Special Issue – “Working in the borderlands: critical perspectives on doctoral education”

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The metaphor of borderlands has always conveyed a shifty unstable reality (Andzaldúa, 1987): to speak of doctoral education as a borderlands opens up the opportunity for transparency about double dealing; for recognition of different cultures and respect for them, even when that troubles academic assumptions; and for taking advantage of the chance to stake out possible future directions. The borderlands call proved fertile ground for this special issue in Teaching in Higher Education; the final thirteen full articles and two short-form ‘Points of Departure’ take the evocative borderlands metaphor in different directions

Arguably, the doctoral experience hinges around identity transition. Karen Gravett challenges the linearity of the doctoral journey, showing multiple moments of becoming along that borderlands route. Marlize Rabe, Caroline Agboola, Sahmicit Kumswa, Helen Linonge-Fontebo and Lipalese Mathe surface that gender, habitus, employment status, geographical location and distance create academic inequalities by researching their own journeys on a South African doctoral degree at a distance. Their autoethnographic focus on geographical difference and socio-political implications resonate with Serhat Tutkal, Valeria Busnelli, Isaura Castelao-Huerta, Fernanda Barbosa dos Santos, Luisa Fernanda Loaiza Orozco and Duván Rivera Arcila, who explore their multiple and constantly recreated identities as doctoral candidates within a Columbian context of street violence, with otherized research subjects, financial precarity. Research on identity here raises possibilities for new epistemic approaches.

Noting that academia’s tightly bordered disciplines do not map onto real world problems, Rafi Rashid speaks to the necessity of transdisciplinary research to meet current pressing challenges with examples of how this could work.

Epistemological border-crossings also interest Jing Qi, Catherine Manathunga, Michael Singh and Tracey Bunda, who politicise the identity of doctoral candidates by showing how past histories impact the epistemological border-crossing of students and supervisors. Then, Stephanie Masta focuses specifically on Brown and Black student identity in doctoral education,  where classroom counterspaces recognise the complexity of identity.  Masta calls for reconsideration of doctoral pedagogy’s possibilities.

Contestations of doctoral pedagogy contour this issue’s metaphorical borderlands. Masta’s call is echoed by that from Rebekah Smith McGloin, who applies a new mobilities paradigm to narrative data from the reflective diaries of candidates; that approach suggests how universities might provide better doctoral education. Honing in on the role institutions play (or fail to play) in their support structures, Puleng Motshoane and Sioux McKenna draw on accounts of how supervisory skills are developed,  calling for  workshops to support the development of different dimensions of supervisory expertise. Similarly, Jo Collins looks at international Graduate Teaching Assistants, often perceived as lacking training, skills, English language proficiency and knowledge of the host education system. She shows that her participant  bring their diverse cultural resources to the teaching contact zone and remake them within the Western academy.

Cally Guerin’s piece reverses the focus, exploring  the positioning and status of researcher developers. She argues for a new pedagogy that recognises the liminality and vulnerability of staff who are generally neither embedded within disciplines nor research-active themselves, enabling them to better translate ‘hidden’ research cultures for students.

Staring directly at higher education as a discipline worthy of doctoral study, Tai Peseta, Giedre Kilgyte, Amani Bell, Brittany Hardiman, Delyse Leadbeatter, Jenny Pizzica, Gina Saliba, Fiona Salisbury, Kate Thomson, and Robyn Yucel think together with the concepts of borders, paths, and orientations to theorise the field. Drawing on their practice at #thesisthinkers, they demonstrate a curriculum of communal care that seeks to sustain and support students and new supervisors to flourish, shaping and stewarding this emerging research field.

Several of the articles conceptualise the experiences and challenges of doctoral students who simultaneously inhabit dual roles – as academics in their own right, as part-time teachers or as (co-)authors of scholarly work. Jennie Billot, Virginia King, Jan Smith, and Lyn Clouder note the pressures faced by staff who have entered academic roles from professional backgrounds and undertake a doctorate, a reality that differs from traditional institutional expectations of doctoral education. Namrata Rao, Anesa Hosein, and Rille Raaper explore the other side of the coin, noting that doctoral students are often given  part-time teaching roles with neither support nor training.  They recommend that candidates should be supported to become competent teachers in an environment that they emphasise is increasingly precarious and competitive. Similarly, calling for better practice in this zone, Angelika Thielsch argues that team-teaching with supervisors enables doctoral students to develop as academics, grounding her case study in theories that show liminality to be inherent in identity reconstruction.

The doctoral transition into an academic identity includes engaging with the processes of publication. Harry G. Rolf  examines the ‘diagrams of power’ by critically analysing bibliometric and co-authorship networks for publications by research masters and doctoral students. Insights from this study map out the social patterns of publication, with a data feminist approach showing both power and inequity.

Responding to our call, these researchers have critically considered the various borderland journeys that different forms and modes of doctoral education open up; they have problematised, challenged and made recommendation for the next phase of doctoral pedagogy. Yet, there’s more to be said on the topic of doctoral education.

This is a substantial special issue exploring the doctoral education borderlands, but, glaringly, there is more territory open for research to stake out.

Susan Carter (University of Auckland), Karen Smith (University of Hertfordshire) and Neil Harrison (University of Oxford)

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