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Against Students

Originally posted on feministkilljoys:

I want to begin by explaining the title of this post. What do I mean by “against students”? By using this expression I am trying to describe a series of speech acts, which consistently position students, or at least specific kinds of students, as a threat to education, to free speech, to civilisation: we might even say, to life itself.  In speaking against students, these speech acts also speak for more or less explicitly articulated sets of values: freedom, reason, education, democracy. These values are identified as requiring the reproduction of norms of conduct that students are themselves failing to reproduce.  Even if that failure is explained as a result of ideological shifts that students are not held responsible for – whether it be neoliberalism, managerialism or a new sexual puritanism – it is in the bodies of students that the failure is located. Students are not transmitting the right message…

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Actors in the Oral: These Characters Need an Author & Audience

In the absence of rigour, exam takers stand-in for standards that come down through the student grapevine.

Students enter their doctoral program with trust.  Students trust that the ministrations, trials and tasks they undertake at great expense of time and effort serve some legitimate learning, teaching or assessment function. Yet the indifference to the plight of students in the department in terms of minimizing time to completion, minimizing attrition or keeping statistics for same, sends a message of indifference, even hostility toward student success in the program.  Ergo, information of program requirements, including the big high stakes pass or fail test, the oral defense, trickles down to students via a student grapevine.

These amusing lines, which are framed in terms of what not to say during the defense, beg the question; how do students learn the standards examined in the oral defense?  The cartoon shows that what you miss out on, you make up in fantasy.  Neither side has a clear idea, that is a valid and reliable idea, about what counts as evidence for a minimal acceptable research achievement in the program during the exam.

In the absence of rigour, exam takers stand-in for standards that come down through the student grapevine.

In the absence of rigour, exam takers stand-in for standards that come down through the student grapevine.

A similar cartoon could be penned for the examiners’ side.   The examiners fantasize their role as gatekeeper and play a game of keep-away.  Examiners ought not to say that they don’t know the minimally acceptable standard, haven’t done inter-rater reliability tests, understand that no one checks their work, haven’t read the dissertation closely, are reprising lines from their last 27 oral defenses etc. Until students and examiners know what counts, the exam remains more a hazing than bona fide assessment instrument.  The examiners play keep away and can take license with it.

Right now, oral exams fit the definition of pornography by the US supreme court judge: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” Also oral exams fit to ‘if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, smells like a duck, then it is a duck’.  If it looks like a gang-up from the middle ages and can get side-lined by the ego needs of an examiner, you’ve got  a religious investiture, an oral exam.

All that very serious toil, tension,and trouble on the candidate’s behalf concludes with a silly piece of theater.   A book reviewer in the Harvard Education Review said doctoral ‘students deserve better’ (2006).  Advocates of graduate school reform call for a student-consumer to demand better and stop paying for this nonsense (Golde 2007, The Responsive PhD, 2008).  Doctoral programs need a consumer audience.

While the Harvard Education Review asserts that students deserve better, Harvard its self recently came under fire for the PhD it awarded to Jason Richwine.   His dissertation concluded that Latinos will never be as smart on IQ tests and used articles by discredited, racist academics like Rushton. Such dissertations get passed by esteemed professors.

Even though Richwine’s dissertation with its racist, ignorant conclusion erupted angry protests on Ivy League campuses, brought in news coverage and earned a spot on The Colbert Show, Harvard still took no responsibility and offered no real explanation or inquiry, aside from appeals for calm and to academic freedom.  One would hope that at Harvard, such a lapse in quality would prompt reflection.  Getting a doctorate from the foremost university in the world for a bad dissertation shows the weaknesses in doctoral programs.  Doctoral programs don’t get fixed.  There is no system of ongoing renewal, although sometimes changes are undertaken, to cave to long decades of neglect.  As noted in the literature on doctoral education (Nettles and Millet, 2006), doctoral education also has no system for quality control.  As a consumer of PhD training, Richwine might have thought that by virtue of completing his dissertation at Harvard, his PhD program would have quality controls.

If Harvard doesn’t control for quality, and this is bizarre, a student consumer group at Harvard ought to demand a system of quality control to prevent another Richwine episode.  Richwine’s degree devalues the Harvard PhD brand and therefore every doctorate earned at Harvard.  Richwine’s degree devalues PhDs.   Doctoral work at Harvard, or elsewhere, can not come down to simplistic statements regarding racial inferiority.  Fix the system of doctoral education.  Without a system to control for quality, beyond the charade of the oral defense, all doctoral programs suffer from the same weakness.

Too bad Western Governor’s University doesn’t provide PhDs.  Western Governor’s University anchors its degrees to discernible competencies.  Imagine a doctoral program with clear criteria for assessment and that would be a WGU PhD.   The department wouldn’t need the student to make up standards, or improvise, and sub-standards like Richwine would be detected.  The characters involved in the degree get an author.

Until then, Watts (2012) has written about how to prepare for a romp in the wild west the viva.   Adding to Watts’ advice, students must not be so stupid as to ask what makes the exam a reliable and valid assessment.  Students are well served to remember that even if the assessment is quackery, hold your nose, suppress the urge to vomit and quack.  The hard-earned degree and personal sacrifice is not at all diminished by the bogus exam, the decades of neglect, inaction, and lack of attention or the lack of quality control.

Even though roughly only 30% of PhDs work in the academy, and even in ‘professional’ doctorates like the EdD which aim outside the ivory tower, the exam focuses on scholarship.   Changes to shorten doctoral programs in the humanities at the University of California, Irvine resulted in greater consumer demand (that is more applicants) even early on.  Yet these programs aren’t fixed; they still end in an oral defense for all their lofty ambition.  Consumer-group action can send a message to doctoral program providers that shortening the program is no substitute for considering the function of every aspect.  The characters need the attention of an author and an audience.

Doctorateness Differs from The Doctorate


Regardless of discipline, all scholars are alike.  All scholars embody a quality called ‘doctorateness’.  Doctorateness pivots attention to knowledge its self, to concern with assertions of knowledge.  How would assessment differ if programs examined candidates for ‘doctorateness’ as opposed to whatever an oral defense examines?  How would examiners recognize doctorateness?

Blink is a book about expert recognition.  Experts assess very reliably, in a blink.  For example, via long experience, a mental health practitioner learns to spot schizophrenia almost at a glance.  Gladwell, who wrote Blink, explains the capacity for expert recognition via thin slicing, expert sampling of relevant aspects that come together as a pattern.  Experience shapes an expert’s mind to pick up on the clusters that make for instant recognition.

Let’s liken all doctoral candidates nominated to complete formal research training, to novice experts whose education has clustered together qualities that together make-up the pattern called ‘doctorateness’.   How would assessment of doctorateness work?  To say that doctoral work pushes the boundaries of knowledge simplifies and fails to account for work that splices together disciplines or  reconfigures existing knowledge.   A myth persists that those pursuing the doctorate spot gaps in knowledge or push the frontiers of knowledge out like this:

Is this really the way knowledge works, pushing against the rim of the circle?

Is this really the way knowledge expands, pushing against the rim of the circle?

The job of doctoral education becomes finding the bump-out expansion to the circle or gap, which is then assessed in the viva.  Sometimes doctoral researchers, like academic researchers, come up with very novel, new ideas that can not be described as a gap or bump.

In the blog post, My Viva, Stephen Downes, answers questions that commonly come up in a viva.   Even if the questions are known, the weighting and scoring of questions and the verbal characteristics examiners want to see are a mystery to both the candidate and the examiners.  A fly on the wall at the post exam conference would not likely see a careful deliberation and scoring of each question.  Instead examiners are more likely to use expert recognition assessment as in Blink and note imperfections to the text.

Downes departed doctoral study before the oral defense.  Yet even without the exam, his career and prodigious output signal doctorateness. Read his scathing critique of this dubious research.  Note his analysis includes both the methodology of the study and its politics.  His critique is the stuff of academic discernment.

What if when ‘doctorateness’ registers consistently through many interactions that are kept in a portfolio, the award was given? To confer the degree based on a sample of one solitary research project/academic effort, fails to meet the criteria for reliability and validity or mirror academia; the vast majority of publications come from collaborations between academics.

Since departing doctoral study, Downes shows his doctorateness in his analysis in his daily newsletter, in his development of a new learning theory (connectivism) and in the ongoing experiment he co-started, which gave the world the MOOC.  He is also a polymath and likely many polymaths show academic know-how.

The  ‘original contribution’ to knowledge as determined by the bump out or gap-filling idea may or may not overlap with doctorateness.  Downes, with his incessant output, has likely had a greater impact on the field of education and academia than the other students in his program who got the PhD.  In 2014, at least five dissertations about MOOCs garnered PhDs. In failing to incubate and nurture his potential for contribution and get him through, the doctoral program he was in failed him.  Yet his long years as a doctoral student in philosophy, imparted habits of mind that cluster and read as doctorateness, even if he is a polymath.

Downs can certainly hold his own and then some with any academic in the fields that interest him.  He went toe to toe with the brilliant and esteemed Diana Laurillaird from the University of London, Learning Lab.  Without an academic post at a university or a PhD, he’s engaged with academic questions.  In leaving his doctoral program before completing, he’s like the late entertainer Robin Williams.  Robin Williams left The Julliard School before completing all required credits.  His career showed that he didn’t need those last few courses even though his Julliard training fueled his many distinguished performances.

Although universities hire almost exclusively those with the doctorate credential, they also hire the likes of a Stephen Downes who has made important contributions, influenced academic discourse and is a much in demand key-note speaker throughout the globe despite missing the three magic letters. A Google Scholar search of Stephen Downes turns up many publications with citations in the thousands, well ahead of many PhD teachers/supervisors.  Downes could be granted a PhD through the PhD by publication path or maybe PhD by doctorateness path which has yet to be created.

A doctoral program that examined for doctorateness would look for indicators that express a turn of mind toward knowledge assertions and knowledge production.  Doctorateness can be faked, like Benedict Cumerbatch in The Imitation Game or Eddie Redmond/Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything.  It is ephemeral but real.   Anyway if assessment shifted away from the unreliable instrument of the oral defense, students couldn’t fake it just by practicing answering questions commonly found in an oral exam in the tone of doctorateness.

In WWII, the British military enlisted this ephemeral quality to fight the enemy.  The military recruited academics of all stripes to make sense of aerial photographs brought back by their spy planes.  Academic know-how came into play in analyzing these extra-disciplinary artifacts. The academics recruited developed knowledge about the photographs upon which the military could rely.   Of course they worked together as academics do, playing off each other, arguing, testing and in so doing advancing sound knowledge.   In them, the UK developed that oxymoron called military intelligence.  The military was not so intelligent to act on information about concentration camps that also came out in aerial photographs.

What if, as a test of doctorateness, a forward thinking faculty of graduate studies brought together all their completing doctoral candidates to make sense of aerial photographs taken by second world war British spy planes?  Most academics work closely with others, save in social sciences and humanities doctoral programs, so this test would more closely mirror the way academics work.

Given the problems with the viva as a robust assessment instrument, the defense is more akin to an initiation ritual.  The inductee becomes like ‘a made man’, in Mafia terms, and joins an elite cartel, made up historically of Euro-rooted, white men.  The cartel reluctantly admits new members.  A new doctorate threatens existing members via competition in academia.

If the PhD were simply about doctorateness, then the ‘throw em in the deep end (and let half drown) metaphor’ of doctoral programs could be exchanged for an incubator with a high hatch rate.  Those like Stephen Downes tell doctorateness without a dissertation, an oral exam or a PhD.  Perhaps, his former program would confer the degree now based on a career that clearly belongs to and exceeds many in the academy.  He succeeded despite the problems in his PhD program.  He succeeded without getting a cushy academic post.   He succeeded without relinquishing himself to obscurity in self-blame for ‘failing’ to become a made man.  He would be an excellent teacher of doctorateness.

Version Control; or, What does it Mean to “Publish?”


How should doctoral programs and scholarly societies address the issues of publication in a digital age?

Originally posted on The Scholarly Kitchen:

Draft fragment of Declaration of Independence Fragment of an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, including Thomas Jefferson’s edits. Image via US Library of Congress.

The Oxford English Dictionary’soverarching definition of the transitive verb “publish” is “to make public.” An early use, dating to 1382 is “to prepare and issue copies of (a book, newspaper, piece of music, etc.).” This is probably how most publishers think of the term: public distribution of a text. In usage dating from 1573, however, the item in question and the manner of its distribution is more expansively conceived: “to make generally accessible or available for acceptance or use . . . to present to or before the public;” in more specialized (and obviously more recent) use “to make public . . . through the medium of print or the internet.”

Recent contretemps in history, covered by The Chronicle of Higher Education and featured in an unusual forum…

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Is that all there is? Ph D by publication

What strikes me much more strongly than the lack of comparison between models is the lack of comparison within models. Someone writes a thesis; two people examine it in the viva (the two people, including the external, appointed by the host institution). The two people come to a view. That, pretty much, is it. In the academic world, at least, huge weight is accorded to doctoral qualifications, yet the whole process of awards is so unaudited, so open to arbitrariness, so lax in its procedures: it beggars belief. People treat the doctoral award as some sort of universal standard but I can see no grounds to support that assumption. Anthony Haynes April 21, 2013 on Patter..

Ph D by publication

What do doctoral supervisors, pre-school teachers and Indigenous cultures share?

What do Doctoral Supervisors, Pre-School Teachers and Indigenous People Share?  Learning by self-teaching in a rich culture.

If learning in doctoral work comes from self-teaching, then how ought the doctoral supervisor to teach?  To complete an original contribution to knowledge, heutagogy, or self-teaching becomes both the central teaching and learning process of the research trainee.

In another post, Plight of the Accidental Scholar, an intense curiosity leads to intensive self-teaching (aka learning) via the mechanisms of scholarship to paint Tim’s Vermeer.  Scholarship is not the goal but the by-product and tool to explore answers to a question.  An incidental scholar, Tim Jenison learns everything he needs to know on a need-to-know basis.  Jenison follows his curiosity taking time to read deeply in order to fully understand.  After some trial and error, he tests his hypothesis via a reconstruction of the exact setting of a Vermeer painting.  More than five years later, Jenison draws conclusions to his investigation which is couched as a contribution to the literature.  If he wanted to, Jenison could follow-up with another study.

Scholarship was an accident of search for an explanation for Tim Jenison.  Here he tries out a solution before setting up his simulation of Vermeer's painting.Any pedagogy a supervisor uses, the doctoral researcher can use too, as self-help.  In their book Supervising the Doctorate, the writers comment, with some guilt and admiration, about a student who like Jenison, proceeds to completion with little ‘supervision.’  A doctoral education outputs a scholar, aka a self-teacher, student of a discipline and learner, who uses scholarship to contribute to a literature.

Doctoral supervisors guide a learner through a critical passage to take on the apparatus of scholarship. The excellent book Helping Doctoral Students to Write: Pedagogies for Supervision (Thomson & Kamler, 2006) would benefit doctoral students as much as supervisors. When I was putting together a research proposal, I read the first couple of chapters of this book.  It really helped me to understand how to write the literature review.  If heutagogy is the overarching principle of supervision in a research program, maybe the Thomson & Kamler text would reach it’s intended audience better if repackaged as a self-help book for doctoral students.

Heutagogies of Supervision Picnic Poster

In keeping with heutagogy as the overarching method of learning, doctoral students support a vast publishing industry for self-help with the doctorate.  Self-help and self-teaching fuel the doctoral learner.  With the paucity of research about research training, doctoral self-help books even show up in the articles and bibliographies of academic research about the doctorate.

What if Thomson & Kamler’s book was titled Helping Doctoral Students to Write: Heutagogies for Supervision?  Ironically, the title sounds pedantic.  A supervisor trusts in the black box of heutagogy, about which so little is known that the word heutagogy only entered the language in the last two decades, whereas the word pedagogy has been around since the Greeks.

What would a Heutagogies of Supervision text discuss?  A heutagogies of supervision would likely be about academic writing groups, exemplars, co-constructed rubrics and program requirements to achieve some milestones in an academic passage; a presentation at a conference, writing an article or blog post in a MAAB (Multi-Author Academic Blog) or entering a three minute thesis contest.  Above all a heutagogy for supervision text would impart ideas to create a positive, nurturing and affirming culture in the department, program, academic society and faculty.

All academics are heutagogues, so are young children and so were learners in the pre-contact Indigenous world.  Heutagogy propels all of these learners forward.  Before the age of five, a child learns a language with nothing in the way of formal instruction.  However if the child’s environment, contains rich language streams through song, books, poetry, play, and oral traditions; the child’s grasp and mastery of language will be enhanced and enriched.

All of the vast knowledge of the Indigenous world, passed between generations via heutagogy.  Learning to survive in the frozen wasteland of a Canadian winter, in a snake infested jungle, or bone dry desert, was entrusted to the self-direction of the learner and to the culture.

The doctoral learner, like many in the Indigenous world, even passes through a rite of passage, the oral defense, intended to introduce a new member to the other side, of contributor and knowledge keeper.  As the oral defense lacks the markings of a bona fide assessment instrument in terms of its robustness, the oral defense has more in common with a rite of passage than an exam.

Trust in heutagogy frames supervision, the Indigenous world, and pre-school teaching.  When it comes to supervision, less is more. The doctoral supervisor trusts self-leading teaching to happen.   One of the best ways for a supervisor to enhance supervision would be to talk about heutagogy with the learner and to explain that a non-directive approach to supervision is appropriate for the work of scholarship.

An exploration of the way a doctoral supervisor and a kindergarten or nursery teacher work, sheds light on some of the conditions of heutagogy.  A pre-school teacher takes great pains to get the environment right, to observe, and to stimulate.  Learners get set loose to explore their interests.  The non-directive ‘teaching’ during play deepens, extends, and supports the learner and the learning.  The learner is free to deeply engage, to set challenges, and to work things out.

As much as doctoral researchers suffer the burden of working through a project of original research, the doctoral project still challenges and engages the researcher with an adult fascination akin to the intense satisfaction of play in kindergarten.  How fitting that schooling gets book-ended by some innate inner flame to learn, to challenge, and to grow.

Happy 350th Scholarly Journal: What Can Doctoral Programs Learn From Your History?

Did Oldenburg and Boyle and other members of the Royal Society of London for Natural Philosophy have any idea how the prototype journal would evolve?

On the 350th anniversary of the scholarly journal, changes to scholarly communication call for incorporation of new vehicles and methods of communication in doctoral education.   On March 6, 1655, Henry Oldenburg published The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Giving some Account of the present Undertakings, Studies, and Labour of the Ingenious in Many Considerable Parts of the World; the first scholarly journal. In 1660,The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge, had brought together natural philosophers by royal charter. 

Oldenburg’s publication evolved to its present day counterpart, which now gives account of the studies of the Ingenious and leaves out their present undertakings and labour.  Improving natural knowledge meant study of an indivisible realm which encompassed botany, mathematics, zoology, physiology, chemistry, physics, geology, geography and so on.  Imagine improvement of knowledge without scientific disciplinary divisions and journals.  That was scholarship in 1660.

Oldenburg assembled the literature of the royal society into a publication both to speed up sharing of knowledge, which had until now occurred through letter writing and meetings, and to make some money

Robert Boyle, the scientist whom school children now learn about, was a member of the society and he wanted Oldenburg to archive, develop provenance, registration and dating of works published in the journal.   Accordingly Oldenburg marked the articles published in Philosophical Transactions, however he didn’t make much money.   Even so, acceptance for publication conferred recognition and became sought after with the added features of archiving and tracking of provenance.

The motto of the society “Nullius in Verba” meant don’t trust claims (but check them) and entrenched the scholarly habit of skepticism and independent thought, associated with the charter for the first university in Bologna in 1088.  In 1752, when the publishing of Philosophical Transactions was getting off point, the society righted its self and declared that the journal would from now on be published ‘for the sole use and benefit of the (royal) society.’  The society therefore asserted integrity for the scholarly brand that continued to confer recognition to natural philosophers of the works it published.  The society established a pedigree of the highest order for its membership, a pedigree associated with a lengthy list of scientific achievements.

At times during its history, Philosophical Transactions was a drain on the finances of the society with the cost to put scientific drawings to print.  Given that the technology of printing then facilitated type and drawings or diagrams required much more labour and therefore cost, the publication struggled.  Taylor & Francis was a specialist printer for the publication at one point, and evolved along with other technological and academic developments in the knowledge communication infrastructure to occupy its present perch as a major player in the now lucrative business of scholarly publications.

As scholarly transactions increased, the journal evolved the standards and specifications for communication of scientific knowledge.  By the late 19th century, it introduced standardization of format, better peer review of articles, and it split into two journals, one for biological sciences and one for physical sciences.

In Latin, 'nullius in verba.'

In Latin, ‘nullius in verba.’

In the history of scholarship, certain threads continue over the centuries, while existing technology supports the root purpose of scholarship, ‘nullius in verba.’  Today, the multiple author academic blog (MAABs) and new genres of scholarly knowledge production give new forms, venues and meaning to publication.  MAABs disrupt and undercut publication pathways to specialty journals which now takes too long, is too slow, and too verbose when a good graphic or video will do.

Scholarly communication continues to evolve and influence the nature of scholarship.  With the inter, cross, and trans discipline pollination just beginning in MAABS, will ‘disciplines’ continue to become broader and more hybrid?  Will students and scholars join together to study phenomena instead of disciplines?  How will the scholars of the future communicate?  What kind of communication skills should doctoral programs impart?  How much should doctoral programs encourage forms of scholarly communication outside of the journal article and print?

Doctoral programs should welcome and invite disciplinary promiscuity and a broadening of experience with new forms of  scholarly communications by:

  •  A requirement that doctoral students write in a multidisciplinary academic blog.
  • Grouping all students who will be using similar research methods together for research methods courses regardless of discipline.
  • Encouraging collaborative and networked research around a common phenomena like water use, aggression, change or garbage.
  • Experimenting with signature pedagogies from other disciplines.

Scholars working today incorporate new media for scholarly communication that tear at disciplinary barriers.  Imagine improvement of knowledge without disciplinary distinctions or journals.  That could be scholarship in the future.  Doctoral education needs to equip its grads to work in the scholarship of the future or loose credibility.  On this 350th anniversary, scholarship has come full circle back to another starting point.  Doctoral education needs to place its graduates at that starting point and needs to question everything.

See the history of copyright battles are writ small in the following chart of access to the publications of Philosophical Transactions.

a) 1665-1943* Free in perpetuity
b) 1944*-2003* under access control
c) 2004*-2 years ago Free
d) Last 2 years under access control
Each January the years with an * will move forward by one


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