Tuesday, April 5, 2016

inside a thesis defence

Last week, I passed the milestone of defending my doctoral dissertation (cheer), and since pretty much everyone on the planet was not present for that momentous event, I thought I would offer you a peek into what went on. This is a bit more on the technical side of things, but believe me, technique is important. Just ask a musician or artist or chef or athlete or craftsman or engineer or scientist or the barista who makes your caramel macchiato. Technique matters.

First, a bit of background: a doctoral dissertation (which is usually the length of a good fiction book but not as high on the page-turner scale) is meant to be an original contribution to the field of study, which in my case is theology. It must demonstrate the person's research abilities and their adeptness at engaging with and building on the work of others within their discipline. The oral exam relating to this dissertation (which is the culmination of the Doctor of Philosophy degree) requires that the student be able to defend their theories, choices, and conclusions to a panel of learned experts (usually 5 of them). In case it is not apparent, it's a pretty intense few hours for the doctoral candidate as question after question is thrown at them.

So what's the point of all this, you ask? It seems like a whole lot of effort and stress just for a piece of paper and a few letters after your name. But there is method to this madness, yes there is. The oral exam gives the student the opportunity to showcase the skills they have (hopefully) developed during the course of their studies, and I propose that these skills are valuable not only for academics or theologians, but for anyone engaged in discovery, discernment, or investigation of any sort. In other words, these are life skills we can all work on.

Below are the basic, general questions which the doctoral candidate must be able to answer in the oral exam and a brief explanation of the skill set each one involves.

1) What is your question or what problem are you trying to solve? 
Coming up with a precise question sounds easier than it is. Often our questions reveal that we have not really thought the matter through. This is evident when the question is vague or too general, when it is really a complaint or disagreement in disguise, when it expresses a desire for a quick fix instead of demonstrating willingness to do the hard work of discovery, and when it is too far removed from reality. In general, the simpler the question, the more likely one is to have a fruitful result. A straight-forward, clear, well-defined, honest question is a beautiful thing, because it immediately draws us into wondering about possibilities and makes us eager to begin exploring.

2) What was your method for answering the question?
How we approach something is important because our methodology will directly impact our results and determine where we end up. One of my professors explains it this way: method is like a recipe, you follow a set of justifiable steps to achieve a goal. If you are attempting to bake the first ever Dr. Pepper chocolate chip cookies, you would start with a reliable recipe and then, using your knowledge of chemistry, add new ingredients while adjusting for changes in texture and taste, and hope for a good outcome. You might need to try a few different combinations before arriving at a workable and edible result. A methodology is more than trying this and that, more than just starting and hoping that things will sort themselves out as you go. Methodology requires us to be knowledgeable about what has been done before, to be aware of what has worked in the past and what has not, and to develop a plan of action based on the wisdom available to us. Of course, we also need to be able to adapt it when new information comes our way.

3) What were your findings? What have you discovered?
Again, this seems simpler than it actually is, and that is because we are never just reporting findings, we are always interpreting them. This is especially true when dealing with people, history, texts, and somewhat abstract ideas, all of which theology does. For this reason, our findings should always be presented with humility, and we should always acknowledge that we see only part of the picture. We should also be acutely aware that we are part of a larger learning community; we are better together, learning from each other, than each trying to do our own thing or push our ideas onto others.

4) Why is this important? What are the implications and/or applications?
Though it seems obvious to us that what we are doing is important, mostly because we are so invested in our own ideas and work, this question requires careful attention. It requires us to have some knowledge of the work already being done in our field and some experience in practical application. In the area of theology, it is important to ask if what we are doing draws people closer to Jesus. Does it bring hope? Does it increase faith? Does it promote loving interaction? Does it treat others with honour? Does it bring clarity and diminish confusion? Does it reveal the glory of God?

5) What will you do next?
It is often not possible to answer this question with any certainty, but the examiners are looking for an indication that the student has given some thought to progressing in their journey of discovery by actively pursuing the options which seem most feasible. When a student answers this question well, it reflects that they are now a peer, taking responsibility for their own progress and ongoing enlightenment. In addition, a good answer from the student shows that they actively seek to contribute meaningfully to their community.

All of the above questions could be asked, with some modification, in any number of situations, but within the context of a spiritual quest to be more like Jesus, they might be summed up in these two queries: What is your deepest desire? What do you want to give to the world? It is worth spending some time prayerfully pursuing the answers to these questions, because they will determine where you go and what you do.

May we find the Creator at the centre of all our quests.
May we stay close to Jesus so that we always follow his lead.
May we lean into wind of the Holy Spirit instead of relying on our own understanding.

Matte from Montreal

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