I’ve just been in a university where doctoral researchers are issued with a thesis template. This automatically sets up the font, layers of headings and the section and subsection numbering systems. If doctoral researchers decide to use this template, and I gather that most do, then they are automatically writing their thesis text in the 1.1, 1.1.1., 1.1.2 1.2.1 etc format.
The viva I was involved in had two external examiners (it happens sometimes), and both of us felt that this numbering system wasn’t the kind of structure that suited a lot of the theses that we saw. We agreed that we wouldn’t like the doctoral researchers we worked with to be obliged to work with, and to, this kind of numbering system.
Our concern arose not simply because we are both qualitative researchers, with one of us specialising in life histories and the other in ethnographies. Our worries were more to do with what this kind of hierarchical number system does to a thesis text. We could both think of examples in which the flow of the thesis narrative and the construction of its argument were disrupted by very enthusiastic division of the text into tiny numbered bits. We agreed that this too often felt to us as readers that we were encountering a very long list… Reading it was like metaphorically driving a long car journey on a road with endless speed bumps. What’s more, the numbered text looked like a report, rather than a sustained piece of rhetorical persuasion of the kind one might see in a literary essay, or a published scholarly monograph, or an historical analysis.
Of course, hierarchically numbering a thesis is not wrong. It is the norm in some disciplines. It is, as our experience suggests, what is expected in some institutions. But it is also a kind of default thesis structure and this may not be what best suits the actual scholarly work that has been done.
I wonder what this default system does to the craft of scholarly writing… In using hierarchical number systems, do doctoral writers tend to construct what they want to say as a series of points, which they then tend to write in bits, rather than thinking about, and writing for, flow? I’ve also noticed that in theses which are numbered 1.1,1.1.1,1.1.1a etc. that writers seem to have thought less about the actual headings they’ve used than those people who haven’t constructed their text around atomized sectioning approaches.
My answer to the question of numbering – whether and how – is of course that there is no ‘correct’ approach. How the text is structured is always a matter of choice. And, as in any choice-making, it is important that the writer consider all of the issues at play in the decisions that they make. It may be that disciplinary and institutional expectations hold sway. But I’d suggest that it is equally important for doctoral writers to consider the ways in which choices about the form of a text can shape both the writing – and the reading – experience. Flow or speed bumps?
But there is another consideration. And it is the one which was of concern to both of us acting as external viva examiners the other day. In choosing a thesis format, or having one imposed on them, the writer ends up producing a particular kind of text which might look more like a ‘scientific report’ at one end of the spectrum and a ‘non fiction book’ – or even ‘fiction’ – somewhere near the other end. We both maintained that it was important to consider how these different kinds of thesis texts might sit with the ‘positioning’ (epistemological positioning that is), that the thesis writers claim. So, if the writer says that they work with feminist poststructuralist understandings for example, it would be particularly odd to receive a thesis which looked and read much more like a post-positivist research report.
So while there is no right answer to how a thesis text might be numbered, the decision that the writer makes is often more than simply being about the writing and reading experience that it supports. Numbering choices might also reflect something of the way in which the writer views the purposes and practices of scholarly work and its representation in and as text.