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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

Fear Not the Oral Exam Kermit Wannabe PhD, Examiners for Harvard Would Pass Thee

Kermit is ready to storm the Ivory Tower armed with a high tech laser light sword to fight off the Committee who would turn him back.

What delightful silliness.

Evidently the committee doesn’t know or credit Kermit with a research proposal and a lit review done under the guidance of a supervisor.  All they know is he wants to be one of them and he’s gonna have to defend against their assault to get a PhD, just like they did.  So defend your work Kermit.

Kermit, like other PhD wannabes before him, doesn’t have experience or preparation with high stakes oral exams. The exam will prime him to deliver dramatics to another hopeful PhD wannabe later in his career.

The committee might let Kermit pass when he doesn’t deserve to pass.  See the tale of Jason Richwine’s Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy doctoral committee who gave him a pass and later refused responsibility for passing his dissertation linking race and IQ.

“The dissertation was approved, as all dissertations are, by a committee of three. The chair was George Borjas, an conservative economist who writes about immigration for National Review and The Wall Street Journal. Borjas told Slate’s David Weigel, “I have never worked on anything even remotely related to IQ, so don’t really know what to think about the relation between IQ, immigration, etc.… In fact, as I know I told Jason early on since I’ve long believed this, I don’t find the IQ academic work all that interesting.” Not exactly an endorsement of the dissertation.”

Why is Borjas on the committee if he has never worked on anything even remotely related to IQ?  In some oral exams, the chair of the committee is not required to read the dissertation.   Is Borjas not responsible for the exam outcome because he merely chaired the proceedings?  What exactly are the responsibilities of every member of the committee?  Who checks the correctness of the examiners?

“The second person on the committee was Richard Zeckhauser. He studies investing, not immigration, and his Harvard faculty website describes him as “a senior principal at Equity Resource Investments (ERI), a special situations real estate firm.” He said “Jason’s empirical work was careful,” but that he was “too eager to extrapolate his empirical results to inferences for policy.”

So why did Examiner Zeckhauser give Richwine a pass?  Why is he an on the examining committee for Richwine if he identifies himself primarily as a guru of specialty real estate investments?

“The third member of the committee is the big surprise, and the big problem: Christopher Jencks, for decades a leading figure among liberals who did serious research on inequality—a contributor to The New York Review of Books, the author of important books, including Inequality: Who Gets Ahead?, The Homeless and The Black White Test Score Gap. Christopher Jencks knows exactly what’s wrong with the studies purporting to link “race” with “IQ.

Examiner number three, Jencks would not give a public comment when asked.  The italicized text above comes from the article, Why did Harvard Give a Ph D for a Discredited Approach Linking Race and IQ? by Jon Weiner in The Nation in May of 2013.

The writer doesn’t answer the question he asks: Why Did Harvard Give Richwine a PhD?  Did the committee members just phone it in trusting in the shepherding work of Richwine’s Harvard supervisor?  Since the story broke teachers in doctoral programs have examined Richwine’s dissertation and commented that it fails the test for a sound and robust research project.  So why did Richwine’s supervisor advance the process?  Why did none of the checkpoints stop this work from going forward?

There is no academic literature on oral exams, or on the deliberations of examiners or approaches to supervision.  For all the literature on test construction, there is none on oral exams.  Oral exams should adhere to the principles of reliability, validity, inter-rater reliability etc., but they don’t because they are more like rites of passage rooted in the traditions of the middle ages. Vivas lack reliability and validity (Watts, 2012); they are not robust assessment instruments as can be seen by the tale of these three examiners for a Harvard PhD.

If the committee did fail Richwine, Richwine could sue and win.  The oral exam lacks credibility as an assessment instrument. The supervisor approved his methodology in his research proposal and he passed an ethics review.  And the credibility of the Harvard Ph D would unravel.

Kermit take solace in Jason Richwine’s experience.  The camel will get through the eye of the Harvard needle; few oral defenses fail, even when they should.  Oral exams are more akin to a Bar Mitzvah than an exam. No one is going to fail you Kermit.  (You could sue.) There now Kermit wannabe PhD, don’t you feel better?


Watts, Jacqueline. H. (20!2)  Preparing doctoral candidates for the viva: Issues for supervisors and students. Journal of Further and Higher Education. 36(3) pp. 371-381.

Beware of Fakers in Graduate Education Modernization: A Cautionary Tale

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) sends out Dr. Joan Frey to take up the important cause of graduate education modernization. (Caution: Dr. Frey and the graduate education modernization initiative are not found on the OSTP website, so maybe this is an internet scam or so unimportant that it is not worthy of a link or search result on the OSTP site.  As no great advantage arises from scamming, the latter may be truest.)

Dr. Frey knows the reasons for modernization, rapid technological change in the 21st century, non-academic career paths, 50 000 PhDs conferred yearly in the United States etc.

Dr. Frey also knows that American graduate education is the envy of the world.

She doesn’t refer to or build upon the success of Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID) or of the work at the University of Minnesota with the Graduate Review and Improvement Process.

She doesn’t know the simple advice from the success of the CID; doctoral programs can undertake modernization via a process of ongoing renewal.

She has not enlisted even American experts in doctoral education.

She doesn’t refer to the scant literature in doctoral education, although she is familiar with the time to completion problem.

She doesn’t want to mess too much with the graduate education for fear of lengthening time to completion.

Why the selective pedagogical amnesia?

American graduate education is the envy of the world.  So OSTP will take a long wind-up approach and organize a committee to strike a committee and meanwhile graduate education modernization can wait.  If it ain’t complete broke down, don’t fix it.

Without graduate education modernization will the American graduate school go the way of the American car industry?  Foreign car makers used American management ideas from business academics to challenge the dominance of the American car industry.  Meanwhile Detroit still suffers from the corporate culture problems American business literature (and the car buying consumer) derides as consumers flock to more ethical and responsive car makers.

Could American graduate education go the way of the American car maker?

Could American graduate education go the way of the American car maker?

Graduate schools compete for students in a graduate education marketplace replete with for-profit universities and open admission policies.  In this context, the graduate education consumer is queen.

With the (non)leadership of the OSTP, the dominance of the American graduate school could go the way of the  American car industry.   A consumer’s choice advantage should flow to a university that modernizes graduate education.  The University of Minnesota is the one to watch.   Via its Graduate Review and Improvement Process (GRIP), University of Minnesota hopes to catapult ahead in reputational rankings and graduate education consumer demand.   OSTP will come following after.  For graduate education modernization leadership look elsewhere.

Ten Years on: How Helpful was the Carnegie Initiative to Rethinking Doctoral Education for the 21st Century?

Unprecedented numbers of doctoral students, new hybrid disciplines and digital investigative technologies in 21st century research cry out for a corresponding catch-up to doctoral education.  Unfortunately, doctoral education escaped the knowledge explosion.  In retrospect, The Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate (CID) as described in the book The Formation of Scholars: Rethinking Doctoral Education for the 21st Century (2007) just missed the mark in equipping doctoral education to equal the demands of the 21st century.   For example, one miss is the message of the CID that with a 21st century doctoral education a ‘steward of a discipline’ ought to emerge.

The five authors of the book who also facilitated the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate.  Chris Golde is in the middle.

The five authors of the book who also facilitated the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate. Chris Golde is in the middle.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching funds initiatives to advance the performance of education systems by building their capacity to improve.  The CID failed to advance the performance of the system of doctoral education by sticking in outcomes like disciplinary stewardship and by not building systemic capacity for improvement within doctoral programs during the CID.

‘Ongoing renewal’ would be the bumper sticker of the CID.  Judging from the CID Collections website which features submissions from the 80 participating programs in six disciplines, and the book, CID participation built capacity for renewal. (This example from Duke shows the initiatives of a History PhD program).

To support ongoing renewal after the CID, participating programs made up lists of unanswered questions.   In 2005, the mathematics program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, posted the following excellent unanswered questions to complete a CID assignment.

Unanswered Questions

  • How can we best poll current students and recent grads about the effectiveness of our initiatives?
  • Have we made sufficient adjustments to our Ph.D. requirements to accommodate students seeking interdisciplinary degrees?
  • What other ways can we include collaborative learning into the program? (I.e., through cross-disciplinary experience, and experiences for those interested in careers in government or industry)

Were these questions answered?

The CID might have required that programs post updates to unanswered questions along with new unanswered questions to instill an incentive for ongoing renewal.  Instead the CID collections website features only work done for the CID.

Better yet the CID might have started-up scholarship of doctoral education with an open-access, (student-edited?) journal like The Journal of Ongoing Renewal of Carnegie Initiative Doctoral Programs. This would also help fill in the vacancies in journals of doctoral education. There is but one journal of doctoral studies.  Good scholarship generates more questions, investigations, sharing, publications and conferences.  Ongoing scholarship of doctoral education spurs ongoing renewal.

The book provides many great examples and insights into renewal yet it fails to complete its primary task: to make the process of rethinking a part of doctoral education.  The book shows how the CID made doctoral education more aligned and responsive to changes of the 21st century, but fails to show doctoral programs how to make renewal automatic and ingrained.

What ingredients for ongoing renewal did emerge from the CID?

1. Initially an expert in doctoral education sets the wheels in motion.  Chris Golde, a leading scholar in doctoral education, set a course for the CID that none of the programs alone or other facilitators could generate.  Without her setting the right tone for the team, the themes and tasks, the CID may have floundered. The book minimizes the role of a knowledge leader in doctoral education to set up renewal efforts, at least initially.

2. Invite doctoral learners and faculty to multidisciplinary conferences.  Without the buzz of fruitful interaction in a much-anticipated, silo-busting context devoted to examining doctoral programs during the CID, can the success of the CID be replicated, even with this book and the great examples?  One powerful way to commit to ongoing renewal would be to bring stakeholders together annually or bi-annually to share results, updates, and future investigations.

3. Involve the learner.  A faculty member participant in the CID described the doctoral student as ‘the secret agent of change’. Doctoral students are the future stewards of research training; to change research training require doctoral students to  critique their own doctoral programs.  This instills a process for ongoing renewal and harnesses the powerful insights of the doctoral student.  Making examination of the doctoral program a graduation requirement equips graduates with insights to doctoral education and makes graduates a vector for change in doctoral education going forward in their careers.

If during graduate school, all doctoral students attended multidisciplinary graduate studies’ conferences, to address unanswered questions about their doctoral program, the will of the CID and Carnegie Foundation would be done.  Sustainability, capacity building, and multidisciplinary exchanges would be brought together to complete a graduation requirement.  (The Graduate Review and Improvement Process (GRIP) program at the University of Minnesota also gets graduate students involved in improvement).

In the 21st century, ongoing renewal makes doctoral training stay a pace of the changes in society and in knowledge production.  Ultimately, a 21st century doctoral education must also produce a disciple of doctoral education even before it produces ‘a steward of a discipline’.  Study/feedback/critique of doctoral training during doctoral education provides for ongoing renewal of doctoral education; a 21st century imperative.

How helpful was the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate to rethinking doctoral education for the 21st century?  Ongoing renewal could become the pivotal contribution of the CID to doctoral education for the 21st century.  If hitched to a process like ongoing scholarship and/or made a graduation requirement, ongoing renewal provides the intelligence to keep doctoral education responsive, real, and ready.

Book Highlights: 16 page pdf

A process was needed to get to the unanswered questions when the CID stopped.  Without a new process, a system goes back to its baseline, in this case the baseline is no process for ongoing renewal.  If the CID succeeded in building capacity for ongoing renewal then the unanswered questions generated during the CID a decade ago, should be addressed by now and new unanswered questions would have come up as an ongoing renewal process takes hold.

A decade later, are the 80 CID doctoral programs enacting CID-inspired ongoing renewal?  Has some process for ongoing renewal been created? What happened to the unanswered questions?  How much did participation in the CID spur renewal after the CID finished?  Watch this blog for answers to these questions.

If you would like to help me find out the answers, please contact me.  We can write a paper for the one journal of doctoral studies.  If you participated in the CID as a student, faculty member or facilitator, I welcome contact/correction.

University of California Press Introduces New Open Access Publishing Programs


I’m glad to see the University of California Press showing leadership and changing the model of academic publishing. To me, this is exciting!
I wonder if other university presses are working on similar projects or have OA publishing programs in place.
Please do tell, if you know..

Originally posted on The Scholarly Kitchen:

collabraYesterday, the University of California Press announced two new open access (OA) publishing initiatives. One (Luminos) will publish scholarly monographs; the other (Collabra) is a mega journal created along lines somewhat similar to those of PLOS ONE, with a couple of important differences—notably, a business model that relies partly on library memberships and that provides payment to peer reviewers and editors, payment which they may opt to accept or to pass along, either to their local institutions’ OA subvention funds or back to Collabra to support its own APC waiver fund.

UC Press director Alison Mudditt graciously agreed to answer some questions about these new initiatives.

Tell us about the process that led up to the establishment of these two programs, Luminos and Collabra. Who participated in the planning, and how did you go about getting input from the communities involved?

Development of these two programs has been germinating…

View original 1,828 more words

ABCs of D Education’s Future

Live visualization of tweets surrounding hashtags at TampaBay Social Media Command Center, Demo by Robert Neff, August 2012

A is for the Alternate Doctorate or Alternate Pathways to the Doctorate.   The EdD, DBA, the Future of the PhD in the Humanities, the three topic dissertation, the Open PhD, the online PhD/EdD, the PhD from the for-profit university, the collaborative dissertation, the project-based doctorate. the part-time doctorate; these are all variations of D degrees for new markets and for preparation for non-academic work.

B is for a global type of Bologna Process.  How does the marketplace value and make sense of the expansion in the type and number of D degree programs?  The Bologna Process in Europe included the D degree for coherence and commensurability.  As the world gets smaller and more global, may the D degree gain a world forum to study and improve D education.

C is for Confidence.  The value of the D designation comes down to confidence.  Confidence depends on the reputation of the university.   In the past, confidence used to be a function of the time spent and dropout rates.  Doctoral programs are known for high drop-out rates, where a 50% dropout rate was and maybe still is the norm.   Doctoral programs showed little interest in their drop-out statistic if it was known at all, let alone taking responsibility for it.  Confidence comes, when despite the massive expansion in D programs, the program conforms to the original pattern for the degree.  Ergo, even in a three year EdD program in which the only research methodology employed is action-research, the program ends in an oral defense.

D is for Desire.  Desire is at play, when a seemingly sane and reasonable person will toil away, ignoring friends, families and pensionable time to obtain an elusive qualification with little guarantee of employment.  Universities desire the prestige of offering doctoral programs, which are easy enough to start up if patterned from the narrow, atomistic training doctoral supervisors and examining committee members experienced.

E is for Epistemology.  After post-modernism tore apart universities, the politics of power in epistemology exposed privilege but still universities roar on, expanding graduate training by a factor of 400% in Canada in a thirty year time frame.

F is for Fabrication.  The fabrications of scholars are an art form that no form of Artificial Intelligence can or ever will produce; these fabrications are lies that tell the truth (until better fabrications come up).  Computers only know the fabrications, not how to make them up, even if they can win chess games with grand masters.  Maybe this is the new frontier, a new Turing test.  The test: Who can design a computer program that can make up a problem to investigate, examine the literature, find the appropriate research method, clear the ethics board, gather the data, write up the research and defend it, will win a million dollars.

G is for Graduate School.   Undergrad education now gets lumped with public school as almost an extension of public school. In North America the reference is to basic education being K-16, which tacks the 4 year undergrad degree on to public school.  So the great divide in academic education becomes research training.  A trend exists to design Masters programs as almost one-year ‘skills certificates’ rather than research degrees.  Universities promote one year, course-based Masters’ degrees, so that research training gets more cordoned off into doctoral education.  (The other advantage of the one-year Master’s degree is that it prevents doctoral level work from being produced in a Master’s program).

H is for #hashtag.  #phdchat, #acwri, #socphd bring together persons who could not contact each other otherwise.  Hashtags connect researchers and thereby accelerate and amplify scholarly exchange.

Live visualization of tweets surrounding hashtags at TampaBay Social Media Command Center, Demo by Robert Neff, August 2012

Live visualization of tweets surrounding hashtags at TampaBay Social Media Command Center, Demo by Robert Neff, August 2012

I is for Intellectual Property.  Every D program must make intellectual property a central topic.  The true spirit of scholarship requires creative commons, share and share alike licensing and open access journals.  The litmus test for a worthwhile D program in the future is the extent to which completers publish in creative commons and open access journals and the extent to which the university supports open access journals and multi-author academic blogs.

J is for Jason Richwine’s PhD from The Kennedy School of Public Policy at Harvard University.  The offensive screed speaks to the heart of doctoral education.  If a committee of distinguished Ivy League professors failed to find or take responsibility for the many troubling problems with Richwine’s racist dissertation, then maybe a new business ought to start up which offers to properly assess and certify a dissertation.  Assessment of the merit of doctoral work needs to go beyond the viva or oral defense.

K is for Knowledge.  Knowledge is power in the knowledge economy which rewards knowledge artisans, brokers and crafters.

L is for Liberate Libraries.   If libraries saved the extortion money they pay out to give their researchers access to the products of publicly financed academic labour in academic journals, the cost of running a university could come way down.   Meanwhile, the ease of internet publishing undercuts traditional academic journals.  In the future, academics may publish in multi-author academic blogs (MABs) which will get to interested readers faster.  An academic database like Google Scholar already includes MABS in searches.  Until the day that journals behind paywalls becomes obsolete, all scholars and universities should pay homage to the public which funds the bulk of research and release academic work into the public sphere.

M is for Marketing and Missing research.  Whereas once the doctorate was for the elite, now savvy marketing entices a paying customer to sign up for a doctoral education.  The education consumer chooses where to go.  The paucity of research in doctoral education means that many experiments with the form and delivery of doctoral education exist in the marketplace with little sharing of knowledge as to the difference these changes make.  Only one journal exists which is solely devoted to doctoral education and none to graduate education.  At least it is an open access journal, published online.  Missing is knowledge of doctoral education.

N is for Niche.  Every doctoral student needs a niche, a gap in knowledge or someway to bring about novel knowledge as in the digital humanities.

O is for Open Access.  Intellectual efforts of academics must belong to the world public.  Doctoral students need to graduate savvy about copyrights and academic publishing.

P is for Personal Learning Network.  Doctoral researchers need to forge personal learning networks from connections to stay abreast of developments before they appear in the pages of a journal.

Q is for Qualification.  While it seems like the doctoral qualification is the point, it’s other talents in addition to the qualification which now makes the difference.  The doctorate provides fodder for some other talent, application or knowledge to carry the candidate forward.  How many PhDs does it take to change a light bulb?  One, but 800 apply.  Doctoral programs need to engage and embrace the world beyond academia.  A Texas university advertised for a customer satisfaction specialist in advertising for a literature professor; the PhD merely got a candidate on to a short list.

R is for Research Methodology.  Maybe training research students should be lumped together according to research methodology.  Instead of producing stewards of a ‘discipline’ maybe graduate schools should concentrate on stewards of a research methodology.  Disciplines are becoming too vast, interleaved and arbitrary.  If graduate schools put together all students using social sciences research methods, research training would be closer to the bone.  Or maybe at some point in research training students take part in a never-ending MOOC devoted to research methodology.  Such an experience would bring together learners, bring down silos, free up university resources and emphasize scholarly development via the affordances of the web.  Wouldn’t it be great if doctoral researchers employing a case study approach could join a stream of exchanges and dialogue with others using the same methodology?

S is for (Scholarly) Social Media.  Entering into scholarly streams of discourse via social media quickens connections and needs to be encouraged in graduate school.

T is for Time to Completion.   ‘How much time to completion on average and by median?’ A research training program should be able to answer this question with evidence from an ongoing collection of data.  A program concerned with renewing its pedagogy should post on its admission information website its time to completion statistics, which should match to the program design.

Time spent in graduate school was once associated to quality but does not quality guarantee.  Jason Richwine’s ‘work’ took five years so its not like he cut corners to get it done.  Getting started on doctoral research sooner in a program shortens time to completion.  Maybe North American doctoral programs should try the UK model, where the student starts into research quickly and gets through the thesis within three or four years for the most part.

U is for the Unique Research Training Function of a University.  Colleges and high schools now compete with universities to teach undergraduate courses.  Research training remains the preserve of the university, ergo universities should start research training sooner.

V is for Variegation.  Gone are the days of the white, male club of scholars.  The scholarly function is executed by women, the peoples of the non-Western world and even those from the less privileged sector.

W is for Writing.  Amongst the biggest tasks the doctoral researcher undertakes, producing a coherent, scholarly text of 80 000 words strikes terror into many a novice. More help with writing earlier in the doctoral program may keep more students in the program and let them complete sooner.  Doctoral programs need to emphasize ‘writing short’ along with how to make info-graphics and posters.  The Three Minute Thesis contest ought to be mandatory and every program which admits EFL students needs a plagiarism policy that specifies the point at which (purchased) editing help becomes plagiarism.

Students compensate for inadequate language mastery by purchasing ghost writing from editorial services  to complete the writing requirement. Tracking ongoing revisions from the first draft would red flag ghost writing.

X is for X Factor.  Great research requires an x-factor.  When Turing contended that digital computing would program for multitude functions, not just calculations, he made a leap that others, including those at Harvard, could not.

Y is for You.  D education would benefit from adding a meta level to every program.  In general, students are treated as the products or by-products of the program or as consumers.  Engaging with doctoral learners in an examination of the teaching and assessment methods of the program would do more to change the nature of doctoral education going forward than any single other change.

Z is for Zenith.  Completion of doctoral research represents a high point and low point.  On the one hand a significant project which furnishes forth new fabric has been achieved by a solitary singularity and sacrifice that verges with mental illness for some.  The high point would be all the sweeter and the low point less severe if doctoral education embraced collaborative and networked research projects.  The doctoral research world is the only place in academia in which researchers must work entirely alone.  Let’s change that.

Plight of the Accidental Scholar: When Doctoral Programs Could Skip to the Defense

On Twitter came this question.

A certain kind of learner of any subject could successfully manage a scholarly investigation of any problem or question without a doctoral program.  Indeed, Tim Jenison, the subject of the documentary film Tim’s Vermeer, is this kind of learner. He worked for more than five years to investigate a hypothesis as to how Vermeer obtained a photo-type effect in his paintings.  He is the kind of learner doctoral supervisors long for and sometimes experience; the zero-maintenance learner.  Look ma- what Jenison did with no-hands-on from a doctoral program.

The accidental art historian, Tim Jenison, painted his Vermeer to prove a hypothesis.

The accidental art historian, Tim Jenison, painted his Vermeer to prove a hypothesis.

For centuries Vermeer’s paintings so dumbfounded that they were described as if painted by magic.  In the book, Secret Knowledge by artist David Hockney, Hockney argues that some optical techniques must have been employed by the masters like Vermeer.  The book spurred Jenison’s exhaustive and lengthy quest to test an optical technique he thought Vermeer might have used.

In what would become a serendipitous dinner conversation with his friend Penn Jillette, an entertainer and entrepreneur, Jenison’s quest to discover the centuries old secret of a Vermeer painting, resulted in a successful pitch to a documentary film funder.   So all the elements for a work of scholarship came together: a problem, a (vague) plan, and a funding source.

(Jenison didn’t need the funding or the filmmakers, he’d started into the investigation before talking to Penn. The film producers, Penn and Teller, a magic act in Las Vegas, added to the depth of his scholarship getting him access, for example, to a Vermeer few see as it is part of a private collection of the Queen of England. The film also made his research known, something that Jenison hadn’t planned to do and is not required of early career researchers.

The film not only disseminates Jenison’s work but records the intensity of scholarly pursuit, wherein the scholar/hero suffers trials.  The drama in the film comes from watching Jenison’s relentless toil, hot on a quest that takes him more than half a decade, across continents, and into the painstaking reconstruction of the setting for the Vermeer that he paints. This is a story of desire).

But is Jenison’s work worthy of entry-level scholarship; the early career researcher stuff that gets a Ph. D?  The work checks the boxes needed by any self-respecting committee member examining a work of doctoral research.  It has:

1.  An original contribution to knowledge: Jenison tested a hypothesis that Vermeer used a mirror device to get his ‘painting with light,’  photo-like effect.

Photo from the Gimli Film Festival website.  Tim's Vermeer will be screened at The Gimli Film Festival in August of 2015.

Photo from the Gimli Film Festival website. Tim’s Vermeer will be screened at The Gimli Film Festival in July of 2015.

2.  Placement in the literature: Jenison read exhaustively to answer his questions.   In so doing, he became expertly acquainted with Vermeer’s oeuvre, optics during the Dutch Renaissance, and the present day investigations which advance knowledge of optical applications of painters in the time in which Vermeer lived.  He could teach any number of courses in a university based on this knowledge or speak at a conference.

3.  A research methodology and an understanding of the limitations of the method: Jenison iterated an apparatus and produced a replica of Vermeer’s painting to investigate his hypothesis.  He is open to arguments or disputes with his hypothesis from others who study the secret knowledge of optics of the Renaissance masters.

4.  The research gives rise to further research: now Jenison wants to know more about the optical devices that artists used before Vermeer in The Hague and Antwerp.

5.  Intense emotional engagement with the subject matter.  Like many a doctoral researcher, in the film Jenison breaks up emotionally while looking back on his work.   A good research question grips into the emotional reserves of the researcher.  Parting with an all-consuming interest tears at the heart, is sweet sorrow.

If Jenison were in a doctoral program, would he be awarded a Ph. D?  No.  He hasn’t written a dissertation or thesis.  No bibliography would be a big problem.  He didn’t take a qualifying degree like the Masters. He got help from the film producers.

A university like McGill in Quebec, which is actively developing models to change the work recognized for a Ph. D. in the humanities, and allows for a final product outside of a dissertation, could award a Ph. D. for Jenison’s work.  But would they recognize scholarship conducted outside a doctoral program as worthy of a Ph. D.?  Where is this pathway to the doctorate?

What would a reputable art history doctoral program say to a request to award Jenison a Ph. D. for his work?  Would the concern be for all the ‘zero-maintenance’ students who pay good money, year over year, going through department hoops, and for potential lost revenue, lost jobs, and lost prestige.

Would a university see fit to give Jenison a Ph. D., not as an honorary award, but as a tested and worthy scholar, even if Jenison never sets foot in a university?

Jenison became an accidental scholar who used the tools and methods of scholarship to satisfy his curiosity about an academic question.  He didn’t need a doctoral program to show him how.   Not everyone does.   How can doctoral programs allow for the Jenisons of the world?  How many Jenison types, like my Twitter respondent think, “Why do I need a doctoral program if I know how to learn on my own anyway?”  How might doctoral programs recognize the work of a novice researcher who asks for recognition for work done off-the-grid?

An alternate pathway to the doctorate should be in place whereby a work is submitted to a qualified committee who examines it and the candidate in a meeting and makes a decision whether to confer the degree.  The applicant pays for the committee’s work.

Without a lock on research training, universities should recognize and grant doctorates to work worthy of a doctorate.

Coming soon,  a post concerning:

The road less taken: Ideas for an alternate path to the doctorate


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