Against Students


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

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.