Thursday, March 23, 2006


The non-defensive defense

The first week after the defense has been great: I flew home to visit family for a few days, read from this, this, and this, watched old West Wing episodes on DVD, wandered aimlessly through some bookstores, and played online chess. Sure, there have been a few fleeting moments of phantom dissertation pain, of knowing that the appendage is gone but feeling like it is still there. And there are still a few typos to fix and lines to add before turning in the final copy of the dissertation to the binder. But there is life after the defense, and it is sweet.

Even the defense, though, was more sweet than bitter, and in comments below, the Academic Coach asks why. She writes:
I'd love to hear more about why the defense was so rewarding. So many students I work with are worried about the defense when it is so often an opportunity to hear seasoned opinions about how to shape the diss into good articles or a marketable book.
I certainly felt my share of anxiety before the defense. I had to be regularly reminded by my advisor (and, Lord knows, by my wife) that a little trepidation was normal. But I'm fortunate to be in a program that already views the defense less as an ordeal by fire and more as "an opportunity to hear seasoned opinions" from senior scholars about my ongoing work. In fact, the dissertation guidelines published by the University begin by saying that although the dissertation is "the culmination of the graduate degree," it is only the "beginning of one's scholarly work," a dialectic synthesis that I've tried to wrap my head around before. One reason the defense was so rewarding was because my committee members clearly agreed with those guidelines. They were genuinely interested in constructive criticism, and their graciousness had little to do with me.

I do think, however, that it helped for me to come to the defense with the same view of the dissertation as both a culmination and a beginning. In my very brief opening comments, I described the dissertation as a "freeze frame" in a still developing project. And instead of summarizing the dissertation, I tried to suggest what I saw as the most likely trajectory of the project after the defense, noting the points where I felt like more research and reflection would be needed. In other words, I tried to invite "seasoned opinions" and indicate my openness to them.

There is a thin line between giving a defense and being defensive. Giving a defense means explaining how you came to take up a particular position. But defensiveness gives the impression that you refuse to abandon that position or to move onto a better one. As much as possible, I tried to avoid giving that impression and instead focused on making my decisions about the dissertation intelligible to the committee. On the advice of my advisor, I also made some opening comments about the history of the project, which helped me answer some more particular questions during the defense itself. For instance, at the very beginning I tried to note which of the dissertation's themes and arguments were of the most recent vintage and how they had gradually come to the fore, because explaining the provenance of your arguments usually makes clear which parts of them are still provisional. It helped me to explain that the dissertation had proceeded through two distinct phases in which I had framed the central questions of the thesis quite differently, because sometimes an argument or a citation that raised questions for the committee turned out to be an artifact of an earlier question I had been asking that had been submerged in later drafts. Most of all, explaining the history of the project helped underline the sense in which it was a work still in movement, which in turn helped me resist the temptation to be defensive when I was asked a challenging question.

That's not to say that every challenging question could be explained away with a simple "I wrote that back before I realized X." Some of the questions were really difficult: that's why they still call it a defense. After all, if defending a dissertation is different from being defensive about it, one still cannot simply concede every point. Defensiveness is an easy position to fall into, but so is surrender. There were enough eyewitnesses on hand who could tell you that from time to time I fell into both traps. But when the defense was going well, I think it was when the discussion managed to steer between those extremes. I also think the Academic Coach is right to imply (as I think she is doing) that much of that depended on perception: perhaps because I was anxious, I spent a lot of time trying to convince myself to see the defense as a workshop instead of an inquisition, and perhaps perceiving it that way helped make it that way.

I certainly think this holds true for most of the other defenses and seminars I've seen: if the candidate presents the work as both defensible and revisable, then the committee or the audience is most likely to be positive and constructive. The only times I've ever seen the claws really come out in an academic setting have been when presenters brooked no dissent, admitted no mistakes, or acted as though the work had sprung fully formed from their heads. Having performed scholarly work themselves, most academic audiences have a hard time taking such seamless presentations seriously and promptly set about trying to find as many seams in the work as they can.

Collective Improvisation:
Caleb, -- Thanks for taking me inside the defense. This is also great advice for others who are close to defending. Enjoy the aimless wandering and online chess for awhile.

Posted by Blogger Kevin on 3/24/2006 06:47:00 AM : Permalink  

Best discussion I've ever read of the proper role of a thesis and thesis defense. I hope you get to have grad students someday.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/24/2006 03:20:00 PM : Permalink  

Hey man, it's Kent. Congratulations! Did you enjoy *Peace Like a River*?

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 3/24/2006 07:00:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks guys!

Kent: as you probably suspected, I liked Peace Like a River very much. Gilead-esque in some places, I thought.

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 3/25/2006 12:46:00 PM : Permalink  

Congratulations! I really liked my defense, too, and for many of the same reasons.

Posted by Blogger bitchphd on 3/25/2006 08:26:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks for answering my question.

I'll keep this bookmarked to send along to folks who express anxiety about their defense.

Posted by Blogger academic coach on 8/27/2006 08:11:00 AM : Permalink  

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