Landing : Athabascau University

Wink-Wink Mates: Speaking the Unspeakable in the Scuttlebutt

Wink-Wink Mates: Speaking the Unspeakable in the Scuttlebutt

On April Fool’s day,  I reflect on my election to VP Academic for AUGSA, our graduate students’ union.  I wanted to be elected to government so as to influence development in the scuttlebutt.

Somehow departments of graduate education fail to convey information to their inmates about how good is good enough; the quality and standards expected from student work.  Grades are no indicator.  So how do students learn these standards?  In part, from each other, in the student sub-culture, aka the scuttlebutt.

Ahoy, mateys. Rumor has it that Dr. Hook…


A scuttlebutt held the drinking water aboard ships of yore.  While gathered ’round the scuttlebutt, mariners talked, communicated even.   Scuttlebutt became a conduit in which to decipher, discern and deliver the wishes of the master.  Scuttlebutt exists in the sub-culture of the underling and the wanna-be, aka doctoral student too, and delivers invaluable knowledge.

Sailors and doctoral students learn to perform to the unspeakable nuances of their job through scuttlebutt.  I wonder what would happen if doctoral supervisors became more transparent about how good is good enough.  Would dissertations get shorter?

Ironically,  doctoral education which notoriously demands the ‘piling higher and deeper’ of excessive elaboration, may do so because the standards and quality of doctoral work elude pat definition, maybe are unspeakable.  It’s like the supreme court definition of pornography, can’t define it, save you recognize it when you see it

Little bits of recognizable stuff comes to students in part from the scuttlebutt.  In my position as VP Academic, I can push back for more transparency and develop a more reliable scuttlebutt.  A Fool’s Game? Happy April’s Fools Day.


  • Hi Sheri,

    I wonder if your concerns have more to do with individual supervisors or particular doctoral student frustrations. Personally I can't relate as to what your concerns involve. Transparency has not been an issue for me. Of course the journey has been arduous and a great deal of work, but I have had clear direction, support, and advice along the way.


    Susan Bainbridge April 2, 2013 - 7:03am

  • Perhaps the DR students need a private spot on deck (away from the ears of the QuarterDeck), for scuttlebut talk.  Like a closed group??

    The problem of how much is enough? extends right through the academy to the external examiner. Sometimes even the committee doesn't know the answer!


    Terry Anderson April 2, 2013 - 10:36am

  • Hi Susan,

    I got the idea for scuttlebutt from research done by Barbara Lovitts regarding the causes and consequences of departure from doctoral study.  Lovitts' research in American doctoral programs surfaced the student sub-culture, aka the scuttlebutt, as one faculty member called it, as providing that valuble info that doctoral students want; what is the standard of quality they need to evince to pass.

     Sadler (2010), theorizes that actually no amount of "telling" someone what to do, in the case of something like a dissertation, will result in them performing it.  He sees the teacher as developing a sense of connisseurship through the study of exemplars and criteria.  Here he identifies the student peer group as being pivotal in gaining appreciation, insight or connisseurship so the learner is able to reproduce a document that complies with the task, in this case the dissertation.  I think 805 was structured in a way that Sadler would endorse and helped us to develop connisseurship for dissertations.  

    Still it's important to keep connected and check out  or share ideas with others. I want to know how much students can help each other.  Sadler postulates that a strong group of students can render the teacher unnecessary.  Wouldn't that be helpful for those Open Ph. D. scholars to know.Laughing

    Thanks for your comment and sharing your experience.




    Sheri Oberman April 5, 2013 - 7:42pm

  • Hi Terry,

    You said, "The problem of how much is enough? extends right through the academy to the external examiner. Sometimes even the committee doesn't know the answer!"

    This article on preparing doctoral students for the viva, (which we call an oral exam) by J. H. Watts, drives home your point.  Let me say after reading the article, I understand your comment that the oral exam is not a coronation.  Ergo, the inconsistency, mystery, and confusion about the oral exam needs prompt and concerted attention by doctoral educators as Watts argues pleads.  

    I like the idea of arranging for a mock oral exam to help doctoral candidates succeed.  All of the work in the doctoral program  winnows into a really important discussion (inquisition) about one document.

    Here is a cartoon that expresses the point of excessive grilling in oral exam.

    Mr. Jones for the last time, what about that contradiction on page 100  

    Sheri Oberman April 8, 2013 - 6:35pm

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