Dissertation Defenses in the Time of COVID-19: Crossing Borders and Time Zones with Scholarship that Furthers Justice
The dissertation defense is the culminating ritual of a long and winding doctoral journey. Students present their research and findings publicly for the first time, an often anxiety-producing moment years in the making. Even in the best of times the near mythic stories of inquisition-like events fueled by ego-driven feuds between committee members leaving the candidate literally defenseless don’t help calm fears. And then comes COVID-19 and all defenses go virtual, adding heightened concerns about connectivity and deep disappointments over lost connections.
In our program’s first decade or so the faculty insisted that defenses had to be conducted onsite at one of the quarterly face-to-face residences. It seemed right in terms of both dignifying the significance of the event and providing an opportunity for current students to attend and observe. It meant candidates had to fly themselves and their families across the country and internationally in some cases, and the scheduling windows were constrained to when residencies were calendared. We thought it was well worth it!
Times changed and so did we – a bit! We began to realize – somewhat begrudgingly – the need to permit inter-residency defenses, but only in exceptional cases, with a whole set of criteria for approval of location and date. The committee chair was required to agree to be present physically wherever the defense was to be held. Other attendees could join virtually but the core activity would be held physically on site at one of the Antioch campuses or at another location.
Then it all changed. Since mid-March 2020, we have conducted a dozen dissertation defenses entirely virtually. This brief piece focuses on the experiences of those involved and concludes with some takeaways as we go for forward into a very unpredictable future. We hope to be able to offer a set of expanded options for defenses in the future, of course – but who knows when or how or where. So, let us learn from what we are doing right … now.
I am so grateful that the accommodation was made for defending virtually. Postponing it would have underscored the uncertainty of this time rather than opening to possibility.
When thinking about my defense, I was moved to tears of joy and appreciation.
I was reflecting on how timely the Antioch PhDLC online interactivity has prepared some of us for this moment, without our realizing it. Credit where credit is due!!!!
REFLECTING ON THE EXPERIENCE OF VIRTUAL DEFENSES
First, the given. This was not what anyone wanted or imagined. The disappointment was palpable across the board. Yet all were appreciative that the culmination of their studies was not delayed or interrupted. It is in that context that we sought out to explore the virtual defense experience.
The vast majority of participants who responded to our query for reflections – candidates, chairs, attendees – found the experience to be far more positive than they had thought possible. While not unanimous in that sentiment, the reflections are quite compelling and range from Mike’s feeling that it was of the most uplifting moments of his life to Helen’s sense of deep disappointment.
For most respondents, the experience was anything but remote or perfunctory. In fact, the intimacy they experienced was unexpected and deeply moving. “The interaction with everyone,” noted Etta, “seemed far more personal and close-up because they were all right in front of me on the screen and I could see the expressions of everyone directly.” Maxinne similarly noted, “The defense was surprisingly intimate. It was an emotionally satisfying and interconnected experience.” Ann added, “The virtual environment neither increased nor diminished the sense of proximity between me as a presenter and the participants. I could see who was asking questions and respond directly to them, while being mindful of including the whole audience. When I received my committee’s decision that I had successfully defended, I was just as excited as I would have been in person.“ Mike, actually found the moment so personal, as if those gathered for his defense were actually sitting in his home with him, in that “It was a little strange when I finished, it was just me alone in my living room. But then, 10 minutes later, I was in a Zoom session with most of my cohort to celebrate, which filled me with joy.”
Another aspect of the experience that surfaced was a surprising equalizer effect since everyone was connected via Zoom as opposed to some sitting together in the centrality of a campus room and others hanging around the edges virtually. Ellen noted as she contemplated the paradox of connection and disconnection that “All attendees were equal to me. Every attendee was a little square on my screen. Being able to see everyone made me feel very supported. Having my family participate in this way was special. Having all of my cohort members there made me feel supported.” In essence, because everyone was virtual, spatial distancing of all attendees meant in reality that there were no special distinctions based on location.
Having been a virtual attendee at prior onsite defenses, Mike added, “I’ve been to a half dozen defenses held during residencies. There were always people participating through Zoom, yes, but those virtual participants always seemed to be on the margins. I can’t recall questions being answered from the virtual participants. When everyone is on Zoom, like now, no one is marginalized.“
David, who attended a number of these virtual defenses in the past months as he readies himself for his own dissertation work ahead, noted, “The experiences were rich, intimate, and proceeded with an easy-to-follow format. Each defense held my attention and the technology provided me with a feeling of connectivity to the presenter. The convenience of attending, camaraderie of the cohort members supporting the presenter, and the subject matter of the dissertations were incredibly salient for me as doctoral candidate.”
It wasn’t only candidates and attendees who felt the power of the experience. Dr. Jon Wergin, who chaired or participated in several confessed, “They all went remarkably well. That’s high praise from someone who’s such an iconoclast about such things.” Dr. Elizabeth Holloway, also the chair and/or and committee member on several added, “I found the defenses to be emotional experiences, perhaps in part, because of the level of connection that I felt with the candidates and my colleagues. Both of my students had large audiences of 25+ and these audiences including faculty from other universities, cohort members, other PhDLC students and alums. Seeing all the familiar students on the screen, I was struck by the poignancy of this moment in the midst of a horrific pandemic; they were there supporting a friend, a fellow Antiochian.”
Virtual Dissertation Defenses, March 2020 to May 2020
KIMBERLY WALKER [C16]
The Construction and Impact of Power in Cross-Sector Partnerships: An Interpretive Phenomenological Study
DENISE TALA DIAZ [C15]
Living Through the Chilean Coup d’Etat: The Second-Generation’s Reflection on Their Sense of Agency, Civic Engagement and Democracy
MICHAEL BILLS [C16]
Turning Around Small, Private, Tuition Dependent Colleges: How Boards of Trustees Impact Decline and Turnaround
ETTA JACKSON [C17]
The Role of Geospatial Information and Effective Partnerships in the Implementation of the International Agenda for Sustainable Development
ANN R. FLYNN [C10]
Positionality of Paraeducators: A Phenomenological Study in A Public School District in the Pacific Northwest
COURTNY DAVIS OLDS [C15]
Perspectives from the Pew: A Phenomenological Exploration of Congregants’ Experiences of Change in Their Churches
HELEN LOWMAN [C15]
Building Renewed Relevance: Portraits of CEOs Rebranding Iconic Nonprofit Organizations
ELLEN MELIS [C1HC]
Understanding the Context and Social Processes that Shape Person- and Family-Centered Culture in Long-Term Care: The Pivotal Role of Personal Support Workers
LEJLA BILAL MALEY [C15]
The Work Experience on Global Virtual Teams
MAXINNE RHEA LEIGHTON [C11]
Arising: Hurricane (Superstorm) Sandy’s Impact on Design and Planning Professionals
The virtual environment neither increased nor diminished the sense of proximity between me as a presenter and the participants. I could see who was asking questions and respond directly to them, while being mindful of including the whole audience.”
CROSSING BORDERS IN PURSUIT OF SCHOLARSHIP FOR JUSTICE
One of our program’s learning outcomes is that our students demonstrate they can reflect critically and responsibly as learners, leaders, and scholars in a global context in ways that further Antioch’s mission of “social, economic and environmental justice.” Never before had it felt so very real as in the context of these virtual defenses. While most averaged 12-24 attendees, several had well over 50 individuals brought together in a two-hour experience of mutual and critical engagement on topics of personal interest and intellectual import. Attendees came from across the country and around the world, zooming in from Chile to France, England to Canada, Kenya to Germany, and states too numerous to list. Attendees expressed their excitement about the ease of accessibility and involvement in ways that they found both satisfying and surprising.
All candidates recognized to one degree or another the meaningfulness of the presence of friends, family, colleagues, cohort members and current students. “I received a lot of positive praise from friends and family,” shared Lejla, “and follow-ups and requests for webinars and information on my research topic. Individuals that attended were interested in my committee members, those who asked questions, and felt grateful to be part of the culminating experience, a defense, albeit virtually.” Maxinne similarly shared that those present “were very impressed with the process and were surprised by how well it worked virtually,” adding, “I had a good mix of people who had never seen a dissertation defense and those who had either been through their own or seen others. They were impressed by the engagement among the committee members as well as how well we all engaged together.”
Ann added that one of her attendees, a MSW candidate “was thrilled to be able to observe the process of culminating work towards a higher degree “ and another, a doctoral candidate himself, expressed “his gratitude for being able to attend as a supporter of my work and his personal interest in the content.” Finally, she noted with pleasure, “My family members now have a better sense of my work over the last 10 years!”
The virtual defenses crossed time zones and borders with an inclusiveness that has taken us all by surprise. International attendees were pleased to be able to be present and involved. Ellen noted, “They were very impressed that this was possible. It demystified this process for them. Colleagues who had defended in the UK were surprised that this was a public process.” Etta’s attendees included her daughter in Berlin and her grandson in the UK. Given her topic area, Kenya’s Minister Counselor to the United Nations (UN) and other Kenyan citizens attended, zooming in both from Nairobi and New York, as well as the Permanent Representative and Ambassador of Jamaica to the United Nations. Etta was excited to share that the latter was so impressed he left her a wonderfully encouraging comment that her research holds much promise for “impacting the work of implementing the UN’s 2030 Agenda.”
Denise shared that her virtual defense experience was very special partly because she could share “this long awaited moment” with her family members who zoomed in from Santiago, Chile and her two children who are studying in the US, as well as her committee members in Belgium, California and Texas. She presented her findings from her home in France with her husband and young daughter by her side. She shared, “All of them were able to share with me this very special and emotional moment despite the physical distance that separates us. It felt, she concluded, “like one huge family of all my loved ones together in an unforgettable global experience.“ In reflection, Dr. Aqeel Tirmizi, who chaired one of the dissertations, noted “The virtual defenses are unexpectedly powerful and effective in several ways. They open up possibilities of increased participation that in turn promote diversity and wide access.“
Clearly, the necessity of going virtual did not diminish the meaningfulness of the achievement for many of those involved. As Mike reflected a day later, “It was one of the most special experiences of my life. I had no idea how much it would mean to me. I went out on a backcountry ski tour this morning [the day after] which gave me a few hours to think and reflect. When thinking about my defense, I was moved to tears of joy and appreciation.”
All of them were able to share with me this very special and emotional moment despite the physical distance that separates us. It felt, she concluded, “like one huge family of all my loved ones together in an unforgettable global experience.
THE PRACTICAL REALITY OF THE TRADE OFFS
There is no question, however, that a number of the students felt deep disappointment and recognized their experience in that context. Each respondent navigated this differently. Courtny was grateful that her defense was not delayed and concluded, “The joy and relief that came at the end of the defense was perhaps no different than it would have been had the defense been held in-person. Yet, I still feel cheated. This is not how I expected or wanted my PhD experience to end, and the virtual defense, while a good option in this time of emergency, feels ‘less than’ an in-person defense.”
Lejla too shared that in the weeks leading up to her defense, she “mourned the loss of the opportunity to defend in person. It was extremely unmotivating.” However, it ended up being so fulfilling that afterward, she was able to hold a more positive attitude and realized that “my experience still achieved the desired outcome of obtaining a PhD.” Similarly, Maxinne initially was disappointed to not be defending in person alongside her committee and dear friends who had promised to be present on site. She was also looking forward fondly to being on the Seattle campus again for one last time. “However,” she admitted, “once acceptance came, gratitude followed. Gratitude for Antioch’s commitment to ensuring that my defense happened amidst this upheaval.”
A few respondents even saw some practical benefits. One student was grateful to be able to save the money that would have been spent on travel noting, “In these times of economic hardship for so many, this option might be a very welcome opportunity to defend while saving some money.”
While ensuring there was no postponement or delay during this period of such painful change, some respondents expressed their dismay, the negatives stood out more starkly. Helen was disappointed and although trying to make the best of a difficult situation shared, “Everyone felt very far away. My colleagues who have also gone through a dissertation defense were surprised and expressed sorrow for me not to have an in-person experience after all the work put into the dissertation.”
The program is aware of some ways to improve what might well be our “new normal” for the foreseeable future based on the experiences of these past two months. Many are simple things. One student, for example, wished that participants’ messages in the Zoom chat would have been captured and saved for her, as she hadn’t been able to read them during the defense itself. More training on the front-end might have reduced some of the technology-induced anxiety as some expressed concerns about bandwidth stability and being Zoom security, which added to the typical nervousness about performing well and representing the research clearly. It was clear that spending sufficient time working on graphics to enhance the presentation and devoting plenty of rehearsal time helped a number of the presenters. Ensuring that all participants, especially presenters and committee members have stable high-speed internet network is critical as is appropriate background environments and good lighting, enlarged font size for powerpoints on shared screens, and so much more. But that is for another time.
Bottom line, in the face of unexpected change we had to adapt, and we did. More than that, as the reflections of many of those involved illustrate, it wasn’t about merely accepting “remote engagement” or “distant strangeness” in a time of spatial distancing. Embracing the core characteristics of our program, as I refer to the three Cs – “Content, Community and Care” (See p. 5) enabled the virtual dissertation defense experience to be personally meaningful and intellectually powerful for many involved. “While virtual defenses can’t replace the in-person touch of their traditional counterparts,” concluded Aqeel Tirmizi, “their many strengths make them a formidable alternative.”
Elizabeth Holloway, one of the program’s founding faculty members, added a poignant and insightful observation. “I heard from audience members from other traditional brick-and-mortar universities in the UK and Canada that they marveled at the richness of the experience, despite it being virtual, and their intent to use it as a model for their universities. It was a powerful moment of realization of what we have built in the PhDLC —a truly relational space that honored individuals for their accomplishments and sheer will to complete. If other doctoral programs wanted to emulate this experience, they would need to stand on the shoulders of a closely held, respectful, and relational community.”
Special thank you to Elizabeth Holloway for her assistance in gathering the reflections.
What are some of the take-aways to take forward?
- The virtual defenses allowed for increased accessibility and many more attended than at our traditional onsite defenses.
- The virtual defenses equalized presence and in some surprising ways, enhanced it as well.
- Overall, the defense experiences were more meaningful and intimate than most participants expected.
- The disappointment of not being physically together was profound for some participants.
- Sufficient time spent in preparations and Zoom training helped mitigate anxieties and facilitate engaging presentations.
… once acceptance came, gratitude followed. Gratitude for Antioch’s commitment to ensuring that my defense happened amidst this upheaval.