Grokking The Swamp
Adventures into the practical abyss, and back again.
Ten years ago I started two big projects. This is the story of one of them, my PhD. I wrote this for anyone contemplating something similar.
“In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high ground overlooking a swamp…”
— Donald Schön
Let me tell you a story the tale of how I grokked my PhD.
Grok is coined as an untranslatable Martian concept & word in Heinlein’s 1961 science fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, and has since worked its way into geek and counterculture. To grok some knowledge or technique, is to claim that this knowledge has become part of you, that your understanding of this knowledge is more than a detached instrumental learning.
Somewhere in the third year of my PhD, one of my supervisors offhandedly mentioned to me that it “might be time I started finishing…”
Talking with my other supervisor a few weeks later, a word dropped out and sat on the table. I can’t remember who said it first, but it wasn’t me who picked it up and used it strangely in the next sentence, bringing it forward in my awareness.
That word fit the gap I’d been discovering for the last few years. A word rendered my thinking in a direction, and helped me to see what might be a way out of The Swamp. I seized the word, and started on the road back.
Reflecting on this moment, I see it as a critical point in my PhD. In an effort to resist the temptation to see this as THE critical incident in my PhD, I examined the wider timeline of my research. This piece is an attempt to communicate what I have learned by reflecting on my practice led PhD journey.
My Master of Design (2003–5) and PhD (2007–12) were both undertaken in a practice-led culture at RMIT University, where I had been an academic faculty member since 2000. In our practice-led research culture, The Swamp is a trope used to describe the necessary state of sophisticated complexity that a practice-led PhD needs to pass through.
Being in The Swamp is a state often accompanied by confusion and self-doubt on the student’s part — and relief or anxiety on the critical reviewer’s part — depending on their experience with this form of research. The trope draws on Schön’s swamp, featured in the epigram that begins this story, and — like every useful trope — this etymology is never explicit.
Our Swamp has taken mythical form, invoked at many formal review presentations, its use often signifying “insider” or “initiated” status. As I reflected on my experience during both of my practice-led research degrees, it became clear that the next logical step would be to locate our Swamp within a larger, more familiar, and more useful narrative structure.
In this piece I reflect on the state of being in The Swamp, locating it within the narrative cycle of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth from his 1949 book, The hero with a thousand faces. I draw from Christopher Vogler’s interpretation of Campbell’s monomyth, and map key elements of The Hero’s Journey to stages I have observed in my own and other’s practice-led PhD studies.
To begin, I’ll give a brief overview of Schön’s swamp and Campbell’s monomyth.
Donald Schön’s Educating the reflective practitioner: toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions (1990) begins with a compelling picture of “relatively unimportant, manageable problems overlooking a swamp of messy, confusing problems of greatest human concern” (ch. 1). Schön’s model is useful as a way to set up what you might be doing when you embark on a practice-led PhD: you’re venturing into The Swamp. It’s going to get messy and confusing, but this is an expected — even necessary — experience for a PhD Student to go through. The Swamp reminds people that practice-led research has a rationality that differs from traditional academic research.
Schön sets up two very different worlds: the high ground of technical rationalism, and the low ground of important — albeit non-rigorous — inquiry. His separation of these two worlds builds a sense of their incompatibility, best exemplified in his framing of “the Practitioner’s Choice” (ibid).
The uninitiated practitioner sometimes believes these two worlds are irreconcilable, that they have to choose between them.
This perceived duality seems at odds with Schön’s constructionist stance, and staunch rejection of technical rationality. But what if we approach this situation from a different angle? Instead of focusing on the knowledge or situations a student engages with, let’s think about what happens to the practitioner, the PhD student. What’s their narrative? How do they experience change? How might they conceptualise their PhD as a journey — understanding which stage they might be in — and how do they approach the challenges ahead of them? To do this, let’s look at Campbell’s monomyth as a guide.
The Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell’s monomyth draws from extensive analysis of human mythology, and identifies a series of archetypal stages common across culture and time. The term monomyth is drawn from James Joyce’s Ulysses, of which Campbell was a noted scholar.
Christopher Vogler’s 1998 book The writer’s journey: mythic structure for writers recasts and simplifies Campbell’s monomyth with an emphasis on the narrative structure of movies. Specifically relevant to the practice-led PhD experience, Vogler focuses on both the external narrative and internal character motivations experienced by the journey’s hero (pp. 211–213).
Vogler’s terminology is less mythical than Campbell’s, and for that reason I will use Vogler’s terms for the majority of this chapter, referring to Campbell’s terms only when they help to better reconcile The Hero’s Journey with The Swamp. The important thing to remember is that Campbell and Vogler are both writing about the same “few common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies” (p. 1), described by Vogler as follows:
Heroes are introduced in the ORDINARY WORLD, where they receive a CALL TO ADVENTURE. They are RELUCTANT at first and REFUSE THE CALL, but are encouraged by a MENTOR to CROSS THE THRESHOLD and enter the Special World where they encounter TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES. They APPROACH THE INMOST CAVE, crossing a second threshold where they endure the ORDEAL. They take possession of their REWARDS and are pursued on THE ROAD BACK to the Ordinary World. They cross the third threshold, experience a RESURRECTION, and are transformed by their experience. THEY RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, a boon or treasure to benefit the Ordinary World (p. 26).
In the sections following, I’ll take us through some phases of this journey, mapping them to experiences and stages I have observed in my own and others’ practice-led PhD studies. In doing so, I hope to speak to two audiences: students undertaking practice-led PhD study, and colleagues mentoring these students through their journey. I hope to help both audiences step back from their immediate experience and see their progress as different points on a similar journey.
The Call to Adventure: charting a map
Once upon a time our hero stands in her normal world and heeds a call to adventure. What is that thing over there?
I was wary of what the spotlight of a PhD might do to my design practice. I wasn’t entirely sure about what my practice was. I had studied architecture, then applied the conceptual skills gained from that study to music, performance, and interactive media throughout the 1990s. In the early 2000s I found myself an academic and Interaction Designer with what I thought was a unique take on the field, and a network to help me understand some of the hidden motivations and forces this new professional field was experiencing. I didn’t want to lose the practical aspects of my design practice to the academy, yet I knew that it is essential to move through stages of instinctual ability to explicit capability during the course of a PhD.
Often you move backwards, to outflank a blockage or aspect of your practice that resists examination. In fact, backwards isn’t exactly correct — many of the moves particularly in the early stages of a PhD are orthogonal to your practice. You’re making progress, but not in a direction that’s practically apparent.
You’re gaining altitude, looking for that helicopter view of things, charting a map of your field. You’re also learning there are such things as fields, and that fields are contested, created by relationships of power and status as much as by history and technology. One way to think of this stage is that you’re building a map, because you’ll need to find its limits and leave them if you’re to ever find the change you’re seeking.
This is important at the outset: you need to want to change the world.
Even just a little part of it. Even if it’s just your understanding of a little part of the world. Change runs through the middle of design, and it’s no coincidence that you’ll find change a constant partner in a practice-led design PhD. You need to be passionately invested in your quest, because there are challenges ahead, and not the kind you’re prepared for.
That would be too easy.
Meeting with the Mentor
“The function of the mentor is to prepare the hero to face the unknown”
— Christopher Vogler
Supervisor, Committee, Professor, Industry Partner. The practice-led PhD has many forms of mentor, and you need to find one if you’re ever going to make it across the threshold and back again. I remember my supervisor talking about “taking the high road” — like it was something I wasn’t on.
On reflection, I suspect this was said in an effort to plant the model of a “high road” in my mind so that I might take it on my return. At this stage I already understood my PhD as a journey, I just had no idea it was a round trip. We’ll discuss this later, after The Swamp.
Crossing the Threshold
Our hero looks across the threshold, into the unknown. Off the map. Eager to get there, but she needs to get past the Guardians.
At RMIT University we have formalised some aspects of this stage and have called it the “Confirmation of Candidature”. Jokes about its religious nature abound. This is the first Threshold in your journey: being released to seek your fortune and fate. The challenge here is to align yourself with the rationality of the academy, when everyone knows you’re about to leave its protective walls and start making it all up as you go. Your Mentors will all have been here before. They all know what it’s like to be in the state you’re in, even if they’re not entirely sure about what you’re going to do.
By this stage you should have a map of the territory you want to explore. Your Mentors want to know the direction you’ll set out on, and they’ve got a pretty good sense of what you think you’ll encounter before you hit the edge of the map. They’re largely interested in knowing if you’ll make it off the map and — once there — whether you’ll return alive.
Threshold Guardians — friend & foe
This first Threshold between the Ordinary and the Special World can also be seen as a shift from the known to the unknown.
At this Threshold, our hero is tested by Guardians, another useful archetypal character to bring to the practice-led PhD discourse.
What is the role of a Guardian? What do they stand guard against? Vogler characterises different narrative roles played by Guardians, ranging from a threat to be vanquished, a special power to be integrated by our Hero, to a Mentor-in-waiting.
Models of Guardian inside the academy — particularly with respect to the PhD — include the formal Opponent of some PhD models, panellists of RMIT’s Practice Research Symposia, examiners, and often one or more established contributors to the field with differing approaches to yours.
Tests, allies, enemies
Across the first Threshold, our hero is beset by tests, joined by allies, and unmasks enemies.
In a practice-led PhD, you need to locate yourself with respect to the map — that you just left — and the new fields you’re now discovering. Who are you like, who are you not like, who’s going to help you? Who will be your allies on this stage of the quest? Who do you want to vanquish, or just steer clear of? Where are the boundary objects, and how do they help you pass — or skirt — the tests?
The Ordeal, The Swamp, and The Abyss
Schön talks about The Swamp. Campbell’s monomyth describes The Abyss. Vogler’s hero endures The Ordeal. They’re all the same thing, and it’s useful to have a range of frames for the state you find yourself in when confusion, fear and despair set in.
Everything is everything. Nothing makes sense. The map you’ve created looks like a serial killer’s collage. You’re in deep, head underwater, struggling to see how you’ll keep your practice together, let alone deliver something back to the academy.
also, you’re nearly there
It’s during this point that you’ll start to see how useful the word “useful” is.
For instance, The Swamp is really useful here. You’ve found your way into a messy, ill-defined and scary morass of ideas, theories, practices, fields, forces, pressures, emotions and opinions. The only way is forward, and you’re off the map. At least you think you are. Oh yeah, and your compass doesn’t seem to work anymore.
Schön’s Swamp frames The Abyss as a place you need to pass through, a set of increasingly complex interconnections and relationships between the forces that sent you here and the forces you’ve encountered since setting off. The Swamp can only be found off the map.
you’re almost there
The good thing about The Abyss is that it’s quiet. If you let it be. You can think differently here, away from the noise of the Ordinary World. I like to frame RMIT’s twice-yearly graduate critique & reviews as semi-formalised ways of making room for the kind of slow thinking that Daniel Kahneman describes in his 2011 book Thinking, fast and slow.
This kind of explicit reflective thinking is difficult to do as a regular part of practice, whereas a practice-led PhD is the perfect way to develop this capability.
To be fair — all research is a jump across an Abyss. The thing to remember is that a “deductive” or “inductive” abyss is quite different from an “abductive” one.
Abductive sensemaking — well described by Jon Kolko in his 2010 article Sensemaking and framing: A theoretical reflection on perspective in design synthesis, is literally a jump into the unknown. When we embark on a quest to create new knowledge in a field using this mode of rationality, we’re already starting with The Swamp in mind. This brings a key difference, one of the secrets to practice-led research: in the middle of The Swamp, where you find yourself neck deep in the mire, it comes to you as a whisper…
You need to design your way out of this situation.
You need to design your way out of a problem space the PhD puts you in. Yes, the practice-led PhD is (just) an elaborate game to position you in a situation that requires you to think and act differently. To break your normal.
Embrace it. It’s terrifying, but it’s also the only way you’re ever getting back.
Resurrection: transformation and the road back
You’ve looked into The Abyss, traversed The Swamp, faced your demons and achieved transformation. Or not.
Either way, the aim is that you’ve learned, you’ve changed and you emerge from The Swamp with new powers that you must now bring back across the Threshold of Knowing. From the unknown, back to the known, the world that you left behind.
It’s useful to begin with this return in mind, before you set out. Reminding yourself about why you need to describe things while you’re thinking about them, not just after you’ve worked them out. Why you need to describe how you’re going about an experiment, not just its result. Why you need to get more and more comfortable with reflection in action, not just reflection on actions.
All of this builds your new practice, and will help you in your next task, which is where the grokking comes.
Design practice rarely sends us clients who are itching to reframe their assumptions, take things up a level (or three), or constantly question their approach. This is shifting a little as design becomes more aligned with fields like management, capabilities like leadership, and situations like organisational change — but still only slightly.
Traditional design practices can quickly become a prisoner of their own success, taking insights gained through smaller experimental projects and rendering them into fixed processes and approaches that can scale to the types of projects that monographs are built around.
This is fine — if the aim is to produce monographs, or win awards — and there’s more than enough room for this kind of design practice to go around. This kind of practice is relatively safe (see Figure2). This kind of practice is not what you build a practice-led PhD on, because this kind of practice doesn’t include you in the design problem.
Your practice-led PhD isn’t about carving off a safe piece of knowledge and becoming an expert in it.
A practice-led PhD is about becoming aware of your becoming. It’s about pushing through the hyper-analysis that a technical rationalist stance can bring to your work. It’s about transcending the navel-gazing state of reflection that undisciplined thinking about your practice may impose. It’s about forgetting that you’re on a path — so that you can get lost enough.
It’s about waking up one evening & realising “I’m in The Swamp!”
The key here is to let this change you. The challenge here is to concentrate on what the swamp is telling you, not on getting out. This sounds easy, but there’s actually a good reason why we don’t see a lot of commercial clients who are brave enough to go here.
Transformation is a difficult change to self-initiate. One way of framing the practice-led PhD is that it contrives the circumstances within which you have a greater chance of achieving meaningful and positive transformation of your practice.
To do this, you need to change yourself. To do this you need to listen for what the abyss tells you, when it looks back.
Return with the Elixir
You’ll return from beyond the edge of the map with gifts that few can immediately recognise, particularly those who’ll benefit most from them.
You now need to learn how to tell the story of your new gifts, without resorting to your story of how you came by them. Time to don that Ordinary World rationality again, because you’re going to need to make sense to people who can’t go on your journey, even if they wanted to.
This is the point that Vogler’s model ends, and Campbell’s monomyth has this final stage, particularly relevant for the practice-led PhD.
You didn’t think it was over yet, did you?
Once our hero has returned transformed, with their gifts for the Ordinary World, Campbell describes their ability to inhabit two worlds at once. Be they the inner and outer world, the known and unknown — or any other duality — our hero finds herself able to integrate previously irreconcilable rationalities. She finds herself back at the beginning of the cycle, with new powers of action and perception.
You’ve been able to spend precious time in the wilderness. You’ve made your own map of rationality, your own language and models of why things work the way they do. It was quiet there, and you were able to think differently about your practice for perhaps the first time in ages.
You positioned yourself in a corner and then designed your way out, learning how to see your new powers in practice from afar. You’ve returned to noisy normality and convinced everyone that these things you saw really exist, and that they’re useful in the Ordinary World.
Now you need to find a way to integrate your new powers and perspective with the existing normal of the Ordinary World. As the monomyth describes, you need to master the two worlds.
This is what I grokked. Not the critical incident and the word (forensic) that eventually became part of how I described my contribution to knowledge. Not the methods that I used to design my way out of the problem my PhD had led me to. Not the new capability that the PhD helped me develop. No.
What I grokked just now — as I sit here writing this for you — is the cyclical nature of explicit and disciplined reflective practice, particularly that the cycle extends far further into the future than it does into the past.
Campbell’s monomyth and Vogler’s journey highlight extrinsic and intrinsic motivations that researchers face during the course of undertaking a practice-led PhD. This lens also helps us to see the PhD as a network of human capability development, where we may play the role of hero, mentor, guardian, and helper interchangeably — often at the same time — in different interlinked narratives.
I learn from my journey through The Swamp, and subsequently mentor my PhD students and colleagues to face their Abyss and — hopefully — return transformed to begin the next cycle. As a lens, Campbell’s monomyth has helped me to integrate the worlds of the hero and the mentor, to sustain a practice that grows in interest and inquiry.
As a lens, the Hero’s Journey can help us to guide others and ourselves through repeated journeys to The Swamp, and back again.
…just remember what they say about lenses:
“…no matter what lens you use, everything you see through that lens is actually there.”
Donella Meadows — Thinking in systems: a primer (2008)
Thank you to my mentors — Soumitri Varadarajan for the high road, Linda Brennan for the turning, Dave Gray for the Hero’s Journey, and Laurene Vaughan for (repeatedly) showing me how to put it all together.
A version of this piece was originally published in the fabulous collection of essays titled Practice-Based Research, edited by Prof. Laurene Vaughan, and published by Bloomsbury Publishing. The book is a great overview of the diverse approaches taken to integrate design practice and research. If you’ve liked this piece — I suggest having a look at this book.
Campbell, J. (1968). The hero with a thousand faces (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Heinlein, R. A. (1961). Stranger in a strange land. New York: Penguin Publishing Group.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow (1st ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Kolko, J. (2010, July). Sensemaking and framing: A theoretical reflection on perspective in design synthesis. Paper presented at the conference of Design Research Society, Montreal. Retrieved from http://www.jonkolko.com/writingSensemaking.php.
Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: a primer. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Schön, D. A. (1990). Educating the reflective practitioner: toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions. Jossey-Bass.
Vogler, C. (1998). The writer’s journey: Mythic structure for writers (2nd ed.). Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions.