We were invited to attend the public ‘defence’ of a PhD thesis one afternoon in Paris. Unlike in the UK, in France and indeed in most other mainland European countries, universities hold the oral component of the PhD exam (the ‘viva’) in public. With preliminary assessments by the examiners, coupled with careful oversight by the student’s supervisor, the quality of the work will have been assured so that, in some universities at least, the viva is actually a token performance. In some countries the examination hall will even be decorated with flowers, and friends, relations and colleagues will come along to witness and then, to party.
Things were rather different at the Sorbonne (more accurately University of Paris 1) that afternoon. Twenty or so of us sat in rows at student desks in a drab, grey room. Alone in the middle of the front row was Collette (not her real name), whose thesis was to be the subject of the interrogation. And what we witnessed were some of the worst features of university culture.
The four examiners entered the front of the room and sat facing us from a raised podium. There followed the usual formalities, and then the viva began. After a brief and confident summary by Collette, the first examiner started his questioning. It was a vicious and critical monologue raising detailed points about punctuation, grammar, syntax and style. There were legitimate questions, such as the one about the exact meaning of a word in Greek – the thesis was about one of Aristotle’s concepts. But that was dealt with in a bullying and clumsy way with no allowance given for legitimate differences of opinion. He talked a lot about his own work and shared asides with the other panellists. Little or no time was allowed for Collette to reply – perhaps she spoke for 10 minutes for his 50 – and in his spiteful hour-long tirade he treated her as an object. But despite the wave after wave of rudeness and attempted humiliation, Collette’s head never bowed, and her voice remained steadfast and resolute.
For a PhD, students do original research and set out the results, arguments and discussion in book form which in Collette’s case covered nearly a thousand pages. The viva is designed to discover what exactly the candidate found, how they reason and defend their position, and whether indeed the thesis was the student’s own work rather that of someone else. The examiner probed none of these issues. And amazingly, he was Collette’s supervisor, the very person who traditionally offers the candidate support and who should have ironed out all of the problems in the previous six years as they worked together as student and teacher. Could he have let errors through to give him an opportunity to harass her at a later date in the exam?
Next came examiner two. He was more pleasant but again it was a monologue, was used as a platform for airing his own views, and allowed little or no time to hear Collette’s responses. If the examiner’s role is also to verify the student’s calibre and originality, this just could not have happened.
Some two hours after the start, the chair announced it was time for a “pause café’” I could stand it no more and after explaining my position to Collette and wishing her well in the next session, I headed off for some fresh air. It transpired that the next two hours were more enquiring but for me, the damage had been done. Then finally, and after over 4 hours, the examiners upped and left the room, to come back a few minutes later to announce that Collette could now call herself ‘doctor’. The thesis had been successfully defended.
Afterwards, all and sundry met in a café and the celebrations and the post mortem began. Naturally there was joy but close on its heels was deep resentment about the demeaning way in which Collette had been treated. Importantly it was felt that were she to complain to the authorities about the events, the university would close ranks against her and ensure that she did not get work anywhere in France.
By virtue of the viva being held in public much has been revealed. That the examiners were happy to behave as they did in the public gaze suggests that they saw their conduct as normal and beyond reproach. That the chair of the examining panel failed to halt the bullying gave the strong impression that she condoned it. That colleagues and friends warned Collette against complaining for fear of victimisation suggests the behaviour is institutional. If each or any of these is true then there is a real problem at the Sorbonne (and probably other French universities) and one that needs to be tackled by the authorities with some urgency. In my experience it would most unusual for such behaviour to happen here, but one way to check is for us too to hold vivas more openly.
It might be that the university would justify such behaviour as being part of some kind of baptism of fire, a coming of age or a right of passage. But this is no longer defensible.
Photo: “El tribunal de la Inquisición” 1812-19 by Francisco Goya from Museo de la Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid.