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PhD Defenses around the world: a Defense from Literature at the University of New Mexico

Today, I have the pleasure of hosting Dr. Karra Shimabukuro to the “Defenses around the world” series. Dr. Karra Shimabukuro recently defended her dissertation from the University of New Mexico. Her research interests include how issues of class and nationalism function in literature and popular culture, and reflect the fears, anxieties, and desires of a specific historical and cultural moment.
Her most recent work exposed the whole cloth creation of Elfego Baca as a New Mexican folk hero for Western Folklore, an examination of the folkloric forest’s impact in Twin Peaks for Cinema Journal: In Focus, Freddy Krueger’s folkloric roots as a bogeyman in Studies in Popular Culture, and the functional aesthetics in the Nightmare on Elm Street series in Style and Form in the Hollywood Slasher Film.

I started my coursework at the University of New Mexico in August 2013. I comped in Middle English literature, early modern literature, and folklore and methodology in February 2015. I defended my prospectus in March 2015. Early November 2017, I defended my dissertation.

In our English department, most dissertations are 150-200 pages, and roughly four or five chapters. We do not have a separate literature review, rather these are integrated into the chapters themselves. My dissertation, “Devilish Leaders, Demonic Parliaments, and Diabolical Rebels: Nationalistic Rhetoric in English Literature from Malmesbury to Milton” covered a variety of genres (chronicle, Middle English poem, Shakespearean tragedy and history, and epic) through the longue duree of 1125-1674. My dissertation consisted of an introduction, and then a chapter each on the genres above, and a conclusion. With this, plus the front matter, primary source list, secondary source list, it clocked in at 262 pages.

In our department we have a dissertation director, two to three other committee members (I had two), and an outside reader. The format of my defense was a 15-20 minute presentation of my work, then a round of 15 minute questions from each committee member, and then a follow up of 5 minute questions. Only two of my members were on campus, so I Skyped in my outside reader and third committee member. I enlisted friends the night before to test the tech, and made sure I emailed the committee with contingency plans. The room I defended in was designed for conferencing, so that helped, and I had defended my prospectus in it, since we’d also Skyped in my outside reader then, so I was familiar with the layout.

My defense was scheduled for 2p, and I got to campus a little after noon so I could get parking, grab lunch, and not feel rushed or panicked. I headed over to our department around 130p to check in, and be let into the room to set up. There were some minor hiccups– wrong HDMI cable was hooked up, one member was in Google Hangouts, another in Skype, but we were able to get it all sorted, and only started a few minutes late.

I originally thought my presentation would be more about the process, and the larger takeaways, as I never understood summarizing the dissertation to people who had just read it. I also thought about mentioning some of the cool projects that had come out of the work, future plans, and digital humanities work. However, my director advised me to focus on the major arguments and I ended up giving a pretty conservative presentation that just walked through the dissertation. After my presentation, each member took their fifteen minutes to ask me various questions about the dissertation. As prep for this I had researched types of questions generally asked at vivas/defenses, and had prepared answers. I also went through emails and notes from my committee and wrote down concerns, pet peeves, issues, and also came up with answers for these as well as page numbers for reference. The weekend before, I reread the dissertation, and marked items based on these two things, that I thought might come up.

Not a single thing I prepped came up. There were no questions about how the project changed over time, or what I thought it contributed to the field, or why I defined my research question the way I did, or recent scholarship that hadn’t been included or my post dissertation plans. Instead, there were questions about how I defined the political devil, and key terms, as well as questions about why I did X over Y. For me, it felt more like a defense of ideas than I guess I was expecting. I took notes (which I used to address the revisions I was given), my friend videoed it, and at the time, I did not feel like there was anything I was asked that I didn’t respond well to. After the two rounds of questions, me, my best friend, and a graduate student who had attended were asked to leave while my committee deliberated. We were not out long, and when we returned, I was told that they had decided to pass me with minor revisions. My director then went over the list of revisions, I thanked my committee, and that was it.

In the week or so since, I have a couple of takeaways. The first is that even though much of what I prepped was never brought up, I felt better going in having done it. The second is that no matter how the defense goes, how you feel, both in the ramp up and afterwards, as long as you pass, that is what matters. Once they say “doctor” they’re not going to take it back. The rest just becomes things to check off the list. I finished my revisions, and I sent them off to my director, so I’m just waiting for those to be approved so I can submit. Maybe then it will feel real. Nothing in my life has really changed, I went back to my high school teaching job Saturday. And even though I felt good in the defense, in the week since, I have a vague, nagging feeling I disappointed my committee. I’m trying not to dwell on that. I’m trying to focus on what I’ve accomplished, and the new beginning I have.

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