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.