Thursday, November 01, 2007

Inside a Defense

I am delighted to say that yesterday one of my esteemed colleagues defended her dissertation with great intelligence and poise.
Our defenses are open to the public, but I had not actually had the chance to attend any prior to Cindy's, as most of the graduates I know finished up while I was in Prague. Cindy's was also a defense I took a particular interest in, since on the one hand she has always been an admirably calm, stable, and helpful colleague, and on the other hand her work on Meyer Schapiro is completely different from what anyone else I know is working on (Schapiro being a major art historian rather than an artist). For that matter, it turned out that Cindy and I have three of the same committee members, including the same advisor, so this was an opportunity to see how they all operate during a defense.
First, somewhat like comprehensive exams, the student (and audience) must leave the room while the committee confers. This went on for quite some time, and Cindy and her audience (three fellow students) became somewhat restless, which was only slightly alleviated by cups of tea. After all, one can only wonder what on earth they are saying in there and why it is taking them so long.
When we were invited back, they announced that Cindy's dissertation had passed and that the discussion ahead would focus on how the work could further be developed, and agreeable things like that. (This is the kind of announcement I want to hear at my defense.)
It was extremely interesting and on the whole enjoyable to hear everyone discuss the fine points of Meyer Schapiro's relationship with Erwin Panofsky and whether there was much archival data regarding what he thought of Gombrich's work. One of the things about research on Schapiro is that currently only a limited amount of his papers are actually available, as most of them still need to be catalogued or something like that. Therefore, many things the committee would be interested to know could only be answered in terms of what it had been possible to find out at this stage of the game. In a few years, considerably more material will become available, and Cindy looks forward to sifting through it.
One of the few similarities between Cindy's topic and my own is that both of our people really need to be researched in relation to their network of friends and professional colleagues. While Schapiro left a vast paper trail and Toyen seems to have left very few papers of any kind, in both cases the researcher is constantly discovering new people who ought to be looked into. Perhaps there are few historical figures who can be effectively researched without research into their associates, but it seems that Schapiro and Toyen are particularly clear exemplars of the importance of researching the larger network.
Overall, this was the kind of defense that impresses one both for the intelligence of the discussion and the civility of even the most critical comments. We have all heard stories of horrible defenses in which one or more professors take pleasure in skewering the candidate, whether for the fun of it, to annoy another professor, or because someone did not ensure that the candidate was sufficiently prepared and had written a good enough dissertation. This was quite the reverse, and I think it is a tribute to all concerned.
Afterwards, we all drank some champagne, and then Cindy had to run off to take her older son (born shortly before I went to Prague) trick-or-treating.

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