A Bit of Spotted Dick with Theses and Dissertations in Archaeology

by Tracy C. Brown

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog would like to begin this post by asking an important question of its readers. How many of you have acquired spotted dick and dined on it? Some things in this world are meant to have spots on them. Spotted dick is one of them (Figures 1 and 2). Theses and dissertations in archaeology are not meant to have spots.

Spotted Dick 2

Figure 1. A Can of Spotted Dick

Spotted Dick 3

Figure 2. A Serving of Spotted Dick

During the late 20th century, colleges and universities rode herd on senior theses, master’s theses, and dissertations in anthropology, archaeology, and most other academic disciplines. Professors insisted on clear and crisp writing, and they emphasized the use of perfect English grammar and punctuation. If the professor and student failed at this to any small degree at the committee level, a tome was subject to the dreaded old perched bird that nested in a higher-level university office dedicated solely to ensuring all theses and dissertations were letter perfect and format perfect.

In the days of typewriters, students were often terrified at the mere thought of this old bird. She had an eagle eye for spotting even the tiniest mistake and razor-sharp talons for digging deeply into student egos if any errors were found. She used a ruler to measure the margins on every page to make sure they were all the same size throughout the document. If one margin was a fraction of an inch off standard, the document was dead meat. The contents and layout of every thesis and dissertation were required to match the rigid standards in the university thesis and dissertation manual. No typographical errors were allowed―not even one such error. No formatting errors were allowed. Poor grammar and punctuation in all their various forms were verboten. Unlike the situation with spotted dick, the ultimate goal was to make sure all theses and dissertations were spotless at the time of committee member approval.

Why am I bringing this up? A disturbing change appears to have occurred in the halls of academia since some temporal point in the late 20th century. Over the past several weeks, I have been reading some recent theses and dissertations in archaeology. I have been appalled at the number of blatant errors and mistakes in these documents. In my opinion, one senior honors thesis from a university out west was, for lack of better terminology, an editorial disaster area. A dissertation written at a major university here in the east had numerous language errors and typographical errors, sometimes with multiple errors on a single page.

This recent round of reading was not the only time I have seen multiple errors of this nature in theses and dissertations. Not always trusting myself, I reached out to an archaeologist friend of mine for a reality check on this, and he confirmed this appalling dip in the editorial quality of recent theses and dissertations in American archaeology. In the days of the old perched bird, these recent theses and dissertations would have sent her ballistic, creating a nuclear wasteland within a 20-mile radius of her office at the university.

I have no good answers as to how and why the editorial quality of theses and dissertations is sinking. One can argue that issues such as margin measurement died with the advent of WordPerfect and Microsoft Word. Certainly, one could ask some questions. Has the editorial quality of theses and dissertations taken a nose dive because students and committee members have not received adequate instruction in English grammar, punctuation, and writing? Are quality of writing and aesthetics no longer issues of concern in a thesis or dissertation as long as the student adequately captures the archaeological gist of their topic? Can some cultural or generational sea change explain this downward trend in the quality of writing and editing? Did someone fire all of the old perched birds in colleges and universities?

What do you think is going on with this? Why are our theses and dissertations in American archaeology no longer spotless? We would like to hear your opinions on this subject. You may reply to this post here on the blog by clicking on the “Leave a Reply” button at the top of this main post.  You may send us an email message about it.  Just click on the “Contact” button at the top of the page to get in touch with us by e-mail.

Photograph Credits

Figure 1 – Lee Nachtigal (Flickr)

Figure 2 – http://www.Essentially-England.com

2 thoughts on “A Bit of Spotted Dick with Theses and Dissertations in Archaeology

  1. Hangaku Gozen

    Speaking as one of those old perched birds, no, there aren’t many of us left, if at all. It’s usually some harried advisor who read through the thesis with little attempt at correcting grammar and spelling errors. (Don’t get me started on margins, footers, and headers either. I don’t think half of those people know how to use a ruler, let alone a style manual.) I think it was assumed after word processing software became the norm that the computer would catch everything. Obviously, it has not. I’m eternally grateful to my old advisor for reading my thesis with an eagle eye and marking up every error with the Word highlighting and comments format.

    I also believe that with the increasing number of non-native English speakers in North American graduate schools, clear grammatical prose has become harder to come by. I don’t blame them: I mean, imagine having to write your thesis in Mandarin or Hindi after taking just a two-year undergrad course in the language. Unfortunately, few of the universities have writing advisors who are able to help them, and hiring an editor is an additional expense for a grad student living on a fellowship or a TA salary. I might also venture that some departments have their students focus so intently on their subject material, they forget that good writing and communications are key to letting future employers know how brilliant you are. If you show them your horribly-written, unreadable thesis, it won’t matter if you were a recipient of a Intel grant or department Student of the Year. Company recycling bins are filled with unreadable papers and resumes.

  2. Pingback: Around the Archaeology Blog-o-sphere Digest #8 | Doug's Archaeology

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