Unlike Marriage Certificates, PhD Degrees Must Be Earned–Comprehensively
Any living organism qualifies to marry if the partner consents to the arrangement and proves to be sane. Even in the few cases where couples are disqualified from saying ‘I do’ to each other before spectators, they are not altogether banned from continuing their love affair. That is why marriage certificates are hurriedly given to couples on the day of their wedding. In other words, they are assumed to have satisfied the requirements even though they are yet to learn and pass the real life exams that matrimony often presents. And there is often a lot of learning to do while they keep the certificate. The world of academia works differently. Students are usually required to pass prescribed examinations before certificates are awarded. So, when a candidate takes the exam twice and fails, the rules do not swap places with any charitable consideration, extenuating or ‘intenuating’, as if the very serious business of academic work can be reduced to a love affair. This is the case before the courts in Manitoba, where a professor is suing the University of Manitoba for awarding a PhD degree to a candidate who failed the comprehensive examination on two tries, in addition to a fourth course that he did pass. The student, an otherwise brilliant person who had good publications in refereed journals, suffers acute exam anxiety. That is to say, under exam conditions, his intelligent animation is somewhat suspended, and that muse that pumps wisdom into his brain also takes the back seat, leaving him to wander and wonder like a decomposed vegetable in a not-so-well cooked soup. The university, therefore, decided to waive the examinations. How fair is this? What consideration did the university give to other candidates who may have dropped out of the PhD program for reasons such as lack of sex and general stress? Statistics have it that more than half of students who are admitted onto PhD programmes in North-American universities do not graduate. Some drop out on their own volition, while others are dropped out by the university. The comprehensive examination is usually the ‘biggie’, as my PhD friends like to put it. Usually, you are not considered a PhD calibre until you pass the dreaded examination. It is a very difficult undertaking that requires the student to master the hard core modules of the discipline he is taking, and be able to express that mastery in oral communication before a panel during the defence. According to Gabor Lukacs, the professor who is contesting the University of Manitoba, the comprehensive examinations are designed to show breadth of knowledge while the student is required to demonstrate depth in the thesis. The two are the not the same. The comprehensive examination is sometimes considered the most important stage in the PhD journey. Usually, you do not get to progress beyond this stage if you don’t pass the biggie. So you wouldn’t have to write the good thesis in the first place. It is also the main difference between PhDs in North-America and Europe, where there are no comprehensive examinations. For this reason, many American and Canadian PhD holders tend to look down on the European PhDs. The Europeans have other equally tasking ways of making up for the comprehensive examinations. It may not be comprehensive enough to christen it as such, but any PhD programme is necessarily comprehensive. Otherwise, it is a Masters degree, where the holder can afford not to master anything and still be compensated with a certificate for time spent on the university campus. PhD is serious business. That is exactly what professor Lukacs is saying. Failure, unless otherwise defined, means an inability to excel. And if we cannot afford to have medical doctors who are scared to deal with blood, and would not trust our lives to pilots who have poor visions and also suffer from aerial phobias, why should we bear with ‘exam anxiety’ professors, especially when the professors are the very people who would teach students to be good pilots and brave medical officers? Incidentally, the student at the centre of the controversy had been awarded a PhD in no less a discipline than Mathematics, where precision and accuracy are emphasised. Even those of us in non-numerate disciplines like poetry want to see our quotes as quotes, not adlibs. So we expect mathematicians to know that the rule that says 2 and 2 make 4 cannot be sidestepped. Similarly, the rule on comprehensive exams should not be probabilistically construed, to sneak in a statistical equation that certain requirements can be waived. Otherwise, I should by now be considering writing to the academic registrar of University of Ghana, to waive the rules on second class divisions and reissue a good first class degree in English to the most brilliant student in my class several years ago. He managed with a very low second lower class, but he was undoubtedly the best among all of us. As in the Manitoba case where external examiners were impressed with the thesis of the exam phobia PhD candidate, our professors and even visiting Fulbright scholars attested to my classmate’s rare appreciation of themes in literary criticism and his general deportment as an exceptional student of letters. For some inexplicable reasons, he could not transfer even half of what he knew (and that half alone was enough to earn him a first class) onto the exam paper. He suffered a special kind of migraine his colleagues termed the head of Medusa. During exam situations, he lost it all, the Medusa in his head rocked so hard. The accompanying cough and wet eyes made him an object of pity. He would often zoom out half way through. He decided not to bother with postgraduate studies because of the Medusa, while academic apologies like some of us moved on. Today, the only thing that reminds us of him is his laughable pronunciation of justice as ‘dwustice,’ journey as ‘dworney’ and juice and ‘dwiuce.’ How unjust -‘undwust,’ he would say. So, it may also make sense to ask how the student managed to pass his masters degree examinations when he still had the acute phobias hanging around his pen. Nobody is assuming that he applied for the PhD with a marriage certificate, because he may not be married at the time. If he was awarded the masters degree after satisfying academic requirements, why should those requirements not stand in the case of a PhD, where he is supposed to contribute to knowledge through research? Well, perhaps, that is the basis upon which the university is giving the PhD to the failed candidate. They say he is exceptionally brilliant and has already made contribution to knowledge through his publications. In that case, our head of Medusa should also be considered for a PhD because he had written two books before he came to university and showed scholarship. The plaintiff in the case, 28 year old professor Lukacs, is a great PhD story. He had started his PhD when he was 16 years. Oh yeah, 16 when many teenagers may be celebrating the twin victories of passing their driving test and having their first sex. Well, not Lukacs, he had already passed a similar examination grey pubic-haired adults are running away from. Who else has the right to question exam waivers and standards?
Source: Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin
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