June 14, 2016 by Amanda Visconti

Digital Humanities Dissertation Defense Advice

I recently realized that although I thoroughly blogged my dissertation (almost 40 blog posts) and wrote a post after successfully defending the dissertation in April 2015, I never blogged my actual defense talk. In keeping with blogging the job talk that took me into my current job, and other DH/grad student advice, I am now rectifying this oversight! I’ll make a few comments about the defense process in this blog post, and I blogged the actual talk in a separate post.

Knowing what to expect

I highly recommend attending at least one dissertation defense in your department, preferably early in your degree. (I was lucky to get to attend two excellent literature defenses that incorporated digital humanities: Jason Rhody’s defense of Game Fiction, and Lisa Rhody’s defense of Ekphrastic Revisions: Verbal-Visual Networks in 20th Century Poetry by Women.) It was extremely useful for me to learn early on that defenses aren’t necessarily the scary things they’re made out to be in popular culture. If things go right, you should only be defending because your advisor thinks you’re ready—at that point, you have the expertise, and the defense is your opportunity to showcase the experience you’ve built up over the years of dissertational work.

The defense experience can be pretty similar to the orals/comps (advice on those here), both in terms of practical preparation you can do beforehand (anticipate questions you’ll be asked, know what the room will look like where you’ll present) and in the experience (have your first five minutes just about memorized, and after that hope to relax and enjoy the chance to discuss your work—and nothing but!—with smart people for an hour.)

If you have a chance to present a version of your talk to another grad student or family—or even better, at a conference or other public venue—I’d recommend using that time to get comfortable with your talk, so that your focus just before the defense can be on the Q&A rather than the presentation. Fun fact: I was going to give a Digital Dialogue at MITH the week before my defense, but the electricity across campus went out while I was on my first slide and stayed out the rest of the day, so we had to reschedule for the week after my defense. Didn’t get to practice the talk publicly, but I did end up feeling like nothing worse could happen during the actual defense, so it worked out all right!

Prepare, but don’t worry

I’m lucky and privileged to have had an amazing committee, an audience with some friendly faces (thanks, Porter, Kyle, and Jordan!), and a really positive experience—but I recognize that you should also be prepared for less ideal outcomes. We’ve all heard about questioners showing up without reading the full dissertation, and questions framed as interrogation rather than an invitation for you to share your unique expertise. At the same time, I really want to emphasize that the defense isn’t something to overly worry about: compared to all the work you’ve done to get to this point, the defense is a time-limited situation, specific to what you’ve been thinking and working on for years, and at this moment you are better prepared for it than anyone else in the world.

Some things you can do, if you are in a situation where it’s not clear the room will be entirely friendly: Practice phrases for steering confusing questions and defining the discussion in your own terms. In particular, I’d practice “double evasion” of off-topic questions, since I’ve seen this fluster conference speakers: if an audience member asks you about something that you’re not claiming expertise in via your dissertation, you can start by noting this difference but speculating briefly on possibilities, then have a statement ready if they press you again to talk about some topic outside your focus (e.g. “As I said, x and not y was the focus of my research, and you might be interested to know that [thing about x tangentially related to y and segue back into your area of research]”).

My awesome advisor (Matt Kirschenbaum) also talked me through all the possible outcomes of the defense (I think these were: accepted without revisions, accepted pending revisions, or requiring a second defense? The norm tended toward being accepted with or without revisions, and if I needed revisions I shouldn’t feel bad about it). It was good to know what the best through worst possible outcomes could be (and that none were too terrible). Also, this let me emotionally prepare myself for being okay with a request for revisions (against a perfectionist streak I’m sure I share with a majority of people doing graduate studies). (I did end up passing without needing revisions, yay!)

We also talked about an unlikely but possible scenario for any grad student doing DH work: that someone with an ax to grind about digital scholarship shows up to the public part of the defense and makes trouble. This felt unlikely enough that I was able to not worry about it, but at the same time I had prepared for public challenges to the scholarly nature of my work. A weekly email to my advisor as a record of what I’d been doing wasn’t just motivation for me, it also kept a log we could produce if what I had been doing was questioned.

I’m sure I’m leaving things out, so feel free to email (aviscont@purdue.edu) or tweet (@Literature_Geek) me with any questions about the defense process (note that particulars will vary by university and department, of course). I’ll share my actual defense talk in the next post early next week when I’m back from the Joyce conference.

More about this dissertation?

If you’re interested in reading more about Infinite Ulysses or the dissertation around it, the dissertation exists as dr.AmandaVisconti.com (dissertation.amandavisconti.com was the URL I used pre-defense), which functions as an umbrella documenting all the pieces of my dissertational effort: blog posts, code repositories, links, the dissertation’s whitepaper (written just in the final month before the defense, as an analytical debriefing), etc.

The text and slides from my thesis defense are in this post.

There’s also the full set of blog posts written during my dissertation available here, which talk not only about the focus of my research (digital humanities design, Joyce, textual scholarship, annotation) but about the practical aspects of designing and pursuing a digital dissertation.