Briefly Noted: On the Benefits of Dissertation Defenses (Especially Ones that Involve Paige Patterson, Stanley Hauerwas, Andreas Köstenberger, and David Nelson)

Fetching topic, no? In an article entitled, “The Dissertation Defense: We’re Doing Something Right,” Leonard Cassuto, English professor at Fordham University, describes and defends the benefits of dissertation defenses.[1] His defense of the defense comes in the wake of a recent American trend toward doing away with the defense as a required portion of earning the Ph.D. In fact, Cassuto himself never defended his own dissertation. Rather, his two faculty readers signed a form approving it and he walked the bound manuscript to the registrar and submitted it. “That was that,” he writes.

Against this trend, Cassuto argues that American universities should retain (or in some cases, reinstitute) the dissertation defense as an integral part of doctoral programs. Building upon a 19th-century European tradition which emphasized face-to-face “disputation,” American universities traditionally have required dissertation defenses in order to test the candidates’ abilities and encourage them to make further progress. Cassuto writes, “the plan is not to roast candidates on a spit; they are instead gently warned, encouraged to elaborate on what they know.”

Detractors of the dissertation defense often argue that it is a tired old ritual that is continued merely for the sake of tradition. Cassuto counters, however, that the defense is quite practical. He offers three reasons. First, the committee gets the opportunity to reflect on the student’s work and offer insight on what might come next–publication, further research, etc. Second, defenses offer the soon-to-be doctor a formal welcome to the community of scholars. Third, the faculty gets the chance to tell the student thank you for the opportunity to share in the student’s learning. This last reason is overlooked, but one, Cassuto argues, that should be well remembered.

For what it’s worth, I’ll put my chips in with Cassuto. The dissertation defense is well-worth the three hours’ spent. I’ll never forget my own defense. At the end of my three years’ study in the Ph.D. program at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, having written a dissertation entitled, “Wittgenstein’s Impact on Anglo-American Theology: Representative Models of Response to Wittgenstein’s Later Writings,” I now found myself in a room with three professors who set forth to determine the validity of my argument.

There I sat, at the head of the table in a conference room in the Jacumin-Simpson building, with the sweated anxiety of an Amish kid at a tattoo parlor. Even though my dissertation was sternly structured, detailedly documented, and fanatically footnoted, I was still nervous. There’s nothing like a live disputation, especially if your dissertation committee consists of Paige Patterson, Andreas Köstenberger, and David Nelson. Stanley Hauerwas was my external reader; he was unable to come to the defense but did send a four page, single spaced assessment, which had been placed neatly at his vacant chair.

In my mind, I had played and replayed worst case scenarios, in which my examiners said things like, “Mr. Ashford, after having read your dissertation, I conclude that you have an intellect rivaled only by garden tools,” or “Mr. Ashford, your ignorance is encyclopedic,” or “Mr. Ashford, you dissertation induces in me a catatonic sense of utter tedium. Every time I turned a page, I wondered if your train of thought had a caboose.” In fact, I wanted to open the dissertation defense by saying something like, “Good afternoon gentlemen. I’ve set aside this special time to humiliate myself in public, and I’m honored that you would attend and participate.”

But I digress. In fact, here is what happened: Dr. Köstenberger opened by asking me quite a few questions concerning the implications of Wittgenstein’s philosophy for hermeneutics and biblical interpretation. His questions were helpful because he interrogated me as one who had not only mastered the field of hermeneutics, but also had read the dissertation very carefully. Next, Dr. Nelson asked me questions which arose at the intersection of Wittgenstein and theological method. He pushed me on some of the connections I had made between Wittgenstein and the six major case studies (Lindbeck, Frei, Hauerwas, Kerr, Tracy, and Geisler). Then Dr. Patterson pushed me to evaluate Wittgenstein’s philosophical method, his view of the mind/body problem, and his epistemology. Finally, Dr. Patterson read Dr. Hauerwas’ evaluation, including the questions he would have asked me if he had been there.

In the end, I came away challenged and encouraged. My thesis had been evaluated by several seasoned scholars who helped me to recognize some of the weaker links of my argument, while at the same time pointing out the its strengths and encouraging me to push forward in my field of study. They encouraged me to publish on the topic, and suggested several publishers and venues. They formally welcomed me into the “guild,” the community of scholars who will research, write, and teach theology.

This sort of interaction is invaluable, in my opinion, not only at the PhD level, but also at the bachelor’s and master’s level. This is the reason The College at Southeastern requires our baccalaureate students to take four seminars in the History of Ideas. In these seminars, our 18- and 19-year olds are forced to read books by many of the towering thinkers of time past (e.g Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, Kant, Marx), to write critical theses about those thinkers’ work, and then to defend their theses orally in a seminar with 14 other students and a professor. When it’s done well, these seminars are invaluable for the students’ education. Likewise, this is the reason why we offer master’s level elective seminars in the same format.

Cassuto is right. Something is lost when a community refrains from taking part in constructive communal disputations. Such disputations offer a valuable venue for constructive dialogue and debate, socialization, evaluation, and hopefully encouragement of the student.

 



[1] Leonard Cassuto, “The Dissertation Defense: We’re Doing Something Right” The Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 2, 2012: A47).

 

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  9Comments

  1. David Rathel   •  

    Good post! I agree completely. I remember my ThM defense well. I had to defend my paper in front of Dr. Hammett, Dr. Liederbach, and someone named Dr. Bruce Ashford. Dr. Ashford, I think, had the most fun asking questions and watching me squirm. ;)

  2. Jason B. Hood   •  

    “The College at Southeastern requires our baccalaureate students to take four seminars in the History of Ideas. In these seminars, our 18- and 19-year olds are forced to read books by many of the towering thinkers of time past (e.g Homer, Plato, Shakespeare, Kant, Marx), to write critical theses about those thinkers’ work, and then to defend their theses orally in a seminar with 14 other students and a professor.”

    LOVE IT.

  3. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    David, hey man! Yes, that was fun. I enjoyed every moment of it!

  4. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jason, thanks for jumping in to the convo. Yep, students often don’t immediately embrace the rigor of the reading/disputation format, but by the end of the four seminars, they are much better prepared as in terms of logic, rhetoric, worldview, theology, etc.

  5. Jay bailey   •  

    Bruce, I agree that students would take the easy way out from the rigors of academia and while those of us with medical doctorates aren’t reading Socrates although I did in my undergrad studies we have to stand before the giants in our field and give case reports with treatment solutions and differential diagnoses and defend our diagnosis and treatment regimen while getting systematically challenged and taken apart by our mentors. We then get rebuilt with the proper mindset and with the confidence that we have mastered that particular case. We are the better for that as well as those who come after us and in my case the patients are the benificiary. While our disciplines differ our process is the same.

  6. Lee   •  

    I am currently a M.Div student at SEBTS, but I have all the intentions of pursuing a PhD (I hope at Southeastern). This is a wonderful post on the benefits of a dissertation defense, and the anecdotal information was entertaining as well. Thanks!

  7. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Jay, great point. Disputation is, in fact, great training for life in general, and for each discipline in particular. What you and I are describing is a sort of combination of mentoring/apprenticeship and debate/discussion, which combination is necessary for a student to reach his/her full potential.

  8. Bruce Ashford   •     Author

    Lee, thanks man! I’ll look forward to seeing you in the PhD program.

  9. Jeremy Kimble   •  

    Great article, inspiring as I am presently working on chapter five of my dissertation. Look forward to seeing you this spring, Lord willing, Dr. Ashford.

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