Students say the darnedest things

August 20, 2008

“You know that part of a wedding where the pastor says, ‘If anyone knows of a reason why this couple should not wed, speak now or forever hold your peace’?”

“Um, yeah….” The question from my undergraduate research assistant caught me off-guard, coming as it did in the middle of a discussion on doctoral dissertations.

“Does that sort of thing happen at people’s Ph.D. defenses?”

I think he was just kidding, but I love the idea.

Weddings, by design, chug slowly and verbosely toward a foregone conclusion. Although the guests invariably opt to hold their peace, except in soap operas, the invitation to do otherwise provides a moment of delicious tension while everyone wonders whether some crazy uncle or besotted friend might derail the ceremony.

Doctoral defenses, like weddings, are long, wordy, and devoid of drama; the candidate knows that he/she is going to pass. All of this is as it should be. But why not put the person’s destiny on hold for a few extra seconds while the audience is offered a chance to contest the awarding of the degree? Wouldn’t it be fun to imagine rival scholars emerging from the woodwork in such situations?

At the very least, this change in protocol might cause more Ph.D. defenses to be featured in soap operas.

One comment

  1. I like this idea. But passing a defense isn't always a foregone conclusion. I know of multiple failures, all the fault of the student (who in one case assumed that passing was a foregone conclusion and so didn't bother to prepare properly).There are other ways to add interest to a defense. In some European countries the external examiner is called 'the opponent'. But this seems to me to be a misnomer, given the opponent's duties: it's the opponent, not the student, who begins the defense by delivering a public seminar summarizing the student's research. Even if the seminar is a sort of ceremony that has no effect on the eventual outcome of the defense, it must nevertheless be an odd feeling to sit in the audience watching a stranger summarize for thw world your years of hard work. My doctoral adviser Peter Morin was once an opponent for a Swedish student, whose research concerned a subject that Peter hadn't studied for years. We joked that if Peter gave a poor seminar, the committee would give the student a PhD and take Peter's away!What would weddings be like if they involved an opponent? Perhaps the groom's vows would be taken by a random stranger off the street. 😉

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