Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: Examining the (External) Examiners

Symposium on Early Career International Law Academia: Examining the (External) Examiners

[Immi Tallgren is an Adjunct Professor of International Law at the University of Helsinki and a Senior Researcher funded by the KONE Foundation at the Erik Castrén Institute of International Law and Human Rights. She is Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at the London School of Economics.]

I jumped at the occasion to empty my bag on the academic tasks or roles that make me feel youngish again, if that is what being uncertain and hesitating refers to. (I do remember it meant also pleasant things, like literally jumping out of bed in the morning, with no cracking or immediate injuries.) I suspect I might not be alone in wondering how to best supervise or examine a doctoral thesis in international law. For the lack of space, I shall here focus on the role of examiner, although parts of the discussion apply to supervision, as well.  

Writing a thesis in international law, presenting and defending it, having it approved, graded and eventually published is a long and arduous process. Examining and grading a doctoral thesis takes a couple of days of reading and reflection, perhaps a day for a viva, and the time of writing a report. Yet it can be hard, or unnerving at least. Why?

Aspiring psychoanalysts have to go through psychoanalysis themselves before they can start the praxis. What do the thesis examiners have to accomplish to become examiners? How to recognize terrible or great examiners? In international law, this is not at all that clear, at least not for me. The examiners must, in general, be ‘professors’, understood in this context typically as an educational level, a degree, rather than occupying a chair. Adjunct professors are called upon regularly.  Having a doctorate, some teaching and supervisory experience, as well as published research in the field of the thesis to be examined seems to suffice.

In international or transnational law, the language of research is most often English or French. Academics in international law are therefore more likely to be invited to carry out these tasks abroad more frequently than their colleagues in domestic tax law or family law, for example.  They are given some (limited, yet palpable) authority outside the academic contexts they are most familiar with, i.e., the university where they graduated (x or y years ago, with the rules in force at that time) or the university where they work. What difference does this make?

When I defended my thesis at the University of Helsinki in 2001, the supervisor, the pre-examiners and the opponent were not all Finns or based in Helsinki, but they were teaching there or had done so before. They knew me and each other, at least a little. There was some common understanding of the rules in force, the expectations, and the practices. Not that there was complacency or a lack of critical scrutiny and surprises for me – but I will not dwell more on my memories in the trenches here.

Soon after that time, internationalization of the curricula across legal education started to bring many changes. Not only the names and the length of academic degrees, the expectations of their content, but also the procedures of supervision, examination, academic recruitment and promotion have been subject to major transformations. They are addressed in terms of a regional or an international harmonization, in Europe as European harmonization. Most universities globally now face the expectation to make their processes of granting degrees more transparent and comparable, open to outside scrutiny and quality control. One objective is to disrupt the close circles of collegiality and affiliation locally, in a particular university or a state, depending on the context. As in other recent endeavours towards more transparency and competition, the argument defending these changes tends to promise higher quality and lower cost, in the long run.

In the past ten years, I have been invited to take up supervisory or examiner or mixed roles in academic contexts of diverse legal systems, languages and traditions. What is expected of the examiner, by whom and why has varied enormously. The same goes for the thesis as such, and how it is presented, examined, and graded. The potential problem with the diversity is not a lack of rules available, as such. There are written rules and explanatory guidelines by the faculty or university in question, and national instruments. But to understand them and be familiar with their interpretation in the particular context can be challenging, in the time available before and during the task. There are also many unwritten rules, practices, the notorious ‘this-goes-without-saying’s’.  For an external examiner, those are impossible to know of in advance. One is typically confronted with them when it is too late, discovering a rule that should have been respected. 

What is a good enough thesis in international law? What does it take to make that good enough thesis an excellent one? How to recognise a ‘bad’ thesis, i.e., a thesis that is clearly below sufficient quality? The last kind of thesis is, in most systems, not supposed to go as far as the external examination, because there are various (and again diverse) processes of pre-examination. They are supposed to make sure that the draft is reworked, with the support of the supervisor(s), until it is likely to pass the examination.

I keep on lining up question after question, even though I am aware that there is not much of a common ground for answering them. I am trying to make a point: considering the wealth of subdisciplines of international law, the ‘fragmentation’ of expertise, research approaches and ideologies in writings presented as ‘research of international law’, and the national or regional differences in its teaching, the beauty is in the eye of the beholder. There are explicit evaluation criteria such as novelty, clarity and lucidity of arguments, etc., but ultimately much is based on particular academic preferences, values and cultures, represented by the evaluators and their institutions.

In academic everyday lives, there are bound to be unclear situations, where expectations of the parties do not meet in the examination process. At worst, the lack of a common ground may cause unjust consequences, a violation of someone’s vital interests. Who is the party most likely to suffer from the unclarity or the injustice? It is not the host university, nor the external examiner, at least not directly, but the doctoral candidate who has invested so much time, energy and resources in doctoral studies. This is why I believe these processes should be discussed more openly. They are a part, amongst others, of the everyday mechanisms that reproduce existing hierarchies in academia while often disguising their way of working.

If the process is ‘subjective’, should I not first tell what I expect of a decent thesis, to start with? I might. I am, however, increasingly conscious of the fact that any academic traditions and modes of expression are products of their contexts, reflecting their power structures, institutional cultures and languages. In international law, they have been formed and are often still maintained in discriminatory and oppressive constellations.  My personal expectations and preferences, or at least their first layers, are based on (not my biological childhood as Freud would have it but) my academic youth, my early experiences dating back to the 1990s and an all-male and white upper middle-class or beyond academic context. (As you see, one can lay down on the divan, also in international law.) As a feminist, anti-racist scholar thriven by social justice, from a working-class/lower middle-class background in a Northern periphery, native in a rare Fenno-Ugrian tongue, I would like to incite discussion on the situatedness of the quality criteria. Do the various expectations and traditions in today’s academia yield or resist to eventual changes of power? Do the ‘traditional’ quality criteria stand in the way of new knowledge and alternative power? Without such criteria, is there a risk that ‘anything goes’, and international law scholarship is diluted into sheer politics, idiosyncratic affirmations of agendas and identities? I would like to invite comments and thoughts on the following:

  • What are the markers, basic criteria, by which to evaluate a doctoral thesis in international law in the 2020s? Please try to give examples, as concrete as possible.
  • Should the (external) examiner try to adapt to the particular context of the university where the thesis is presented, seeking to find out and adapt to models of ‘good research’ the candidate has been provided with by their supervisor(s) or rather concentrate on upholding external, ‘universal’ criteria?
  • What can an external examiner be helpful for? What kind of examination is unhelpful, useless or harmful, why and for whom?
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