Last Thursday, I defended my life.
That is to say: last Thursday, I sat for my Viva, an oral examination to defend the thesis that I’ve been working on for the last four years. To refer to this as ‘defending my life’ is a bit of a mistranslation as ‘viva voce’ really means ‘oral examination,’ or more specifically: ‘with a living voice.’
Yet, still, I think the idea of this being a defence of one’s life isn’t all that imprecise. After all, writing the thesis has been my life for the last four years, and especially as it has brought on an entirely new sort of life within a ‘foreign’ country, the thesis has been the central point around which my life has orbited in that time.
However, this was by no means a ‘trial’ of any sort. At least not like I thought it would be. I blame this solely on my examiners.
In fact, were I to describe my experience with the Viva, this close to the aftermath, and in a single word, it would be: demythologised.
Here’s what I mean.
Being a PhD candidate is in a particular way like being a young student, in your late teens, still in High School but nearing the end, having an older sibling/cousin/friend/acquaintance, who has come to visit, share with you the painful realities of their experiences in the ‘real world.’ They’ll describe that world in realistic terms, painting a picture that reflects back a harshness where the ease and simplicity of youth is quickly replaced with taxes, insurance, rent, jobs, pay checks, medical bills, student loans, etc. You might listen to their sage wisdom and take some of it to heart, but it won’t really ‘sink in.’
Then, and with just a hint of irony, you might find yourself, years later, sharing similar wisdom to your own younger siblings/cousins/friends/acquaintances.
This is not unlike the advice you might receive from colleagues who have passed through the viva stage. However, in this iteration, the message seems a bit more constructive than the ‘dose of reality’ you might get from the previous description.
In fact, one of the predominant advisements I’ve received over the years about the viva was: It’s nothing to be afraid of.
That’s nonsense, I’d proclaim. How could it not be something to be afraid of? Here is the culmination not just of all your time working on this one particular project, a close and critical examination of 100,000 words wherein typos are bound to happen and arguments might seem less developed than someone might want, but, perhaps more frightening, here is the culmination of years, a decade, maybe more, of research and studying and moving from university to university, city to city, country to country. Here is the last and final defence you must make to prove that you are worthy to join that extremely elite club of individuals and thus earn the title ‘Dr.’ Is this not, of all the things one must do within this movement up the academic ladder, the quintessential thing to be afraid of?
Someone once put it to me this way: as a kid, when you were playing video games, what is scarier, getting through the first level, which might seem hard at the time, or spending hours/days/weeks/months playing through a game, getting to the final boss, and realising if you lose here, everything that came before would be in vane?
That, to me, seems like something worth being afraid of.
Of course, I was wrong. This is the mythology I built up, the narrative I convinced myself was real, fed by a discourse composed of things like this:
When I’d hear the ‘it’s nothing to be afraid of’ line I thought it simply did not pertain to me. It was something one merely said in the euphoria that followed the viva, usually spoken by individuals who appeared physically and emotionally exhausted, driven half-mad by that final battle, a piece of their soul left somewhere behind.
These were the type of thoughts that preceded my own experiences with the viva.
As I blithely stated above, I blame much of the demythologisation here on my two examiners. I somehow got quite lucky by having the two individuals that I had personally chosen, and were at the top of my list, to be those who would read, examine, critique, and discuss the thesis with me. Not only did I select these individuals because I thought their backgrounds fitted the topic and contents of the thesis, but because I respect them above all others as exemplary experts in their fields. What this produced was an examination less like a defence, and more like a discussion, as if somehow we had each colluded to transform the final hurdle in my race to doctorship into an engaging and quite beneficial supervisory meeting.
Thus, even when we disagreed on points, there was a congeniality underscoring the criticisms, each suggestion filtered through a respectful means of assisting me in making the thesis the absolute best, and thus clear and definitive, text it could possibly be.
Though the final verdict requires corrections to be made within the text, and though this means I did not ‘ace’ the thesis (those in my inner circle here have taken to calling this the ‘Whitney,’ based on the results of a genius colleague’s stellar viva result), I have come away from the experience not just invigorated about addressing these corrections, but with a newfound admiration for the topic itself. In other words, because my examiners did such an impeccable job, I’m spending these immediate days after the viva neither exhausted, nor wishing to remove myself as far from the thesis as possible, but excited about the prospect of making it all that much better.
I will conclude here with two observations:
First, as I was preparing myself last Thursday morning I was trying to remember a quote from Hemingway about the fear one might have of writing. For whatever reason it kept popping up as I read my Introduction and Conclusion for the fourth time, like a half-memory that my brain kept trying to link to my argument.
I eventually found it:
“I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
To briefly put this into context, it comes from a letter that Hemingway sent to F. Scott Fitzgerald after the latter requested the former’s opinion on his recently published Tender is the Night. Just as much as Hemingway is mythologically notorious for an incessant need to prove himself truly masculine, Fitzgerald is just as mythologized for being on the opposite spectrum. Consider, for humorous example, this passage from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast:
‘Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her originally. She said it was a matter of measurements. I have never felt the same since she said that and I have to know truly.’
‘Come out to the office,’ I said.
‘Where is the office?’
‘Le water,’ I said.
We came back into the room and sat down at the table.
‘You’re perfectly fine,’ I said. ‘You are O.K. There’s nothing wrong with you. You look at yourself from above and you look foreshortened. Go over to the Louvre and look at the people in the statues and then go home and look at yourself in the mirror in profile.’
‘Those statues may not be accurate.’
‘They are pretty good. Most people would settle for them.’
‘But why would she say it?’
‘To put you out of business. That’s the oldest way in the world of putting people out of business. Scott, you asked me to tell you the truth and I can tell you a lot more but this is the absolute truth and all you need.’ (Pg. 163)
My quote above stems from another advisement from Hemingway, a criticism not so much of Fitzgerald’s writing, but of his lack of confidence as a writer. Here it is within the context of the letter:
For Christ sake write and don’t worry about what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what. I write one page of masterpiece to ninety one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket. You feel you have to publish crap to make money to live and let live. All write but if you write enough and as well as you can there will be the same amount of masterpiece material (as we say at Yale). You can’t think well enough to sit down and write a deliberate masterpiece and if you could get rid of Seldes and those guys that nearly ruined you and turn them out as well as you can and let the spectators yell when it is good and hoot when it is not you would be all right. (Re-printed via www.lettersofnote.com)
Hemingway is telling his friend, in his own way, to ‘forget his personal tragedy,’ to move beyond those things that might have caused his anxiety and diminished his confidence, to let go the myth that he has anything to be afraid of.
He tells him: “Go on and write.”
Which brings me to my second conclusive observation.
Leading up to the viva I was told a number of times that the experience was nothing to be afraid of, that I would ‘do fine.’ While this advice did, in fact, come true, it is not something I find myself able to adopt.
I suppose, like all those times when as a young man someone gave me sage advice about the realities of the real world, I am once again dismissive. Not in a rude or negative sense, mind you, but in a practical way. Yes, my viva experience was wonderful, and better than I could have even imagined or day-dreamed it in order to pacify my anxiety, but I also think the mythology of it was necessary too. Much like how Fitzgerald’s myth about the poorness of his writing forced him to ensure it was always clean and detailed and perfect, were it not for my fear of the viva, perhaps I would not have been as prepared as I was, or, more importantly, perhaps it would not have been such a rewarding experience, simply because that reward came from the demythologisation of it.
In other, and final words, were I asked what to expect from the viva by a colleague approaching their own, because my fear of it proved so useful to the outcome itself, “it’s nothing to be afraid of” is something I’m afraid I just couldn’t say.
***One last thing.***
Because I turned to it often when accomplishing the great milestones of my thesis, here’s another discursive example that I think nicely puts into perspective the myth of the viva: