In the autumn of 2022, I embarked on a PhD exploring arts management education and its relationship to professionalisation (i.e., the process of an occupation becoming a profession). To give some context, my PhD is a funded studentship from the Scottish Graduate School for Arts and Humanities (SGSAH). It is one of two ‘partnership’ PhDs offered by SGSAH and is known as an Applied Research Collaborative (ARC). Part of this project’s collaborative aspects include having a supervisor at two different Scottish Universities (Dr Anthony Schrag at Queen Margaret University, Dr Katherine Champion at the University of Stirling) and being partnered with a ‘sector’ organisation where you’ll have additional advisors. In my case, this is Creative Scotland – the public body that supports the arts, screen and creative industries within Scotland. With my research topic being situated in several different disciplines, I had intended to use (and have since used) a variety of different data generation methods including unstructured interviews, creative zine-making workshops and literature as data.

A few times throughout the first couple of weeks of my PhD, I was asked if I was doing a practice-based PhD. While this question wasn’t completely unfounded – and was undoubtedly spurred on by having Dr Anthony Schrag, well known in the university for his practice research, as my supervisor - I found myself thrown off by the assumption. This was, in part, because I still felt unsure of what practice research was and entirely because I felt ‘unqualified’ to engage in such methods. What would my ‘practice’ even be? As someone working to critically explore the education of a specific field within the university could my experiences teaching and conducting research be considered ‘a practice’? I had always been keen to explore the use of some creative methods for data generation, but where do those methods fit into the (creative) practice led, based, driven debate?

As I continued throughout my first year and half as a PhD student, I explored a number of tools to support my research processes, from reflective journaling to Shambling, I found myself dipping my toes in creative and embodied approaches to research. From the beginning, reflecting on ‘doing’ research about education/academia from my position as researcher within the university, as previous arts and cultural management learner, and as international student brought up some complicated feelings and I often asked myself, how do I approach and ultimately ‘do’ research with the relationships I hold and experiences I have, in a way that not only acknowledges this but also turns it on its head. Ultimately, I wanted to provide the same opportunity to my participants (i.e., Students, Academics, Practitioners, Policymakers and funders). I wanted to encourage conversations which made the familiar strange and the strange familiar.

The idea to utilise zines for data generation came together upon attending a Zine your Thesis training event. When asked to use the zine format as a means to reflect on my experiences on becoming an academic I began to wonder if this could be used to generate reflective data from my participants. From a personal perspective, there as something quite beautiful in using something inherently non-professional to critique and problematise professionalisation and from a methodological perspective, “the medium positions learners not as consumers of knowledge, but as critics, creators, and crucially, experts in their own communities of knowledge” (Brown et al., 2021)


"I have for many years now been enamored with zines, their history and culture. As brown et al. (2021) describe, “[o]ften associated with radical or alternative cultures, [zines] can become a kind of self-made soapbox for the creator, a material artifact that, by its very deconstructed and deconstructing nature, encourages a personalised remixing of ideas”."

I was met with some hesitancy when I first mentioned the idea of using zines, with some worried asking my participants to ‘be creative’ would be difficult for some and resisted by others. While I by no means wanted to make my participants uneasy, it strikes me as a rather interesting response when one considers some complaints towards arts management curricula include the lack of ‘art’ altogether. Thus, the use of ‘creative’ methods felt even more relevant to provide space for new and sometimes uncomfortable thinking.
The zine method provides a physical way to break up an idea or problem between its eight-pages, as Biagioli (2021) suggests “going beyond the single page format, the zine allows for multi-page and multi-dimensional expressions to come into contact with each other; for example, visual notions that have not been connected in the mind of the participant can be juxtaposed via this approach while still retaining their individual integrity in the single page”.

In setting out to write this blog post, I struggled because I did not feel I had the answers to the questions I posed at the beginning. While I am still working out where I fit into the practice research puzzle, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of knowledge in other and less traditional forms. Much like the bricolage of my notes used to create the zine that accompanies this blogpost, my methodological thinking continues to be an ongoing exploration and collection of my experiences in ‘doing’ research and while the uncertainty is somewhat unsettling, it seems to be an important part of this journey that is ‘practice’ research.

Caitlin McKinnon

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