This article draws from a reflection on the launch of a cohort approach to postgraduate doctoral programme under the auspices of the HELTASA agenda. The programme delivery was scheduled within the new temporalities of a COVID-19 pedagogical spatiality. The programme’s goals focus on the role of academic development as a disciplinary field in realising matters of social inclusion, addressing inequities linked to higher education curriculum and structural directives. Despite these laudable social justice agendas, many of the initially proposed areas of study tended to foreground a purely technical operational consideration. The article argues that doctoral studies research agendas, candidates’ emergent doctoral literacies and their graduate outcomes need to shift postgraduate students into deeper conceptualisation about philosophical and theoretical mandates. This is an agenda not only for novice researchers but also academics and HE systems planners who need to shift positionalities beyond the technical toward the theoretical responsivities in COVID-19 times.

Prof Michael Anthony Samuel, University of KwaZulu-Natal, School of Education, Higher Education Studies

One of the understandable challenges facing the designers of doctoral education programmes is how to manage the transitioning of students from their masters into the PhD project. This arises from how Masters educational curricula have primarily developed competences to engage with an evaluation of the current operational world within which student themselves reside. Masters dissertations are replete with evaluation and project implementation analysis studies to hone the skills of assessment and recommendations of interventions and strategies for enhancing best practices. The pragmatic agenda prevails at the end of a masters study.

Novice doctoral students tend to incorrectly presume that a doctoral study is simply a grown-up masters degree. This presumption for them entails simply expanding the scale or scope of the sample size, or shifting their sites of data production from the ones they originally reviewed at masters’ level. Erroneously, they believe that expanding the potential of transferability to broader contexts to test the reliability of their masters’ findings is the unwritten assumption of the doctoral project. The early doctoral educational journey involves shifting students’ conception to beyond simply the descriptive or operational evaluation of their current practices. Most novice doctoral candidates enter into the doctoral project perhaps with an already preconceived idea of what exactly is the proposed intervention they would like to expand into new spaces, into new time contexts and with new participants. They might already even design their proposed methodologies of the doctoral study to confirm what they already believe to be the technical solutions to problems identified during their earlier research.

However, doctoral studies are about generating a new form of literacy: a novel autonomous contribution to a body of academic knowledge. Novice doctoral researchers in a doctoral curriculum are being prepared to engage in a migrating into this new world to speak a new language, to engage in a new cultural disposition of what it means to be a producer of new knowledge. As curriculum designers of doctoral education, our new accountabilities as students and supervisors are to shift into broader expectations beyond merely the confines of the operational work context within which one operates. The doctoral study is an opportunity to trouble the very foundations upon towards which our current or preferred advocatory practices or preferences might direct us. The doctoral research is an opportunity to shift our positionality to ask deep theoretical rather than merely descriptive or operational level questions. The endpoint of the doctoral study is motivated by a quest to find new knowledge, to activate new ways of reading and re-reading the present world. This new literacy aims to read the world and it textual habits, rituals, routines and activities. This means that doctoral education (for jointly the supervisor and the supervised) involves engaging with a deep reflective examination of how we have come to interpret the customs we have adopted; it means that we need to be enaging with a critical overview of how our preferred practices may sustain or constitute not the solution, but perhaps also the sources of the problems that characterise any given context.

The adoption of new transitional identities, as one migrates from the space of masters to doctoral studies, is a journey of temporarily abandoning the foundations of one’s own beliefs, one’s practices and the codified systems and regulations that govern one’s practitioner operational world. This is thus likely to create disruption or turbulences which leave the novice doctoral students feeling vulnerable, exposed and nervous.  One sees how this nervousness is manifest in the early stages of doctoral proposal refinement and development as students come to question the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of their potential adventures. But the journey into new territories embeds all the traumas and treats of venturing into new spaces. It is both an opportutniy to question the foundations of one’s past territories (our homelands), and an opportunity to find new syntaxes in the world of the newspaces and theorists one encounters (our visited lands). The role of the supervisors within this transtioning space is to creatively activate positive disruptions to question the epistemological foundations upon which our habituated or proposed structures and actions are premised. The role of the supervisors is to broaden the landscape of possible theorists and past literature resources and studies that are available in relation to the students’ proposed areas of study.

For the student, this disruption is usually mainly perceived as a negative disruption, and it is thus the role of the facilitator supervisors to engage with the process of questioning the questions, and the methodology that student is oftentimes too hastily wanting to “implement”. The role of the supervisors is to promote the disposition of being comfortable with uncertainty, of not knowing.

This transitioning process (from a practitioner identity into a researcher identity) is brought into sharper relief in the present context of preparing to mediate the proposed recommencement of the academic project within higher education curriculum delivery in the post-strict lockdown context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sharper questions come to surround a purely pragmatic intervention in rapidly changing settings. Too often the agenda which drives the literacies about this new pedagogical space is characterised by overtly technical and operational “how-to-do-it” discourses. These “roll-out” logics tend to ride roughshod over a deeper theoretical, philosophical and epistemological consideration. It fails to ask deeper questions about whose interests are being served via the proposed interventions that are actively propagated as evidence of responsiveness to the crises. Instead of activating solutions that challenge the deep divides of inequalities within the higher educational provisionings that already exist within the pre-COVID-19 world, the new technologies merely reinforce the pragmatic and the operational. The responses of how to ready oneself for the new world is couched in a judgmental language of deficit discourses which promote an agenda of “outside-in” staff development, top-down student orientation interventions, and uploading of technological remote processing resources.

These discourses of inputs, processes and outputs promote the assumption that acclimatising to the new means adopting the remote learning teaching pedagogies uncritically. It suggests the visited lands are a superior form than the homelands.  It emphasises the interest to ensure that students have the appropriate technological equipment or epistemological literacies in which to operationalise their engagement. Of course, this is underpinned by a rationalistic (?econometric) discourse that rescuing the academic project of the delivery of higher education academic year is the priority. Moreover, it ignores the deep levels of staff and student capacity re-orientation it entails to live in the new world.

But in this advocacy agenda we remain no different to the novice PhD doctoral student who is so obsessed with completing the intervention or the solution that we do not take adequate time to reflect on some of the following questions: in whose interests are the present proposed interventions being activated? Who is likely to be the prime beneficiaries of this new roll-out strategy? How does one activate a critical review of the intervention before leaping enthusiastically into the operational world?

We need a new literacy in the new COVID-19 times.

COVID-19 time allow us the possibility to question whether our current pedagogies in higher education are directed towards sustaining the distance between the privileged and the marginalised of our society. COVID-19 allows us the space to be able to question whose and what valuing systems underpin our pedagogies? Are our pedagogies,  current and proposed, directed towards efficiency and output of the products of the higher education system without due examination of the in-depth hidden curriculum that would accompany an efficiency rationale?

These above challenges about the new era of the new normal came into sharp relief as we engaged with the launch of the HELTASA PhD doctoral education programme which assembled a group of facilitators and students from across the South African context. All the doctoral students were selected into the programme in order to critically engage with a project of examining how an ideological, social, cultural, political and econometric examination of the curricular processes, structures and systems within the space of Academic Development in Higher Education. This agenda was constructed in an earlier era of the post #Fees must fall and #Rhodes must fall contestations about access and alienation of the higher education systems and curriculum. The project’s goals were directed towards questioning how the practices, the systems, the curricular and the personal dimensions intersect to produce particular nuances of who is considered to be in need of “development”. What does “development” itself entail; whose conceptions of “academic development” drive the system; who is considered to be placed on the margins or not of the academic curriculum development spatialities?  Is academic development ‘fixing’ the students, the staff, the curriculum, the structures, the deliverers of the programmes? Who is questioning the advocates?

The topics as declared in their candidate statements, that students originally presented when they entered into the programme (April 2020), were understandably also couched in the descriptive and operational mindset. They tend to already have in mind that the task of the apex doctoral qualifications was merely to assist them in becoming credentialled as a “knower of solutions”, and an “advocate of a possible solution”; a “refiner or definer of the knowledges-to-be-consumed”. Their practitioner identity (or even a possible hidden careerist agenda) was clearly evident.

The goals of the opening launch of the programme were put under the microscope. We came to question as facilitators and students how doctoral candidates have come to select these kinds of orientations towards the chosen focus of their studies; how were their topics/foci chosen; whose interests are likely to be promoted via the embedded propositions of the topics they picked? The opening programme was directed towards providing a landscape of possible theoretical lens through which they may view conceptions of “what is doctoral studies that distinguish itself from the masters’ levels studies? It questioned notions of how we understand the tensions between a purely careerist motivation for undertaking a PhD student and deeper interpreting of a philosophical /theoretical and sociological critique of how the self (the student ) can be drawn into “service” of a greater social justice agenda.

The student, the self and the study include problematising and challenging notions of a masters exit level outcomes and curriculum, towards developing redefinitions of academic literacies itself; towards defining and contesting varied interpretations of decolonisation/decoloniality and decolonialism. The opening session of the Research Workshop seminar (conducted via Zoom platform) aimed to expose the responsibility of academic knowledge makers to shift their positionalities from being do-ers into re-searchers looking for new (rather than fashionable) literacies about the operational and conceptual world of “Academic Development”. Students were encouraged in the pedagogical delivery of the seminar programme to focus less on only the technological performances in this online remote teaching and learning space, and indeed drive their focus towards an epistemological elaborations of their proposed areas of study. Doctoral studies are about finding theoretical and philosophical insights, not advocacy of preconceived solutions.

These shifting positionalities of self and their studies meant connecting with the contested interpretations of the role of higher education in relation to the broader society; it included the questioning of the linkages between academia and the world of work; it promotes a review of the conceptions of language development interventions, academic literacies and transitioning theories to “support students”; it questioned whether academic development discourses themselves were a disguised form of “saviour research” offering recipes for dispensation; it entailed reviewing whether the extended curriculum of undergraduate programmes perpetuate constructions of deficiency amongst students rather than build affirmatory capacity. These practices and theoretical interpretations need philosophical interrogation.

The advocatory interventions themselves and the new language of the migrants came under scrutiny.

In an era of post-COVID-19 lockdowns, perhaps we too, as academics in higher education spaces, can learn from the journeys of these novice doctoral students. We should increasingly critique our prejudged interpretations that a post-COVID-19 academic is simplistically one who is able to pragmatically embark on implementing new modes of remote learning/teaching/assessing delivery. These online technological modes of delivery are strategic opportunities that ought to enhance the deeper pedagogical project. It should activate new positionalities: novel ways of seeing and being as a higher education practitioner that we would activate drawing from a range of resources and people that hitherto were kept on the margins of our formal curriculum. It is not the mode of the technological apparatuses that would change the quality of our new curriculum, but the quality of the pedagogical choices.

What knowledges are admitted or marginalised, therefore, become pivottal.

The new language is a language that asks social justice questions about the role of higher education in relation to the broader social system within which we reside. Shifting the pragmatics into the philosophical realm is not a journey only novice doctoral students should make, but also one that our national educational and social systems, our higher education institutional structures, and our curriculum specialist teachers and promoters of scholarly learning should adopt. Our own shifting positionalities are likely to yield deeper and meaningful philosophical redirections.

And when we stand in the new spaces of a post-COVD -19 world, we will be able to confidently profess:  we made socially-just decisions for a greater embrace of our shared humanity.