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  • Writer's pictureRitchard Allaway

15/02/23 - Working to a Referral

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

15th February

PM1: Reflecting on a referral

Working to a Referral

What has occurred?

First of all, I must apologise for my lack of blog entries… I am probably apologising to myself here for not keeping up with my reflective commentary, but you never know, someone might be reading my entries. The reason behind me being absent from my blog is this entry, the PM1, or officially known in the academic institute as; Progression Monitoring 1 (you undertake three PM stages throughout the PhD).

In mid-October I undertook my first PM1 exam and for eighteen months prior to the exam, I built a first year PhD body of research, including practical outcomes, reading lists, primary and secondary research, reflective commentaries, residencies etc (see the blog entries for post on all forms of the PhD). The PM1 was a chance for me to evidence and present my work, preferably the best bits and demonstrate my knowledge with a clear research journey in mind. Unfortunately for me, I was given a tough panel to convince, and my work was torn apart… ok, maybe not torn apart, I am just being dramatic, but that is what it felt like at the time, now my thoughts are very much in the positive realms of ‘failing’, which I will get to shortly. If anyone has sat a PM1 or any PM exam you will understand the work that goes into it and strength you need to have to argue your research. For those who have not come across a PM and are on course to take one, please feel free to contact me and we can discuss all things involved. I know your supervisory team will discuss it, but I believe hearing it from a student perspective is very helpful.

First thoughts on feedback? - the reaction (went and bought the reading list) (share feedback)

After the PM, I sat around for about four weeks before I received my official report with the feedback including what concerns needed to be addressed. During that four-week period I enjoyed a break from reading, writing, and making, and as Anneke suggested, ‘just enjoy the break, trust me’. My goodness was she right! If I knew what was to come I would have probably prepared myself for the weeks of stress to come, although, without knowing what needed to be done, it is difficult to prepare oneself.

The feedback came in three parts,

· Strengths of the work

· Areas for improvement

· Table of amendments

Now I am not too sure if I am allowed share my feedback on here, but because I believe in an open dialogue between myself and you the audience, I will just go ahead and share but the panellists will not be identified and no mention of them will be found in any entry or commentary.

Strengths of the Work

‘Richard, you spoke well about the research and your work as an artist, it was clear and well prepared. You have clearly done a great deal of work in engaging with some complex texts in order to try to carve out a position for yourself towards historical notions of the sublime, the Anthropocene and Object-Oriented Ontologies in relation to contemporary ecological situations. It is clear that you have a deep-felt desire to make the work you make, and it is reassuring to see personal experience and its investment made central to the project at this stage. There is a clear personal investment in the themes and topics you are interested in – and this is clear in the reliance on anecdotes to present the currency of those most pertinent themes. There is evidence of authentic exploration with different materials and a certain level of personal reflection when you are considering their efficacy and appropriateness to your project aims and objectives. Some relevant texts have been engaged with, Sara Maitland, being the most prominent. The themes of intimacy, ecology, landscape and embodied or phenomenal experience have a definite contemporary relevance and also present the potential for unique interventions and contributions.’

Coming from my teaching side of life, it is always best to feedback to your students with positive reassurance, making sure to feed them the information they have address well, and from this feedback, I was pleased to read it. I had done a great deal of work, I have a clear desire to make work (it is a practice-based PhD after all), my work is authentic and there is a potential for a unique contribution to knowledge… the end goal of the PhD. On reading this I was pleased, because my mind did not catch the positives during the exam period, I only took in the negatives, which ended in me coming away from it very disappointed. I think any human being would have done the same.

What about the areas for improvement and table of amendments?

‘There’re a range of issues within the report that need to be addressed in order for the research to progress any further:

1. A critical understanding on some of the main terms frequently used in the report: land, landscape, nature, wilderness, environment. This is the most urgent task that needs to be thoroughly unpacked before moving into the second phase of the work. (See the listed of recommended literature).

2. A clearer definition on the practice within this research. Is it land art? Is it environmental art? Is it performance? Installation? Photography? It can be plural, but it needs to have boundaries and definitions. Without this, it is impossible to contextualise the practice, therefore difficult to define the potential of new knowledge.

3. Other terms can be explored and articulated with more agency once the above two questions are answered. For example, the meaning of ‘intimacy’ and ‘connectivity’ in your research.

4. Better defined methodologies and how they contribute to answer the research questions.

5. A clearly defined research question, with a set of aims and objectives.’

· Through a critical analysis of the texts provided and any you find yourself, demonstrate a thorough understanding of the five terms: Land, Landscape, Environment, Wildness, Nature. Then situate your research within these ideas and contexts. (for example, what kind of nature are you dealing with?) This could be presented as an essay, or an extensive glossary of terms at the next viva exam.

· Explain clearly what the project argues for and what it argues against. Articulate your position through references to appropriate academic texts.

· Present, even in rough, what you believe to be your unique contribution(s) to knowledge. What is novel and valuable about what you are doing.

· Building on this into the next phase of the PhD process it is important that you apply the same level of critical analysis to the methodology, the processes you employ, accounting for your own racial, ability – physical/economic, etc - and gendered subjectivity in relation to the context of this type of experience and then the knowledge that is produced and shared as art works.

Not too bad, but at first I was little taken back by this feedback. I think I was still in negative mode but when I took the time to look over it and had my first supervisory team meeting, we were able to unpick the feedback in a way which could be made manageable and achievable within the twelve-week referral timeframe. My team reassured me that, although it was ‘crap’ to refer it was actually a good thing to do and that not many people pass their PM1. ‘It is better to refer now, than in your PM2 or even worse, PM3’. Taking that into account was good to hear, my team had all been through it as students and as panellists and supervisors, they shared stories of PM exams, and it really was good to hear.

With the feedback, I won’t go through it all and break it down as I am not here to do that, I am here to talk about the referral period. Anneke pointed out that points 2, 3, 4 and 5 can all be achieved in one piece of writing. This would be completed in the definition of practice because a definition of practice is simply an artist statement, and a statement includes context, concepts, and technicalities. These all refer to methods of production, language, aims, objectives, questions etc, they all fall under and within defining the practice. To hear this made me realise that this referral work could be managed within the time frame, and what was stated was to keep it as simple as possible. The understanding on the main terms, also to be addressed in simple terms and as a glossary! No re-writing the report, just picking out five terms and placing them into a catalogue of understanding. How easy is that…

I currently sit at my table wrapped in a blanket with my hood up, cold, full of snot and with a headache that has been with me for a week now, but there is also a whiskey keeping me company (an early ‘celebratory’ drink). How wrong I was with believing the referral would be an easy ride. I began the referral full of eagerness, buying straight away three of the recommended texts, Rambunctious Garden, Remaking Reality, and Ideas in nature, I even located some of the other texts through Amazon and Abe, to buy later once I had read the texts within the space of two weeks… I hit a wall. The twelve-week period has been very difficult, and I think with it coming at Christmas time and also coming at the end of a long teaching term, I was shattered, and I needed a break. Knowing I had two weeks off work at Christmas was a wonderful thing, but it was a period where I said to myself to get a good chunk of this referral work done and it did just not happen. I instead pissed away my days, drinking and worrying about the work, trying to read through the texts and not finding the answers I seek. I battled with the feedback, getting angry about what was said, I mean how could they say what they said? Why was that said when it is there in the report? What do they mean by being white? All the commentary was cycling through my head, but I was making a mistake and I was allowing the negative take over, I should have concentrated on the positives and reassured myself that all was going to be ok. I was also alone; it was Christmas break for my team, and they deserved it and I had to take a strong independent role and I couldn’t quite do that. It is hard when you want to make everything right and you are not use to this level 8 way of working. There is a reason I am a PhD candidate, that is because there is something there in my work and my team see something in me, but those reassurances were not with me. Excuses kept appearing and each day was another day wasted.

When I finally did get my act together, I decided to tackle the main point first, the glossary of terms. I approached this by breaking each term down in a sentence or two, with a simple Oxford dictionary definition of what each term meant. This would give me the foundation to stretch the term out by using the reading list whilst also adapting to my own understanding. I gathered quotes and placed them into headings as one massive document (16 pages and 7946 words). I used this as my hub, I even placed points 2, 3, 4 and 5 in there so all my referral work was in one rough document. This helped me, even though it looked messy, it was my controlled mess, and I was able to navigate my thoughts and put them within each heading. I then began separating the document through new documents to make it more defined and controlled. These were then sent to my team and returned back to me with feedback that suggested what amendments needed to be made. Now here is the thing, what you think you are writing is good, and you may spend hours and hours trying to get a piece of writing together that makes sense… but once you send away your text to be looked over, be prepared to be punched in the stomach. Firstly, this isn’t a dig at my supervisory team at all, they are genius’ and need a bloody medal having to deal with my research mess, but as I said earlier, it can be hard to take on board feedback when you spend so much time making something seem so right. This though is completely normal within any form of academia, and as I say to my student’s, you have to be able to take on board critique, read it, and respond to it, that will strengthen you and your work tenfold. For example, I spent about four hours writing only 384 words defining my practice, but I was attempting to be concise and to the point. Taking on board supervisory advice and within the space of ten-minutes in a meeting, that work was nothing more than a couple of sentences. Brutal right? But this is how it is, and I think that this form of feedback and working relationship with my team is crucial in the development of my PhD and I am grateful for it. Let me move onto the next points that lead on from this.

Without feedback, most people are destined to fail, although I moan, I believe I can take feedback, I just take it in my own way and act and apply it in my own way. This PM1 referral is clearly here to benefit the development of my research journey and my team have been so crucial in supporting and guiding me. The key advice has been to make things simple, and do not over think and complicate the work. Just say it as if you are talking to your mum. You would not believe it, but literally after that, I wrote my research question, aims and objectives like it was nothing. It was as if something had just clicked in my brain, and I was able to write the work so easily (well maybe not so easily), and I sent the work across to my team and it was approved in a matter of moments. What a relief to have, to feel, to know that this referral work was finally clicking into place, and I was making head way. Each point for improvement was being ticked off and once the question was done, the aims were, then the objective, then the rough application to new knowledge, and before I knew it, my definition of practice was completed, just the glossary remained. This evening, I sit still full of flu, and with my whiskey, wrapped in a blanket, but knowing I have now just completed the glossary of terms. I must state they have not been submitted, but my team have them to look over and to make any last-minute amendments, but I have five days to do those if needed. It is a great feeling to know I am on the last stretch of the referral and soon I will be able to have a slight break/catch up on painting Warhammer, watching some TV shows, and getting back to football training… most things in my life have been put on hold, and for good reason. A short break and then it will be me, cracking on with making art work and exploring the refined elements of my practice.

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