Landing : Athabascau University

Tales from Inside the Tower

The stories of wanna-be Ph. D.s, Rhett and Boyd, in the illuminating book Leaving the Ivory Tower: The Cause and Consequences of Departure from Doctoral Study
(Lovitts, 2001), tell actionable truths. Truths of heartbreak, waste, miscommunication, complacency and indifference come through in the book.
The book moved me to action. I changed my research methodology from surveys and interviews to (auto-ethnographic) action research to initiate discussion of reform of doctoral education at my Open, online university.

Rhett’s story shocked and saddened me. Rhett ‘persisted’ for seven years with his research. Rhett, a ‘non-completer,’ tells Lovitts, “It somehow never became clear to me where to begin…I did not get a grasp of what I had to do to make progress with the dissertation and I felt really awful about it. (Rhett cried at this point in the interview.)” (p.73)

How is this even reflective of academia? Many a university academic has persisted far too long with research and given up after years, to feel really awful about it too. Kinda different for poor Rhett though. Don’t get him started on his seven lost years. He’s got no career in academia. His prospective employers might even suspect him of covering a prison furlough in his past when he tries to explain the gap in his resume. (The subtext of a potential employer might read like this. “Dis guy claims to have spent seven years in doctoral research with nothing to show for it. What kinda fool is he? We can’t hire this guy. …If he’s telling the truth, then he doesn’t know when to quit. If he isn’t, let’s just say there’s another big house where people loose seven years.)” Why must the non-completing doctoral student bear the burden, shame and stigma for persisting too long? How is this fair?

It is a truth not universally acknowledged that a doctoral candidate with an approved research project must be in want of an oral exam. Sometimes said novitiate researcher will not have pulled out a plum. Sometimes good research plans fail, just as sometimes the best research plans in the hands of bona fide academics yield nothing. At the cutting edge of originality where academics live, lies frequent failure. It’s the nature of the beasty called originality. Can a doctoral student talk to the oral exam committee about not being able to move into terra firma? Of course not. Do failure and missteps reflect the history of academic knowledge production? Yes. Yet, the initiate must produce original research, but not too original…the tidy kind, with all the threads tied together that gets put on the shelf. The same standards do not and cannot apply to academics.

Boyd, unlike Rhett, left doctoral study before flogging away for seven years, when he received a B+. Boyd had poured his heart into elucidating an, as yet unforeseen, original connection between two Canterbury Tales, in a paper.

Boyd’s feedback said if he’d cited more outside sources, the paper would have been an A. Boyd concluded that the {feedback/program/methods of academia} were ‘not leading him where he wanted to go’ (p.113). So Boyd ‘dropped out.’ The discipline excited Boyd, but not academia. So he left. Fair enough.

Yet couldn’t Boyd’s foray into the world of doctoral education have been headed off by communication around the academic values of doctoral education? At orientation and in courses, a department could mandate a discussion with students about ‘quality’ (Sadler, 2010; Davies, 2011, Price et al, 2010). Using exemplars, students could be shown a number of graded papers. Let’s consider a paper worthy of an A. Notice the references. Notice the treatment of references shows a deep comprehension of the arguments advanced and contests conclusions/methods/ assumptions etc. Notice the cogent argumentation, this lovely turn of phrase, the thin red line of argument that connects all text, how the conclusion draws upon the introduction and comments on the questions it raised, the chunking, etc. Notice this other paper here that seizes upon a new relation between two of the Canterbury Tales. It’s a B+. Notice that the literature review in context of the new insight would benefit from greater command of the literature. With such discussion, students and faculty engage in a dialogue which focuses energy use and skill development toward alignment with that elusive thing called quality.

A less punitive, learning-oriented practice would be the use of ‘feedforward’ as opposed to feedback within a program. Students receive the feedback that normally accompanies a paper after grading, but must resubmit the paper for re-grading to encourage immediate uptake of feedback. So feedback functions like feedforward. Such is the stuff that real learning is made of. Maybe Boyd would have stayed in the program with this kind of marking practice. (Nothing, save deadlines, is stopping any student from asking for feedforward).

Marking students down on the basis of assumed competencies, undisclosed standards, and unfair assessments is the stuff law suits are made on. Rhett and Boyd might have filed a law suit instead of taking it on the chin. Academia gets it both ways according to this self-serving logic. If a student fails, it’s the student’s fault, if the student succeeds, the program takes credit.

I wonder what the department and supervisors thought, said, did after Rhett and Boyd’s departures? Did anyone even care? Might the private thoughts have resembled this, “Oh Rhett ‘dropped-out.’ I hadn’t noticed. Another one bites the dust. Great now there’s room for another. Next… ” Or perversely… “Doesn’t all this dropping out make us look good? Our program is so difficult. We have high standards. Out program is not for the faint of heart. Not just anyone gets through you know, only about 50%.”

When the sub-text of the program needs students to fail to add mystique, doctoral education becomes not so much an academic pursuit, as a down and dirty, defensive initiation rite. It’s just a question of who puts through whom.



Watch for the next fabrications in fabrication nation… Connoisseurship (Or how to build capacity with students to appreciate the intricacies of academic work) & When to be a Learner and When to be a student?


Davies, A. (2011). Making classroom assessment work. Solution Tree. 555 North Morton Street, Bloomington, IN 47404.

Lovitts, B. E. (2001). Leaving the Ivory Tower: The Causes and Consequences of Departure from Doctoral Study. Rowman & Littlefield.

Price, M., Handley, K., Millar, J., & O’Donovan, B. (2010). Feedback: All that effort, but what is the effect?. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(3), 277-289. DOI: 10.1080/02602930903541007

Sadler, R. (2010). Beyond feedback: Developing student capacity in complex appraisal. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(5), 535-550. DOI: 10.1080/02602930903541015




By: SheriO
Posted: May 5, 2013, 7:48 am