The Tale of My Dissertation Defense

January 23rd, 2011

Where to begin?

The night before my dissertation defense, I posted on Twitter and Facebook that trying to sleep would be interesting. The outpouring of support I got on Facebook in response to my message was very heartwarming. I’m so glad that the department subculture is mostly one of community and cooperation. The students we have right now are a great bunch and they go out of their way to help each other. Thinking back, it’s amazing how a few horrible people really spoiled the barrel, but they’re gone now and forgotten.

After reading the messages that came in, I did get around five hours of sleep, non-continuous. I was up by 7:30. My roommate actually took time off from work to make me an omelette and wish me well! He had also made cookies for me a few nights prior. He’s basically awesome. I finished the wonderful breakfast, downed a 5 Hour Energy Drink, and headed off at around 8:40.

As I arrived at the department, I was told that I would be using the larger (though still relatively small) classroom in the building. Before, I was told that I would be in the tiny side office. Also, I’ll be breaking in the new projector that was installed over Winter Break! I was a little nervous since changes in venue and technology are not good things ten minutes prior to a talk, but both elements worked out fine in the end.

With minutes to the start of my talk, I felt really barfy. I tried walking it off by going to the museum. I didn’t feel any better physically, but chatting with the museum people made me feel a little better mentally. By the time I walked back to the classroom, my entire committee was there and it was time to start. Jess had also brought in coffee cake. I had a six-pack of bottled water ready (“Dissertation Defense Size”).

For my talk I had Keynote run with a presenter’s display on my MacBook Pro’s screen while the presentation was projected on the big screen. The preview of the next slide (or animation), the timer, and the notes made giving the talk very easy. During rehearsals I didn’t have the presenter’s display so I had a lot of the talk memorized anyway. Eyeing the timer, I could speed up or slow down as I saw fit. I ended the talk at 30 minutes and 45 seconds or so, which was perfect. I also noticed that I felt considerably better towards the end of my talk. During the public Q&A section, Neil asked me something, possibly as revenge for when I asked something at his defense in November. His question, about the archaeological context of the site I studied, pretty much pointed out the major flaw of my study but I think I answered it well enough. After the lone question, the students were ushered out of the room for the confidential part of my defense. As a sign of things to come, I jokingly tried to sneak out with them.

So then it was just my committee and I. Overall I’m very happy with my defense. Everyone seemed to be involved in the process and had interesting things to say about my dissertation. Questions were all fair and insightful. The defense went as I have been told it should go: a conversation with professionals about my research. Of course, since I’ve never had conversations with so many professionals about my research, even that prospect worried me, but I found out that I can in fact talk anthropology with people far more seasoned than I.

I have to say that my defense was more lighthearted than I had imagined. In my mind I was toning down the humor since this is a serious event but, like acting like I was sneaking out of the room, I just had to have some fun. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one having a good time. Some of my committee joked amongst themselves in response to something someone else said. There were some laughs when talk of DNA analysis led to plans to clone someone from the skeletal collection. At one point, Neil brought in some coffee for everyone. After hearing one of the questions, I said “I’m going to drink my coffee and think of the answer,” and proceeded to take a few drinks as I fought for something intelligent to say. Later, after another question I was jokingly asked if I needed to sip my coffee again and think. “No, I got this one.”

I believe the questioning went for an hour and a half, though with everything going on my brain couldn’t make sense of the wall clock when I furtively glanced at it. At some organic point to wrap-up (I’m guessing), I was ushered out of the conference room so my committee could deliberate amongst themselves concerning my performance. Outside the room, I went back to the museum to decompress with the people there. I felt really good coming out and wasn’t worried at all by that point. A few students were around to see how I was doing. As we chatted, one of my advisors came out and congratulated me. I went back into the classroom and shook hands with everyone else. Success! I thanked everyone for being part of this process and we cleaned up the room.

I walked to the office to talk with the people there. Mary has been working there longer than I’ve been at MU and she gave me a big hug. I took a victory lap through the building before meeting up with my advisors for lunch again at the Heidelberg. After lunch I finally had the opportunity to call my family and send some messages online. Once again, I was so humbled by the responses I got on Facebook. Reading through the comments really made me appreciate all the people who have supported me in spirit or otherwise.

It’s been a few days since my defense and I don’t think what I accomplished has yet to sink in. Granted, I don’t technically have the degree yet. There are a few changes to make based on comments from my committee, and then there will be the final checks for formatting and so on, but the hardest parts by far are over. Hooray!


One Response to “The Tale of My Dissertation Defense”

  1. CaLynn says:

    Hooray!! 😀 😀 Id toast some pisco to you if i had some;)

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