S. Worthen (owlfish) wrote,
S. Worthen

About a defense

I arrived half an hour early, ten minute talk printed out and rehearsed, boots changed for shoes, and bags abandoned in my department. No one else was there so soon, but I was conveniently placed to give the chair directions to the right room. We were assigned a room in my department's own building since we didn't require anything particular to the School of Graduate Studies (SGS). Everyone else arrived on time, and by five minutes past I was perched on a table in the atrium while the committee worked through mandatory paperwork. It's all about the paperwork at this phase of the degree.

After being invited back into the room, the first order of business was reading the external assessor's report, since she had chosen not to be my external examiner. Towards this end of this formality, I realized that I hadn't seen page 3 of her report when it was faxed to me; happily, it didn't contain anything crucial, just useful suggestions for minor revisions. Still, that was an irregularity in procedures which the chair, a laid-back and friendly person, was obliged to record.

Doctoral students are then given up to twenty minutes to speak before questioning begins, although my advisor recommended no more than ten minutes, covering topics such as how I came to my topic, why it matters, what I left out, and, importantly, dealing with my external's criticisms. I was proud of myself - I managed to relevantly mention science fiction and evolution vs. intelligent design in my introduction, even if (unlike at my specialist exam) I failed to structure my introduction around a nursury rhyme. An important feature of this introduction is a chance to guide subsequent discussion by heading off problems and announcing obvious deficiencies have already been dealt with.

The chair structured questioning in fifteen minute intervals. Each of my four defense committee members - the minimum necessary to achieve quorum - had a quarter of an hour to question me, with further rounds of questions after everyone had had a turn. CM#1 began with a series of questions to which my only real possible was "I don't know." Although a somewhat demoralizing beginning, it was clear that he meant his leading questions in the most helpful way possible, filling in footnotes and correcting a few minor points. To my great embarassment, I completely flubbed the one Latin question. C'mon, I should be good at that by now! It wasn't all bad on my end with CM#1's questions - he did ask me about a really nifty poem about which I knew quite a bit.

CM#2 was interested in discussing the weirdness which is the new iconography of the virtues, always a fun topic, and one central to my discussion. They really are odd. I'll show you one of these days.

CM#3 was the one I knew the least well. He asked me the big, challenging questions which felt really right at a defense, exactly the sorts of questions which should be asked. What was the question at the heart of my thesis? What did my external mean by a particular phrase describing my conclusions? He pushed me with questions whose answers are difficult to articule, but in ways I could handle with a bit of thought.

CM#4 ran through a handful of small questions before pursuing where I was going to take the dissertation, publishing-wise, how it fit into bigger plans.

They went around for a second round of questions, one or two each, and then they'd asked enough and I left the room, escorted to a lounge elsewhere on the floor to wait in comfort, just in case they took a while. But they didn't, and five minutes later, I was invited back, everyone congratulating me and shaking my hand - and me still not knowing just exactly how it was I did! I had to ask in the end, enquiring of the chair, who relieved my uncertainty by telling me I had minor corrections, with one month to make them, exactly the outcome of the exam I was hoping for. We lugged all the copies of my dissertation - four of them, heavy - back to the department.

Afterwards, the department treated most of my committee (except the ones who couldn't come) to dim sum, which was lovely of them. And after that, my supervisor and I trudged through the cold wind to the far end of campus to do mandatory paperwork at SGS, only to discover they were closed for the afternoon. There will be more paperwork tomorrow. After all, it's all about the paperwork now.

Other notes
A few days before the exam, one of my department's staff members asked me the really important questions about my exam: what was I going to wear? What shoes? How was I going to do my hair? I had no answer on the hair front, but I was delighted to have my first real opportunity to wear my lovely, lovely suit with tastefully dark purple shoes.

Of course I was nervous in the days leading up to my exam. I'd never done a doctoral defense before, so it was an intimidating unknown. I wondered if I'd be able to remember much of anything about what I'd written. Indeed, I half-wondered what I'd even written, hastily rereading large parts of my dissertation to find out, only to find it was all quite familiar really. In the end, of course I knew what I'd written, and when I hadn't, it was became I was making a point in passing in the space of a sentence, or citing someone else, properly footnoted. And that was okay too.
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