Sunday, April 12, 2009

Doing Dissertational Duties

By John L. Jackson Jr.

(Courtesy: The Chronicle Review)

My one-year-old and I spent the bulk of this week down at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, sitting in on both a dissertation defense and a dissertation proposal defense. It was a wonderful way to spend three days.

I always tell people that my favorite moment as a Columbia graduate student had to be during the two hours (maybe it was only an hour and a half) that I spent discussing/defending my dissertation proposal with a dissertation committee that included faculty members from Columbia and NYU, the Department of Anthropology and Columbia Law. They were critical and encouraging. They cautioned me against methodological missteps and challenged me to think more ambitiously about my intellectual endgame. I appreciated them taking the time to really engage my work, and the session gave me the nerve I needed to strike out for “the field” and begin my ethnographic research.

But the other side of that dissertational experience is equally fulfilling, maybe even more so. There’s nothing like watching a confident doctoral student frame his or her research on the fly. Nothing like admiring the way a dissertator deftly answers questions with a purposeful deployment of “the literature” and a nimble analytical mind. That’s particularly thrilling when you can recall such students’ graduate school applications so many years before, or their first few semesters as tentative and uncertain graduate students. The growth this process sometimes demands can be amazing.

The dissertation defense, at its best, represents one stunning culmination of an early scholar’s developmental trajectory. Is there anything more inspiring than sitting in on an unequivocally successful dissertation defense, especially when the student demonstrates real nuance and rigor, even shades of true brilliance?

I sometimes balk when academics call specific colleagues or students “brilliant.” “Smart.” Every once in a while it feels like a throwaway comment, something people just say. But I can certainly understand why a person might witness a stellar dissertation defense and label that student-cum-doctor brilliant for all time.

I definitely think that signing-off on a well-written dissertation and its compelling oral defense can be the most fulfilling part of an academic’s job. And this week’s defenses were so wildly successful that I can’t help but feel energized about my own writing plan this summer.


ML Raina said...

tell this to our research degree committees.

G R Kataria said...

Read d dissertational duties. Enjoyed reading it.