Rites de passage: judging a doctorate for the first time

As said last post, as 2017, when the world was quite different, rolled around, I began the year by examining my first doctorate. Pretty much as soon as the public transport started working again, in fact, I was on my way to Cambridge. Now, in fact, the thesis was fine; I’ve not yet been placed in the position of examining a thesis that wasn’t more or less OK, thankfully, and if and when I am I doubt I’ll write about it here.1 When I say it was fine, I mean our biggest objection as examiners was that there was more in it about elephants than was strictly speaking required by the topic, but I want to reflect on the actual process a bit, just because it is a set of rituals not shared everywhere and merits reflection.

Sam Ottewill-Soulsby speaking to the Medieval History Seminar, University of Cambridge

Sam Ottewill-Soulsby, discoursing on ‘”Useless Peace”: Carolingian-Umayyad Diplomacy, 810-820’, for the University of Cambridge in 2014; click through to find it as a podcast…

In the first place, my involvement in this was very much being stepped back into old networks. The person being examined was Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, seen above, whom I had met at seminars at the Institute of Historical Research and who had also helped put on a conference three years before at which I presented. I was co-examining with someone I’d known for much longer, Dr Marios Costambeys, of the University of Liverpool but who, because of holding his doctorate from Cambridge, allowed to function as internal examiner there. Meanwhile I was the external, who has the easier job (as I now know): all the external has to do is read the thesis, write a report, sit in a room with the candidate for a couple of hours talking about their thesis, decide the judgement with the internal examiner, inform the candidate and then write up actions for the candidate if necessary, and then hand the rest over to the internal examiner for dealing with, take one’s honorarium and go home. Given the timing, I was reading Sam’s thesis over the Christmas holiday and New Year, but I have had worse tasks to take away to relatives to pore over while everyone else is celebrating the change of the calendar, and this task got much easier once it became clear that the thesis was going to be perfectly possible to pass.

Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, from Wikimedia Commons

Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, photograph by Ardfernown work, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, naturally enough we had arguments and quibbles here and there. Sam’s topic was ‘Carolingian Diplomacy with the Islamic World’, which necessitated at least some examination of early medieval elephants in order to understand what would, at the time, have been understood by it when Caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd, of Arabian Nights fame, sent Charlemagne a lone bull elephant whose name was Abul ‘Abbas, this being a historical thing that actually happened between the real historical persons of those names in the late ninth century.2 It just, maybe, didn’t need quite as much about elephants as Sam had put in. We advised him to cut that back and pour out his elephantine concerns in a separate article.3 I was interested in deconstructing a distinction Sam was making between diplomacy of necessity (intended to produce an outcome between the two parties) and diplomacy of prestige (intended to impress and make you look splendid but not necessarily to change anything), on the grounds that some embassies could do both; as Sam pointed out, the other option is deliberate disengagement, which can also be pursued for different reasons. Marios was interested in what Sam thought he was adding to our overall picture of the Carolingian world, to which Sam’s answer was that Charlemagne and his court were much more capable of handling contradictions in their attitudes and philosophy than our own tradition of analysis by logic and categories makes easy for us to understand; that seemed to me and still seems to me a big point, which if we could grasp properly would help us understand these worlds better. In general, to whatever we asked, Sam had good answers, which is roughly what is supposed to happen in this exercise, and we were able to pass his thesis with only a few recommended corrections, which he completed in pretty short order and thereafter, once the University bureaucracy had processed Marios’s acknowledgement of that fact, he was and is entitled to call himself Dr Ottewill-Soulsby, and richly and rightly deserved too.

The School of History, University College London

The School of History, University College London

Still, it is strange to reflect upon. In 2006, in a room in University College London, I went through this same process as examinee, with quite a similar outcome (and I then got on a train to Brighton to see Clutch play with Stinking Lizaveta in support, got more than a little drunk and finally collapsed happily in what I then thought was the best company in the world, and it was really a very good day in my life).4 Then I went back to working in a museum for nearly five years, at last got an academic job, briefly went back into museums and then got my job at Leeds, and that last, along with having got through the process myself, now qualified me to judge whether someone else should be allowed to set out on this somewhat shaky bridge into academia, if they want to. My having some knowledge of Sam’s field was obviously also important, but it’s not the only qualification required. Consider also that, if they’ve done it right, the person being examined knows a lot more about the topic than the persons examining do; part of the job of the viva is almost to make sure of that. At the same time, it is ‘only’ an examination of a piece of written work done for a degree qualification, not a golden key to academic employment or anything. The fact that this process is the only summative assessment of a multi-year project means that the sunk costs and aspirations in it are huge but don’t change what it actually is. But nonetheless, it can mean somebody’s world. I’m very glad that the first one I was asked to do was possible to pass so uncontentiously. Thanks, Sam; you were not the only one performing a rite de passage in that room, and you made it a lot easier for both of us than it might have been…

1. I’m now up to four, because that’s what this blog’s backlog looks like. Each will be told a little of in its due season, though, because all their respective victors deserve their time on the podium.

2. On which, apart of course from Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “Carolingian Diplomacy with the Islamic World” (Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge University, 2017), pp. 83-92, you could profitably see Leslie Brubaker, “The Elephant and the Ark: Cultural and Material Interchange across the Mediterranean in the Eighth and Ninth Centuries” in Dumbarton Oaks Papers Vol. 58 (Washington DC 2004), pp. 175–195, or more broadly Paul Edward Dutton, Charlemagne’s Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age (New York City 2004), pp. 43-68.

3. It must be said that no elephantine article has yet come forth, but what has is Samuel Ottewill-Soulsby, “The Camels of Charles the Bald” in Medieval Encounters Vol. 25 (Leiden 2019), pp. 263–292, if that’s any use to you instead…

4. The matter of that day then being Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia” (Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 2005), online here, as well of course as Clutch, Robot Hive / Exodus (DRT Entertainment 2005) and Stinking Lizaveta, Caught Between Worlds (At A Loss 2004), among others of their works.

8 responses to “Rites de passage: judging a doctorate for the first time

  1. An important part of your job is to ensure that it was written by the student and not his supervisor. At least that’s my experience in Science. If the student is just being His Master’s Voice, how is his contribution to be judged? It follows that the easy ones to judge include those where you think “This young shaver must have done the work himself because it’s away over the head of Prof Snooks”.

    On the day the first task is to encourage the candidate to relax so that he can do himself credit. “I did enjoy reading your dissertation” is a decent beginning.

    • That last was no problem on this occasion, and the young shaver in question was working well outside his supervisor’s core expertise. The last of these I did, some day to be recorded here, I started by praising the presentation, just because it was darn near perfect; I’d spotted two typos, and I used to moonlight as a copy-editor. He was justly proud of that, and it got things off on the right foot. In the other two I’ve done, however, very different procedures made that kind of nicety impossible. This, also, will be described in due course…

  2. The oddest PhD exam I’ve taken part in happened in Oz. We gathered: the candidate, his supervisor, an Internal Examiner, an External (me), and a neutral umpire (not the exact title but that was the gist of his job.)

    The supervisor was pretty disciplined at not intruding, perhaps because it was good work and the candidate defended it well.

    The ump came from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, obviously able but ignorant of the field. In fact he found the work fascinating; I had to restrain the examination from turning into an enthusiastic discussion group trying to guess how the results might be adapted for use by vets. All good fun.

    My second memorable exam happened in a large London science and technology “College” famed for its arrogance and claim to high standards. I was the External; the Internal was head of the department’s largest and richest research group – of which the student and his supervisor were members. The supervisor attended too.

    The student was capable and had evidently done a lot of work. Alas, he had based everything an axiom that The Group all hewed to. I explained why it had to be wrong. The Internal and the supervisor grasped the point and didn’t argue. Though they did complain that my argument wasn’t more widely known!

    So I had to tell the poor lad that he’d have to do a lot of new work and resubmit. I gave him what encouragement I could. It rankled. The fault lay with his seniors but the lad had gone along uncritically so he had to pay the price. There but for the grace of God …

    • Lord, I’m not sure I’d have had the brass to take the second path, but then my field is one where right and wrong would be very hard to establish at that axiomatic level. I sometimes wonder if we even have axioms in history that aren’t just our own cultural wiring buried under the intellect. I can come up with derived certainties, even what I’d say were pretty much hard-and-fast rules about societies work, more easily than I can axioms. The first, I have thankfully avoided but can imagine much more easily.

  3. Oh well, I’m confident that you’d have failed Disraeli’s wife.

    She, you might recall, could never remember who came first, the Greeks or the Romans.

  4. Pingback: What Type of Elephant did Charlemagne Have? – The Historian's Sketchpad

  5. Pingback: Carrying Things to War in Frankish Gaul | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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