Phase two of the Academics’ Writing research project has involved recording academics doing a piece of writing in real time. We’ve used digital pens, Camtasia screen capture software, Inputlog key logging software, and observational notes for this. So far, the genres of writing we’ve captured include a keynote talk, an extended abstract, a journal article, a piece of software, and a pre-viva report. The latter was particualrly interesting to me because I’ve recently written one of these myself – my first one.
In common with other types of feedback on writing, a pre-viva report discusses the quality of the writing and has a gatekeeping function in terms of upholding standards. However, unusually, while the student whose work is being evaluated may never read the pre-viva report, a range of other actors might.
At Lancaster, the pre-viva report is sent directly to central registry as a formal record of the examiners’ assessment of the thesis’ quality before the viva voce. It is not sent to the candidate, and, in the absence of a Freedom of Information request, the student would not usually see it. Registry staff, on the other hand, should read the report and may have cause to question it in the unlikely the event that the report is very critical, but the student is nevertheless awarded the PhD at the end of the viva. This affected the way I wrote my report. I didn’t direct my comments to the student, but I wrote them with one eye on the possibility that he/she could, at some point, read them.
Another actor involved in the shaping of a pre-viva report is the other examiner, who will read it prior to the viva. In my case, never having examined a thesis before, I wanted to evidence my close reading of the thesis and expertise in the subject. The external examiner was someone far more experienced than me, and I didn’t want her to read my comments and see me as an obvious novice. On the other hand, I was also nervous about being too harsh in my evaluation, and inadvertently looking as if I had something to prove. So I re-read and edited and re-checked my report several times to make sure, not only that I was being fair to the student, but also that I was displaying the right sort of self to the other actors, including the external examiner.
Pre-viva reports serve simultaneously as a formal, permanent record of the examiners’ initial judgement on the thesis, and as a working document for the examiners, who will use it to structure both their discussion prior to the viva voce and their questions in the viva itself. In this sense, the discussion between the examiners is another actor influencing the text. The discussion between examiners has the potential to be face-threatening if they disagree. Thus, the report must be written in such a way that the two examiners set out what they see as main strengths and weaknesses of the thesis and can use these to guide their negotiation over the specific areas they wish the candidate to defend or demonstrate knowledge of in the viva. Even if the examiners are in agreement, as was the case in my recent experience, the pre-viva report acts as a means of structuring the thrust of their questioning in the viva.
Finally, the pre-viva report is also likely to form the basis of the viva report, which is written after the oral examination and takes the candidate’s performance in the viva into account. The viva report outlines the outcome of the viva, any action the student is expected to take, and the deadlines for so doing. A certain level of coherence is to be expected between the pre-viva report and the viva report, and the former probably forms the basis of the latter, with adjustments made to take the change of audience into account. The viva report goes to the student, so must be written in such a way that that the student understands exactly what to do.
There are some interesting studies looking at the viva examination process (c.f. Carter & Whittaker, 2008; Park, 2003; Wellington, 2010), but I’m not aware of any research that captures the writing process of such occluded genres as pre-viva reports, and I look forward to sharing more on this with you as we analyse the data we captured in phase of the project.