The PhD and beyond[:] the apprenticeship model of learning

by Paul Maharg on 02/03/2015

At the kind invitation of Mary Spiers-Williams, I gave a seminar to our doctoral students here at ANU College of Law, last Friday.  For some reason WordPress refuses to render the slideset at the usual tab above, so you’ll find them over at Slideshare. The title is a sort of pun: the colon is and isn’t there, because in a number of ways I was questioning the idea of the apprenticeship model of education for doctoral education.  So you could read it as ‘The PhD, and beyond the apprenticeship model of learning’.  Why?

Let’s start with the Dewey slide

Slide1There they are, the children from Dewey’s Laboratory School, on the cover of Laurel Tanner’s fine study of the School.  Born into ante-bellum America, Dewey sometimes seems to belong to a different world, and the visual signifiers in this photograph support that impression.  And yet his words, from Democracy and Education[1] are extraordinarily relevant to the politics and education of today.  That phrase, ‘associated living’, is a resonant one, borrowed from William Hamilton, and Adam Ferguson, a Scottish Enlightenment concept in the mainstream of the Stoic virtue tradition of moral philosophy. More of that in a bit.

And if it’s true of the education of the wee ones in the photo, it’s also true of doctoral students.  We students way back in 78-81 in Edinburgh U. English Lit Dept felt the need for a lot more associated living than the department was organising for us, so we started our own seminar series.  So in the seminar on Friday, I gave some of my experiences as an undergraduate in English Lit at Glasgow, a postgrad at Edinburgh, and as a mature student studying law at Glasgow, nearly a decade later, having done postgrad Education qualifications and taught adults for six years in the meantime.

To help structure our conversation, I took two core ideas: occluded genres, and the anxiety of influence.  Swales coined the term ‘occluded genres’, defining it thus: ‘academic occluded genres are, in part, those which support the research publication process but are not themselves part of the research record.’[2]  He gives these examples, describing them as being in reverse seniority, ie all of us write request letters, but only very senior academics are involve in the last example:

1. Request letters (for data, copies of papers, advice, etc)
2. Application letters (for jobs, scholarships, etc)
3. Submission letters (accompanying articles, books, etc)
4. Research proposals (for outside funding, etc)
5. Recommendation letters (for students, job seekers, etc)
6. Article reviews (as part of the review process)
7. Book or grant proposal reviews (as above)
8. Evaluation letters for tenure or promotion (for academic committees)
9. External evaluations (for academic institutions).  (Swales 1996, 47)

Here are examples of occluded genres (in red) clustering around the basic process of submitting an article to a peer-reviewed journal:[3]

occluded genres

The idea of occlusion is a suggestive one for doctoral study, and on at least three levels.  My first point was that as doctoral students, we need to be learning not just the visible genres (the articles, the reports, etc) but the occluded genres underlying them.  And we need to do that even more so in our digital age, where new genres are emerging and old genres are mediated by digital comms.  Second, our lives, too, contain occluded genres. The academy can exclude, suborne, oppress private lives: we are not just legal academics, and we can create our best work when we explore what we’ve done in our lives, who we are, our intellectual influences and affective bonds.

Third, the academy also occludes genres.  One of the debates in legal education today is whether ethics should be a part of undergraduate legal education.  Such a debate would have been inconceivable to any academic in Scotland, from medieval foundations to the mid-twentieth century.  In the form of Moral Philosophy, the discourse was an integral part of the landscape.  To be sure, it was often presented as normative discourse; but the possibility was always there for it to be developed in different ways.  Think of Francis Hutcheson at Glasgow, for instance, or Adam Ferguson at Edinburgh addressing the students in 1775 with these words:

‘Now is your time to begin Practices and lay the Foundation of habits that may be of use to you in every Condition and in every Profession at least that is founded on a literary or a Liberal Education. Sapere and Fari quae sentiat are the great Objects of Literary Education and of Study. … mere knowledge however important is far from being the only or most important Attainment of Study.

The Habits of Justice, Candour, Benevolence, and a Courageous Spirit are the first Objects of Philosophy the Constituents of happiness and of personal honour, and the first Qualifications for human Society and for Active life.’[4]

Sapere and Fari quae sentiat — to know, and to say what you feel.  The words derive from Horace, his famous Epistle 1, iv:

Non tu corpus eras sine pectore; di tibi formam,
di tibi diuitias dederunt artemque fruendi.
Quid uoueat dulci nutricula maius alumno,
qui sapere et fari possit quae sentiat, et cui
gratia, fama, ualetudo contingat abunde,
et mundus uictus non deficiente crumina?
Inter spem curamque, timores inter et iras
omnem crede diem tibi diluxisse supremum;
grata superueniet quae non sperabitur hora.

You are not merely a body without any feelings.
You have been given beauty, wealth and the means to appreciate things.
What more would a nurse wish for her sweet little one
Than wisdom, the power to express what he feels,
Much kindness, health and fame,
An elegant way of life, and enough money?
Amid the hope and worry, fear and anger,
take every day that dawns as your last –
the unlooked-for hour will be a welcome surprise.

Where was all this in the apprenticeship model of doctoral education?  It seemed to me that the model itself was too narrow to accommodate much of the learning that doctoral students do, and need to do.  Occluded genres, even in Swales’ definition of the term is a good example – how many students get the chance to be educated in this during their doctoral studies?

Next, we turned to Bloom’s concept of the anxiety of influence.  According to him, poets are anxious about powerful figures in the past, eg early Yeats is strongly influenced by Shelley in his work, to the point where Shelley occludes Yeats’ own voice.  As a consequence, they need to misread the texts of their strong precursors, revisioning the relationship, and at least in six ways or ‘tropes’, including tessera (reclaiming and redefining ideas, for instance) and clinamen (creative swerves around the dominant figure).  Misreading or misprision, like intertextuality, opens up latent, marginalised or hidden textual meaning, and it is possible to use it to explain and engage with the ideological complexities of powerful texts and ways of reading within hegemonic traditions.[5] For Bloom, all interpretation is misreading.[6]

I gave an example of how this body of theory could be used in legal discourse, in the work of Boaventura de Sousa Santos, who takes Bloom seriously by misreading him: poems distort reality just as law does, and for similar reasons.[7]  And we discussed the example of constitutional texts and arrangements which are particularly porous, and are always open to misprision: examples are the endlessly creative debates around the First Amendment in the USA – in Scotland, the Independence Referendum was another, as is  the post-Referendum discourse of ‘reserved matters’.  

referendum day But just as in Bloom’s critique authors cover influences, or perform creative swerves around dominant predecessors in a culture of belatedness, so too does a constitution.  Every constitution has a relationship to predecessors; and in addition to granting rights, it creates a normative mode of discourse that closes down future debate, prevents the development of new discourse, establishes its own autonomy.[8]  Bloom’s work exposes the rhetorical nature of constitutional discourse and normativity that has the force of law’s violence; and Santos uses this to argue, particularly in his more recent work, for a replacement of the ‘canonic tradition of monocultures of knowledge, politics and law’ by an ‘ecology of knowledges’, central to which is ‘the distinction between conformist action and […] action-with-clinamen’.[9]

So how does this relate to doctoral work?  Students, like poets, are anxious about powerful figures.  They need to misread the texts of their strong precursors, revisioning the relationship.  Misprision, like intertextuality for poets, opens up latent, marginalised or hidden textual meaning, and it is possible to use it to explain and engage with the ideological complexities of powerful texts (cases, constitutions, commentaries) and ways of reading within hegemonic legal traditions of critique.  And I finished with some of the questions that doctoral students ask:

  • How original is my work?
  • How will my evidence & argument be interpreted?
  • Am I fitting into a canon? Challenging that canon? Creating an ‘ecology of knowledges’? How will I do that?
  • Is conformism what I want here?
  • How do I move out of apprenticeship, find my voice, join the full community?

We discussed this extract from a student conference on legal writing, part of a project on first-year student writing I carried out back in 1999, and some experiences I had at various times as a student, including this passage:

I’m a postgraduate student at Edinburgh U, 1978-81. My supervisor is a major figure in late nineteenth century English literature. Every supervision is broadly the same. I go to discuss my latest work, there’s a little comment from him and replies from me, then he veers off on other related literary critical subjects and talks for two hours or so, with wee tag questions ( ‘… don’t you think?’) and launches into another sentence before I can reply.

Half way through the first year I’m beginning to feel anxious and desperate because I have no structure to my work. A Visiting Prof arrives from Yale, J. Hillis Miller, trailing a reputation as a strong deconstructivist critic. His seminars on parable though are fascinating, and he’s seeing postgrads, so before he returns to the US, I knock on his door. He is grave and courteous, asks what he can help with. I set out my stall of ideas. He listens intently, makes notes, gives suggestions, takes me through some of them in more detail, asks where I’m going next with others, is looking for an argument. We’re both looking for an argument, and for the first time since I arrived at Edinburgh I feel like I have someone who’s helping me find it. I leave the room 30 minutes later a different student. We don’t see each other again.

The discussion is wide-ranging, taking in values, when to act on them, which values are important.  It was a good discussion.

At the end of it a student asked, of the last sentence above, ‘did you you not thank him?’  I was surprised: I’m sure I did, as part of normal leave-taking.  But her words stayed with me that night.  Should I have got in touch with Hillis Miller, later?  Probably.  Partly shyness, to be sure, but maybe there was something lacking there, too.  If I were quoting Stoic thought earlier in the seminar, the answer was there waiting for me in that tradition.  There’s a strong emphasis in it on gratefulness — indeed the word gratia, slightly different context, appears in Horace’s poem above (and I translated it as kindness — kindliness might be closer).  Cicero was in no doubt about the need for it: ‘nullum enim officium referenda gratis magis necessarium est’ (De Officiis, 1.47); Seneca and Pliny comment likewise.  Was I an ungrateful, demanding student?  My supervisor wasn’t particularly useful, that was undeniable; but he was a good man, generous and kind.  Did I expect too much, then?   I don’t think so; but even if there were no bond of amicitia between Hillis Miller and myself (there couldn’t be, after one brief meeting), his intervention was crucial, and I acknowledged it to myself then and later.  And now I felt remorse, as if I’d offended against the very idea of associated living.  Fari quae sentiat.  So around 0400 I got up, drafted a long-overdue email of gratitude to Professor J. Hillis Miller, and pressed the send button later that morning.

The best learning sometimes comes unbidden, and surprises us.

  1. [1]The centenary of which is being celebrated next year by the John Dewey Society, of which I’m a member — more later on what the PEARL (Profession, Education and Regulation in Law) Centre at ANU College of Law will be doing to join in the celebrations
  2. [2]Swales, J. (1996). Occluded genres in the academy: the case of submission letters. In Academic Writing: Intercultural and Textual Issues, Eija Ventola, Anna Mauranen, eds, John Benjamins Publishing, New York, 46-58.
  3. [3]Feak, C. (2009). Negotiating publication: Author responses to peer review of medical research articles in thoracic surgery. Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses, 59: 17–34. Available at: , 18
  4. [4]Adam Ferguson, Lectures, 1775-6, fols 540-1, MSS, Edinburgh University Library, quoted Maharg, Transforming Legal Education (2007), 109-11.
  5. [5]Bloom, H. (1980). A Map of Misreading. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  6. [6]Bloom, H. (1974). The Anxiety of Influence. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  7. [7]Santos, B. de Sousa (1987). Law: a map of misreading. Toward a postmodern conception of law, Journal of Law and Society, 14, 3, 279-302.
  8. [8]Maharg, P. (2012). The identity of Scots law: redeeming the past. In Scottish Life and Society. A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology. Law, ed. Mark Mulhern. Birlinn Press & The European Ethnological Research Centre, Edinburgh.
  9. [9]Santos, B. de Sousa (2007). Beyond abyssal thinking: from global lines to ecologies of knowledges, Review (Fernand Braudel Centre), 30 (2007) 45-90.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Helen McGowan May 19, 2015 at 21:41

Hi Paul, and thanks Mary and the ANU team for creating this series of seminars, and then very cleverly, linking the content though FB and email. I suspect I have been ‘back in Yack’ for too long as I am struggling to understand these concepts. I am sitting here in front of my fire, armed with a glass of Drambuie and my Dictionary App looking up the meaning of the words ‘occlude’ and ‘misprision’ and trying to piece together the meaning in the slides.

I know that, if I have a crack at it now, the meaning tentatively approaches, then at another time, I will harvest richer meaning. My husband loves the Horace quote. I love the possibility of ‘making sense’ of the PhD through deliberately reading texts ‘the wrong way’ and challenging the dominant discourse.

De Sousa’s work inspires me. Paul, your work encourages me. I look forward to seeing how our very own ‘theory informed practice’ and ‘practice informed theory’ that is the PEARL PRAXIS inspires, encourages and informs our legal profession.


2 Paul Maharg May 21, 2015 at 05:14

Thanks for your comment, Helen. The terms you mentioned were explored as part of the seminar, but I’d put yr difficulty down to the fact that it was Drambuie you had in your hand. Now if it were Lagavulin 16 you’d have no lack of inspiration, since you’d be seeing through a glass, clearly… And thanks for your kind words re PEARL – should be up and running in early July: re-reading texts and challenging the dominant discourses will be what we want to be doing!


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