>What’s the role of the outside reader?

>Here’s a question that I think any of my readers who have been involved with a Ph.D. dissertation or M.A. thesis committee — for their own or others — can address.

What do you think the role of the “outside” reader is (that is, the person who’s either at another university or in another department)?

I’m on two committees gearing up for defenses soon. And in both cases, I was either brought in late as a replacement or else haven’t otherwise been involved in the writing in progress. And as far as *I’m* concerned that’s fine. I see my role as largely formal: I’m there to keep the “inside” people honest, and make sure wacky things aren’t going on. In the committee where I’ve been involved longer, I’ve also made reading suggestions, in part because the work really does overlap with my own field and knowledge, and the other committee members really didn’t know much about it. And actually, in the other case, it overlaps with literary studies as well, but other knowledgeable people have been involved, and I was only brought in this summer when the dissertation was already largely done. In that case, I think any advice I’d have to give would be way too late.

So, in both cases, I’ll show up for the defense and ask some questions to tease out things that maybe weren’t fully addressed in the writing, and some others that are kind of big picture and disciplinary (‘how is this an X discipline work and not a literary studies work?’ is probably something I’ll ask both of them, since both really do overlap with literary studies). But I’m not looking to stymie or fail them, or expect them to suddenly meet *my* expectations. I’m the outside reader, after all, not the director.

But one of the students involved — the one whose committee I didn’t join (as a replacement) until right before I left for the UK and who’s already largely done with the project — *wants* my feedback. I’m thinking of explaining to her what I see as my role — a pro forma one, especially given the circumstances — and assuring her that I won’t pull anything at the defense. If her director will sign off on the diss and pass her, so will I. Do you think that’s fair? I barely have time to read the thing, let alone give detailed feedback.

But in more ideal circumstances — where one is brought in from the beginning — what is the role of the outside reader?

5 thoughts on “>What’s the role of the outside reader?

  1. >Ok, well all I have to go on is the role that my outside reader played, I believe at the request of my director. What you say about keeping the inside members honest, passing the dissertation along as long as there’s nothing totally wacky, was the case. And my outside reader wasn’t involved in the writing/revising process of the dissertation. HOWEVER, the questions in the defense, and the comments I got on the manuscript after, from the outside reader, were all aimed at the “in order for this to be a book, how would you address x/y/z that must be addressed?”. In other words, the outside reader read the diss as if it were a draft of a book manuscript, and commented and questioned toward that end. It ended up being super-useful for me as I went through the process of turning the thing into a book, even though it was slightly daunting in the defense itself. Whatever the case, it did make the defense feel more productive and less defensive, in the long term, if that makes sense.I’m not sure how applicable this approach would be for an MA Thesis defense, but I thought it worked really well in my PhD experience.

  2. >I’m not even sure the PhD candidate is going on in higher ed (I’m meeting with her on Monday, so I’ll find out), but if she is, that approach makes a lot of sense. (If only my own outside reader had been so helpful!)Thanks!

  3. >My own outside reader brought rigor. My two main readers were inclined to let me get away with anything, whereas I knew that if Hester signed off, I wouldn’t have made an ass of myself. I guess that’s keeping the rest of the committee honest.My third reader also brought specialized knowledge to the table, and that’s the way we use outside readers for senior theses here.

  4. >I don’t think my outside reader even read. She came and was friendly at important point, signed the papers when needed, and that was that. (She was in the midst of departmental nastiness, from what I understand, so maybe that’s why?)I would think some outside expertise would be helpful? The questions you talk about seem good, too. Mine asked what other books she should teach when she taught mine, I think.

  5. >I do ask my outside readers for feedback, but my project overlaps with the other discipline quite a bit. I appreciate all of the feedback I can get, but I also try to ask questions that might guide the feedback. I guess I decided at some point that I should include cover letters with my drafts. I ask my students to do it to help their readers, so it makes sense that I should do it too. In some disciplines, the outside person might be an expert in a particular methodology or theoretical approach. In the best cases, those people do have a more active role. One quick thought: when I gathered my committee members we chatted about what type of interactions we would have. That has been very useful.

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