Oral dissertation procedure

Ross Woods, 2014, rev. 2018, '22

Many centuries ago, degree candidates often gave their dissertations orally, not in writing. In the seventeenth century, for example, Cambridge University required disputation and declamation of Bachelor students as well as higher degrees.1 According to one source, the system was still sometimes used at Harvard University as recently as 1826.2

The procedure emphasized the examinee's ability to engage in scholarly debate, defend a view with a live audience, and give an oral presentation displaying mastery of the subject. To a lesser extent, the method still survives when a student is required to pass an oral defense of a written dissertation or thesis. It also survives in another form. Twelve percent of respondents (approximately 12% of programs surveyed) still require a public lecture as part of the final review for doctoral projects. 3

Although nobody is seriously suggesting that the process be fully revived for an earned degree, it is interesting to see how it would work in the modern era for doctoral dissertations and is particularly appropriate for honorary degrees.

  1. Students may present their dissertations in oral form.
  2. The entire proceeding shall both be recorded in videograph and conducted as a public event.
  3. In order to allow time for the appointment of assessors, the student must submit a formal abstract to the Higher Degrees Committee (HDC) at least one month before the assessment.
  4. The HDC shall appoint:
    1. One person to be moderator to ensure fairness in the proceedings.
    2. A panel of assessors comprising at least three suitably qualified persons.
  5. The student may deliver the dissertation as a series of no more than ten lectures, with no lecture longer than two hours.
    1. Students may use suitable visual aids.
    2. Students may provide listeners with handout notes, on condition that they comply with the layout regulations for written dissertations.
    3. Students must provide references and bibliographic notes in written form.
    4. Assessors may not interject during the delivery of the dissertation.
  6. At the end of each session:
    1. Assessors may ask the student any questions, including follow up questions, relevant to the assessment of the dissertation.
    2. The student shall have a fair opportunity to answer all questions.
  7. Assessors shall confer and draw an assessment decision following the same procedure that applies to written dissertations.
  8. The assessment standard is the same as that applying to written dissertations with oral defenses.

1. V.H.H. Green. British Institutions: The Universities. (Harmondsworth, U.K., Pelican books, 1969). Pp. 196f., 204.
2. Annual Report of the President of Harvard University to the Overseers on the State of the University for the Academic Year 1825—1826 (Cambridge Mass.: University—Press-Hilliard, Metcalf, & Co.) P. 7.
3. ADME 2022 Final Project Survey Results (v. 3.30.2022), which was an unpublished survey of US professional doctoral programs, in all cases Doctor of Ministry accredited by ATS.
See also
Martin Camargo. "Epistolary declamation: Performing model letters in medieval English classrooms", https://experts.illinois.edu/en/publications/epistolary-declamation-performing-model-letters-in-medieval-engli-3, Mar 21, 2018.
E.K. Moore The Passions of Rhetoric: Lessing’s Theory of Argument and the German Enlightenment (Berlin, Springer Science & Business Media, 1993). E.g. pp. 97ff.
Barton, Matthew D., "Dissertations: Past, present, and future" (2005). Graduate Theses and Dissertations. http://scholarcommons.usf.edu/etd/2777. Pp. 35f.