Entry: Defending from attack 5/7/2006



This adversarial process with its use of the language of battle seems oddly archaic to me and counter to the spirit of first person action research. My first instinct is that this is an expression of a patriarchal, hierarchical, academic system. The partiarchal model I'm referring to in this instance isn't gendered, but a reflection of the academic power structure. The degree is in some ways shaped to resemble post graduate research. In universities the vivat or defence is part of the process of awarding the higher degree. It often consists of a long adversarial questioning of the research undertaken during which the candidate must 'defend' their research.
"Nothing is more symbolic of the competitive climate in academe than the final oral in which committee members 'grill' candidates while they 'defend' their research. Committee members often compete among themselves, as if knowledge were combat sport, to see who can deliver the knockout blow."
(Kerlin 1998)
As part of this aping of the Ph.d. defence process I felt I was expected to toughen up and robustly defend my work against a style of critique adopted by the learning facilitator as a pose to ensure we had enough critical feedback to defend against. This was for me a totally negative experience which caused considerable emotional fallout. Writing this now part of me feels I should have been able to handle destructive criticism, to see it for the masquerade it was. It wasn't the criticism of the research I couldn't handle but rather the tone used to deliver it. I had good quality feedback from my exhibition that would have provided me with adequate points to cover for the 'defence', and my peer review partners had also provided questions. This feedback whilst critical preserved a positive tone which allowed me to consider and answer the points.
I feel quite strongly that there was a push from the learning facilitators in the learning set to encourage us to make our own peer reviews closer to the kind of thing I'd received. We resisted this, kept our criticism friendly, focussed and positive. We (Andy Roberts, Eve Thirkle and myself) have a long history of peer reviewing each other's work dating back to term one of the degree. During that term we found and agreed some guidelines for reviewing work which have simply passed into our practice(2). We were not going to abandon them now. Instead we provided each other with praise and questions in equal measure. Strong questions were posed to allow us to expand on areas where we felt the work needed further exposition, sometimes because as we already knew that more evidence existed but had not yet been included, sometimes because we wanted to highlight areas of weakness that needed to be strengthened. We did not hold back from asking powerful questions but we asked them in a way that was not destructive.
This collaborative approach changes the tone so it ceases to be a 'defence' of the research and becomes an exposition, an extension of the exhibition and allows us to explain in more depth aspect of the research.
We also explored the possibility that as external voices we might have a more objective view of each other's research. This led to Andy Roberts and I 'writing each other's conclusions'. This was a very positive thing for both of us allowing us to gain new insights into our research.
(1) Kerlin, BA.(1998) Pursuit of the Ph.D.: Is it good for your health?, Paper presented at the 4th International Multidisciplinary Qualitative Health Research Conference Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, February 19-21, 1998. available, url http://kerlins.net/bobbi/research/myresearch/health.html last accessed 5/5/06
(2) Roberts A, (2004) Peer Review Guidelines, Ultrastudents swiki "Try to strike a good balance between negative and positive comments. Too much praise and flattery can be misleading as well as nauseating but when criticising it is all important to be tactful, since in a text-only medium it is easy to interpret remarks as a personal attack even though none is intended." quoted at:Ultrastudents wiki

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