Some Suggestions for Improving the Humanities Dissertation and Defence at McGill

by Jonathan Sterne on February 2, 2015

…or at least the dissertation in Communication Studies.

How do you improve the dissertation and the defence?  A few weeks back, the faculty members in Communication Studies at McGill met to talk about the graduate curriculum and these topics came up.  But some changes we would like to make would be impossible in the current system.  Right now dissertations and defences at MCGill are governed by a set of regulations imposed by the Graduate and Professional Studies Office at McGill.  In addition to writing to Dean Martin Kreiswirth (who to be completely fair, seems quite open to reform–I don’t want to make it sound like we’re “fighting the man” here), I decided to post these comments publicly in case they would be of use or interest to others either at McGill or at other institutions.

I want to be clear that a) our proposals for the COMS PhD are still in the discussion stage–nothing’s been adopted yet (and some may be impossible to do) and b) the opinions expressed below are solely mine. (I am not speaking for the CS faculty.)

Background for non-McGill people: McGill’s thesis rules are an interesting hybrid of American and European models.  So some of these rules may seem bizarre if you come from one or another system.  But that’s McGill for you — a strange hybrid of American and European bureaucracy.  Within our own universe at one time or another all these procedures made sense.  Some still do, like the pro-dean, and some do not, which is the purpose of my discussion below.  I’ve got full details on some distinctive aspects of the McGill PhD and defence process after my comments below if more background is needed.


1. At our retreat, we discussed restructuring the defence as a public talk.  The student would give a 40-45 minute talk that would be more like a dissertation summary that could be used in a job talk or as the basis for a précis-type article. I  realize not all doctoral students are going on to be academics, but a public lecture would be a more substantial way to honour the expertise they’ve earned, and it would also allow community members (friends or other students) real grounds to participate.  It’s also a good bet they will have to make presentations no matter what they do in life.

The idea would be: the student gives a public talk, committee members each ask a question in turn, then we move onto broader audience discussion.  Perhaps committee members would have to provide at least a short written response as well that the student could digest in good time.  The internal report and external report would stay the same as they are now and students would be able to revise their theses after the defence as per current custom (when needed).  This ventures pretty far from the guidelines sent to pro-deans at the moment (I just read the new ones while pro-deaning in cosmology) and we couldn’t do it unilaterally without pro-deans arriving with proper instructions.

Right now, defences are organized under the illusion that they are tests.  But after something like 60 dissertation defences, I can’t honestly say that I believe testing is their primary function.  They are largely ceremonial, though often they do help guide suggested revisions to the thesis. (Our proposed formal still provides for that.) And often students aren’t in a position to really hear or make use of the feedback they receive in defences. The event itself is an exceptional exercise, unlike other things they will be asked to do in their careers. The proposed idea above makes it more like other kinds of academic work in the humanities, and public work besides.

2. Because of the committee and funding systems we are moving to, GPS needs to get rid of “not close” requirements for committee members or at least relax them.  Right now, McGill requirements are that a majority of the dissertation defence committee members must not have been closely involved with the student or thesis research.


The “arm’s length” requirements are based on the idea that only people not involved in a student’s education can be objective enough to judge a thesis.  This is out of step with common practice. Most American and Canadian humanities programs expect that a committee (or  large portion of it) has been engaged seriously with the student at many different times before the defence, and in some cases, consistently throughout the program.  This also appears to be the norm in humanistic Communication Studies programs in the US and Canada.

Right now the “arms length” requirements lead to a situation potentially detrimental to the student.  For example: Communication Studies is moving to a 3-person committee system so the student cultivates relationships with faculty members (this has been happening informally but it is something we aim to formalize).  This is not a “supervisory committee”–we maintain sole supervisors–but simply a supervisor and two other faculty who are charged with “looking after” the student for progress tracking and consultation purposes throughout their program–again, something that is super common in humanities programs in US universities.

While not all students go on to academic jobs, I know of no situation where a student would not benefit from having references from three people who know that student well and are interested in that student’s progress during in-program time.  Under current rules, you have a situation where either letter-writers must not be present at the defence, or you need a 7-person committee.  Neither is a good idea.  Both are bad for the student and bad for the professors.  A 7-person committee leads to too many cooks in the kitchen for the student, and in small programs like ours leads to either a lot of work by core faculty or a lot of calling in favours (or owing them).

Additionally, the conflict of interest guidelines for internal reports are too strict, especially as we are moving to a 4-year funding guarantee.  It is entirely conceivable that in the new committee and funding system, a student might work as a research assistant and even co-publish with two committee members besides the supervisor.  Many of us in Communication Studies are getting more and more likely to credit RAs as co-authors or even actively collaborate with them in writing–more of a science or medicine model for publication (and again good for students).  Suddenly, none of those people can write the internal report because it is a “conflict of interest,” even though the internal report is a great first draft for a letter of recommendation.  Again, we’re in a position of wasting faculty labor and removing people most qualified to comment on the thesis from commenting on it.  I can hear a potential response being “but the student should hear outside opinions.”  Yes, of course, they should, which is why we encourage all of our students to publish and present their work at conferences and almost all of them do.  After over 60 defences, I know for certain that the defence is not the best time or situation for that, and it’s tremendously taxing on faculty resources in a high-achieving department like ours where faculty are working with lots of students and colleagues, traveling all over the world, and in high demand from professional organizations, all while maintaining a significant graduate program.  If this was actually for the purposes of mentorship or education of the student, I could see doing it, but that is simply not the case.

3. Current guidelines about the form of the dissertation are much too strict.  We need more flexibility about format and a strong commitment to fair dealing on the part of the thesis office.  
With multimodal platforms like SCALAR coming into wider use in the humanities, it is entirely conceivable that a student could write a solidly argued, coherent and smart humanities PhD thesis that does not follow a linear, consecutive pagination model, and which actively incorporates audio-visual material other than still images, some produced by the student and some produced by others and marked up under fair dealing.  Although all dissertations at McGill are primarily digital documents at this point, there is no provision for these kinds of things to be in the document, and the GPS guidelines for dissertation format are so structured and limiting that they actually mitigate against multimodal scholarship.  I just taught a digital humanities oriented seminar on sound studies and visual culture and with the existing guidelines in place, I’m left in the position of telling students “this is the direction your work should go if you’re working with multimedia material as a research object or if you produce it as part of your research, except for the dissertation.”

Finally, none of this last paragraph is relevant to the discussions above, but I’d add that there some other working assumptions about the PhD in our unviersity-wide discussions that aren’t true.  For instance, in the recent IPLAI report on the future of the PhD (and note that I would have been at that public discussion had it not been scheduled again a Media@McGill conference I had organized), it is clear that the assumption is that dissertations are not generally completed under some kind of deadline duress.  But most appear to be.  Not all by any measure, but especially with the drastically shortened times to completion we now expect (because of Quebec funding, not pedagogy), more and more theses will be completed under deadline duress. I am also concerned about the abandonment of scholarship recommended by some parts of that document (a teaching portfolio is not a PhD), but that it for another conversation.

[end of edited letter]

Some provisions that might be unfamiliar to people not at McGill (you can skip this part if you work at or attend McGill):

–> we have something called a pro-dean, a person from another faculty who runs the defence.  This separate the event-management from the intellectual dealings, which is great.  Assistant profs don’t have to reign in cranky senior colleagues (yes, I’ve seen this happen at other universities without the pro-dean).  That’s why I ran a defence last week in Cosmology–which was really cool to do and I had some great conversations with scientists afterward.  Yes, we still don’t know what happened before the Big Bang.  Glad I cleared that up.

–> Our theses all have to have reports written on them before the defence.  One report comes from an internal examiner who is not the supervisor and one comes from someone at another university.  This insures that theses are defensible before they are defended.  It is a big hassle and a lot of work but I kind of like it anyway, and the student gets substantial written feedback, which is important (and let’s face it, by the time you submit, you know what your advisor/thesis supervisor thinks).

 –> dissertation defences are governed by a strict set of rules.  Committees have be a majority of people not connected with the work leading to the thesis, and dissertation defences must follow a fairly standard protocol, involving a public introduction by the student, followed by two rounds of questions from committee members, followed by (sometimes) audience questions.

–> provincial funding is tied to student enrolment here, which means PhD student have very strict deadlines for completion.  In other words, Quebec gives McGill a certain amount of money for each grad student enrolled, but only for a fixed period of time.  That means that the university has a financial interest in short times to completion.  While I’m not a fan of the 11-year-thesis plan, the administration now considers it aberrant (to the point of kicking the student out) if the thesis takes more than six years from initial enrolment in the PhD.  While students can still finish (and re-enrol to deposit the thesis), this has drastic implications for students’ access to deferments of loans, acquiring additional financial aid, and let’s face it, getting kicked out of school is bad for self-esteem.  The last study I saw said it’s 7 years on average to the PhD across the humanities, and some kinds of PhDs take longer.  Language learning, for instance, is not something that can be “hurried along” and archival research and ethnography take time and money.  I moved through my MA and PhD in six year combined, but I don’t actually expect my PhD students to be the same person I was.  Personally, I really regret not being required to (and fulfilling the requirement to) master another language for scholarship.  My career is poorer for it, though I am good at statistics (we had a quant methods requirement, but I learned most of my stats as an undergrad).

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