Long-time classics, international bestsellers, your favourite novel of all time. Hand on heart, is there any one of them that has absolutely no room for improvement? Take Genesis – a grand opening but also a sprinkling of repetition and some confusing plot developments. Pride and Prejudice – a carefully worked piece, but the third daughter remains little more than a comic sketch and (in the opinion of some) the whole plot is sadly in need of a plague of zombies.
Four years ago, I wrote my masters dissertation. With the support of my supervisors I discussed it, revised it, handed it to the examiners and they marked it highly enough to propel me on towards my PhD. Today’s masters students defend their dissertation at a viva and are as likely to be caught in a whirlpool of corrections as to sail serenely onwards.
This looks to me suspiciously like the technology driving the pedagogy. Of course, with word processing tools, bibliographic tools and design tools at our fingertips we can revise and improve, buff and perfect our documents. But to what end? After examination, few masters dissertations are referenced or read by anyone, even their author. Of course, dissertations shouldn’t be left in a shoddy or unacceptable state – but this inching towards perfection appears unnecessary.
My doctoral thesis will certainly be better when I have made some of the corrections and amendments suggested by my examiners at the end of my viva. It will be better, in part, because examiners are allowed to shift the goalposts. The expanded version, well over 100,000 words, will no longer meet the published criteria for an Open University thesis. Neither will it be whole-heartedly my own work, because all the documented amendments, both good and bad, are now mandatory.
Is this inching towards perfection necessary or is it simply easier than it was in the age of typescript? Do the gains for the reader outweigh the losses to the writer? Would I have been asked to break the original rules, and to go against my own better judgment if I had submitted a bound, typescript version of my thesis? I wonder.