December 4, 2020
One of the feared traditions of graduate school is the “Writtens”, followed by the Oral Defense. This generally occurs at the end of the second year of the program and after the course work is complete. The purpose is to test the knowledge of the student and to see if they were ready to enter their Thesis or Dissertation research. I took three of these tests, in three different fields. I failed the first one miserably and passed the others with ease. The difference was what I learned from the first failure allowed me success on my later defense. The key was knowing the test was not designed to trick me or cause me to fail. I was able to ask what would be on the test in advance and (generally) was told. When I understood the rules and asked, I passed.
When I was in grad school, I had a friend who had a Garfield cartoon pinned to his cubicle wall. Underneath each picture he had written his own caption. The strip began with Odie looking at a tree full of apples (choosing a dissertation topic). The next cel found Odie shaking the tree until an apple fell to the ground (researching your topic). Garfield then swooped in and stole the apple that fell (professor steals your topic). The next cel found Odie and Garfield locked in a fight (dissertation defense). The final cel depicted Odie alone, beaten up but proudly holding his apple (graduation). While I did not fully understand the truth of this observation at the time, I thought it was funny. It became clearer when I went through the process.
Another learning I gleaned was the oral defense is often more about the opposing views of the professors than you. I have sat in on the defenses of friends and listened as obscure and contradictory questions were asked, only to have the candidate’s major professor jump to the students’ defense. While this is not always the case, it is when there are competing views within the department. I have seen (and experienced) this in Archeology, History and Religion. It is difficult to mount an effective defense when others will not listen.
Thoughts: There have been times when I have been forced to defend my views outside of academia. Here again, it is because I have said something another disagrees with. They believe they are right, so I must be wrong. When I have taken time to step back from my adversarial position, I have often been able to understand the other’s point. Even if I do not agree with it. It is only when we find common ground that we can be united. Or at least not at war with each other. This ultimately requires both sides to step back and listen, but it can begin with you. Do the work. Change is coming and it starts with you.