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