From Where I Sit - Do the rite thing

July 26, 2012

I have just chaired my first doctoral defence in Sweden. About 50 people were in attendance - nearly filling the high-tiered old lecture hall where the defence was held - including the candidate's relatives and family friends, members of our department, two external examiners, one internal examiner and an "opponent" who was flown in from Australia for the occasion.

I opened the ceremony with a brief speech. For about an hour and a half the opponent then spoke, explaining and critiquing the dissertation, praising it here, blaming it there, and questioning the candidate over details and fundamental issues. Then the examiners asked questions of the candidate. I closed the session with a brief speech. Audience members were invited, on their way out, to pick up a copy of the dissertation, of which about 50 had been professionally printed, and to join the candidate for refreshments at our department's common room.

Meanwhile, I took the examiners to a private conference room to discuss the situation.

The discussion was intense, serious and probing, but it was also redundant. A "mock defence" had been held the previous year, with another opponent flown in, and at that time serious objections had been raised. Those objections had been accommodated, the dissertation rewritten and approval granted by the candidate's two supervisors. So now we debated, in earnest, a fait accompli. The candidate would pass and without comment. None was allowed. So we talked about the dissertation and then agreed to do what it had already been agreed that we would do. We filled out and signed a brief one-page form. The committee joined the candidate's guests, I made the announcement that everyone was expecting and the champagne flowed.

Then about 30 of us reconvened for a formal reception where we sat at long, elegantly laid tables in a large function room at a university college and ate and drank. After eating, many of us continued to drink and some of us even danced. The atmosphere resembled a wedding. I stumbled home at about midnight.

Even if the whole process was, from an economic point of view, redundant, I can attest that the candidate experienced it as a rite of passage. She was very nervous before it began, very nervous during the questioning and answering, and relieved only when I made that formal announcement over champagne. I believe her emotions at the formal reception were very similar to those that people feel at their wedding feasts, after the vows have been spoken and it's time to party. She was, in a word, ecstatic. And so were many of her guests, representatives both of her family and of the society to which she now more than ever belonged.

I did not myself conduct a formal defence when I received my PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. I did not even have to go through a viva. The ceremonials of the doctorate had been abolished a few years earlier in the name of economic efficiency. You just mailed in your manuscript and the supervisors signed a form. I have attended vivas in the UK since - quiet, nervous and mainly private affairs, where the results were not assured. They were conducted less like rites of passage than criminal hearings.

The formal defence as it is conducted in Sweden today is, in Anglo-American terms, nearly meaningless, and from an economic point of view altogether unfeasible. But it is worth keeping in mind the high meaningfulness of meaningless events and the absolute value of inefficiencies. They are what, in fact, we really live for.

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