Monday, June 3, 2013

The game of lifeboat: reflections on a dissertation defense

About 48 hours before my scheduled dissertation defense, I received word from my adviser and committee chair (the same person) that a couple of the other committee members had some "complex issues" with my dissertation draft.  I didn't/don't have a full grasp on what those "complex issues" were, but over the next few hours, I came to believe that there was a real (small, perhaps, but real) possibility that I would fail the defense.

As it turned out, I passed the defense, with a (not uncommon for dissertation defendees) requirement that I revise my introduction and conclusion.  The revisions were not particularly extensive, and they amounted to adding some relatively easy-to-add items rather than completely re-conceptualizing my approach to the project.  (For the record, I wrote all my dissertation chapters before I had a strong idea of how I would bring them all together in my introduction and conclusion.  That might not be the best way to go about it, but that's what I did.  In a sense, the intro and conclusion--and especially the intro--had been the hardest part of the dissertation to write.)

Now, when I write "I didn't/don't have a full grasp of what those 'complex issues' were," I mean that there were probably a lot of conversations among my committee members--the three who were ready to pass it and the two hedgers who had reservations--and I wasn't privy to those conversations.  I got a sense, during the actual defense itself, of what those "complex issues" were, but I strongly suspect that the revisions I eventually had to do probably reflected a compromise between the committee members who thought the dissertation pass-worthy and the two who had reservations.

Now, before I turn to what probably motivated the two professors with reservations, I will say a word about my dissertation and a few words about the three pro-"pass" people.  About my dissertation.  It had some real problems, and it wasn't a slam dunk dissertation.  It was a bit clumsy and had way too much detail:  two chapters were over 100 pages long and another was almost 100 pages.  I didn't define my analytical categories very clearly, and I didn't define my historical actors very well, either.  In short, had I taken more time to fine-tune the dissertation, "complex issues" wouldn't have been, err, issues.

As for the three pro-pass people, they all recognized that these difficulties with my arguments, but they were on board with passing me because they saw potential in the project.  My advisor would never have let it go to a defense if he had not thought it worthy of passing.  And the other two had worked with me in a greater capacity on the project than the two hedgers had.  My dissertation was also written in a  historiogrpahic tradition that these three professors were familiar with and the two hedgers were not as familiar with. 

Now, what were the motivations for the two hedgers to raise objections, and why would they have waited until 48 hours before the defense when I had given them the defense draft to read about six weeks before?  I'll answer the second question first and say I don't know, but they probably simply didn't begin reading it until a short while before the defense.  I don't particularly blame them for reading later than earlier.  I, too, delay reading things before, say, a conference where a paper is pre-circulated, in large part so the paper is still fresh in my mind when I go to the conference.

Is it fair to raise serious objections 48 hours before the defense?  At first glance, it seems unfair.  And the apparent unfairness likely provided one procedural argument for going on with the defense rather than, say, postponing it until the fall.  I will have to confess, however, that if the objections had been raised, say, four weeks before the defense, with ample time to meet the relevant objections, I might have still been quite disconcerted and mopey and probably not fully able or willing to rise to the occasion.  So whatever the purpose or the fairness, the late notice functioned as something on balance that was beneficial.  Finally, as I said in the preceding paragraph, one cannot object to something one has not read, and the two hedgers had other things to do in the six weeks leading up to the defense in addition to reading a 500+ page dissertation draft.  I'm not sure it's right for me to say that procrastination necessarily disqualifies one from raising objections.

In some ways, this all implicates the first question:  what motivated the hedgers?  I think some variant of one, two, or all, of the following three factors may have been at play:
  1. Professional conscience. They had/have real concerns for the state of their profession, for the reputation of their department and university, and for my own personal reputation as a scholar.  If they passed a dissertation that in their view had certain weaknesses, they probably believed that I would have a harder time as an aspiring scholar if I were to try to shop myself off on the academic market.  And even if (as seems likely but is not yet definite) I don't pursue such a career, they probably want me to be proud of what I've written.
  2. A course in academic give-and-take 101.  All scholars who present their work to a public, even when that "public" is the other two co-presenters and moderator at an otherwise empty Saturday-morning conference session, have to face reasoned objections and challenges from others.  One hopes such challenges are raised in the spirit of conviviality and helpful suggestions, but at any rate scholarship entails (ideally) discussion, and discussion has to be more than the in-person equivalent of a blog commenter's "+1."  By raising objections, the two hedgers were participating in this tradition.  They had serious reservations about what I had written and wanted to challenge me to rise to the occasion and meet their objections.  I suspect (but I don't know) that they would each have preferred to see me postpone the defense and revise for a later date, but this was part of the process of scholarly negotiation.
  3. The Seul dieu est parfait approach.  I had a professor of French once who said he never gave "perfect" scores on exams or papers because "seul dieu est parfait" (Only God is perfect).  He also intimated that this was the practice in the educational system enjoyed by the French patrician elite, to which he belonged.   I wouldn't say that these two hedgers would always raise objections--or last-minute objections--but I do suspect that their default is to object to any dissertation that doesn't reach some very high standard, the goal being to make what is already good even better, and what is not so good at least a little stronger.  (A less charitable way to put this can be found in my idea for a headline in The Onion:  "Area Professors Suspended for Hazing.")
Again, I don't think these three possible motivations are mutually exclusive.  Also--and despite my parenthetical about "hazing" for point number 3--I think all three motivations bespeak these two professors' good faith.  (One of them devoted what must have been several hours finding typos in my defense draft, an act of generosity that helped me tremendously in revising my submission draft of the dissertation.)  The late notice (48 hours!) is harder to justify, and suggests to me a certain cluelessness and perhaps even disregard about procedural fairness.  But as I said above, I would have found even timely notice hard to deal with, so I ought to lower my dudgeon a few notches.

Putting aside dudgeon, however well- or ill-justified, I was very distraught at the news about the "complex issues," and I did what is my wont:  I foresaw the worst possible outcome.  I told my advisor that I would prefer to drop out rather than postpone and that if I failed the defense, I would not opt to schedule a second one.  This stance wasn't a bluff.  I really was prepared to pull the temple down upon myself.  I also adopted a very dramatic posture--not a bluff either, but an exercise in self-pity--when I told my advisor something like the following:
Things have worked out pretty well for me so far in life, and if this bad thing happens, then it's not the end of the world.
That sentiment, of course, expresses a very important truth (and as my wife's friend told her before the defense, regardless of the outcome the sun would still rise the following day).  But the maudlin height of my statement--made to my advisor who was trying to help me navigate the upcoming defense--was inappropriate and, as I said, self-pitying.  It was an expression of Pride:  an idolatry of the self, in the name of accepting martyrdom in an anti-Pierre Corneille world, and a defiant statement that I would rather reign as an ABD than serve as a "doctor."

The Pride didn't stop there.  I was too savvy to say any of this out loud, but I repeated over and over in my head the reasons why these professors--and not just those professors, but the entire department--were "betraying" me.  Hadn't I given them years of service as a Teaching Assistant?  Hadn't I been one of these professor's research assistants?  Hadn't I volunteered to teach a class a few years ago when the professor for that course had suddenly become unable to teach that semester due to illness?  Hadn't I been to innumerable department events?  This list could, and probably did (although I don't remember all the specifics) run on.

Of course, in my hot fury, I probably didn't acknowledge the following.  My stints as a TA gave me a tuition-and-fee waiver worth, at least in nominal terms, about $20,000, as well as a stipend I could live on in an expensive city.  Being the one professor's research assistant has been a feather in my CV cap, and I also got paid for it.  The class I "volunteered" to teach was also good for my cv--it was outside my area of expertise and having taught it gave me some street cred for that particular subject.  I was also paid a generous stipend for "volunteering," and the position came quite auspiciously within about a week of my having been laid off from a part-time job.  (Oh, by the way,  one of the professors who eventually expressed reservations about my dissertation did a generous amount of work helping me prepare for that class, and he didn't get paid anything extra.)  I got a lot from attending the departmental events--networking opportunities, a break from the academic drudgery, and free food, for examples.  Finally,the department had given me plenty of free money.  It gave me two fellowships--each about $5,000, and for a couple of years, it gave me what amounted to an extra amount of money in addition to the regular TA stipend.

None of this is to deny that there may be a "there" there.  Academic departments in general have a sometimes deserved reputation for abusing their graduate employees.  Even when what happens can't actually count as "abuse," academia is in many ways an exploitative industry, and some departments are happy to take on new grad students, use their labor, and say "it's been good to know you" when the students drop out.  (In fact, even the "good" departments do this because they are part of the system.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm no Marxist and I believe a lot of the pay raise agitation pursued by my own graduate student union is misguided and, frankly, selfish, entitled, and tone-death.  But academia does have a labor problem, and I'd advise anyone considering going to think once, twice, and thrice before taking the plunge.)  Still, there's no denying I got a benefit from all my alleged "sacrifices" and "service."

And further, even if I adopt the most severe construction of how the department might have "betrayed" me, I'd have to admit the following:  none of what the department did or didn't do necessarily means that my dissertation was well-written, well-argued, or pass-worthy.

And still further (and to repeat), I passed the defense with what turned out to be minimal revisions.  The actual defense was cordial, focusing much more on where I needed to improve and how I might go about doing so.  I'll confess that despite the cordiality, it wasn't a particularly pleasant experience.  And when it was over, I was ready for it to be over.  But I passed.

Now what lessons can I take from the process?

I said in an aside above that I probably don't intend to pursue a career in academia, but if I do, I have at least one lesson ready at hand. Namely, it's to remember how it feels to go through what I went through.  And this lesson is particularly useful when it comes to teaching.

Counting my time as a masters student and as a PHD student I have TA'd for what must be at least a dozen classes, and I have taught as an adjunct three classes.  Occasionally, I've had to fail students.  The most common reasons are plagiarism or a refusal to do enough of the work.  I don't think I've ever failed someone who tried and just didn't get it (or at least, I hope I haven't).

I will say I never enjoy failing people, but when I have failed students, at the back of my head are some of the same reasons my two professors with reservations had:  there are certain standards that need to be enforced and certain hoops that need to be jumped through.  I'll add to this and say that for some students, the minimal passing grade (a D) or the "acceptable" passing grade (a C) might not be a good grade for what they need.  Maybe they need to keep their GPA up to get off academic probation.  Maybe, again, they just don't get history (in a similar way that I didn't get physics). 

My point is not to lower standards.  I'm not sure exactly what I think of grading systems.  I personally did well as an undergraduate student under the traditional grading, but I've come to question how useful they are overall in what a good education should be.  But as long was we work in that system, they need to serve to at least some extent as proxies for standards.

My point, rather, is to remember not to be cavalier about it.  It's easy for TA's or instructors to, when they're alone with other TA's or instructors, talk poorly of specific students or students in general, and sometimes to make fun of particularly infelicitous things they may have written in their papers or on exams.  I know at least two people who occasionally post such things on Facebook, which, even if we leave aside the very real legal and privacy concerns (I don't believe they anonymize their Facebook posts enough for a discerning student to recognize him- or herself in them), is usually at least a questionable thing to do.

There is room, I think, for some degree of gallows humor and for venting when it comes to student writing and the challenges of teaching.  But there's even more room to remember that students, even if they're seeking education for the "wrong" reasons like a credential, are human beings.  There is also room to remember that I already have what these students presumably want:  a bachelor's degree (and more).  From their point of view, I had already "arrived" even before my dissertation passed (and when I was an MA student, even before I had a masters), in the same way that my committee members had already "arrived" by having their dissertations completed and having--I believe all of them--obtained tenure.

That's at least one lesson.  Another is to be wary of a creeping "lifeboat" syndrome.  After flailing in the water for ten years in a doctoral program, I've been extended a hand--five pairs of hands, and many more, to be accurate--to land safely on board.  Now that I am there, I ought to guard against the temptation to be hyper-vigilant about who's qualified to be my future boat mates.  I ought to remember that even if I am a diamond, I was once (and probably still am) in the rough myself (sorry for the cliche).  I ought to remember where I was.

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