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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

De Zwart and Richards on Graduate School Isolation

Melissa De Zwart and Bernadette Richards have recently published an article in the QUT Law Review. The title is, Wi-fi in the Ivory tower: Reducing Isolation of the Law PhD Student Through Social Media Networks. A complete, non-paywalled version of the article can be directly downloaded by clicking on this link. Here is the abstract:

Research students no longer need to spend long hours on campus under the gaze of their supervisors. Ubiquitous access to online databases and communication tools means that many PhD students operate in splendid isolation, away from the bustle and distractions of campus life. But this freedom may also bring with it strong feelings of isolation from academic community and peer support. The authors of this study have commenced an inquiry into whether the connectivity and interactivity of social media can provide a vital social lifeline for research students (particularly law students who work largely independently and are not frequently part of large research teams) in order to address these feelings of isolation. The role of social media in shaping academic identity and voice is also addressed. It considers a number of significant UK studies of higher degree by research students and their relevance for Australia and outlines the results of a small pilot survey conducted in an Australian law school.
My initial response to this abstract was that this article presented a solution to a non-problem. The abstract sets up the problem of isolation as being caused by students opting to stay away from campus due to online resources. My reaction: students can solve this problem of isolation by simply venturing onto campus.

Readers of the article should not be necessarily deterred by this abstract, however, since the authors make a much stronger claim for the problem of isolation as the article unfolds. They note that law PhD students tend to be parts of smaller programs, and therefore may have fewer contacts on campus who can provide in-depth feedback on their work. My thoughts on this would be that students could avoid this isolation by choosing a program that has faculty whose research interests are similar to the student's interests -- but I could see how this could be a problem for a student's whose dissertation subject evolves.

I am not familiar with how law PhD programs operate in Australia, but this article provides an interesting perspective. Law programs in the United States generally seem quite extensive, which I think would safeguard against student isolation, since schools will probably have at least several professors whose interests align with most students' scholarly pursuits.

Then again, students who develop interests in specialized areas of law may find that they are at a law school without sufficient faculty resources. For example, I have heard through anecdotal evidence that while UCLA has notably strong Indian law resources, many other law schools may have one or fewer faculty members specializing in the area. Students at those other schools who wish to produce scholarship on Indian law may find that they are isolated in their interests and may need to seek out an alternate academic community.

For US law students who find themselves pursuing specialized scholarly questions, De Zwart and Richards's advice to Australian PhD students might end up being quite useful.

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