Thursday, February 13, 2014

Defense and post-defense, but not getting defensive

Oh, dear Blog, I have long neglected you. So much has happened in the months since my defense and graduation.

My initial defense was scheduled for mid-January 2013 but was delayed pending some substantive revisions. I was angry and hurt, but it yielded ultimately a much stronger dissertation. I submitted my revisions a couple of days in advance of the University deadline and my new defense date was slotted for April 26. Apart from re-reading the dissertation and anticipating some questions, there wasn’t much I could do to prepare. I was assured that the event amounts to an academic hazing ritual and an exercise to ensure that you actually know the material. If it makes it as far as defense the odds of not passing are slim.

That did little to assuage my anxiety.

On the morning of the defense I woke up early (I couldn’t sleep), did not have a healthy breakfast (I couldn’t eat), and made a point of cleaning up so I’d at least look presentable (you try shaving with the double whammy of anxiety and body-wracking fatigue). I even ironed my trousers. I don’t think in my whole grad student career I ever ironed my pants, even when I taught classes or tutorials.*

I met Norma at her office in the music faculty for the advance pep talk. It was part “Rah-Rah, Go Anthony” and part “Don’t get defensive. You get a bit, how do I put it… arrogant when you get defensive.” Ouch.

When the defense convened the moderator laid down the ground rules and off we went. I don’t really remember much of what transpired though there were some moments that stood out, not as particularly negative, just memorable. I guess if my recollection of the event is fuzzy then it mustn’t have been too bad an experience.

The best part: Being called “Dr. Cushing” immediately after. That was pretty sweet.

The post-defense tipple was nice. The leisurely stroll to the Grad Club lacked any sense of urgency and was celebratory without the background guilt inherent in the lives of so many grad students. The crowd at the club was small but great nonetheless. A good friend from my music undergrad, the incredible clarinetist Scott MacDonald was there to join me for a beer. We started music school (undergrad) in the same cohort so it was only appropriate that he join me for the ‘end’ of my music education. As a matter of coincidence Scott started a master of clarinet performance at Western in the 2012-13 school year.

The novelty of being finished remained around me like a sheen, a fine patina of pride. Even knowing I had only four days to make the necessary revisions before the University deadline didn’t assuage my satisfaction. Yes, that’s how I felt; I was satisfied with myself. It was, more or less, a fait accomplis.

In the days between the defense and my final submit date I bunkered down and went through the whole dissertation, page by page, and incorporated suggested revisions from all four examiners. On the morning I submitted, I had Radio 2 playing in the background. I wasn’t really paying attention until I clicked the ‘Upload’ button, the action of which coincided with the climax of Stravinsky’s Oiseau de Feux (The Firebird Suite). For me, in a very cliché sort of way was symbolic of how I progressed through this degree.

I’ll say that the whole process, though gratifying at first, was a bit anticlimactic. Unlike my cousin who completed her degree in a pre-internet era (she JUST missed it) I completed all the revisions and submitted online. There was no running from editor to printer, to several offices on campus, lugging several heavy copies of my dissertation. The only time my dissertation existed in hard copy was in two bound volumes (one for me and one for my family) and a Kinkos-produced spiral bound copy for one of my research subjects who requested it.

My dissertation, bound in faux black leather with the gold leaf text on the spine sits on my shelf. It looks very pretty, very official, like something I’d find in a library. And, as in a library, it will sit there unopened for a long while until I gather the curiosity in a decade or so to remember where I ended my time as a student and began my time as an academic.

*I used to let them steam when I showered and any wrinkles would fall out. The steam didn’t create a sharp crease (or any crease, for that matter), but they at least didn’t look like I slept in them the night before.

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