In Barcelona last week sitting on a PhD jury – one of these public defences that are literally and metaphorically foreign to the UK. The thesis was in Catalan with a presentation to an audience of about 35 in that language, with Spanish and English interludes. I had read a 50 page English summary of the thesis, and was familiar with the research over a 6 year involvement between Bath and the Catalan university. When the candidate had finished his 50 minute presentation, and his supervisors had had a say (a novel twist, I thought), we three jurists had ours. I spoke about the international context of the research and its potential contribution. The last to speak (in Catalan) was the president of the jury, and I had a translator whispering in my ear. I thought the learned and venerable professor was making some quite critical points to do with neglected literature, omitted data, and un-nuanced argument, etc, and so I kept asking my interpreter: "Is that a critical point?" "Yes", she'd always respond, "but not a negative one." Oh, I thought, and where do you draw that line?
In the end, we graded it "Excellent cum laude", everyone was happy, and cava was splashed about. Later, I asked another venerable and learned professor, this time someone whom I had known for a while, what was all the critical but not negative stuff from the president of the jury: "Just showing off" they said; "illustrating how clever they are and how little the candidate really knows." Experience suggests that this a tendency also found here, but in Barcelona, on that occasion at least, it wasn't allowed to get in the way of the outcome.