Evaluation and instruction in PhD examiners’ reports: How grammatical choices construe examiner roles

Elsevier BV
Publication Type:
Journal Article
Linguistics and Education, 2017, 42, pp. 53-64
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One of the principal roles of a PhD examiner is to judge ‘both the potential of the researcher and the quality of the research’ (Holbrook, Bourke, Fairbairn, & Lovat, 2014, p. 986). While examiners may be guided by criteria supplied by universities, the descriptors they are provided with can often be open to interpretation. Interpreting an examiner's report can present a challenge to students and their supervisors, exacerbated by the often ambiguous use of language in the reports. This article examines the discourses of evaluation and instruction in 142 PhD examiners’ reports on theses submitted at an Australasian university. The paper draws on systemic functional linguistics, in particular transitivity (Halliday & Matthiessen, 2014), in order to examine the reports. The study revealed that examiners can adopt up to 10 “roles” in their reports, each of which can be co-present in a single report. The inability to differentiate between these roles, we argue, is potentially frustrating for the audience of the reports (candidates, supervisors, departmental heads, etc.), particularly when interpreting whether a comment in the text represents an evaluation, an instruction, or an aside. By revealing these multiple, yet co-present, roles in examiners’ reports and their associated linguistic realisations, we hope to raise examiners’ awareness of the implications of the language they use when writing their reports as well as draw thesis supervisor and institutional attention to the ambiguities inherent in this underexplored genre.
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