D-fence! D-fence!

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Two of our extended ABD family returned this week, to complete the final step in the process that involves moving them from our program's student page to our alumni page. Which is to say, somewhat euphemistically, that we had two students return from their positions elsewhere to defend their dissertations, and both did so successfully. Congratulations to both of them.

The dissertation season tends to be driven by graduation deadlines, and so typically, we look at the end of July and the end of November as our peak times in that regard. And as these events have rolled around, my attention is more easily grabbed by references to dissertation work than they might be otherwise. The latest issue of Academe, for example, has an article misleadingly titled "How to Grade a Dissertation." I say misleadingly because the article is really less about "how to grade" one than it is the results of a study that attempts to make more explicit the standards by which dissertations have been graded.

Attempts, and largely fails. While there's a mildly interesting chart or two at the back of the essay promising "criteria" by which dissertations are graded, these criteria are entirely predictable, and even a little insulting in their predictability. For example, would it surprise you to learn that "outstanding" dissertations

  • are original and significant, ambitious, brilliant, clear, clever, coherent, compelling, concise, creative, elegant, engaging, exciting, interesting, insightful, persuasive, sophisticated, surprising, and thoughtful;

  • are very well written and organized

  • are synthetic and interdisciplinary

  • Connect components in a seamless way

  • Exhibit mature, independent thinking

Probably not so much. Heck, we all sit down with most of the above as our goals when we write. The subtitle of the article asserts that professors "owe it to their students to make those standards explicit," which is only half true. The standards that we use are only half the story, because for the most part, they are the standards that our students themselves use to evaluate writing, whether their own or others'. A more accurate claim, I think, would be: we owe it to our students to teach them to be able to achieve these standards. And I'm not sure that we are any more explicit about how to achieve these standards than we are about the standards themselves.

Part of the difficulty with a study like this is that professors' self-reporting is going to be no more accurate than any self-reporting--by and large, we are going to offer up what we believe to be the appropriate criteria rather than the ones we use.

And this article bears this out. "The focus groups indicated that most of the dissertations they see are “very good,” which is the level of quality the faculty members said they expect of most graduate students. Consequently, they had less to say about very good dissertations than about the other quality levels." Ahh, how nice. Most of the dissertations fall into this category, about which the faculty studied have the least to say. (Also, the lowest number of criteria for this category are offered.) "Very good dissertations are solid and well written, but they are distinguished by being “less”—less original, less significant, less ambitious, less exciting, and less interesting than outstanding dissertations." If I were still a graduate student reading this, I'd be both a little depressed and a little angry--the majority of dissertations these faculty read, and all they can say about them is, "well, they're not quite outstanding"?!?!

I'm pretty sure I have a finger for that.

It'd be a lot more useful if the "criteria" offered here didn't basically parallel the categories themselves so completely:

  • Outstanding: Is very well written and organized
  • Very Good: Is well written and organized
  • Acceptable: Is workmanlike
  • Unacceptable: Is poorly written

But in order to gather any sort of meaningful data about dissertations, these criteria would have to be triangulated with the dissertations themselves, and they'd have to be studied by people who don't already have a vested interest in the answers being sought. And I suspect that the results would have to be separated out by discipline a bit--the study above surveys faculty in "four science disciplines (biology, electrical and computer engineering, physics or physics and astronomy, and mathematics); three social science disciplines (economics, psychology, and sociology); and three humanities disciplines (English, history, and philosophy)." I'm pretty sure that an electrical engineering dissertation looks a little different, say, from one in philosophy, and that the corresponding faculty mean very different things even when they're using the same language.

There are a few interesting tidbits in this article, but they come in the form of asides more than they occupy center stage. My colleagues in writing studies will find fascinating, I'm sure, the heavy emphasis placed on rubrics, both as a teaching tool and as a way of archiving dissertations. I don't disagree that making expectations explicit is worthwhile--far from it, in fact--but it's curious to watch yet another instance of current-traditional writing pedagogy being offered up, in a nationally circulated publication, no less.

Because, you know, I gave this article a 5 for clarity, a 5 for coherence, a 3 for compelling, and a 4 for concise. How that information would help improve the article or provide a record of anything other than my own opinions I do not know. Ah well. I'm being snottier about this than I'd originally intended. I think that there are good intentions behind a project like this, but an unrealistic estimation of what an aggregation of self-reported, unverified criteria can accomplish.

That is all.


Can't sleep tonight for some unknown reason. First snow on the ground, holidays approaching. Hope all is well with you.
Coming on the 15th?

You say:

"I'm pretty sure that an electrical engineering dissertation looks a little different, say, from one in philosophy, and that the corresponding faculty mean very different things even when they're using the same language."

Can you give an example of when they would mean very even when they're using the same language?

There are obviously going to be a lot of trivial differences between the standard electrical engineering dissertation and the standard philosophy dissertation--for example, the engineering dissertation will likely have charts representing various experimental data whereas the philosophy dissertation won't--but I'm supposing that you don't mean something like this. That's why I ask about the quote above. Are you thinking that "is very well written and organized" is what will mean different things? If so, then i don't think I understand what you think the difference is.

Now i'm going to shut up and let you answer the question.

Mark, mainly what I mean is that there are different expectations for different disciplines, so that when a faculty in one field uses a particular term, she may mean something very different from a faculty member in another field. The terms we use to denote excellence in writing are themselves fairly generic.

I don't read a great deal of writing (and no dissertations) outside of the humanities, but here's an example from my own experience. I've written a book chapter that was published in a collection populated mostly by communications scholars, and when I did, I had to reorganize it according to a "literature review--gap in the scholarship--resolution" sort of model--that was what was considered "good organization" for that collection. My own work (and work in my field) tends to be a little more loosely thesis-based, so that organization isn't as strictly defined.

It's not that one is better or worse, but that they're different, even though my colleagues in other departments, I imagine, use much the same language as I do to evaluate the writing done in their disciplines. So from my perspective, it should be less about rubrics that collect those generic terms, and more about focusing on writing all the way through a degree program where the student will be asked to write a disserrtation. I'm as guilty of this as anyone, so I don't exempt myself from this criticism, but I think that we don't spend enough time asking students to consider the practices of writing for our (respective) disciplines.


I agree that, organizationally there will be vastly different expectations across disciplines. And for that matter, what will count as well written will vary significantly. So, we agree about that.

The reason that I commented was that the way that philosophy is commonly written these days--at least in the more analytic tradition--more closely resembles writing in the sciences than any other humanities disciplines. (As an aside, there are a number of sub-disciplines within philosophy that should probably be considered social sciences and even a few that should be considered sciences. That is, at least, if mathematics is considered a science.)

So, I was rather surprised at your using philosophy as the humanities comparitive; that's all.

Your point's well taken. What philosophy I have in my background is decidely more continental (I don't really even know if that's an animating tension in most phil depts anymore), and that's what I had in mind.

And it's true of most English departments as well, which might turn out dissertations that range from cultural studies and/or critical theory on the one hand to qualitative and/or empirical studies on the other, if they've got literature and composition under the same roof. And most do; SU's a little unusual in that regard.


In many cases there is no animating tension between analytic and continental philosophy, but that is simply because many departments don't have anyone who does do continental philosophy. (I put those terms in italics, because the distinction is clear in some cases and very dubious in others.) Some of those that do have denisens from both sides of the divide have learned to get along well and then there are a few where they hate eachother terribly.

I agree with you, most English departments have people working on an incredibly wide range of topics. I have a friend who is faculty in an English department north of the boarder who said: "No one in English departments really does English anymore." Obviously the claim is somewhat exagerated, but I suspect you agree with the spirit.

Philosophy is at a very odd stage of development right now. With so many Philosophy ofs--including Philosophy of Physics, Philosophy of Linguistics (the very technical branch of Philosophy of Language), Philosophy of Psychology, and so on--many philosophers need to be near experts in a "seemingly" unrelated field. Also, areas like Metaphysics and Epistemology--the traditional mainstays of philosophy--have relied a lot more heavily on science and probability theory respectively. For many papers in these fields, the papers look not too differently from papers in the empirical sciences. (Perhaps they are written in a slightly more accessible form...but then again, maybe not.)


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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on December 1, 2005 8:56 PM.

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