Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Pondering Oversight and Beer

I had a fairly unique experience this afternoon.  I served as Pro-Dean on a dissertation defense.  At McGill (and who knows, perhaps elsewhere in Canada), there is a person on each dissertation defense who is supposed to be the impartial referee and comes from outside not just the department but the Faculty (at McGill, Faculty = College, so think of a Business person sitting on a dissertation committee for the Education school or a Chemist on a Religious studies defense).  The idea is that there is some university oversight over the PhD defense process. 

This has always struck as strange since it (a) reflects some distrust of not just departments but faculties (why can't an Econ prof do this job for a political science dissertation); and (b) indicates a poor understanding of oversight.  Regarding the latter, I was in a room chock full of Plant Science people with a dissertation focusing on barley (hence the beer title), and I had no clue whether the person was doing good stuff or not, just that fungus on barley is bad and that resistance varies (is not futile!).  So, if they had conspired to fool me about the quality of the work, I would have fallen for it.  So, the oversight here is almost entirely symbolic.  I found the process interesting but not exactly an efficient use of my time.

McGill has heaps of distrust/oversight issues that seem to provide more trouble than oversight.  The Chair attends every dissertation defense in my department.  Which means that the chair spends about 16-20 hours a year attending these things.  Is that a worthwhile use of the Chair's time? Not so sure.  I understand that delegation implies some risks that committees might conspire, that less qualified people might get through the process, but there is more than one way to engage in oversight.  Instead of intensive police-patrol style, the university could rely upon fire alarm type oversight (yes, I sucked in this kool-aid while at UCSD despite never taking a class from the folks who pushed this view of stuff), where folks can report if they observe violations.  That is, if violations are rare and not that dangerous, do we need a constant effort to monitor?  Or can we just set up a system so that the alarm can ring when the rare violation takes place and is observed?

Despite my whining, I did enjoy the experience to see how similar/different the enterprise is in this area when compared with Political Science.  Turns out their students pay as much attention to their conclusions as mine do, despite the fact that all students prepare for comprehensive exams by reading the intros and conclusions of other people's work.  I was most interested in the big stylistic difference--these folks end their dissertations with their contributions to knowledge--a list of the major insights that are novel.  Pretty funky, in a good way.

Anyhow, I am just glad there are PhD students out there working on ways to safeguard our supplies of beer barley beer.


Mike Tierney said...


I have two problems with this.

First, I claim false advertising. I fully expected to be reading about a real beer adventure, not this nonsense about plant biology.

Second, what would fire alarm oversight look like in this context? The conditions under which fire alarm oversight works best is when 3rd parties have some incentive to report inappropriate behavior or lousy outcomes. (Think about environmental groups who blow the whistle on the EPA bureaucrats when they are not doing their jobs the way liberal majorities in Congress intended). What is the analogue at McGill? I am pretty sure people like you would never pull the alarm. Not only are you not competent to know what bad work is in plant biology, but you also don't care (unlike the tree huggers in my example).

Out of curiosity, what are the procedures that you are supposed to follow if you decide that the person is doing bad plant biology? Do you have unit veto, or does the committee vote on whether the student gets a PhD? In your capacity as police patrol agent, what is your capacity?

Steve Saideman said...

Good questions, Mike.

As far as I can tell, my power was (a) to break ties; (b) manage the clock. The instructions really did not tell me what I should do if I saw a conspiracy.

Because these defenses are open to the public, a pro-dean is not really needed to make sure there is not something afoot. If someone was suspicious, they could attend and then fire off emails to the various admin types. Just like the media is the fire alarm for most domestic political things, right? This is what I get for dodging all American politics courses in my life, except for the ones I have had to teach.

Mike Tierney said...

So, did you have to teach these American courses cuz you are a foreigner in Canada? Or because the Texas legislature made you (and all your colleagues) do it?

Steve Saideman said...

The latter. Each Texas undergrad had to take two poli sci courses. We split the sequence: am/tex pol institutions and am/tex public policy. I did the latter and stacked the first part of the class with conceptual stuff that I knew (agenda-setting, implementation, etc).