Malcolm Quinn and Stephen Scrivener: Viva Workshops

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Supporting Text: How not to write a PhD thesis How Not to Write a PhD Thesis by Tara Brabazon
See also Quinn's handout. You can download it here.


Stephen's opening comments:

  • Vivas often go straight into the detail; candidates don't get asked these questions directly
  • But answering them helps the candidate build her defense
  • Four things to consider:

One: The Thesis

  • Best defense = strong thesis - If it isn't constructed in the right way, your viva will be a challenge
  • When you're constructing the thesis you must develop a critical friend = someone who develops/considers the claims you're making, the arguments you're making
  • Three things:
    • The thesis needs to be clear, you need to understand everything in your own thesis and not use gaps; even when the form is very creative, it must be clear
    • You're telling a story and it's important the person who is reading understand...and this means taking the reader with you
    • Definitions often presents problems. Get used to actually using/making definitions. Though you can't conclude these things, you can define what they mean for your thesis...there are certainly other definitions but the definition in your thesis is just a placeholder (though perhaps more). The definition of terms is good in one sense and problematic in another = good because they're specific; problematic because they're specific - the candidate needs to be clear about what she's excluded.

Two: Examiners' Process

  • Examiners want to see the person get the PhD, want to learn something, want to enjoy the most examiners have a positive view about what they're doing.
  • The Wittgenstein paper is really interesting in a specific way: If you publish a book that's difficult to understand, it will take a very long time to be understood...and so it probably won't be viva-ready.
  • Your readers usually spend four days reading the thesis. It's a particular kind of text that invites a particular kind of read.
  • Make it very easy for the examiners - don't make them work too hard. It's a story: "There is a body of knowledge, there is a confusion, contradiction, lack, I'm addressing this...this is what I did, this what I found and these are the limits..". A lot of what you're doing in a PhD is showing you're in command...You know the debates that concern your thesis...Here we have the landscape...
  • How would you like the examination to actually happen? We're not making the practical work visible enough. Your supervisors can negotiate with the examiners about how the examination will be set up.
  • Contribution to knowledge = it's small = consider the limitations of what you've done. If you define something in a certain narrowing the field, you have to confidently excluded a lot..."Having done this, I would like to expand the scope...". May people fail to say what they think they're going to do in the future; this is a neglect to your peers. There's a certain obligation to be generous towards the future.
  • Look at the new regulations = 75% of the people Stephen has examined have major corrections. It's not always that it's a bad thesis but as an examiner you see it could be much stronger...most examiners approach with good will...Minor corrections: something you can specify...revising Chapter Three is a major correction. When it comes to minor corrections, the examiner asks herself: "If I didn't get the corrections back at all, would I pass this?" Then it's a question of trust. Things have changed; we're not now able as academics to be so trusting. Minor changes are unambiguous.
  • Don't have proofing problems; have your thesis professionally proofed.

Three: The Viva Process

  • In your viva, you'll be brought in and introduced to your examiners. In many contexts, you're asked to give a brief description of what your contribution to knowledge is...but in our context, because there's quite a subjective element to the thesis, often examiners will ask you to say something about what led you to this point...How did you get here and what do you think you've learned from doing it? It's a phatic exchange; it's just about making people feel comfy. Keep it snappy. It's the ice breaker.
  • You can't really say how it will work, but generally it works by going through the story. There's a general discussion and then people will go to the thesis and start going through the thesis step by step.
  • It usually takes about two hours. You'll then be asked if you have any questions. This is your chance to come back to something you don't feel is well articulated. Or maybe you haven't yet touched on your crown jewels and you want to mention.
  • Expect at least 30 - 45 mins between the time you leave the room after your examination and when you're called back for the "results". If you don't know if it's going to be a good result or a bad result you haven't done the thing right from the beginning. Examiners have five days to complete the report and then it goes to research committee and so you'll 2-3 weeks get the report.
  • Sociologists like to have a sense of where you're coming from (world view)? Often the field is difficult to define. You may need to discuss that. Your mastery is also demonstrated in what cannot be mastered. Your field is often a construct. "The official discourse on 1995 and I' talking about it like this...because..."
  • Assume you have an examiner who will chase up every single reference; they must be perfect.
  • You can use authorities in the wrong way and it can be a weak argument. "I'll take this because it suits me...".
  • "I realize that what I'm doing carries risks, I realize what the risks are...But here are the reasons why this had to be done this way...and this why I did take certain risks with the field of inquiry...".
  • Theory and practice division is irritating...
  • You're obligated to give examiners a surprise in some sense. Stephen says that as an examiner, he's quite happy if he's have been surprised by something and I have the beginning (an early sense) of why I'm surprised...I found something very exciting as a film, even though I didn't know what made it exciting. The reason why I was there was the methodological aspects...And buddy had relied to Stephen a lot. As a piece of work, that worked really well...but then what he actually worked with...was in the text...His thesis was much more of an explanation...and the film theorist knew what was different...feature film compressed into ten minutes. Also using typography in an original way in the film. His thesis wasn't an argument...but it was an explanation but not an explanation that replaced the film. The examiners should be able to answer the question: "How is the work interesting and surprising?" "I hadn't thought of it that way..." So if you're focusing it around the practical work, it has to do most of the work...
  • You need to give reasons for your selections...
  • There's also a balance to be first and then text...examiners may not wish to feel controlled.
  • We don't have such a close relationship with our examiners.
  • Wittgenstein's thesis: What can be shown and what can be said...
  • What you put in for examination is put in in cold blood. If, like Wittgenstein, you think you're good enough, you may say: "Here's why I didn't use sources."...It's the Hegelian master slave thesis
  • There's an art to bringing your examiners back on topic. You may need to use strategies like: "As I said, it's this...".
  • For me, as an examiner, I've read your thesis. I need to be able to say at the end of the day: What's new about this? And do I believe it?

What's your contribution to knowledge...All these questions circle around this question: We're saying we have to give multiple views and then say how that might work...

  • You need to think that when you say..."I've developed a method," you need to actually demonstrate this.

Malcolm's Comments:

  • Raises the subject of the exam, the person doing the exam and the exam itself = process of self-objectification
  • The problem with the examination. you have to say at the end of the day = I put this up (?)
  • Witt = played a game = if I am a genius...played the power game and won. Neitche slave some sense all PhDs partake in slave morality. Everyone has to stick to the rules. You're not coming in as the person who is the genius at the door. The key to this text is on page 505 - note 24.
  • Main issue here: What can be said and what can be shown.

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