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PhD Defenses around the world: a defense in Modern History and Literature from the USA

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Dr. Brian Regal in the “PhD Defenses around the world” series. Dr. Regal teaches the history of science, technology, and medicine at Kean University in New Jersey. He is the author of a number of books and articles on the odder side of science.

“How do you think William James would have reacted to the evolutionary work of Henry Fairfield Osborn?” This was the question the Americanist, Professor Charles Wetzel asked me at the end of my doctoral dissertation defense at Drew University in June of 2001. It was not just the last question of the defense, it was the last question I expected to be asked.

I largely walked through my PhD in Modern History and Literature (with a specialty in the history of science) like a wide eyed innocent. This despite the fact that I was turning forty, had been around the world several times, and had stared down the commies on the Iron Curtain before I began (I did not go to college until I was thirty). I was the first in my family to do such a thing. I had no history to look to. When they said something had to be done by a certain time I just did it. When they told me I had to take certain classes I took them. I had wanted to become an historian ever since I sat on the rug of the living room floor on Saturday mornings dreaming of being Jonny Quest. I was ready to do whatever it took to achieve that goal. When they said it was time to do my defense I just showed up ready to go.

In my dissertation I examined the human evolutionary theory of Henry Fairfield Osborn, the controversial, long time head of the American Museum of Natural History, and its impact upon early twentieth century American thought. I had three on campus readers: David Kohn, the noted Darwin scholar as my primary, the afore mentioned Charles Wetzel, and the American religion scholar Donald Dayton. My fourth was the legendary historian of biology Garland Allan (on a phone link).

We all met in Mead Hall, Drew’s beautiful, nineteenth century showcase building. The defense was held in an antique filled side room upon whose walls hung a large portrait. The subject had a graying bristle haircut, mustache, and general air of seriousness that inspired the students to call it the ‘Stalin Room.’ I dressed special for the encounter. I wore a high collar dress shirt with a vest, and polished my shoes: my very own ‘professor’ style I still wear to this day.

If I were to give younger scholars advice on all this it would be, do the work. Let nothing get in the way of doing the work. If you focus on the research and the writing, then it doesn’t matter what happens at the defense, you’ll be ready. Do not prepare for the defense, simply write your dissertation. Accept that after all this research you know the answers. Dissertation defenses are like graduation speeches, you have to get it right, but they are forgotten five seconds after they are finished.

I sat across from my board of readers, a large, heavy, polished oak nineteenth century table between us. They started right in. I tried to be concise. I only stumbled once or twice, but recovered and clarified my position. They asked questions and follow-up questions. It went that way for the better part of two hours. We were allowed to invite spectators, but I wasn’t having any of that. I preferred my failure to be apocryphal rather than eyewitness. I answered as well as I could without looking like I was trying too hard. It all seemed to be going well. I started to get relaxed. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Then Wetzel sucker punched me with William James.

I have no recollection of what my answer was: Though I do remember saying “Ugh” in a painfully drawn out way. Apparently whatever I said was acceptable because Dr. Wetzel smiled, leaned back in his chair, and folded his fingers behind his head the way he always did in class when he was happy with something you said. There was a brief pause, and it was over. There were smiles all around, lots of backslapping, and “well done Doctor!” talk. After a minute or two of official form signing and saying goodbye to Garland Allan, we all headed off to a local restaurant for a congratulatory lunch. I had made it. I could now call myself doctor. I wanted to call Lisa, and then my parents. The air seemed just a bit sweeter and cleaner.
As the school was paying, I had the lobster ravioli.

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