Alternatives to the Academic Essay

During lockdown I was amazed at the quality of online work the students produced for the performative writing module I teach at Rose Bruford, so much so that I and the programme directors have decided to make a permanent change to the assessments so students have to produce digital submissions.

I’ve decided to argue that multi-media submissions can carry the same critical heft as an essay in an article for TES. Might not get anywhere but I thought I’d give it a try!

Instead of a traditional academic essay, students share research through digital performance-presentations and curated portfolios. I call this approach performative writing to express how they are required to capture the experience of learning in multi-modal documents and link their experiences with contextual research

The decision not to include a conventional essay as part of a research module on masters’ courses feels fairly radical given academic writing remains a core assessment on nearly all theatre and performing arts programs in the UK. But in another sense it feels perfectly logical given the incredibly diverse publication formats artists use to share their knowledge outside of academia.

One of the big challenges I’m facing this year is tailoring the module assessments for all of the different masters’s courses in the School of Performance. Having extensive conversations with each of the programme directors about how they want writing and research to  be embedded into teaching and learning is a fascinating pedagogical exercise.

In one sense, theories of practice research undergird all of the teaching. By this I mean that I teach students the importance of communicating the process of research by documenting their practice-lead work in document formats that capture the experience of arriving at questions and propositions through creative exploration. But taking a wider perspective, I feel it is important to show the students that the ethos of practice research is about sharing knowledge with audiences outside of academia in order to invite more diverse audiences into the discourse. And it is this word, ‘discourse’, that I point to when I explain to the students that the Performative Writing/Vade Mecum module requires them to articulate an area of theatre and performance they wish to work within as independent artists.

This is where I find the language of live art particularly useful. Following the director of LADA’s Lois Keidan’s definition of live art as a research engine, performative writing becomes a device to express ideas for future practice in forms that are not purely theoretical or hypothetical. Generating ideas becomes part of the art work itself. The necessity to construct an argument in an academic essay is not conducive to communicating the student’s methodology in the module. The challenge for me is to develop an understanding of critical rigor where the student is able to position themselves as the subject of their research.