Last Lecture, Three Lessons

Last Lecture, Three Lessons

This item is a bookend to “First Lecture, Last Year,” dated August, 2011

Let’s make the circle complete, and end where we began. If you would close your eyes, and imagine the things that I will be telling you.

It is March 12, not 1346, but 2013, maybe 2014. You are not in Bologna, Italy, but in Hattiesburg. You have just come in to Room 135 of this building, and your doctoral committee is also arriving, all with smiles and genuine bonhomie. This is the day of your final doctoral dissertation defense, and you are just a touch nervous, but still confident. Your chair would not let you be here if he, or she, did not believe that you were ready. One of your goals was to get to this day and to know your topic better than anyone in the room. You are professionally dressed, comfortably chit-chatting with the faculty as all of you move to the conference room and have a seat—you at the head of the table—all waiting for the last committee member to arrive. Unlike that little time-traveling you did back in HE 711 to the University at Bologna in 1346, here there are no malodorous smells, since your committee members have all thoughtfully showered. More judicious dental care has preserved at least most of their teeth. Your shoes are fitted to each foot, and you didn’t even have to use pig grease to shine them. Academic debates over transubstantiation are not foremost in your mind, and though you do have a worry list, flea bites and bubonic plague are not on it. The fact that you are here does not mean, happily, that you are necessarily a white European male. You might be, but you don’t have to be.

After all have arrived and exchanged the pleasantries that lubricate our daily interactions, your chair asks you to excuse yourself and close the door. Doris smiles and tells you that you will do fine; she knows you well and has a good sense of your likely triumph, having seen quite a few precede you. You thank her and sit down, and your mind wanders back over the events during the last four years or so that have led you to this climactic moment. Obviously one of those events is the day you actually made the commitment to do something about that long-simmering and even taunting thought about pursuing a doctorate in the first place—the commitment coming in the form of an actual application. That very first class of your very first course you remember well, just because it was the first. The courses proceeded, and your knowledge grew incrementally. Some classes were better than others, some harder than others; but overall, the two or three hours out of class for each hour in class was hard and often intense. You selected a chair, and then a full committee. You may have dealt with the stresses of work and family while immersed in those studies—the sick child, the possible slight annoyance of a significant other that you had to leave for class, the supervisor and parent both asking you when this would be over, the juggling of job and school. There were the challenging papers, and your self-recognition that your writing and research skills needed ramping up. Then there was the day you first got the idea for a dissertation. Oh, you were so naïve! It was so unsophisticated, such a jumble, a miasma of possible so-called research questions, bouncing around in what was then a methodological fog in your brain. But clarity started to take shape with your pre-proposal. You even had a disagreement with your chair, but you finally took his advice, and even eventually came to see, in your own good time, the rightness of it. You and your chair worked out any differences and procedural questions you might have had before your proposal defense, as well as before this final defense. So after being your critic, even making that most unenthusiastic face after hearing the first version of your idea, she ultimately became your greatest advocate, almost your coach at the point of defense. The proposal defense had been a warm-up for this one—in some ways harder, since you were persuading them to approve what you were proposing, in effect getting them on board. But today could be easier, since you’ve sort of done it before and you would mostly be explaining what you did and defending your interpretation of what you have done. Or at least so you hope. Just then, as all these thoughts and recollections are flitting through your head, the door opens, and your chair, all smiles, invites you back in.

It’s possible that you have to do a Powerpoint presentation, but it’s also possible you and your chair have decided to proceed the old fashioned way, with you only responding to questions. Your chair tosses out the first one, a real softball about what caused you to be interested in this, and maybe a little summary about how you went about it. No problem. It’s a nice ice-breaker and confidence-builder. Then others join in, moving in a sort of around-the-room pattern. You field questions about specific findings and your interpretation of those findings; you even tie in some of the theory and related literature. Professor X asks you a specific question on theory, but your research questions are perfectly derivative of your theory, and you handle it adroitly. He then asks you what your study “proves,” but you are way too smart for that old sucker punch question and don’t fall for it. Professor Y refers you to page 84 and asks you about a passage, but she doesn’t seem quite satisfied and makes a suggestion for a revision. There’s a good bit of page-turning through the document, with some questions related to particular passages, while other questions were broader and comprehensive. Professor Z, after some other questions from chapters four and five, comes out of left field and asks you what books you read; he is interested in the tenor of your mind. He then advises you to squeeze the lemon a little more in chapter five: get a little more out of the data; do some more meaning-making.

After a little over an hour, your chair wraps up and excuses you from the room for a second time. You step out, feeling pretty good. You chat some more with Doris, who reassuringly tells you that you did fine. After just a few minutes, your chair opens the door, all smiles again, and says, as she so loves to be the first to do, “Congratulations Dr.” and then your name. Your brain, even your skin, floods with relief and justified self-satisfaction. You come back into the room, and your chair reviews the revisions, including some substantial ones, that you will need to make for the final read, the one before the very final draft. Professor Z would like to read your revised Chapter five, but the other members are content to leave any final revisions to the discretion of the chair. You get hugs or handshakes from the other committee members, and then it’s just you and your chair for some clarifications, debriefing, and general decompression.

You drive home, aglow. You are on a Dissertation Defender’s High—the DDH. On some not-far-distant day, you will muse over what other things you have learned during this last formal component of your education—the things other than writing better prose, learning course content, and discovering research methods. You will reflect on the idea that you yourself have the potential to be your own best teacher, and that your education is primarily in your own hands, and that you should be a self-directed learner. Then the second lesson emerges when you begin to have an inkling that partly what a real education means is a divesting of your certitude, a Descartes-like willingness to entertain doubt about your fixed assumptions, and an enhanced willingness to hear the admonition of 17th century Oliver Cromwell, who implored: “I beseech thee, by the bowels of Christ, to consider that ye might be wrong.” You’ve known just a few too many people who, through their own ignorance, simply would not budge on matters where there just might be legitimate alternatives, and you resolve not to be one of those people. And finally, you reflect on a third lesson, this one from Michelangelo, long after that youthful but exquisite Pieta and even decades after the Sistine Chapel when he said, in his eighties: “I have just begun to learn the alphabet of my profession.” Your formal education may be over, but your learning is lifelong. But these three musings are for another day. The remains of this day are for celebration.

You may open your eyes. Class dismissed.

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1 Comment

  1. Patrice Williams said,

    March 17, 2014 at 9:33 pm

    The experience is exquisitely captured here!


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