Book by Barbara Lovitts
Review by Patricia Thatcher
Assistant Dean, Academic Affairs
Lovitts’ important book seeks nothing less than to reform the graduate education process. Focusing on the dissertation, the capstone Ph.D. project which demands that graduate students make an original contribution to their disciplines, Lovitts convincingly states that graduate advisors, faculties, deans, and administrators must develop explicit objective standards and criteria for evaluating dissertations. She argues that explicit objective standards for the dissertation enable graduate advisors and administrators to assess the quality of doctoral education on an individual level as well as programmatically. Objective standards also provide graduate students with the transparent knowledge and explicit learning goals that enable them to achieve success at higher levels. Making the Implicit Explicit is a complex and highly focused work that should be essential reading for all graduate student advisors, faculty, and program administrators.
In “Dissertation and Its Assessment,” Lovitts provides a practical primer for faculty and administrators on defining and using rubrics for assessment. Using faculty focus groups as well as previously collected survey data, she reveals how to define the “universal qualities” (p. 27) of the dissertation. While most would agree that the purpose of the dissertation is to make a significant and original contribution to the discipline, these two terms remain vague across most disciplines. Faculty can, however, define four categories of dissertation quality that are consistent across disciplines. In the strongest and most explicit section of the book, Lovitts uses these four quality categories to demonstrate how to define and develop a rubric, and how to use the rubric to formatively assess students and graduate programs alike. This section encapsulates her thesis that dissertation quality assessment will ultimately lead to the improvement of the dissertation process, graduate programs, and the quality of graduate education itself.
In part two, Lovitts furthers her analysis and provides more help to graduate administrators wishing to act on her suggestions, by demonstrating the process through which group consensus about the general characteristics of the dissertation’s purpose, quality, and content might be achieved, no matter the discipline. Despite her continued inability to bring faculty to explicitly define what a significant and original contribution might be in any discipline, this section clearly identifies a model practice for all faculties willing to establish objective dissertation criteria.
There is no doubt that Lovitts’ book is important, innovative, and crucial to current discussions about the direction of the Ph.D. and the role of assessment in improving the quality of graduate education. However, she fails to delineate the exact characteristics of significant and original work in any discipline and thus allows too much about these important terms to remain implicit. It is also disturbing to note that even though the author views this book as a work of student advocacy (p.xi), there are almost no student voices or perspectives represented in this book. The author focuses almost exclusively on the voices of graduate faculty advisors and administrators. This book would have been stronger if it included student perspectives on dissertation evaluation, and the voices of graduate faculty in all aspects of their roles as teachers and advisors, not just as judges of dissertations. While readers might expect student silence in a work directed to establishing rubrics for formative and summative assessment, there are graduate advisors and administrators who view student participation in all aspects of graduate education as crucial to the process of educational reform that Lovitts embraces.
Making the implicit explicit: Creating performance expectations for the dissertation. (2007). Book by Barbara Lovitts. Review by Patricia Thatcher. Herndon, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC. 428pp., $29.95, (paperback), ISBN 1-57922-181-2