Meet Dr Chris Summers, REDI PhD graduate

Chris Summers’ PhD, Floodlights, Flare-ups & Frameworks: Teacher/Playwright (re)staging Pedagogy, Curriculum & Assessment is a unique project that combines the craft and innovation of professional playwriting with the lived experience of secondary school teaching in low-socioeconomic environments. His project interrogated his overlapping identities as a former secondary school teacher and award-winning playwright to dramatically investigate the structural inequities of public secondary education in Australia today. Here, Chris talks about how he used theatre to offer new engagements with entrenched social and educational issues.

Chris Summers

Briefly describe your project and why you chose this topic

I wanted to use my existing skills as a professional playwright, and my experiences as a secondary teacher as part of an apprenticeship-style Initial Teacher Education model (part delivered by Deakin), to explore inequities and structural disadvantages of the public education system. I’d always loved research, so I thought I could offer unique insight – both in terms of my experiences, but also how I planned to communicate them through arts-based research – into issues of teacher training and retention, rurality and urban privilege, socioeconomic status and class, and neoliberal/standardising policy interventions into the work of teachers and learners. I am passionate about the education system being more equitable and meaningful for everyone and believed that my abilities as a playwright/researcher would match the project well.

What were you hoping to achieve?

I wanted to humanise, dramatise and re-interpret challenges in the public education system through a theatrical lens. These are challenges that we are all too aware of, but frequently consign to either the ‘too hard’ or ‘too theoretical’ baskets. I wanted to offer different access points for how we might understand and experience these issues, separate from traditional written/published (and frequently barely read) educational research. I wanted to explore a methodology that might be able to impact people outside of the academy as much as inside; to have a broader application and relevance. I wanted to reassert the power of arts-based research to make people sit with and reflect on complexities that ultimately impact on the lives of all teachers, learners and communities, and to advocate that arts-based approaches are critical and necessary when considering potential pathways forward.

Why did you decide to do your PhD at Deakin?

As part of the research pathway in my MTeach at Deakin, I worked closely with Dr Jo Raphael and Professor Julianne Moss on an early draft of my play, Pedagogy. Through this relationship and my interest in pursuing arts-based research outside of the classroom but staying connected to education, I decided to do my PhD at Deakin and received a scholarship. Jo and Julianne were big believers in my playwriting ability and my interest in using playwriting as research. They saw playwriting as a distinct component of a different qualitative study. Their faith in me doing something quite different (within current arts-based educational research) was a big factor in my decision.

How was your experience with you supervisors?

My supervisors were amazing in giving me space and letting me ‘get on with things’ while also understanding when I needed to be given an appropriate push in the right direction. My PhD years were marred by both COVID and also both my parents being diagnosed with cancer – my father passing in the months before I submitted – but Jo and Julianne were always encouraging and supportive of me in completing in a timely manner. While the ultimate project ended up differently to how it could’ve been had COVID not happened or my family’s issues, Jo and Julianne were tireless in their advocacy for me and making the PhD as good as it could be. I am forever grateful to them – it was a shared experience that, at times, required all three of us to step into the unknown!

What was a highlight of your PhD?

There are so many to note! One highlight was when the trilogy of the plays, Pedagogy, Curriculum and Assessment, were first finished and it was possible to see how their themes and content connected into a coherent, provocative whole. It made everything ‘make sense’ in the haze of lockdowns. Having Jo and Julianne endorse this was thrilling, too. And, honestly, just finishing the PhD, given all of the challenges with COVID and personal circumstances, within the three-and-a-half years was an incredible highlight, too.

Now that you have completed your PhD what are your next steps and challenges

Having created a PhD centred around playscripts, it was strange (though at times interesting!) to not have the works presented live or performed during the PhD process. I wanted to use the power of theatre, but I wasn’t able! While I’ve had the opportunity to present some excerpts and work with these at recent conferences, the next challenge is deciding exactly what to do with them as full-length plays. I am fortunate enough to have secured a full-time lecturing job at another university, but I’m currently exploring how to publish the plays/their exegetical writings, and how to bring them to life. I’m hopeful doing this will really allow them to meet the intended impacts I had at the beginning of the PhD process.

News 31 August 2023