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How to be an external examiner

I’m going on sabbatical in six and a half weeks (who’s counting?) and as a result I’m on a mad throw-out binge trying to clear out my office for a fresh start.

I found, among many, many other surprises, a copy of the external examiner’s report on my own doctoral dissertation. I’ve blanked all recollection of this from my mind since 2004 and I was nervous as I sat to read it. It’s about two-and-half pages of single-spaced text, that’s really evenhanded in its assessment. First off, in retrospect I’m impressed that we got such a well-known external. Scott Bukatman was a get. Thanks, Heather! Second, when I posted about finding this, on Twitter, some people expressed a profound unknowing about what an external examiner’s report should be. And it’s true: no one trains professors to do these. I wasn’t trained. Many students are never allowed to see the reports (at the University of Waterloo, it is at the external’s discretion whether the report can be shared with the candidate, with a presumption of not, and if yes, only after the defence has taken place.) I have never seen a guide on how to write one, but sooner or later most of us with tenure will be examining theses, and this work is too high-stakes and too important to leave to chance.

Lucky me that I was the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies for three years. In that time, I saw every report on every dissertation, probably something like 20 in total. I had seen a few before that, including for students I supervised and whose committees I was on. I have also examined several myself, now, so I know what it’s like to write them.

The best reports are formative as much as they are summative–that is, they seek to teach as much as to manage the gates, if you will. Especially if revisions will be required, it’s important to be clear and proactive in expressing not just what the dissertation fails to do, or what it does wrong, but also in suggesting a path forward. Perhaps a dissertation clocks in at 500 pages–easy enough to say “This is far too long and it must be shortened”. But better to say instead “This dissertation is overlong and should be reduced in length. Chapters 2 and 3 largely repeat the same point, while all the other chapters are distinct from one another–perhaps the candidate could condense these two into one. Other chapters spend too much time rehashing what has just been written: substantially reducing the preamble for each chapter would make this a stronger dissertation, and a more appropriate length.” Don’t worry–there’s always check boxes where you essentially give a grade to the whole dissertation, so the force of your judgement will be very visible.

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Don’t let the cat help write the report; she’s really mean.

The best reports make detailed and specific reference to the text in framing their feedback on the dissertation as a whole. Such information, which normally the examining committee sees ahead of time, will give everyone a sense of the particular issues you might raise in a defence, and are later useful in guiding student revision. Saying something like, “This is written in a very flat style that makes the main argument difficult to care about” might be true, but imagine a candidate trying to understand what that means as she contemplates the 500 pages in front of her and thinks about how to address that criticism. More helpful might be something like, “The candidate employs passive verbs throughout, and sentences of nearly uniform length and construction, which makes this text less dynamic than it could be. Also, by mostly foregrounding the secondary criticism at the fronts of chapters, sections, and even paragraphs, the candidate is hiding her own ideas by placing them in much less prominent positions.” That is feedback that gives clear direction for improvement.

The best reports balance kindness and generosity with critique. When, as a professor of 13 years standing and frequent receiver of reports from Reviewer 2, I read the comments I’ve made up above, I am applauding my own pedagogical astuteness, but a candidate is going to receive them like this: “My external examiner thinks my dissertation is too long and I’m a bad writer and I don’t have any original ideas and I’m an idiot and she hates me.” I mean, that’s how I read Bukatman’s comments on my own dissertation at the time, but I see now, he was right about everything, and at the core, he was also very generous and full of praise though that was nearly impossible for me to see. It is your job as an examiner, then, to find some praiseworthy elements of the flatly-written, over-sourced, too-long 500 page dissertation you’re examining. Perhaps you can say, “The candidate’s secondary and primary research is clearly extensive, comprehensive, and well-nigh encyclopedic: this is to be applauded, and speaks to the great care with which this project has been handled.” Perhaps you can say, “Despite some infelicities of writing and construction, there are very clear original contributions to the field in this work: Cute Animal Studies will benefit from this deeply researched and minutely argued case for the Bassett Hound as ‘the next Corgi’ and I encourage the candidate, once suitable revisions are made, to share this work in a series of articles in refereed journals.” Perhaps you can say, “The candidate has show great skill in marshalling and explaining a hugevariety of sources in this work, evidencing a clear eye for both detail and a strong instinct for categorization.” Those portions of your review which aim to praise should have no clauses that undermine this praise–no buts. You have plenty of other sentences for that.

The best reports are attentive to the institutional norms of the host university. Each university has rules about formatting, about length, about what the different “grades” you can assign mean in that institutional context, about timelines, about length and detail required in the report, about responsibilities for attending a defence. Scrupulously attend to these, even if no one tells you what they are–it’s easy to Google this stuff, and you save needless back and forth if, for example, you are about to fail a dissertation for being too short at 150 pages, but that is considered well within the acceptable range at the university in question. A lot of stress arises from cross-institution mis-communication. This is especially true for international projects. Look it up. Save someone (possibly yourself) from a lot of gray hair and stress.

The best reports are complete and handed in on time. Period. Someone’s tuition, graduate career, and professional opportunities are at stake. At my university, most pragmatically, there are hard cut-off dates for graduation requests, as well as staggered full- and partial-tuition-refund deadlines. Please do not dally. It can cost thousands of dollars for the candidate.

The best reports are long enough to offer meaningful feedback. Usually, these can run between three and six single-spaced pages of text. That’s a good guideline.

For junior report writers, the best advice I can give you is to read as many reports as you can get your hands on. Ask if your department has any you can see. Ask your friendly colleagues in your department or in your field if you can see reports they’ve written. Exposure to a range of (anonymized) reports will go a long way to help you accustom yourself to the genre. The stakes are very high, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t admit you don’t know what you’re doing–it means you have every right to ask for guidance. I hope this little guide helps. Faculty who’ve done this a lot, do you have anything to add?

Next week, maybe I’ll write about how to conduct yourself at a defence, if you like?


Funny story. I have read probably six dissesertations in part or in whole since July. I was getting salty about it, and went to recalibrate my own expectations by looking at my own dissertation, which has sat unmolested on its shelf for more than a decade. I was looking to have a moment of hubris pricked–what I found instead was that it was way better than I remembered it and after discussing it on Facebook with a wide variety of people, I’ve lightly rewritten and sent it off, all 85,612 words, to an academic publisher. So, honestly, you never know what benefit you’ll get from reading other people’s dissertations, is the upshot of this wee anecdote.

academy · empowerment · enter the confessional · fast feminism · generational mentorship · heavy-handed metaphors · ideas for change · midcareer

Pivot Point: Mid Career Feminist Academic

Sometime between earning tenure and right now, something important shifted. Instead of asking for signatures, I began to provide them. Instead of putting my name on the ballot for the committee, I became its chair. Instead of asking for orientation and guides to processes, I am now providing them. Instead of standing up for my principles in someone else’s meeting, I am setting the agenda for everyone. Instead of paying to go to conferences, I am invited to present. Instead of responding to CFPs, I am responding to invitations. It has become the case that I am teaching grad courses where half the assigned readings are by people I know personally, and some of the pieces cite work of my own. It’s weird.

Sometimes I look in the mirror and I’m surprised to see my 42 year old face looking out at me. I feel like a fresh young upstart, a rookie. Like a grad student sometimes. I feel like I’m starting out, still trying to figure out how everything works. An outsider.

This is all bullshit, and terrible feminism, to boot. Such a perspective enables me to avoid acknowledging the actual privilege and power that have attached to me over time. It’s flattering to my self-image to see myself bravely storming the barricades around the Ivory Tower. The truth is that at some point, I became an inhabitant safely ensconced on the protected side of the moat. The truth is that I guard the gates now.

This is a pivot point. The point where I acknowledge that while I’m still reaching for greater heights, I’m kind of holding the brass ring, and while still reaching as ably and confidently as I can manage, I need to release my grip a little so that others can grab a little piece of it too.

I’m not sure how to do this. I’ve climbed the Ivory Tower to the position I currently occupy by some combination of luck, timing, doggedness, self-promotion, faked confidence, and an always upthrust hand waiting to grab the microphone. It has taken a certain amount of tenacity and single-mindedness. But now, I have some small measure of power and control not only over myself but over others. My core values have, if anything, become more radical, and my critiques more pointed–I’ve had a lot of time to get smarter. However, it needs acknowledging that my relations to others–to people, to structures, to institutions, has radically shifted over time. This will necessitate some changes in how I act. It will also necessitate some changes to how I understand my own academic subjectivity–I’ll tell you frankly that it’s ideologically expedient to see myself as a rebel outsider rather than an agent of the institution of power.

I do know I need to acknowledge my own power and position not so much to seize it more fully (I was always already leaning into it, from junior kindergarden forward) but to wield it more lightly. To fight less hard to take up space as a the dragon-slaying rebel, but learn instead to use my dragony fire breath to make the clearing a little larger for more rebels to set up larger and better camps, use my wings to shelter them. I’m kind of discovering what that means, in practice.

I would love to hear from other mid-career faculty: what are your pivot points? How do you cope? What are your strategies for wielding power and influence for the cause of equity, or justice, or change from the inside rather than the outside?