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We organised a session somewhere between a seminar and a practice PhD viva. We invited a number of people, some from other departments and other Glasgow universities, mainly staff but some advanced PhD students, but excluding (only) those who might be examiners for it. A draft of the thesis was sent round, but participants were asked only to read the summary and skim any other bits they were interested in. The session began by the student giving a 5 minute summary of the essential argument, and I then put up a single OHP with my summary of the key points, plus the key supports for those points, crammed on to one slide to act as a possible structure for the discussion. Then participants were asked to suggest any horrible objections or questions to the main claims, and to offer possible defences to other people's (or even their own) objections. The student could keep entirely quiet or join in, as seemed best to them.
This proved effective in really testing the main structure of the argument, bringing up points which the student and thesis should address, and suggesting from the participants' varied expertise arguments and bits of the literature useful in dealing with these points. Although it seemed rather cheeky of me to ask for so many expert-hours just to benefit one student of mine, actually this is the kind of thing academics most enjoy (certainly these participants did): not too much preparation, then discussing the important issues underlying a bit of work they were ready to be interested in (not just having to listen to a long talk), not having to give either a detailed or balanced review (or mark), but to raise issues that occurred to them, relying on the group as a whole to provide balance.
I devised this event because of a particular problem I felt I had with this student (every PhD student has a different weakness). She had a great underlying idea for the thesis, adequate work, writes well at least at the level of conference papers, gives a good talk: but the thesis draft looked embarrassingly shallow (in the deep and shallow learning sense). So this was a novel therapy aimed at improving the quality of argument by hearing a concentrated dose of it both for and against key issues, and particularly important as because it is an inter-disciplinary thesis so multiple viewpoints need to be attended to. In fact good points were made that I had failed to make as a supervisor, so I now think it was a valuable enhancement for the student in content as well as function. (And it shows I'm not as good a supervisor as I imagined: at least, not able to generate all the good points a panel can generate in just an hour or two.)
With hindsight, I now think this could have wider application than the particular problem I (thought I) had, and that it could be a useful exercise for any PhD student, perhaps when they've completed their first rough draft. PhD supervision tends to be most geared to polishing the details of method and of writing, and this could be a useful complement, both as practice for the viva and to ensure that the more important arguments pro and con get into the dissertation, where they will add depth to the quality of discussion and defence.
Possibly, even, a form of this exercise could be used elsewhere (probably with fewer outsiders): a debate about the structure of a PhD proposal earlier on e.g. at the end of the first year (get all the other postgrads to contribute?), or even at the end of a set of lectures, where a whole topic could be reconsidered in terms of its most basic arguments, evidence, objections, and supports.
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