At Cornell it’s called the B-exam but around here it’s called the viva; why not just call it a dissertation defence? Anyway, as you know, I had it. A while ago, actually, but David S. called for a ‘full report’ and so I’ve been meaning to say something about it. (Though, David, did you provide any report back when you defended?)
Getting to the point where I could defend was an irritating exercise, to say the least. My advisor had suggested at some point that we have the defence in Oxford rather than in Ithaca since he and another of my committee members were both going to be in Oxford anyway in January. As it happens, Cornell’s Code has provisions for this sort of thing, so we did not anticipate any difficulties. The new Dean of the Graduate School, however, is very keen to maintain the public nature of dissertation defences and so objected to our plan. I know that in some countries defences are public occasions where everyone from your professors to your family members attend, but when’s the last time you’ve seen somebody who was not an examiner attend a defence at an American school? Anyway, I submitted an appeal, the upshot of which was that due to my ‘highly unusual’ situation I was permitted to go ahead with a defence in Oxford, though the General Committee’s decision ‘cannot be taken as setting any precedent’. The Committee, unfortunately, objected to Skype and insisted that my permission was contingent on submitting a proposal for alternative, higher quality videoconferencing arrangements.
This resulted in a headache that lasted until the day of the defence, since Oxford is now largely relying on Skype and has abandoned many of its former videoconferencing facilities and since the facilities still around tended to be already booked for the day we had set for the defence. But, to make a long story short, we eventually secured technicians and facilities on both sides of the Atlantic.
The fact that this was all an exercise for nothing since none of my committee members were actually at Cornell did not make the headache any more welcome. The other two members of my committee were in South Korea and Indiana — and they connected via Skype. But on the day of the defence we had a fantastic videoconferencing connection with a large, mostly empty lecture room on Cornell’s campus. One professor from Cornell’s philosophy department eventually showed up — very generously, I have to say — just so that the technician wouldn’t get too lonely. There would have been plenty of room for all readers of this blog to come and enjoy seeing me on a big screen flanked by two of my professors.
The whole affair, of course, was grotesquely inappropriate for a Mennonite farm-boy with Luddite sympathies.
The defence itself went reasonably well, as far as I can tell. Which isn’t very far. We had a good, philosophical discussion that left me with further things to think about in the future. I expected one of my professors to cause me some discomfort and he didn’t disappoint. Pretty much every talk I’ve ever seen him attend he will at some point ask a question. The style is always the same. He will peer at one of his books — he always brings the primary texts with him — and adopt something of a puzzled expression, before asking what looks at first glance like some close to insignificant question, e.g., about the wording of one sentence buried in the paper somewhere or about some Latin or Greek word that perhaps could be translated differently than the author of the paper translated it. Usually, the author barely remembers the relevant detail. But, sadly, it quickly becomes apparent that the entire argument hinges on just this detail. I’ve watched many an argument go down in flames in this way at his hands and hence assumed that I would meet a similar fate. So, yes, one of the main arguments in one of my chapters may well be unsound since the Latin term ‘indigens’ could meet ‘needing’ rather than ‘lacking’ … and, yes, he is absolutely right that this detail is crucial for my argument.
But the committee seemed happy with my dissertation — though, cynic that I am, I put very little stock in such seemings — and passed me without requiring revisions. I do, of course, still have to get the dissertation to conform to Cornell’s style guidelines, so that’s my near-term project.