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To call Jill Biden’s dissertation thin gruel is an insult to gruel. Whatever meager substance puddled in Bob Cratchit’s miserable bowl at mealtime was a bountiful feast compared with this paper. I wrote yesterday about the problems with this capstone project, the foundation of her Ed.D. degree and of the insistence of so many in recent days that we must call her “Dr.”
Mrs. Biden’s only original research consists of interviews with two — that’s right, two — ex-students and a few colleagues at Delaware Technical Community College, where she used to teach, plus the results of a vacuous questionnaire she wrote that was returned by about 150 people who worked or studied there. Oh, and she also called two nearby community colleges seeking interviews about their retention rates. One of them wouldn’t answer the question; the other wouldn’t assign anyone to speak to her at all. Telling us about this misadventure serves no academic purpose, though it does fill up four pages of her generously spaced paper. The transcripts of her group chats with campus figures and colleagues take up nearly 30 pages out of 129. The questionnaires eat up another 18 pages.
The dissertation, Student Retention at the Community College: Meeting Students’ Needs, shimmers with the wan, term-papery feel of middle school, although in defense of today’s middle schoolers, they at least know how to use spell-checking software, unlike Mrs. Biden. Her 2006 paper notes that at Delaware Tech, her then-employer, a third of students dissolve into the ether every year, and in order to pad out her micron-thin proposals, none of which have anything to support them except her beliefs and anecdotal evidence (she suggests building a student center and beefing up the “Wellness Center” while increasing counseling and mentoring services), she shovels in piles of drivel. Opinions will differ on which of her efforts is of least value, but a strong contender presents itself at the moment when she reaches over for the course catalog on her desk and quotes at length from page two of its boilerplate introduction (“The College respects and cares for students as individuals and maintains a friendly an open institution which welcomes all students and supports their aspirations for a better life”). She follows up on this meaningless prattle by reiterating it in her own insipid words: “Responding to the current social and economic morés of the new millennium, Delaware Tech’s mission has adapted to meet the needs and goals of today’s students.”
Biden’s landfill of a paper contains potted histories of things everybody already knows, awkwardly phrased banalities (“Community colleges offer a myriad of support,” “As a community college, Delaware Tech mirrors the national profile of a community college,” “the unique nature of the classroom allows for a complexity of problems as well”), and childlike repetition (“This reason is one of many reasons that support the need for a campus psychologist.”)
Biden’s style is atrocious, her research is comical, her reasoning is muddled, and as one finishes the final vacuous line of this student-newspaper-style exercise (“A student retention plan requires diligence and effort — but most of all, leadership”), it is impossible not to be reminded that the University of Delaware, which granted Mrs. Biden an Ed.D. in 2007, is deeply connected to her husband. A more exacting, or even minimally self-respecting, university would have directed Mrs. Biden’s paper to the nearest trash receptacle. Jill Biden looks like yet another member of the Biden family who successfully leveraged the family name to obtain things of value that otherwise would have lain far beyond the reach of someone of such meager talents.
The typos and other miscues begin in the second sentence of Mrs. Biden’s introduction (“The needs of the student population are often undeserved [sic], resulting in a student drop-out rate of almost one third”) unless you count the table of contents, in which Biden misspells the word questionnaire. Easing into her subject, she churns through the reader’s time with undisguised filler such as block quotations of her then-employer’s mission statement, press-release blather (“Today, the community college not only answers the needs of transfer students but has also emerged to address the needs of career education, vocational and technical education, contract training, and community services”) and cutaways to comparable low-impact thoughts on community colleges taken from the very small stack of books she skimmed: “B.S. Hollinshead, president of a junior college in Pennsylvania, wrote that the junior college should be ‘a community college meeting community needs.’ (Cohen & Brawer, 2003, p. 20).” You don’t say. “Dr. George F. Zook, president of the American Council on Education in 1946, echoed Hollinshead’s sentiments . . .” and so on.
I say “skimmed,” but perhaps I’m being unfair. Let’s just observe that as a scholar, Biden certainly is fortunate: Again and again, the books she cites turn out to contain a huge proportion of the material relevant to her discussion in their first 20 pages. For instance, a book she leans on heavily to bulk up her word count, A. M. Cohen, F. B. Brawer, and C. B. Kisker’s The American Community College, contains material on pages 1, 6, 7, 9, 13, and 20 that she deemed worthy of quotation. (There is also strong evidence that she read pages 202–207). By an astonishing coincidence, seven of her 15 quotations from a book about community colleges by A. A. Witt et al. (and published by something called “The Community College Press”) come from the first 15 pages of the book, but we can be sure she also read pages 96–97 because four of the remainder come from those pages.
Biden is a writing teacher in dire need of a writing tutor: “In an effort to obtain upward mobility, returning GIs, [sic] took the opportunity to enroll in college” is a not-untypical sentence. She can barely get through a banality without an unnecessary comma or a spelling mistake and she says “skyrocket” when she means “plummet”: “Stress, anxiety, and depression set in when the student succumbs to feeling overwhelmed. The first sacrifice has to be school; hence, student retention rates skyrocket if there are no safeguards in place to help students cope with all they are trying to handle.”
Biden’s original research of distributing questionnaires and chatting with a few people on campus is not rigorous work that demonstrates mastery. It’s more like half a week of basic reporting. Indeed, given that questionnaires could be distributed by email, one could conceivably accomplish more or less everything Biden considers to be her original research in a single day. The 37 questions (most of them yes/no) contained in her student survey solicit such rudimentary information (“In your opinion, would a campus psychologist be helpful to students?” And “Have you ever used the writing center?” And “Has Delaware Tech provided you the support you need to thrive socially?”) that they seem more characteristic of the inquiries of a marketing department than an academic exploration. Given that actual community-college marketing departments have presumably done many larger and more detailed surveys in the past, Biden’s work looks entirely superfluous. (Biden’s sample size was 159 students, and she gives no indication that this group was anything other than a self-selecting cadre of those who sent back answers. She also sent out surveys to 100 faculty members, 69 of whom responded, and seven guidance counselors, of whom six responded. Is a survey of six people of any academic value whatsoever? As for her interviews of dropouts, I remind you that there were exactly two of them.)
All of Biden’s nominal research, her bromides and tautologies and unsupported assertions, are all wasted anyway. The entire paper may be rotten fruit, but it fell off a poisoned tree, which is Biden’s conceptual confusion. A professor who expected any rigor whatsoever from Biden would have drawn a red line through the entire paper and told her to start over. I’ll explain why in my next column.