May 9, 2013

Doctoral talking shops are the best we’ve got

The feature “Whim and rigour” (25 April) does not provide an entirely thorough analysis. It asks if the viva is still fit for purpose, so it should have examined in more depth its current purposes, one of which is to establish whether the candidate did the research or not (something external examiners in the Australian system cannot establish as they never meet the students face to face). Another function is to find out whether candidates can talk as well as write convincingly about their topics, with the pass dependent on both. The viva also determines whether the candidate is able to research independently of their supervisor.

Vivas differ considerably by discipline, yet almost all the academics interviewed in the article work in the social sciences or the humanities. In those disciplines, rewriting post-viva is much more common than in the sciences. Examiners may well have different perspectives on the topics than the students, hence there is more likelihood of disagreement, with candidates and supervisors perhaps feeling aggrieved at the outcome (sometimes unreasonably so).

It is true that in the open viva system common in much of Europe, the worth of the thesis is initially decided on the basis of a paper-based examination alone. When candidates get to the open viva stage, it is almost impossible to fail. However, this does not mean it is merely a formality: open viva performances are often graded, and a low mark will not be good for the candidate’s career.

The closed viva is difficult to research, and a number of those individuals interviewed in “Whim and rigour” have not done so per se. Even the work by Vernon Trafford, emeritus professor of education at Anglia Ruskin University, is based, I believe, on vivas he has attended as an examiner, supervisor or chair, not as a researcher. Gill Clarke, a former colleague of mine at the University of Bristol and one-time assistant director of the Quality Assurance Agency, is doing a DPhil at the University of Oxford on the viva and is attending the exams as a researcher, not in another guise. Such work may be a better guide than data drawn from experiential contexts.

While exploring the rather dubious possibility that students can be systematically “trained” to pass vivas using software or consultants, the article does not discuss realistic alternatives to the closed viva. The US system is different in so many ways that it does not offer us a way forward. As someone who has examined quite a few Australian theses on paper, I found it immensely frustrating not to be able to talk to the candidates, so I cannot recommend this approach. The only choices left are to continue to improve the closed viva (many institutions, as briefly mentioned in the article, now have independent chairs and/or digitally record the events, thus protecting examiners as well as students) or move to an open viva system. The latter is surely worth exploring further, rather than being dismissed as a mere “formality”.

Rosemary Deem
Vice-principal (education)
Royal Holloway, University of London
Executive member
UK Council for Graduate Education

It is some years since my PhD viva, which I personally found a useful discussion with two examiners who were experts in the field. However, it may be time to update the process. With today’s emphasis on the impact of research, perhaps a Jeremy Paxmanesque, University Challenge-style interrogation of the doctoral candidate, which is also webcast, would be just the thing.

Keith Flett

More than a mere device

In her defence of creative writing, Fay Weldon argues that our schools and universities need a new discipline called literacy (“Persuasion: teaching not the what, but the how, of crafting words”, 2 May). Such a discipline, however, already exists, even if it’s little taught in the UK (my own university is a happy exception). I refer to rhetoric, for what is rhetoric - in the classic rather than the pejorative sense - if not the art, craft and study of “us[ing] words effectively and persuasively”, as Weldon puts it?

The roots of rhetoric go back to before Aristotle, and for centuries - along with grammar and logic - the subject formed part of the core curriculum of the West. Shakespeare’s mastery of the arts of language was based on a firm foundation in rhetoric. The same applies to Winston Churchill, the winner of the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature, who at the tender age of 23 had written an essay aptly titled “The Scaffolding of Rhetoric”.

Today, rhetoric is a compulsory first-year course in many US universities, some of which also offer full undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in the subject. In this country, by contrast, rhetoric as a discipline has fallen into a far from benign neglect. Yet rhetoric is omnipresent in society: not only in advertising, as Weldon reminds us, but in journalism, law, marketing, politics, public relations, teaching - any occupation where effective communication is at a premium (and where is it not?). Creative writing may have its merits, but rhetoric is unique in offering a combination of academic rigour, employability skills and the tools for active citizenship. It is high time that it was restored to its rightful, central place in the education of our students.

Is Michael Gove listening?

Neil Foxlee
Senior research fellow and associate lecturer in rhetoric
University of Central Lancashire

Playing with fire

Having been one of the few lecturers in the UK to have had an undergraduate in my care treated as a spy while backpacking in North Korea, I would like to comment on the BBC inserting undercover reporters in a student trip (“NK confidential: BBC correctly balanced consent and complicity”, Opinion, 25 April; “Panorama put LSE ‘bystanders’ at risk”, Letters, 2 May).

The reality is that if one of the undercover reporters had been discovered, everyone on the trip would have been in jeopardy. The North Koreans would have wanted to know how many others were involved and would have resorted to “direct questioning techniques” that would have lasted for days, if not weeks. Eventually, the innocent students would have been released; however, from my admittedly limited experience, they would never have been the same again.

Of course the London School of Economics was right to get upset at the BBC for putting the lives and mental health of some of their students at risk.

Name and address withheld

Case study contested

I have just finished your 25 April edition (I’m on maternity leave so I don’t have the time to tear through the magazine the minute it pops through the letter box) and Paul Magrs’ response to the research excellence framework impact request he received has astonished me (“Re: Case study request”).

First, the tone of the article is plain condescending: I think the pretension and privilege Magrs speaks of has rubbed off more than he realises. More specifically, the individual responsible for the REF at the University of East Anglia may not have been in residence at the time of Magrs’ tenure there and therefore would have had nothing to do with how he was previously treated, making him undeserving of such vitriol.

Second, REF guidelines concerning impact have been enforced on all institutions, meaning that previous members of staff may well be contacted regarding the work they performed in their old workplaces, regardless of how well treated (or otherwise) they were. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Last, Magrs complains about the courses he had to write at UEA and the books he had to produce. I’m guessing that all that was part of the job description, so why the astonishment? No one in the private sector would expect to be thanked for simply doing their job, so why do those in higher education? (And remember: your employer may well own this intellectual property, no matter how personally invested you feel.)

Magrs complains of what he gets in return for all this inconvenience - a salary - something many these days would feel wholly privileged to have.

Alison Hay

Take that, bibliometrics! Take that, impact assessment! Oh, how good to see such an uninhibited opinion about these absurd systems measuring research in the humanities. Good for you, Paul Magrs!

Rosanna Cantavella
Professor of medieval Catalan culture
University of Valencia

Robust reviews all round

Your assertion that private colleges seeking designation for students supported by the Student Loans Company will “escape full QAA scrutiny” underplays the thoroughness of the reviews that the Quality Assurance Agency will be carrying out on these colleges (“For-profits will have to try harder to become eligible for SLC cash”, 2 May).

The QAA review process for alternative providers will be robust, proportionate and based on the core principles of institutional review.

Behind all QAA review methods lie the same UK Quality Code for Higher Education as the essential reference point, and the same method of peer review by academics and students.

The essential point, not least for students and the public, is that quality and standards at designated providers will be safeguarded by the same system as other UK institutions offering higher education.

Anthony McClaran
Chief executive
Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education

The ones to watch

Thanks to the Centre for Science and Policy, a constellation of UK research stars gathered recently at the Royal Society to hear Sir Mark Walport and others ponder “future directions for scientific advice in Whitehall”. The government’s new chief scientific adviser addressed a variety of pressing issues such as intellectual property, innovation and the economy (“Scientific growth areas”, News in brief, 25 April).

Nonetheless, what struck me most at the conference was not the audit of intellectual property or the premier league of academics present. Rather, I was increasingly impressed by the human capital represented by all the younger scientists helping out with the event, including research fellows from universities and practitioner-researchers from high-tech businesses.

For this grey-haired population scientist, the key lesson, if the knowledge economy “goes for growth”, is simple: look after the postdocs!

Woody Caan
Professorial fellow
Royal Society for Public Health

Left behind

Roger Morgan’s review of the late Eric Hobsbawm’s Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the 20th Century (“Fragmentation of a framework”, Books, 11 April) remarks on the historian’s “long-held Marxist viewpoint; bourgeois capitalism was in any case doomed to disappear, giving way to some form of socialism”.

Yet Morgan also notes Hobsbawm’s comment that “actually it is inappropriate to ask a historian what culture will look like in the next millennium. We are experts in the past. We are not concerned with the future.” Is this not the most extraordinary retreat from the confident Marxian prediction of revolution?

Nigel Probert

Past is another chapter

Janet Fluellen will not necessarily be able to claim a first for the University of Poppleton if the institution launches a course in creative history, although I would still encourage her to consider it (The Poppletonian, 11 April).

I already teach history to third-year undergraduates levying creative- writing assessments (developed with a grant from the Higher Education Academy’s former History Subject Centre), and the modules concerned have been well received by students and our external examiners.

Alannah Tomkins
Senior lecturer in history
Keele University

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