While cleaning out 30 boxes of files accumulated over many years, I came across an article by Neil Postman, which though long-misplaced, was fondly remembered. Postman provides a humorous, but all too true account of the doctoral oral examination.
As he says, he rarely pays attention to “the content of an Oral – for example, what the dissertation is about or what idea the candidate is defending. [His] attention is always directed toward what the Oral is really about, namely, the conduct of relationships, obedience to authority.”
Here are a few excerpts, but I recommend reading the whole piece:
- When the Orals begin, the door to the room is closed…like the closing of the main hatch of a submarine. Those inside are sealed off…from the rest of the world.
- Eating during an orals is a breach of the system in that it not only dilutes the solemnity of the occasion but it reminds people that there are needs in life other than the passing of orals… [One candidate] brought with him a styrofoam cupful of chocolate ice cream which he sensuously engulfed as if he were replaying a scene from Tom Jones…it was a symptom of a general insensitivity to the nature of the occasion, and he was flunked without regret.
- an attitude which combines concentration with slight bewilderment is about perfect.
- leaning one’s elbows on the table, with fingers resting on one’s temples is very good, especially when accompanied by an intense frown.
- Those who ask convergent questions are usually interested in the dissertation. Those who ask divergent questions are usually interested in the candidate. With the exception of very few of my colleagues, no one is much interested in ideas. (Those who are, of course, have never really understood the functions of an oral examination.)
- questions [from the candidate] such as, “Why do you want to know that?” or “Are you quite sure you have your facts right?” are monstrous, and will bring down upon the candidate the full weight of the combined insecurities of the professors.
- professors not only ask questions; they also make little speeches as prefaces to their questions…From the candidate’s point of view, these speeches are of no consequence since they are designed for the attention of other professors…The candidate would do well to appear interested but can put the time to good use by relaxing and trying to order his thoughts.
- the oral examination is a serious test of how well a young scholar understands the structure of this and, by extension, other academic situations.
Postman, Neil (1978). Final orals: In defense of a thesis. The Gadfly, pp. 2-5. (the Littoral Press, iSSN 0160-1237)