Theses

from The Oxford Magazine, 1990

I don't like theses. I was lucky enough never to have been made to write one, but I am often made to read them, and have acquired a settled distaste for the exercise. It is partly a matter of temperament, but more one of principle. Temperamentally, I am not a good reader. I read slowly, and for the most part would far rather be writing my own nonsense than reading other people's. Other people may be different, and it could be that there were people who positively enjoyed reading theses, and whose hearts bounded when they received a missive from a #Faculty Board "inviting" them to examine. But they are few, and the supply of willing examiners falls far short of the number of theses demanding to be read. And it is an expensive process. Just conducting a viva, confabulating with the other examiner, writing the report, filling in the forms, sending back the thesis to the candidate, takes about three hours. Reading it, if it is done properly, takes about a week. If every thesis is read once, as a draft, by the supervisor, and then by two examiners, each thesis costs three don-weeks, at least £1,500, and twice that if one reckons that each don has only 26 term-free weeks available in which he can be reasonably conscripted for thesis reading. The university makes a loss on every thesis submitted, if we price time realistically, and if I were an accountant I should be pressing the General Board to think whether theses were absolutely necessary to our graduate studies, and to try and devise a less cost-inefficient way of starting graduates off in the academic life.

But it is not as an accountant that I base my real objections. It is, rather, that theses are bad for those who have to write them. At a stage when they ought to be broadening their outlook and range of interests, graduates are forced to narrow them, and instead of trying their hands at attainable tasks, and achieving some measure of success in some of them, they are set the Sisyphean task of writing a book. Few people write good books in their twenties, and those that do, write provocative, short books, like Ayer's Language, Truth and Logic, which would never have got past a supervisor or D.Phil. examiners. A book-length thesis requires an accumulation of knowledge that occurs naturally with the passage of years, but is inordinately hard for a young man to have acquired in the three short years after taking his undergraduate degree. It is difficult enough to write an article---an article which is worth reading, that is---to decide what to put in, and what to leave out, to work out the structure of the whole, and revise each paragraph to make sure that it forwards the argument and does not lead the reader into needless digressions. Once the requirement is to produce something of book length, the emphasis is inevitably taken to be more on quantity than quality, and we do the Republic of Letters no good by encouraging future academics to churn out quantities of stuff rather than to concentrate on making every word earn its keep.

Many graduates do not get their theses written in three years. Who can blame them? I don't get my books written in three years. But my future does not depend on getting my book written and examined; and I have already learnt that the best is the enemy of the good, and can be ruthless in blue-pencilling flowers of thought which, though true and well worth communicating to my generation, do not belong in the current work. A young man in his twenties lacks the reserves to tide him over a delayed harvest, and lacks the confidence to cut down to achievable scope. The grant runs out, he takes a job, hoping to complete during the evenings and week-ends. But jobs are demanding, and he needs the evenings and week-ends just to keep one lesson ahead of his pupils, to master the mysteries of a new trade, to settle down as a home-owner or a husband. An unfinished thesis is an incubus, a drag on professional advancement, a fly in the ointment of conjugal bliss. It is a perpetual gestation, with no term set for a final delivery. What seemed to be just a few corrections to section four of chapter three turn out to involve a massive rewrite of chapters two and four, and every proof-reading shows up further references to be checked, and rewritings needed if the examiners are not to be able to find something amiss. Even when the great day comes, and the examiners after having vivaed the daylight out of the candidate hint that they none the less will recommend the conferment of the degree, he still can't be shot of the whole thing. It would be a waste to have spent the best years of one's life writing a book that is likely to be read by only three people. Surely, one owes it to oneself to write it up for publication. And so, at the age of 35, the graduate becomes an author, but at the cost of having invested ten years in this one subject, and with a corresponding tendency to continue in that line for the rest of his life. If we had wanted to ensure that academics would be narrow specialists confined to one narrow groove, and with a well-trained propensity to resist the temptation to pursuing any other line of enquiry that might at first sight seem interesting, we could not have devised a more effective method.

What is the alternative? The scientists, who started the D.Phil., have shown the way. They have, in effect, dropped the thesis. Instead of an embryo book, scientists can get the D.Phil. on two articles. And these articles are not the set-piece original contributions that Artsmen suppose, but the by-products of day-to-day work in the lab. In effect a scientific D.Phil. is a certificate of competence in research techniques. It warrants that the holder worked for two or three years in a reputable lab under the supervision of a reputable scientist, and collaborated usefully in the research team's work, in token whereof his name, along with that of his co-workers and his prof, appeared at the head of a couple of research papers. Scientists are entirely happy with the D.Phil. They welcome graduates as useful helpers, and can rapidly and effectively check the worthiness of a graduate to receive his ticket of competence after serving his apprenticeship.

Arts subjects, as the paper from the Master of Univ pointed out last year, are very different. Graduate pupils are a drain on a supervisor's time, not a help to him in his own work, and we have no reliable way of securing uniformity of standard between one thesis and another. There is an inevitable tendency to lower standards, because once a man has spent three years in Oxford working on a D.Phil., it seems hard to send him away without a doctorate. We could avoid these disadvantages if we examined graduates before they started rather writing than at the very end of their time. Graduates from other universities should be admitted initially for only one year, when they would take a D.Stud. examination, which would be like an undergraduate degree examination, and classified. Those who failed---i.e. got a II2---would be granted a D.Stud., and go away. Those who passed---i.e. got a II1---would be admitted into the M.Phil. programme, and would stay for one more year. At the end of this they would, as a matter of course, receive an M.Phil. degree. They would need to have kept residence; they would need a "certificate of diligent study" rather like the Cambridge one, from their supervisor; and they would submit an "academic exercise", which could, of course be a thesis of the traditional type for those who wanted to try their hand at writing a book, but which could equally well be an article, or a paper read to graduate seminars, or presented to conferences, or ... Graduates who did exceptionally well at the end of their first year--those who got a I---would be allowed to stay for two years at the end of which, subject to the same conditions as for an M.Phil., they would be awarded a doctorate.

The alternative scheme has three great advantages. Most importantly it does not compel graduates to limit themselves to one narrow topic. They could show their mettle in a number of diverse fields without any sense of being required to stick to one particular last, though if they found themselves entirely absorbed in one particular topic there would be no objection to their confining their offering to just that one theme. There would, secondly, be a time limit: after one, or two, years the graduate would collect his degree, and depart, free to foray in other fields, with no sense of unfinished business cramping his style. And, finally, the pressure would be off the academic exercise as the one decisive test of whether the degree should be awarded or not. Most graduates, being what they are, and motivated by intense pride in their academic work, would continue to put their best efforts into their academic exercises in order that they should be first-class pieces of work. But they would be free from the fear of failing, and the neurotic obsession with detail it engenders. And it would be3 much less sweat for examiners to look them over, to see that they were respectable and not frivolous, but not needing to draw difficult distinctions between masterly and doctoral dissertations. That distinction would have been drawn earlier, in a classified examination in which many candidates were being compared with one another. And though it is always difficult to draw fine distinctions of academic merit, it is much less difficult under those conditions than when having to deal with different theses on different topics and read by different examiners.

In effect an advanced degree would certify that the candidate had, one or two years earlier, been adjudged, in comparison with competitors at that time, of sufficient merit to be worthy of that degree, and had spent the intervening period in Oxford engaged in academic activities, and producing respectable academic work. It would not presume to judge the exact value of his academic output. That, as with fully-fledged academics, would emerge only with the passage of time. But it would be enough for prospective employers to go on. In fact it would be very much like the prize fellowships of yesteryear, which carried considerable cachet by reason of having been won in open competition and used thereafter to good purpose. If we could return to giving our successors the liberation that our predecessors enjoyed in their mid-twenties, we should be doing the best we could to foster creativity in the future.

 

23.4.90

 

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