bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

David Rundle’s thesis on-line, or What Not to Say in a Viva

Posted in Humanism, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 20 January, 2013

It was, if my memory does not deceive me, a bright and mild December afternoon in 1997 when I entered Oxford’s Examination Schools in white bow-tie and long academic gown, walked up the stairs that rise to the right of the entrance hall, then made my way across the small balcony that looks down upon the same hall, before entering a room where two distinguished scholars awaited me. They were Prof. George Holmes and Prof. A. C. de la Mare — and let us pause to remember those the world has lost, since they have both passed away in the intervening years. At that point, though, they were very much in good health and ready to begin my doctoral viva.

I remember their kindness to me: George opened the discussion by telling me what their recommendation would be, which helped dissipate any nerves I had had (though, equally, it did little to help me focus for the next two minutes — I wanted to be able to go out, cheer, and then return for the serious work). I also remember feeling cheated at the end of the two hours: is that it? can we not stay here for longer, even if the lengthening shadows suggest it is nearly sunset? When you have lived with a subject for five years and more, it is rare that you can find anyone who is as passionate about it as you are, so to have two learned specialists before you who had read every word of the thesis (my then partner had tried, but she fell asleep, leaving my father being the only other person who had suffered it all) and who at least have to appear interested in your work provides an opportunity you do not want to end.

What I replay most in mind, however, is a question they posed that was not related to the intrinsic quality of the work. ‘And what’, George asked, ‘about publication?’ I responded without a pause: ‘Well, I certainly don’t want to publish it as a book’. That, in retrospect, was The Wrong Thing To Say, a career-endangering failure to appreciate the developing dynamic — some would say the duty — to present one’s doctoral research to the world in a monograph. The worst thing is: I stand by what I said.

Appreciate the context: when I began my thesis, the usual expectation was that one would complete it and then move on, leaving the work available for consultation in the relevant university library. Only the exceptional should be put into print and, even then, some of the very best were not, as, indeed, was the case with one of my examiners — Tilly de la Mare’s tour-de-force of a doctorate, on Vespasiano da Bisticci, was never sent to a publisher and, until recently, could only be read by those who visited Senate House in London (it is now, though, available on the web at the excellent British Library ETHOS site).

I should, perhaps, have recognised the changes going on around us and that, by the late 1990s, there was already an increasing expectation that a thesis would see its way into bookshops, that more and more would follow a route once reserved for some of the exceptional, to the extent that being ‘outstanding’ now made one part of the crowd. Certainly, in the last decade, it has become a sine qua non of one’s academic credentials that one should be able to point to one’s doctoral research on the bookshelves — and so the assumption has become that, if a dissertation is not published, there must surely be something really wrong with it.

That dynamic, I would contend, is unsustainable, for two reasons. First, it has spiralled out of control: publishers have noticed the market (niche though it may be) and increased the number of theses they produce, to the extent that, now, university employers take as a sign of quality not whether your thesis is published but where it has been. These shifts have a tendency to be applied retrospectively so that a good thesis published a few years ago with a press now considered to be of dubious quality may be looked on with suspicion. Of course, the true test is not in where it is published — or, indeed, whether it is printed — but in the text itself, though that assumes people would have time to read the words before short-listing or appointing to a job. Bless.

The result of the spiral may well be that the smaller thesis-printing publishers will, over time, find their market dwindles. However, there is another factor that is making the dynamic not just unsustainable but obsolete. That is the increasing desire of institutions to host their alumni’s work on their websites. The number of theses now available  through those sites and through ETHOS means that the research is already available, in the original form of the dissertation. It would take the truly obtuse not to realise that, in this new paradigm, making a thesis available in print, even in revised form, will usually amount to otiose duplication.

When that realisation has sunk in, the consequences could be to the advantage of those who have recently received their doctorate. Rather than working away further on the same subject, they can graze in new pastures, developing their knowledge and their skills further. Not that they should never return to the work which saw their first steps in academe but, rather, that they should be able to revisit it later, recast and rewrite in the mature style they have developed in subsequent years.

None of what I have said, though, is intended to assert that anybody completing their doctorate should have taken the self-denying ordinance I did. I repeat: it was, in the objective terms of the job market, probably the most foolish thing I have ever done (and I have done a fair few). But, in my case, it was also the right thing to do. I had never envisaged my thesis becoming a book and, indeed, it was designed for different ends. It was intellectually ambitious, telling two stories at the same time, as a way of attempting to demonstrate my potential range. It was also overlong: an Oxford doctoral dissertation has to be under 100,000 words (including footnotes), unless you have a dispensation for an appendix of original material. I was granted an extra 50,000 words to provide a collection of manuscript descriptions. That added to the work’s usefulness but also would have made it a much less attractive proposition to a publisher.

Those manuscript descriptions have been on-line for some time now, and I am always grateful to scholars who contact me to say they have found them of value. It is time, I have decided, that they should be accompanied by some prose that is over fifteen years old. Today, I am uploading nearly the entirety of my thesis onto this site, for those who may be by some chance interested. I am doing it because a very few people have asked to see it, and it seems to me best, as I have gone to the trouble of turning old World files into pdfs, that it should be freely available. There is a disadvantage: with the hard-copy in the Bodleian, one signs the register of readers before consulting a thesis and that is not possible on-line. What I ask is if you do look at it, send me word so I know you exist. I am doing this, then, because it seems to me that the virtual world of the web is the appropriate half-light in which a thesis should appear. I am doing this so that it never need be published in print.

To access the chapters of the thesis, go the dedicated page on this website.


5 Responses

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  1. Judith Loades said, on 20 January, 2013 at 11:50 pm

    David! I cannot believe what I have just read! On the bright side it mut indeed have been an interesting viva. I knew George well and knew Tilly de la Mare even better! For those who worked in DH in those old days it was a question as to whether Tilly’s laugh from the Selden End was louder that the voice of Molly Barret whose cubbyhole office was so close. If Tilly’s work was less available that it should have been (though her work with Jonathan Alexander remains a monument to her scholarship) then one could compare her to the great Richard Hunt. As Keeper of Western Manuscripts Richard published little but he knew pertty well every reader in DH and would stop by with helpful references and would say something like… ‘you will find the volume in the gallery: it’s a blue book’ Bit like the famous ‘Two Ronnies’ library sketch where all books are organised by colour! I was with Tilly in the Radcliffe Infirmary not long before she died and we had a good laugh at the RI’s inability to spell her christian name! But to your main argument… Oh dear..
    The internet is not the great panacea for the dissemination of scholarship anymore than having a blog is a way of getting ‘the word on the street’!. I have been an academic history publisher for 23 years and I have seen the changes. It is useless having a website unless one fineds a way of telling people it exists. It is useless for the Bodleian to put a variety of works on weblearn unless they tell everyone the material is there It is useless any institution putting stuff on the web unless they tell everyone it is there….Bit like Morton’s Fork.. there has to be a two-pronged attack. Mass e.mailing used to work but now people receive so many e.mails they often don’t bother. You would be amazed how many academics refuse to use e.mail!. Mass e.mailing and a aaaamailshot would be needed to draw attention to your thesis if they were directed to Renaissance scholars who would be told it was available adn were also given the address of your blog. On the other hand there are those who tell me that they just don’t have time to read all that stuff!!!
    As for your suggestion that publishers are falling over themselves to attract theses.. absolutely not! Many specifically say they simply do not want to see a thesis which is why The Davenant Press decided to look for those worthwhile. The editing and ‘de-thesisising’ is an expensive operation. I turn down far more than I accept. of course I promote through my website and through mailshots and by word of mouth. I have to be very proactive in promoting whatever I do. Don’t start me on the uselessness of academic e.books!

  2. bonaelitterae said, on 21 January, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Many thanks, Judith, for your lively comment. Let me be brief with a couple of comments.
    First, I agree completely about the difficulty of findability of resources on the web. It is like a huge reference work with no discernible order and no index. There is and will be a real need for ‘portals’ and other ways of making sites discoverable.
    Even then, of course, there would be no replacement for the printed book — there is no end in sight for its existence. But we should think about what works best in hard copy and what best on-line.
    My main concern is that we have fallen into the REF trap where research is only research when is ‘effectively shared’ and where effective sharing demands certain forms of publication. That puts scholars under pressure to publish too quickly. In relation to theses, it creates an expectation of publication if a job is to follow. This is all the more problematic because it is in tension with the promotion of the internet, where most theses now reside. Better, I’m suggesting, that we do not pretend all research needs to have an ISBN to be useful research, and that we release younger scholars from the burden of having to continue to work on their theses after they have got their degree.
    That, of course, does not mean that there will not continue to be an important place for small independent publishers like a certain Davenant Press!

  3. PM said, on 19 February, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    I have just come across your site and the reminiscinces of George Holmes. I didn’t know him well, but he was also my internal examiner in the early 1980s for a thesis on C14 Anglo-papal relations. I have the same memory of him as you did – friendly, helpful and fair. He and CR Cheney also told me at the outset that they would recommend that I be awarded the degree.

    I agree entirely about publication. My wife was at St Hugh’s and she drew my attention to a lecture by Valerie Pitt at a college occasion in which she observed that many of the books published these days should be articles and many of the articles footnotes. The amount produced is getting beyond anyone’s capacity to absorb – especially readers like me who work outside academe. One of the Bodleian’s most heavily consulted works on the C14 church is Roger Highfield’s (regrettably) still unpublished 1951 DPhil thesis.

  4. Judith Loades said, on 19 February, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    Maybe I should publish Roger Highfield’s thesis….

  5. […] dissertations: do remember that, even when they are posted online, they are unpublished work. I have expressed disquiet in the past about the pressure on those just graduated to turn their dissertation into a published work but do […]

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