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The Defense Doesn't Rest

The pivot to online dissertation defenses and capstone presentations is accompanied by minor challenges, unexpected joys.
Clint Smith Zoom Doctoral Dissertation Defense
Clint Smith (top center) celebrates the successful defense of his doctoral dissertation with friends, family, and faculty.
Photo: Tim Butterfield

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced higher education’s hand in many ways, eliminating traditional methods of testing, learning, and graduating. HGSE’s doctoral dissertations have not been spared.

The culmination of years of rigorous research, study, and preparation, doctoral candidates’ defenses are traditionally delivered on campus and in person, in front of a small audience that includes a faculty committee, as well as select classmates, family, and members of the academic community. This spring, as with so much of the HGSE’s campus life, these defenses have been moved to a virtual setting.

“I totally understood that it was necessary, given the circumstances, but I was initially a bit disappointed,” said Olivia Chi, Ph.D.’20, about making a virtual defense of her dissertation, Essays on Ratings of Teachers and Teacher Applicants. "Having attended others' in-person dissertation defenses in the past, I did have a picture in mind of how my own defense would go, and I was really excited to reach that same milestone.”

For Chi, a former elementary school teacher and research analyst for the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University, the presentation of her dissertation was the culmination of years of both practice and research on teacher ratings, including the role of race and gender dynamics between teachers and administrators in the classroom observation setting.

"While we may be meeting virtually, this is not a ‘virtual’ defense; it is the real thing."

Like Chi, writer and teacher Clint Smith, Ph.D.’20, was disappointed that he would not be returning to campus for his defense. “For so many years I had envisioned having an in-person dissertation defense,” said Smith. “While obviously I understood the need to make this transition from in-person to online defenses in the midst of a global public health crisis, I still felt the pang of disappointment as I tried to wrap my head around this new reality.”

With two young children, and his wife also working from home, Smith prepped for the defense of his dissertation, “What if They Open That Door One Day?”: What Education Means to People Sentenced to Juvenile Life Without Parole, during his kids’ nap times and late at night.

For faculty, the lead-up to the defenses did not change much, but the move to a virtual setting did add a new layer to the proceedings.

“I now make sure the dogs are well walked and exhausted, so they'll sleep through the defense,” said Professor Meira Levinson, co-chair of Smith’s committee. “I also spend an inordinate amount of time ensuring that my internet connectivity is stable. But in terms of preparing for the defense procedures or substance itself, I don't think anything has changed. I still came excited to hear Clint's presentation, to ask some questions that I hope will be both challenging and generative, and to celebrate his outstanding work.”

On the day of their virtual defenses, both Chi’s and Smith’s committee chairs took the lead in explaining the format of the defense, which was just as it would be in person, but with a few added instructions for the audience about  keeping microphones muted and doing a virtual “hand raise” to ask a question.

“I was more explicit about how the session is structured, and why, as I introduced Olivia and her work,” said Professor Martin West, Chi’s committee chair. “I also emphasized that, while we may be meeting virtually, this is not a ‘virtual’ defense; it is the real thing.”

When the candidates began their presentations, they shared their screens and displayed their slideshows for all to clearly see. The attendees watched silently (as far as anyone could tell) behind the dark squares of their camera-turned-off displays.

“I did spend a little bit of time making sure I was properly set up to present my defense over Zoom,” said Chi. “However, the lift was fairly minimal given all the guidance and support provided by the doctoral programs office. They made it as easy as possible.”

There were a few bumps along the way — moments of poor internet connectivity and some pauses to repeat a question or find the correct button for the screen sharing feature. But comparable challenges arise at an in-person event, when an audience member blocks another person’s view, or a cough obscures an important message.

Once the candidates had presented their work, their committee members each asked several questions of the students, before joining a committee-only breakout room to deliberate. At a traditional defense, this time would permit the candidate and the audience members to mingle. On Zoom, Smith grinned and asked, “Sup, everybody?” which was followed by an explosion of unmuted cheers and smiles. Smith’s wife and children, who had been hunkered down in the basement, watching the defense out of earshot, came running into the room, jumping for joy and holding up a “Congrats, Dad!” banner for Smith to hold and for the audience to see. Classmates who had watched the defense unmuted themselves to offer congratulations.

"It was so much better than anything that I could have ever imagined. I got to share it with my entire village … those who have known me since I was in diapers and people who helped me trek through grad school."

After a few minutes, the committees returned to the group to say that they were ready to bring the candidate into their private breakout room. The audience members lingered, making some small talk and catching up with each other at first, but then, upon recalling that the Zoom session was being recorded, taking turns leaving heartfelt messages of excitement and congratulations in the chat, for the candidates to view later. Family members and friends introduced themselves and shared touching messages that everyone was able to hear; but rather than feeling like an invasion of privacy, it made the occasion even more meaningful for its viewers.

When the private session wrapped up and its members returned to the larger group, the waiting audience in both defenses was ready to hear the formal announcement. The chairs announced that their students had passed their defenses, the true celebration began, and the chatter lingered well past the scheduled ending time.

For West, Chi’s committee chair, the celebration was inclusive and open to all in a way it never would have been before, but it was missing one thing. “The one downside — and it is a big one — was not being able to congratulate Olivia in person,” said West. “We will have to make up for that as soon as it is safe to do so.” Fortunately, this will be possible, as Chi will be remaining in the area as a new faculty member at Boston University.

“Before the coronavirus pandemic, it would have seemed implausible and probably undesirable to move such an important ceremony online,” said Professor Roberto Gonzales, Smith’s committee co-chair, who took part in six online defenses this spring. “But I have to say, my experience has been very positive.”

Smith emphasized the presence of so many members of his community at the virtual event. “Doing the defense via Zoom meant I got to share the moment with friends and family from every part of my life,” said Smith. “It was so much better than anything that I could have ever imagined. I got to share it with my entire village … those who have known me since I was in diapers and people who helped me trek through grad school.”

Chi agreed. “While I was initially disappointed that I had to defend virtually, a big added bonus is that it allowed for more people in my community to attend, as there are some who wouldn't have been able to attend in person.... I could still feel the support of my community, and I knew they were there to cheer me on.”


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