Out with the old thesis

- Pratyoush Onta | 2023-07-06

The current format emanates from a bureaucratic approach and results in boring texts.

In several of my recent columns, I have argued for a pluralistic higher education and research landscape in Nepal. One major issue we need to discuss in realising such a landscape is the possibility to pluralise the format in which MA/MPhil theses are done in Nepal’s universities. The current format institutionalised by various universities requires that all students follow a prescribed model of thesis writing. This format emanates from a bureaucratic approach to evaluating students’ performances and results in mostly boring texts.

Before we get into this discussion proper, we need to acknowledge that for many years, there has been a debate at Nepal’s oldest university Tribhuvan University (TU) regarding whether or not MA theses should be made mandatory in the social science disciplines. In the past, founders of some departments at TU thought that this was a good idea, and hence institutionalised the requirement. Perhaps it was a good idea when student enrolment in those departments was small. However, in recent years, as student numbers have increased, analysts including those who have taught at TU have demanded that the mandatory requirement be reviewed in light of the fact that there are simply not enough qualified faculty members who can supervise such theses writing in large numbers.

'Tricky position'

Citing data from the discipline of sociology and his own experiences of supervising MA theses at TU, my colleague Lokranjan Parajuli argued (in an article published in the 2021 edited volume Practices of Sociology in Nepal) that such a mandatory requirement “has not only failed miserably to achieve its intended objective” but it has also forced “a large number of students to take up roads that are un-academic [and] unethical.” He added that this requirement had pushed “teachers to be in a tricky position” to approve sub-standard thesis work. I do not have much to add to that debate here other than to say that it needs more scrutiny from the relevant stakeholders if we are really concerned about student learning and writing. I have seen little evidence of this concern since Parajuli’s article was published more than two years ago.

Now to the focus of my argument. TU’s departments mostly require that the theses be written in a strict format. Introduction comes first with its “statement of the problem” to be investigated. Then comes the chapter with a longish literature review followed by a chapter on methods. The chapters that discuss the empirical findings come next followed by the conclusion and references. To be fair, this is a model that is also adopted in many other universities outside of Nepal.

I acknowledge that the introduction is needed to pin down the research question and justify its importance. However, I don’t quite understand why a separate chapter of literature review is needed. To be sure, academic analyses at the MA or above levels need to be located in the relevant literature, but this can easily be done over a few pages. Hence, the chapter length text is usually filled with unnecessary reviews of unrelated literature or literature that is just tangentially related to the research on hand. Similarly, I also don’t think that a separate chapter is needed to discuss the methods. Usually, one can present a compact statement of the methods employed in the study within three-four pages. The rest of the usual text in the current separate methods chapter is either redundant or it regurgitates material from the class lectures on methods. Such unnecessary texts discussing literature review and methods make the thesis “big” in terms of pages, but they also ensure it is a boring one even before the reader gets to the chapters that discuss the empirical findings.

Pluralising the formats

So what should we do? The first possibility is to retain only a part of this format. Instead of what is prevalent, I suggest that the introduction cover the research question, review the most relevant thematic or area studies literature and describe the methods used, all within a chapter length. This kind of compact writing provides a suitable platform for the subsequent description of the empirical findings and a discussion of their importance in those chapters and the conclusion.

The second possibility is to consider an MA/MPhil thesis that is simply written in the form of a journal article. This is more difficult than the first option discussed above for students who have little prior training in academic writing. Hence, it might be more suitable for students who have more proficient reading and writing skills. The point to remember here is that an article is not an omnibus text. Instead of trying to encompass many things, it should try to answer one or two questions and advance an argument or two.

The third possibility is to think of a different format altogether. A thesis could consist of a long review of literature on a possible theme, structured along related sub-themes. For example, a long review of recent writings on long distance labour migration as an MA/MPhil thesis would be highly useful. It could be structured along several related sub-themes such as destination countries, forms of work therein, gender dimensions of such mobility and the recruitment infrastructure. An archive of published writings on a particular theme is also a “field” for research.

The fourth possibility could be a thesis with an introduction and several chapters each of which is a long interview with a concerned person. For instance, let us say that the thesis is about women school administrators who have done excellent work in managing secondary level public schools in the last 25 years. The researcher can choose three-four such women to interview at length about their lives and work. The researcher will have to write an introductory chapter that sets up the historical and social context for the study, explain the preparatory work done before the interviews were carried out, describe how the interview texts were created and revised, and finally highlight some of the salient contents of the subsequent interviews. Then the researcher can present the three-four interviews sequentially followed by a list of references, and possibly another list of further related readings.

There could be other formats, some of which could be executed by groups of students. Such group work will require innovative ways of evaluating students’ performances. No matter which format is selected, the point about pluralising the formats acceptable for MA/MPhil thesis execution is to maximise student learning while they are doing research and writing early in their career.

Reimagining the thesis format will require some new commitments and investments of intellectual energy on the part of both faculty members and students. It will also require that our universities abandon some forms of easy evaluation of student performances. This reimagining could be part of the larger project of revamping our universities and making them attractive to at least some of the many thousands of our young students who are otherwise choosing higher education institutions abroad for their further studies.

But are there any takers? 

Published at : July 6, 2023
Source: https://kathmandupost.com/columns/2023/07/06/out-with-the-old-thesis

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