A Thesis Without Words, or “where is my mug?”

This is the first guest post by my sister, Anitra Nottingham, who is the online director of graphic design at the Art Academy in San Francisco (and a thesis whisperer!).

Looking for advice on doing an art or design thesis by practice can sometimes you make you feel a little bit like the kid called, Jupiter (or Gertrude) looking at racks of mugs with names like Jack (or Madison) printed on them. There’s stuff about doing a thesis, but little already written about you and your sort of thesis.

In effect there’s no mug for you.

If you are doing a “normal” thesis there are certain agreed upon ways of producing it. The building blocks of the finished product are known—words, numbers, data, pictures. Pages in other words. (Probably in Times New Roman, double line spaced, shudder).

But what does “a thesis in art or design” look like when you hold the final thing in your hand? How is it made? Not many people have written about the challenge of defining and making that sort of thesis, at least as far as I can tell. So doing an art or design degree by practice can be a lonely experience — or so my students tell me. So that’s why I’m here.

I’ll start right at the beginning, with what my twin sister, @thesiswhisperer, calls “Identity Work”. This concept applies to you, and your poor, misunderstood thesis.  Both of you lie down on the couch, there, that’s good. Now. Let’s begin…

Yes you can do your thesis in that.

Probably the first thing you encounter from people when you tell them you are doing a thesis in fine art or design by practice, is a snort, and a comment along the lines of “how can you do a thesis in THAT?”.  Sadly this is often from your own kind: art and design colleagues. Here’s the subtext of that statement: “if you’re master at it, why don’t you go do it and get paid for it?”.

If you are a competent professional, this is your first bit of identity work. Doing your art or design thesis by practice doesn’t mean you can’t do what you do – and do it well.  There’s nothing wrong with your thesis either. It is “normal”. But you’ll have to get used to explaining why.

Here’s how you can do that.

First, understand the reaction. People are used to thinking about knowledge in terms of words. Words, and the writing of them have currency in academia. A thesis is meant to be ‘new knowledge’. This produces confusion: if you can’t write it—how is it knowledge and how can it be a thesis?

Sure people have written about art and design for their thesis projects, that’s fine. But when your knowledge is best expressed by practice, by making things, it makes sense that a thesis takes the form of your knowledge – art or design products.

As anyone who does a thesis will tell you, the words are a big deal but it’s the work behind them that counts. If the point of a thesis is to display the the knowledge you possess, the only real way to show mastery is to be really, really good at your practice: art, painting, sculpture, web design or whatever and presenting in such a way that it can be experienced as more than just words. It has to be seen. It has to be made. By you. Experts should be able to see the thing you made (i.e. your thesis) and say, “Wow, you really know your stuff!”

Put it this way, you can look at the Sistine chapel and write about it, but that doesn’t make you the master of painting. The guy who lay on his back and painted the thing for 8 years is the master. That guy is a genius, but would he be handed a graduate degree for that work? Now, happily, yes (or I hope so—that whole misunderstood-artist-while-you-are-alive thing sucks.) If the Sistine Chapel was a thesis by practice or project, people would now call that guy Dr Michaelangelo and turn up to hear his papers. But should he even be writing papers? Wouldn’t it be better to stand and watch him paint and learn from that? See? A thesis by practice just makes sense!

When the examiners “read” your finished thesis they won’t consume words alone, they will essentially “unpack it” (as my sister always says). So your thesis should enable them see your skill—mastery— of your particular flavor of art or design. In a well-written thesis the words become ‘transparent’; the examiner can experience the skill of the writer in the subject, not in the mastery of words. So too with your creative works – they should ‘speak’ of your mastery of your subject.

You can do this because you already are (or are becoming) a master.

My experience from watching graphic design thesis students is that understanding the type of knowledge work you are doing makes doing a thesis easier. So work on understanding why your thesis is made the way it is, and who you must ‘be’ to do it. And when your colleagues scoff tell them you can show your mastery without words. There is, indeed, a mug for you.

Related posts

The dead hand of the thesis genre

Doing a PhD is getting to know yourself

Voices from the front line

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3 thoughts on “A Thesis Without Words, or “where is my mug?”

  1. I think the big thing is the knowledge production itself. As you said, the way in which we traditionally conduct research is essentially via language. Sure, a Master of ‘insert practice here’ is fine. You can do that. But doing a PhD and conducting ‘research’. You’re not a real researcher if you make pictures! How do you know you find the ‘right’ answers? The subjective nature of most artistic practice gets in the way of people understanding its power to elucidate myriad forms of knowledge. I would think that ‘design’ is less ambiguous, but still, it’s gonna be tough. A fellow artist was recently asked what she was doing her PhD in. She replied ‘art, via practice’. The questioner then retorted ‘oh, the easy type of PhD’. I actually think its tougher. You need to fulfill all the usual requirements, do the ‘identity work’ around yourself as researcher, but also maintain and foster your identity as artist. To-ing and fro-ing between practice and writing is also a PAIN IN THE BOTTOM. My 2 cents. And I’ll leave you with this question, ‘mastery’ of a discipline aside, can an artist, whose PhD topic is for example ‘climate change’, make a valid contribution to the field?

  2. Good points 🙂 IMO “research” is the problematic word here, and getting hung up on that presents problems because art doesn’t “answer” questions. Not in the traditional scientific sense anyway. What it does is make us think and wonder (well good art does anyway). Since a good thesis project should also leave us thinking, and with more questions to answer by the time it’s done, I’d say that’s how art can “answer” a question. And you should become an expert on your subject, like Michelangelo was (I assume) an expert on stories from the bible and their various meanings by the time he finished that ceiling. He would have to be to get into their essence and represent them in a way that resonated with the audience. So if you know your subject well enough to express it through art that resonates you have fulfilled the requirements of mastery in that sense too IMO. And yes, that’s tough!

  3. Your way of describing the whole thing in this piece of writing is really pleasant, every one be able to simply be
    aware of it, Thanks a lot.

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