Science - March 17, 2010

Propositions may stay

Theses are meant to be written, not read. Whoever does read them start with the propositions. And yet, these very propositions have come under fire; many have asked that they be scrapped. Hold on, professors and PhD students seem to say in an opinion poll. A bit of brushing up can't be bad, though.

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The first sentence in the introduction of this article is itself a proposition. 'Theses are meant to be written, not read.' It is taken from the collection of Paul ten Hove, a Wageningen alumnus who collects propositions. It is a typical example of the type of propositions that's most under attack. The graduation regulation stipulates that out of a maximum of eight propositions, the last two must be about 'socially relevant' issues. But the meaning of this is not clear. In fact, the term provides an excuse for conjuring up funny statements, says Professor Johan Verreth. 'A chance to be quoted in the national newspapers on one of those propositions. They are of no scientific or academic value at all.' In particular, those last two mandatory propositions have also been criticized by other professors. Professor Pierre de Wit describes them as having been 'marginalized to the extent of being the funniest one-liners that a PhD candidate can ever think of'.  These statements, above all, often do not meet the requirements of a proposition.

Challenge
It wasn't like this in the past, recalls De Wit. 'Candidates then were being drilled to come up with original scientific assertions or to challenge, in particular, those of peer scientists. They would have enough propositions long before the thesis was finished. That era has passed.' But De Wit doesn't see this as a reason why the entire institute has to throw propositions out. Verreth makes no bones about the fact that he does. 'Propositions give a false picture of a thesis defense', he says emphatically. 'The usual argument in support of them is that a PhD candidate is expected to rise above the confines of his own research area and develop a general academic reflective ability.' But this quality cannot be expressed through propositions, says Verreth, because there is no room for debating or a solid discussion during the thesis defense.

Pretentious
Also on the side of the opposition is Professor Martien Cohen Stuart, who feels that propositions are old fashioned and do not have much function in the advance of science. 'I haven't come across a single serious scientist who makes statements in the form of propositions, except as part of a thesis defense.' As for propositions outside one's own research area, they are to be distrusted completely. 'The pretence of universality is pretentious. Even the most brilliant scientists are not in a position to oversee scientific issues outside their own domains. I've not witnessed any discussion on propositions which reaches an interesting level.' In short, Cohen Stuart doesn't believe that 'propositions play a role in the scientific guardianship in our institution. I don't believe that we produce better PhD's with them.' Professors are not the only ones who speak critically of propositions.  Not every PhD student speak well about propositions. For Jelmer Lindeboom, propositions are hardly essential in their present forms. 'The main argument for retaining them seems to be a nostalgic one based on the belief that it's necessary to examine one's ability to make propositions', he thinks. His colleague Jantien Baartman doesn't agree. 'Propositions are a nice and creative way to present the major findings in a short and direct way, and to give that personal or real touch to a thesis. When I read a thesis, I start with the propositions.'

Poll
Should propositions be done away with? A resounding 'no' comes from a majority of Wageningen professors and PhD students in an opinion poll conducted by Resource. Only one out of four professors and PhD students find that propositions should be scrapped, while a large proportion want them to stay. The poll involved 45 regular professors and 116 PhD students.
Rector Magnificus Martin Kropff is pleasantly surprised by this outcome. 'I am very pleased that so many think that we should not scrap propositions. I feel that propositions have a big role to play. You have to formulate your conclusions well and to the point. This academic capability is necessary, and will also stand you in good stead later in your scientific career.  It's a skill to be able to formulate good propositions which can be defended and debated upon.'
But not everybody has this skill. The Doctorate Board chaired by Kropff claims that the quality of Wageningen propositions is declining. The board has suggested that the research schools organize master classes in which small groups of PhD candidates can sharpen their skills in mooting propositions under professional guidance. 
Professors and PhD candidates, however, are not keen on such a course, as evident from the Resource poll. Only a quarter of the professors and PhD students who have voted to retain propositions consider such a master class a good way to tackle quality. Even professor of education science Martin Mulder expresses doubts that a master class will result in the desired effect. 'As professor of education science, I must say that I'm not quite for it. However, I'd like to give it a try for a year, and then evaluate if quality has improved.' PhD student Clemens Driessen is for such a course, but adds: 'If a PhD candidate cannot produce a few clear and concise propositions after four years of preparation, one wonders if he or she is capable of defending them. Hmm.. I've already got my first proposition. I hope to arrive at several more in the coming months.'
Time for a proposition

PhD students often turn the very act of making a proposition into the subject of a proposition. Just like a poet who composes a verse about the act of writing poetry. Collector Paul ten Hove dedicates a separate category to such propositions. The following are five home-grown Wageningen propositions which point to themselves.

When science departs from its ivory towers, the tradition of formulating society-related propositions can be abolished.
ARJEN BUIJS, Wageningen University (2009)

Propositions are not given their proper dues.
PIETER OLIEHOEK, Wageningen University (2009)

Over the last century, PhD theses have slowly evolved from one page with propositions into a written thesis; hence the additional sheet with propositions has become an entertaining but non-essential relic.
MARLEEN F. NOOMEN, Wageningen University (2007)

Propositions linked to theses are seldom original. An (online) database with propositions would make this problem non-existent.
REMKO ACHTEN, Wageningnen University (2006)

Overly ludicrous propositions undermine the contents of a thesis.
WIM SOPPE, Wageningen University (2000)
 
Shape
Professor Tiny van Boekel doesn't think much of a master class. 'I find propositions essential because they help to broaden the horizons of a PhD candidate. I am more for setting up a master class for professors who seem to have neglected their task of helping to produce meaningful and arguable propositions.' Van Boekel feels that professors should be more vigilant in carrying out their responsibility towards their doctoral students. 'I spend a lot of time together with the PhD candidate to carefully moot a proposition which is to the point, original and can lead to discussion. The PhD candidate comes up with the idea and both of us shape this into a statement. '
More than half of the professors and PhD candidates who are for retaining propositions agree with Van Boekel. They don't see any need for a master class. Professors should ensure that propositions reach a certain level, they feel. The doctorate regulations also state that this is the professors' task. PhD candidates are especially worried that such a master class will take up extra time, judging from the comments in the poll. 'PhD candidates are under enormous time pressure during the final stages of their dissertations', says Serge Stalpers. 'Propositions do not require any abilities other than those for writing an article, for example, or for summarizing a thesis. You can't make a master class mandatory, and if it's optional, only those who take the propositions seriously or those who have time will attend.'

Focus areas
Rector Magnificus Kropff is aware that PhD candidates have little time to spare. 'Writing a thesis is an enormous task. PhD candidates have certain focus areas; they don't do the unnecessary. The problem is that PhD candidates only think about propositions towards the end. That's why I always say: start early.' Kropff does not think that a master class will take up a lot of time. 'At present, a professor is engaged with PhD candidates, one at a time. That's a small master class in a way. A bigger master class is therefore more time efficient and the students can then learn from one another. The idea of a master class is not just empty talk. But we will surely consider the results of the poll together with the Doctorate Board.'


Instruction manual
Kropff and his board have received different input from various sources. Professor Wouter Hendriks suggests a book on 'How to write brilliant propositions', a textbook with guidelines and examples of good, bad and average propositions. Various PhD students would like to have an instruction manual. Serge Stalpers: 'Give us guidelines (not rules!) which can clarify the role of propositions and explain, for example, what socially relevant propositions are.'
Professor Pieter van 't Veer thinks that the declining quality is a direct result of the lack of study in the science of philosophy. 'MSc students should once in a while look beyond the borders of their subject areas. I would prefer to see students being taught good discussion and defense techniques. In other words: listen carefully to a question and get to the content or the assumptions which are mostly hidden behind questions. This would be a better way to improve the quality of a thesis defense as a whole and to the formulation of propositions.' Van 't Veer says that  a proposition writing course seems to suggest that a PhD candidate should communicate in a short and powerful way instead of defend his beliefs from a broad base. 'If propositions are for testing candidates on their scope, their understanding and even their wisdom, then a course on proposition writing would be like putting the cart before the horse.' This sounds like a nice proposition too.

Maturity
Johan Verreth  is a proclaimed opponent of propositions in their present form.  However, he has something else in mind. 'If you want to test the broad academic maturity of a PhD candidate, ask him to submit a secondary proposition outside the scope of  his own research, preferably in a totally different discipline. Get him to write an essay to describe, defend and discuss this proposition.' But there's an easier way, such as this simple suggestion from Pierre de Wit: get rid of the socially relevant proposition!
Alumnus collects propositions
Anything under the sky can become collectors' items. Including propositions. That's what alumnus Paul ten Hove collects. The retired agriculture consultant has built a website for them: www.hora-est.nl. Ten Hove began his collection in the mid-nineties. ‘The NRC Handelsblad published a column on propositions then. ‘For years, I had these cut out and added to my collection. Simply because I enjoyed doing it. They are comical and set us thinking. That has gradually grown into a hobby.'
Four years ago, Ten Hove had a website built for his collection. The NRC column had already ended long before that. In order to have a constant supply of new material, Ten Hove got in touch with universities. Since then, propositions have been flowing steadily in. The collection comprises at this moment about 6500 propositions, neatly grouped into five categories. More and more are being added. Each year, some 2500 theses are published in this country and many of these also contain a separate appendix with propositions.

No word games

Ten Hove is selective. ‘I only select non-technical propositions which are not found in the thesis itself. I'm also subjective; I pick only the propositions which I like.' He leaves out any word games, as he finds these annoying. Moreover, he disagrees with the notion that the level of propositions has gone down. ‘I don't see any direct drop really. The level depends on the individual. Some people can do it really well, while others can't; some are cut out for this, some not. Propositions are, above all, typically Dutch. Foreigners in general don't have much idea about what they are.'
Therefore, Ten Hove doesn't believe in a MSc class; you either have it or you don't. He himself did not do any post-graduate study. ‘But I'm on the verge of adding my own propositions to the site as a non-PhD graduate. There are so many unusual happenings around me which I could compose a proposition about.

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