Landing : Athabascau University

Doctoral Education Only Works If it Doesn’t Work

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By Sheri Oberman February 3, 2014 - 9:18am

My previous post was about new thinking in doctoral education and featured two quotes from esteemed thinkers on the subject.

One quote said, “It is also important… that new pedagogies and programs elements be treated as education experiments. They must be carefully assessed and the resulting knowledge shared with those in the field so that good ideas can travel and ineffective pedagogies can be avoided. (Golde, 2007, p. 350)

The other quote from the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate urged doctoral programs to make “a commitment to the ongoing process of improvement: deliberating about purpose, asking questions about effectiveness, gathering evidence to shape improvement over time, and taking action.”

This quote was prefaced by “our message.. is less about particular innovations, successful or not. Successful or not, better not successful.

Sure doctoral programs can experiment, but the culture of doctoral education is about following the tried and untrue format of doctoral education and not changing a thing.

Question the purpose behind the pedagogy of doctoral education? I don’t think this happens.

Where is the ongoing process of improvement within Canadian doctoral programs? I wonder if any graduate school in Canada has instilled an ongoing process of improvement regardless of its benefits. Please tell me if you know of an ongoing process of improvement.

As long as the oral exam caps doctoral programs, I’ll be skeptical as to any questioning of purpose or ongoing process of improvement. I just don’t see how this exam is a reliable and valid instrument. What is it that is assessed anyway? Is it the doctoral candidate or a doctoral candidate’s dissertation or some combination thereof? The oral exam may easily subject the taker to grandstanding, bullying and pettiness. Is it really an initiation ritual into a mid-evil secret society? Do tell us about the contradiction in the footnote on page 100 say the examiners tightening the torture victim in the vice grip of the exam. Besides which oral examination has hardly characterized the doctoral education received by the candidate. How would it then be a fair measure of whatever it measures?

The exam heralds back to the mid-evil roots of the university. The oral exam survived for hundreds of years as a crown to doctoral programs: one of the few traditions of the early university to do so. But the times they are a changin’ for graduate programs.

So claims the Canadian Association of Graduate Studies. “The very practice of research has changed.” Really? You can hardly tell from the typical Canadian doctoral program which is mired in a culture of doctoral studies which has done little to examine its own traditions and processes, to move the dial on its own statistics for attrition and time to completion, or to introduce and study pedagogical experiments.

Doctoral education only works if it doesn’t work. The prevailing ethos of doctoral education in Canada, even with its 450% increase in enrollment in doctoral study and the ever increasing global demand for knowledge producers harkens back to the power of program officials to carry on as if nothing has really changed in the Ivory Tower. A doctoral student faces the dual difficulty of completing original research for the first time within a doctoral program which has failed to examine and correct its own methodology. Doctoral education must be littered with failed attempts, with poor communication, with unexamined traditions so as to be doctoral education.

If the makers of doctoral education had a voice it would say, “Nope we ain’t changing the dance steps. ‘Dey been down der for hundreds a years. Follow ‘em and if you can’t, den you can’t dance.” If this sounds ignorant, that is because it is.

By: SheriO
Posted: February 3, 2014, 9:18 am