Learning from ‘Avatar’

Tomorrow morning I will be giving a presentation to students at the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory (SIAL) about ‘PhD Modes’. That is all the briefing I have anyway.

On the  last slide I get a bit carried away and talk about the medieval origins of doctoral study using William Clark’s  “Academic Charisma and the origins of the research university”. It’s an excellent book, but odd and self consciously post modern and therefore hard to read. Most PhD students would never bother, which is a pity because it lays out a fascinating argument about Doctoral scholars and how they became progressively ‘disembodied’ into text. It’s actually quite a useful way to think about becoming a doctor because it explains (I think) some of the oddities of the thesis/dissertation process and emphasizes the importance of authorship.

In a nutshell, Clark’s argument is that back in the day (around 600 years ago) if you wanted to be a Doctor (in Western Europe) you had to know everything. This was relatively easy because everything there was to know was in the bible. In order to graduate to doctor-hood  you studied the bible for the requisite amount of time and then took part in a public process called the ‘disputation’.

Basically the disputation was a ritualised event – Clark calls it a knowledge ‘joust’ - where the student stood up in public and defended the canon of knowledge against a series of  ‘unorthodox’ suggestions. The suggestions usually came from a crowd of your peers (who had been appropriately clued up about the kind of unorthodox suggestions you had answers for – probably over a pint of mead or two in the local pub). Your supervisor / mentor stood behind you while you fielded the ‘heterodoxy’ from the crowd and refuted it with syllogistic logic. Seated around the sides of the rooms were the other doctors and local nobles who were the official witnesses to the event and decided if you were worthy to become doctor.

So becoming doctor used to be a thoroughly ‘enfleshed’ affair in which you demonstrated your scholarly capabilities in public and in person. But with the invention of the printing press everything began to change. Clark takes some 300 pages to explain how the disputation system which relied on ‘speaking received knowledge’ in public changed to the circulation of papers. This circulation took place in private because the text started to be written for a select group of scholars (the disciplines) instead of for all scholars.

The text started to ‘embody the scholar’ because the text started to ‘speak knowledge’.

I like to think about this argument in terms of the movie Avatar:

A movie  I happened to like despite all the criticisms (mostly because of Sigourney Weaver – what’s not to love?) but I digress.

A thesis text is kind of like an avatar. It ‘stands in’ for your scholarly self and ‘speaks’ your knowledge and capability as a scholar (to the reader – and the  examiner) when you aren’t there. The examiner, as the most important reader, is like the witnesses to the old disputation – they decide if you are good enough at speaking knowledge to be considered a doctor.

Therefore to become a doctor your scholarly capabilities must be translated into the medium of text. As Sam Worthington discovered, things are different when you become an avatar. You have different capabilities because you take a different form; you both gain and lose in this transformation.

Before you think I have gone off into post modernist la la land – this transformation has some practical implications. For one thing texts say lots of things but they are really mute. Think about the examiner in the act of reading your text – they may come across something they think is wrong or something they disagree with. They may well wonder aloud why you haven’t done something, or said something. They may want to ask you if you understand some nuance or other. But unless you have thought of this possibility beforehand – and put it in the text -  there will be no answer. You aren’t there;  the text avatar is. It has to speak for you.

This is why it’s important that the thesis text is very, very good  – or as I like to think about it: big, blue, strong and sexy.

Related Posts

The dead hand of the thesis genre

A thesis without words or “where is my mug?”

3 thoughts on “Learning from ‘Avatar’

  1. (try again as first comment seems to be lost in the ether somewhere)

    I love the avatar/thesis observation.
    Makes sense for other writing too. I wonder if the ‘avatar’ is ever shed and the writing takes on it’s own identity. Perhaps more likely in fictional works?

  2. The one professional fiction writer I know talks about her books as having a life of their own so you might be right. Some people I talk to seem to have more than one thesis struggling to get out of their text.

  3. Thanks for this fascinating book synopsis. I love the image of the knowledge joust. Thanks also for putting together this blog. As a working mother and PhD student I don’t have enough time to do all your excellent seminars, however it is nice to at least get the summary.

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