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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Postgraduate Diary: The Viva

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

When I started this Postgraduate Diary back in 2005, my work load was somewhat lighter than it has been over the past year. This has meant that over the past few months in the run up to submission and then preparing for the viva, when one would have thought I would have most to say about the unique experience that is doing a PhD, I have had least time to blog about it. As a consequence (and further cutting the cover of my pseudonym and coming closer to revealing my real identity), I joined the Twittering masses.

If you follow me on Twitter, or look at the most recent updates in the sidebar on the right on The Pequod, you will see that my thoughts in the run-up to the viva, which took place yesterday, went something like this.

To explain a bit less succinctly, after the end of term, and having spent the first week of the vacation sending out overdue book chapters and a couple of reviews and preparing a paper for the British Society for Literature and Science conference, I managed to go down with flu, which meant that the week I had allocated to preparing for the viva was spent mostly in bed, with the thesis on my knee and me asleep or buried in tissues.

Eventually, I did plough through the thing, at which point my anxiety kicked in - hence the second expletive. Apart from noticing several typos and clumsy sentences, which I always resignedly knew (and knew my examiners understood) would creep through, my opinions on my thesis became utterly distorted. The problem was that at no point did any of my ideas make me sit up and say, "Oh, how interesting." This is because by now my interpretations of the literary works, or the arguments I strung together, were so familiar as to seem self-evident. I simply could not place myself in the position of a naive reader who would be attending to what was there afresh.

As I have commented previously, the art of learning to write well is, in a sense, the art of learning to read naively, understanding what new readers are going to take from a work, rather than what you as the writer believe yourself to have put in. But whilst this may be an art I have more or less mastered at the level of the essay, obviously writing a book-length study was entirely new to me. A book entails a different dynamic, because by virtue of its length a reader's concentration ebbs and wanes, and one often reads with less attention to style and structure (and hence to problems in that style) and responds more to broad ideas as they emerge from the fog of the whole. However, as a writer I am not experienced enough to conceptualise my ideal book reader. Consequently, in my own re-reading of my thesis, I focused intently on the elisions, the errors, the bits of structure that I felt could be improved; in a way my experience of reading my thesis was the experience of reading the thesis I did not write. So many times I wondered why I had not added another critic, or why I had not covered a particular angle of potential argument. I knew the answer - lack of time - would not really wash in the viva, but I convinced myself that these absences were all that the examiners, my first proper readers, would notice, rather than them attending to the things I had written.

When I finally emerged from the fug of flu, then, I ended up wandering around our local countryside doing rather perverse versions of some silent movie mannequin. There I would find myself, walking through the woods, waving my arms about and muttering to myself. What I was doing inside my head was holding mock vivas, imagining all the questions that might be put to me, and constructing idealised answers. If I was a cartoon, I would be Homer Simpson, with his monkey homunculi inside his skull, only in my case two of the monkey-examiners would be wearing figurative grey beards and I would be a small child chattering in the corner.

So in the run up to my viva, I went around in something of a nervous state, not quite a wreck but certainly more anxious than I had expected I would be. I think part of the issue with a viva is that in a technical sense it matters little. Unless a supervisor has been utterly useless, there is no way any student could submit a thesis that was going to fail outright. So the viva really only determines whether one will pass with a few typo corrections, or provisionally pass with the need for substantial rewriting over the coming months, a prospect no PhD student relishes, being no doubt sick of the sight of their thesis by this point. So instead of being like an exam result, with the mark passively waiting on a piece of paper, the viva is a sustained, active confrontation with two academics who are going to either look down on you, or treat you as (more or less) their equal. Especially for someone considering an academic career, like myself, this sets a tone, rather than being a final determinant of the future. Am I an academic, or am I a person who just happens to have a PhD?

So, then, to the thing itself. At which point my examiners broke all the rules by strongly implying that there was not much risk of me doing anything over the course of the exam that could see me fail, or having to go back to the drawing board. This immediately set me at ease, and meant that all the questions to follow took place within a framework in which the issues were less deconstructions and more in the same spirit of academic enquiry that follows any reading of any published book. After all, very few of us have ever read an academic monograph, no matter how good, without thinking certain aspects were weaker than others, or certain things merit further study, without this devaluing the nature of the work as a whole. Like science, studies in the humanities only chip away at the understanding of the universe. When it comes to the human world, there is no theory of everything.

And so the viva was more like a broad ranging conversation than the detailed picking apart that it had been during my internal monologues in the previous week. We talked about things in wider cultural studies beyond the scope of my thesis - including, bizarrely, a discussion of the Nintendo Wii. There were a few technical points which my examiners picked up on, including my use of the term "the viewer" in my discussions of films, as if film goers are all idealised Platonic entities who respond in the same way, rather than a diverse crowd, some of whom fidget, and some of whom pay the attention the director desires. This was quite awkward, as it was an entirely legitimate point which I myself had already spotted as a flaw, but I had to find some way to justify my use of it (in this case, it was a handy shortcut). As it was, I sort of wriggled my way around and then - because I knew that I had already passed - admitted that it needed changing. We chatted a bit about how to rework certain aspects for publication, and which publishers to aim for. And then it was all over. They stayed behind closed doors to draft their final report, and I drifted off for a celebratory lunch with my supervisor.

The whole event seemed, in the end, a bit anti-climactic. Did three years of hard slog really come down to this two hours of fairly gentle academic chatter? Rather than the elation I felt when I finally submitted "the thing" before Christmas, I now just feel a gentle kind of relief. One of the odd things is that there is not really a definitive moment when you pass a PhD. Unlike other exams, there always seems to be one more hurdle to go through before graduation. I have a few corrections to do, then have to get it hard bound, then have to fill in some more forms. And, in a peculiar way, with hindsight I had already passed the moment I submitted, and those words irrevocably printed on the page were just waiting to be read by the examiners who would confirm it. Then again, had I actually passed the moment about eighteen months ago when the chapter structure finally became clear and coherent? Or did I pass the moment when I came up with the original concept for my thesis, an originality which thrilled the examiners? Was it really always going to happen, and all those troubles of writing just going through a necessary motion?

Alternatively, looking ahead, if I want an academic career, the epithet "Dr" really means very little. I have little hope of an academic job without one published book, and a few more journal articles. The thesis is just one necessary, but ultimately minor, step on the road. Neither of my two examiners, nor my supervisor, had ever got their theses published, as it was just the launchpad to something else.

In a peculiar kind of way, this blog mirrors this effect. Over the last year or so, my Postgraduate Diary has got less and less regular, and I have started instead thinking and talking about other things, like the historical novel, or Renaissance science. So I suppose it is appropriate that this will be my final post in the Postgraduate Diary - though that only frees up opportunity for more diverse thoughts in the future.

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Posted by Alistair at 7:42 am

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