As a member of the student organising team for the recent conference What’s it Worth the Value and Potential of the Collaborative Doctoral Award, I was nervous that an event on this theme would become introspective, anecdotal, personal and inaccessible even to those were attending through a mutual interest in the funding scheme.
And therein lies a problem with the CDA degree: bringing together a mammoth national funding body, a national museums network, local museums, and individuals – both educators and students, the meaning of ‘collaboration’ is vaporized across a sea of highly specified purposes, expectations, experiences and emotions. How can a CDA degree be anything but personal and inaccessible and what does this mean for a discussion of its overall value and future progress?
At the conference we learned from Ian Lyne, Associate Director of Programmes at the Arts and Humanities Research Council that the kernel of inspiration for collaborative research in heritage and culture arose from a reflection on its value in the disciplines of science. The Wellcome Trust introduction to collaboration resonates with our own expectations of the CDA: “Collaboration promotes the development of new ideas and can bring disciplines together to speed the pace of discovery.”
In the innovations session we were presented with the fruits of such collaborative progress in the arts and humanities. Current and past students demonstrated how new ideas have been emboldened by the inter-disciplinary environment; discoveries could be made unexpectedly; how new techniques could be mastered; and problems overcome through collaborative effort. I couldn’t help but feel though, that our panel were unrepresentative: not because their innovations are exceptional to others not on stage, but because any innovation in the CDA is unique, project-specific, and elevated by the few people responsible for it. Again, how does a funding scheme endeavour to improve for the future when learning acquired in the process of its implementation is ad hoc, idiosyncratic and local?
On progress and lasting value we heard in the legacies session that the CDA could provide museums with new resources and contacts, and in turn underpin an institutional resilience. We heard how the development of skills bridging many sectors could be mutually enhancing, and set the tone for the future of public engagement. Legacies also reach further than the intended collaboration, extending to local communities and other participants. Still I came away with the feeling that all this value was simply the product of special relationships amongst individuals whose group dynamic is such that it produces innovation and legacy no matter the environment.
The main criticisms we heard about the CDA scheme surrounded funding allocation and rationale, respect and support for the students, concern for research integrity, and interest in the longevity of relationships. In those CDA projects that have worked really well, these issues have been evident, yet surmountable – and have therefore been celebrated as ‘successful collaborations’. But perhaps those successful projects were instances of the right people, making the right relationships, with the right tools, at the right time. Perhaps the word collaboration is a fallacy in the arts and humanities.
There was a sense that the success in collaboration ultimately emphasises monetary concerns: museum resilience translates as footfall, innovative research as impending funding applications, and student experience as future salaries. Rather than the acquisition of skills and knowledge, to produce tangible outputs and allocate resources, might we alter our view of the process? Perhaps the PhD research undertaken in a CDA is about germination and fertilisation in the arts and humanities landscape. The value of such activities brings to mind laying the foundations of a strong research culture; bedded in excellent learning and teaching abilities; providing the sustenance for such processes to continue; and to eventually outlive the foundations from which they arose.
This might sound just as simplistic as the definition of collaboration above, but in nature there is an all-seeing eye that directs the course of development. In this sense cohesion that is sometimes lost in personal moments of the research project, might be brought to the CDA via such an ‘eye’. I hope these questions will be considered during the AHRC tenth anniversary celebrations this year.