Congratulations, Torill… I’ve enjoyed following Torill’s account of the endgame in her quest for the Ph.D., and it seems only fitting that an online community helps her celebrate it.
My own doctoral defense was a rather lonely affair. The only date available was 3-5pm on the Friday after American Thanksgiving. My wife suggested that we all (just the three of us at the time) fly up to Toronto together, but I knew that I would probably be sullen and bookish, and the sound of Disney cartoons on the hotel TV wouldn’t help me focus. Since Canada celebrates its harvest a month earlier (owing to its shorter growing season) it was just another Friday in Toronto.
At lunch my adviser made me feel completely at ease… he never held back his criticism at earlier stages of my dissertation, so I knew that when he agreed to schedule the defense he must have felt good about my work. During the defense, the committee members pinged me on a few omissions, rolled their eyes just a bit when I insisted that a light bulb counts as technology (“Well then, what about fire?” one of them asked.) and offered a short list of typos. Nothing really serious. At one point I mistakenly attributed Watch on the Rhine to Clare Booth Luce, and the committee members all chanted “Lillian Hellman” in corrective chorus (in fact, I was thinking about the Clare Booth Luce play Margin for Error — I just misspoke). The final question asked me to explain the significance of an Edgar Allen Poe reference that Blanche Dubois makes in A Streetcar Named Desire. That was a perfectly legitimate question, because I used the Poe reference to make a point about Blanche’s construction of the urban wilderness outside the Kowalskis’ flat. But it had been years since I had written that part of the dissertation, so I came up completely blank. “I could speculate for you, if you like,” I said, ” but in order to answer confidently I’d need to look that up.”
I figured they would push me until I broke, and there I was — broken. But to my surprise, they all leaned back in their chairs and clicked their pens shut, smiling. I guessed that I had lasted long enough, and that when I broke, I did so gracefully — I simply admitted what I didn’t know.
Soon I was sitting in a little waiting area outside the conference hall, trying to push out of my mind the thought that the longer they stayed in there, the more likely it was that someone — or more than one — or all of them — wanted to fail me. Of course it was at this time that I thought up a good response to their “fire” question.
After the defense, the committee took me to the faculty club, and my adviser lent me his cell phone to let me call my wife with the good news. Then I got up and walked, walked, walked around downtown Toronto. Later, I met up with some my former colleagues from the Engineering Writing Center. And the night before, while walking, walking, walking, I heard someone call my name — a good friend just happend to be on his way to a pub to meet a mutual friend, so I tagged along.
Hmm… now that I reflect on it, I guess it wasn’t that solitary after all. But it was difficult moving back and forth between teaching full-time and suddenly becoming a student facing the mother of all test-taking nightmares.