Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Models of thesis structure

Just before Christmas I started playing with a variety of thesis structures. This started out as a really fun task - what story do I want to tell? I asked myself. Is this a glimmer-of-hope-in-the-darkness type story? Or a rise and fall of the empire one? Or is it a morality tale, the consequences of corruption? I played with them all. I could not really see a tale of triumph in adversity in the commodification of university knowledge and decided it would be perverse to try such a structure.

It turned out to be trickier than I thought. All that pinning down arguments, remembering what on earth my thesis was supposed to be about, realising I know absolutely nothing and never will and that I have nothing to say worth saying was exhausting.

However, I think that I have something that resembles an argument now and I definitely have four models of potential thesis structures to be whittled down, discarded, amended and, before too long I hope, written!

Model A is a three part story that focuses on the purposes of university knowledge: Knowledge for the Nation, Knowledge for the Economy and Knowledge "for its own sake". It shows that "for its own sake" is shorthand for a multiplicity of important things, none of which can be achieved without academic freedom. The argument continues but is pretty much the same for each model so I'll elaborate as I go.

Model B focuses on types of knowers and knowledge owners across the period, looking at The Romantic Hero, The Innovator, The Revolutionary, The Consumer, The Reformer and The Landowner. It shows that  between 1939 and 1996, the focus on the nation and economy meant that authority over knowledge - those deemed competent say say what knowledge is - shifted from academic to the market, removing academic freedom and replacing it with a free market (so do the other models, just in different structures of course).

Model C is based on what I believe to be my argument. It shows that the tradition of mastery had imagined knowledge to be a separate substance, created through expert dialectic and needing protection by acknowledged masters. The student protest movements and the pedagogies that emerged from them unified knowledge with its knower, who could deploy knowledge produced from a variety of locations in moral and political ways, all of which would be from their own unique learning path. This made mastery - and academic freedom - unnecessary, accidentally transferring freedom through student choice to the authority of the market.

Model D is chronological, and (like the others) sees the Dawkins reforms and the other changes contemporary to it as a type of protestant reformation, undermining the authority of the corrupt priesthood in favour of client-based authority through student consumers, industry and a key consumer of university knowledge: the government. Government policies that compelled universities to produce particular types of intellectual property policy and universities' own commercialisation goals led, in intellectual property, to a de-coupling of knowledge and knowers in order to commodify knowledge.

All is not lost, however. For universities could commodify and refigure their business as a vast trade in knowledge, but their Acts - and indeed their oft-overlooked purposes - still ask for knowledge that supports civil, ethical, safe, healthy, prosperous democratic societies (public good) - and still require academic freedom. There is good reason to argue that academic, not market, freedom offers the best chances for quality knowledge and is much better positioned to meet the purpose of the university than the market is likely to. At this point the hope is still a glimmer - but it is there nonetheless.

Feel free to email me with your preferred model - or if you think I've made a mistake here somewhere....

1 comment:

M-H said...

Great post, Hannah. I think we should have coffee again sometime soon. I'm preparing a poster for the Quality in Postgrad Research Conference in April, tracking the themes in their conference abstracts since 1994 in the framework of the funding reforms and other downstream changes that have taken place since then.

I see Option A as a kind of solid logical structure, quite unsophisticated but sturdy and easy to work within. B appeals to me as an interesting narrative structure, and I love the personification of the material. C is more sophisticated; I'd prefer it over A because it's tied to more to your own ideas and thus can be a good vehicle for developing them. D is the most risky (i think) and the most overtly political. Dangers of it becoming polemical? You might have to work hard to avoid this.

I'll be following developments with interest!