Archive for March 3rd, 2012

For academics, their thesis defense is often a highlight of their lives. Not for me. My defense was over so quickly that I almost felt disappointed. In fact, it was so quick that sometimes I almost wonder if I’m really entitled to the Master’s degree that the diploma says that I earned.

Probably every grad student sweats over their oral, and, nine times out of ten, I’m told, it’s wasted anxiety. A successful grad student is a form of prestige in academia, and few supervising committees will let a candidate defend unless they are likely to succeed. A failing student makes their committee look bad, so, while committee members may harrow a student who’s preparing, and ask a few tough questions at the defense, they’re generally not out to cause problems.

However, as a grad student I didn’t know the situation. It didn’t help that the one defense that I witnessed so I would know what to expect was a last ditch effort to squeeze the student out the door before she used up her time in graduate school. Unlike most defenses, that one was testy, especially since the candidate obviously had trouble thinking on her feet and several inadequate answers resulted in extended cross-examinations. When she was finally told that she had passed, you could see the tension draining out of her. Watching her, I got the idea that a defense was an ordeal, and success was by no means as pre-ordained as it usually is.

In addition, I had my own reasons to be nervous. I was writing about science fiction – and not science fiction old enough to be of historical interest, like the H. G. Wells thesis that had been successfully defended a few years earlier. My subject, the fantasist Fritz Leiber, was new material, and, in many department members’ eyes, somewhat dubious. I had heard enough remarks to realize that, were I to fail, several tenured faculty members would not be unbearably disappointed, and never mind that my thesis was original work and almost guaranteed publication.

As if that wasn’t precarious enough, my thesis supervisor was the department’s token humanist. By working with him, I had announced to the entire department that I was not in any of the popular critical camps, such as the feminists or the post-colonials. It wasn’t that I disagreed with these camps politically or socially, you understand – quite the contrary. But, unlike members of these camps, I had been heard to express a number of heresies. Books were to be enjoyed, I had insisted at departmental meetings, and not simply studied. Moreover, I had often said that conscientious critics should fit the theory to the work, not the work to the theory. Such ideas amounted to a questioning not only of critical method, but of how most members of the department worked. Under these circumstances, I didn’t feel I could take my defense for granted.

My particular worry was my second reader. The thesis supervisor wasn’t a problem, or he wouldn’t have been working with me in the first place, and all his objections had already been handled while I was struggling with the drafts. Similarly, the external examiner was a minor fantasy writer, so he was unlikely to be hostile, even though he would probably ask some questions to determine the extent of my knowledge.

However, the second reader was a problem. He had made the odd comment that suggested that he disapproved of my subject matter, and he hadn’t had time to read my thesis until just before the defense, so I didn’t know what points he was likely to bring up. About all I could do was prepare some explanations of why my subject was worthy of attention, readying a defense in depth that guarded against every attack which I could anticipate. And, being imaginative, I could anticipate a lot of possible attacks.

With these worries, I spent a fitful night the day before the defense. The morning was worse; tap me on my shoulder from behind, and I would have exploded like a Prince Rupert’s drop. Mercifully, the defense was early in the morning, or I might have collapsed in fetal position in the nearest corner.

I sauntered into the room with all the nonchalance of a condemned prisoner being taken for execution. But to my amazement, my own defense was nothing like the one I had witnessed. My supervisor and the external examiner asked a few questions to probe my knowledge, and I found I could not only speak but summon some eloquence as well.

However, all the time, I waited for the second reader to pounce. To my eye, he looked abstracted, a little impatient, as if just waiting for his chance to shoot me down. Yet, apart from a comment that Leiber hadn’t done anything in forty years as effective as his story “Coming Attraction,” the second reader took no part in the discussion, although my supervisor turned to him several times.

I couldn’t understand it. But, finally, my supervisor asked the second reader if he had any questions. The second reader muttered something, and my defense was over, fifteen minutes after it began. I followed tradition by leaving the room while the merits of my work were discussed, and, anxiously fretted to Trish about what the second reader might be saying without me in the room.

But I needn’t have worried. Less than twenty minutes after my defense began, I was called back and told that, apart from a few exceptionally minor corrections, my thesis was accepted and I had my second post-secondary degree.

The second reader disappeared almost immediately, and the supervisor explained his strange behavior. The second reader was subject to petit mal, moments of mental blackout in which he could barely function, and an attack had hit him during the defense. However, rather than plead illness and ask for a rescheduling, the second reader preferred to act as though nothing was wrong and nobody had noticed the lapse.

To this day, I still don’t know if the second reader planned to give me a tough time. Possibly not; he had a reputation for being exacting and a bit grumpy, but also fair. But after all my uncertainty leading up the defense, his reaction was so much of an anti-climax as to be ironic. More relieved than I could possibly explain, I went off to treat my supervisor and external examiner to an afternoon-long lunch, at which I polished off a bottle of retsina by myself, and barely noticed the effects.

Later, I started wondering if I had missed something. I wondered if I could have been better prepared for life as an academic if I had faced a withering and ruthless quizzing and managed to stand my ground. It all seemed too easy somehow, and, although no one complained, to this day I often feel like I obtained my Master’s under false or irregular circumstances.

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