “somewhere that exists only in our imaginations,” the revolutionary potential of knowledge production ceases to be potential. Those are somewheres doctorates can take us, and places I would like to see.

Photo by Riccardo Annandale on Unsplash.

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