The Bizarre Conversational Pragmatics of Oral Qualifying Exams and How to Fix Them

I think everyone with a PhD will agree: Oral qualifying exams are weird. Here’s my theory about why they’re weird and my suggestion for a fix.

Let’s start with the pragmatics of questions. There are lots of reasons to ask questions! A question can express skepticism. It can serve as a greeting or a command. It can be a way to test your mic. It can distract someone while you pick their pocket. For this post, I’ll distinguish two types, which I’ll call Plain Questions and Test Questions.

A Plain Question is one whose function is the most straightforward and obvious function of a question. It is a question “P?” or “Why/what/who/where/which/how/when is/are X?”, asked in hopes of obtaining information concerning the truth or falsity of P or wh- X. Lost in downtown Riverside, I ask a stranger “Which direction is the Mission Inn?” I hope to learn the direction of the Mission Inn. My wife is reading Sloths: A Primer. I ask “Why are sloths so slow?” I hope to learn why sloths are so slow. A Plain Question is asked in hopes of obtaining the information that the surface content of the question explicitly requests: whether P or wh- X.

A Test Question is superficially similar. A Test Question also seeks an answer to the explicit surface content. However, a Test Question isn’t asked to learn whether P or wh- X. The speaker already knows whether P or wh- X. Instead, the speaker aims to learn something about the hearer. A Test Question is asked to obtain information about whether the hearer knows whether P or wh- X. Test Questions are familiar from elementary school (“What is 6 times 9?” the teacher asks little Steve). Test Questions are of course also common in written exams (“How does Descartes think the mind and brain relate?”).

The weirdness of oral qualifying exams stems from two things: the peculiar pragmatics of long-answer oral Test Questions, and the unclear blurring between Plain Questions and Test Questions.

Long-answer oral Test Questions are awkward! Everyone who has been through our educational system has extensive practice with short-answer oral Test Questions (“What is 6 times 9, Steve?”) and long-answer written Test Questions (“How does Descartes…?”). But we hardly ever face long-answer oral Test Questions. There’s a reason for this. It is socially strange to go on at length, explaining to someone to their face something that you know that they already know. Our social instincts rebel (except for maybe the worst “mansplainers“). “Well, Dr. Descartesophile, here’s how it is with that mind-body thing in the Meditations….”

Normally, in conversation, we don’t state at length information that we know to be common ground, information that each of us knows the other knows. You skip that bit! Or you quickly say “of course, P” and move along. It’s almost insulting to do otherwise, implicitly communicating that you think the hearer doesn’t know. You read the hearer’s face to judge what needs to be said. In an oral exam Test Question, however, the examinee must suppress their common-ground-skipping instincts. The examiner then sits listening to common ground material either with a carefully impassive face (to keep an examiner’s neutrality), which is disconcerting, or while nodding along (to be encouraging). Examiner and examinee both know and feel that impassivity and nodding work very differently in long-form oral Test Questions than in ordinary conversation. But how, exactly? In this unusual context, the examinee faces the novel and confusing pragmatic task of knowing when to stop and what information to add while ignoring familiar intuitions about conservational pragmatics and paralanguage.

Even more confusingly, at the graduate level the student often knows more than the professor on some aspects of the assigned topic. Therefore, some of the questions are closer to being Plain Questions. Maybe the examiner long ago forgot the details of that bit of Descartes. If so, nodding and impassivity constitute different signals than if it’s a Test Question. Although asked in a testing context, the Plain Question asked in curiosity and ignorance creates a conversational pragmatics that is closer to normal. But which type of question is the examiner asking? Professors don’t like to reveal their ignorance, so it’s hard to know! The pragmatics and paralinguistic cues for Plain Questions and Test Questions are different, but it’s often unclear which type of question is being asked or whether the question is partly in the middle space between the two.

So here comes the graduate student into one of the highest stress events in their graduate career, facing a test format unlike any they have faced before, with an immense whirl of details half ready and half slipping from grasp, plus maybe a bad night’s sleep. In front of the people on whom their success or failure in academia exquisitely depends, they face not only the task of recalling a large and complex literature but also a novel, confusing, ambiguous, and intricate conservational pragmatics for which they have had essentially no preparation or practice.

Is it any wonder that so many should struggle and freeze, or alternatively come off as too chatty or too clipped or off-topic or lost too much in theoretical abstractions or lost too much in narrow details?

I have a solution! Never ask Test Questions.

You don’t need to ask Test Questions to assess whether a student knows their stuff. Just ask about their stuff. Ask about details that you don’t know. Or if you really know every detail of their topic, ask them to explain their differing perspective on the topic or how it connects with other things they’ve learned that you might not know about.

The conservation will still be a little weird and awkward — that’s inevitable given the situation — but the pragmatics and paralinguistics will be much closer to what we’re all familiar with, and with the pragmatics closer to normal the student can more effectively display their impressive knowledge, if impressive knowledge they have.

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