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The Upside of Defending Online

Active chat room compliments. Family and friends from around the world "in the room." The ability to record the session. This year's doctoral students find the positives in defending dissertations on Zoom.
Amal Kumar's dissertation committee
Amal Kumar (top right) meets with his dissertation committee in a breakout room (Clockwise from top left: Monica Higgins, USC's Dan Wadhwani, and Julie Reuben)
Photo: Gianna Cacciatore

Not a moment after Professor Jal Mehta opened Kentaro Iwasaki’s culminating Ed.L.D. capstone presentation, “Solving a System of Inequalities: Decolonizing and Rehumanizing Mathematics in Somerville Public Schools,” encouragement poured into the Zoom chat.

“GO KENTARO!!!!” wrote fellow Ed.L.D. candidate Erica Jordan-Thomas in all caps.

“Whoa POWERFUL title,” wrote another viewer.

“Gooooooo Papa!!!” chimed in Iwasaki’s wife and children, watching together from one screen.

Mehta, the chair of Iwasaki’s capstone committee, introduced himself and his fellow committee members, before hitting mute and turning the virtual mic over to Iwasaki. Iwasaki offered a quick shout-out to family members in California — “I know it’s 5:30 in the morning over there, so thank you for joining!” — before hitting share and commencing his defense. As his PowerPoint slides filled the screen, his face shrank into a small box in the corner. In the chat, supportive words continued to trickle in, from fellow HGSE students, but also from friends and family in Japan, Germany, England, Canada, and all across the United States.

Iwasaki’s capstone focused on how math is taught in American high schools. As part of his Ed.L.D. residency, he worked within Somerville (Massachusetts) Public Schools to identify oppressive structures and “decolonize” their math curriculum. While Iwasaki was familiar with this type of work from his 16 years teaching math and designing math curricula at public schools in San Francisco, the remote aspect of his residency year — which was conducted entirely online — presented a unique challenge. Gathering teachers, students, and administrators in virtual “math working groups,” in the midst of this year’s uncertainty, took far more coordination than a similar project might have in a “normal” year.

Kentaro Iwasaki's capstone defense

Kentaro Iwasaki presents his Ed.L.D. capstone defense

But the remote format seemed only to enhance his capstone project. With his slides projected full screen, Iwasaki’s voice told a story in the background, while in the chat, he received real-time validation and feedback — not something that typically happens during in-person presentations. “TED Talk,” Mehta commented at one point, praising the clear and engaging nature of Iwasaki’s delivery.

This is the second year that, due to the COVID pandemic, HGSE’s doctoral dissertation and capstone defenses were conducted remotely. Last year, the decision to hold defenses virtually was an unexpected one; only a month into the COVID crisis, degree candidates found themselves pivoting, suddenly adapting their presentations for Zoom — a technology many were unfamiliar with. This year, prepared by a year-and-a-half of online learning, as well as a number of supports designed specifically to help students prepare Zoom defenses, candidates were ready to present virtually.

“I practiced my defense with an Ed.L.D. colleague in my cohort, my Ed.L.D. pod — the small group we work with in years 2 and 3 — and my wife,” said Iwasaki. “I also signed up for the Gutman communications TF office hours and received really helpful feedback from them … . We are all used to Zoom by now, so I'd facilitated many meetings and workshops via Zoom. It felt fairly second nature!”

Amal Kumar, whose Ph.D. dissertation was titled “Organizational Identity and Higher Education Governance: Historical Case Studies from California, 1960–2011,” prepared for his virtual defense the same way he would for an in-person presentation: “Practice, practice, practice!” Kumar’s defense provided an overview of the topics covered in the three essays that comprise his dissertation, as well as the methods he used and the conclusions he drew from his research. The research aspect of his dissertation, stressed committee chair Professor Monica Higgins, was made abnormally challenging by COVID-19. Kumar, whose research required the use of historical documents, relied on the virtual help of librarians. Yet despite methodological challenges, Kumar’s dissertation defense proved successful.

Amal Kumar defense celebration

Amal Kumar (bottom left corner) celebrates the successful defense of his dissertation with family and friends around the world

“Amal’s defense was fabulous,” said Higgins afterwards. “His scholarship was truly brilliant in its ability to cross disciplines and in its depth and rigor. The defense itself was outstanding too. His presentation of the three papers that made up his dissertation was clear and delivered in a way that spoke to everyone in the large Zoom room that enveloped him. Amal spoke to all of us on the committee with our varied backgrounds as well as to the multiplex audience he had, which is no small feat… . Overall, a defense to remember!”

When Kumar finished presenting, he was questioned by his committee members, their three faces and his filling the Zoom screen in a quadrant. Questions finished, the committee withdrew to a separate breakout room. Kumar remained in the main room, where praise for his work and pleasant conversation quickly filled the space. Kumar’s mother was the first to speak.

“Well done, Amal, well done,” she said with a smile.

“Thanks mom,” he replied, emotional.

Soon after, Kumar was pulled into the breakout room with his committee. As the meeting was being recorded, his friends and family used the opportunity to leave him kind messages for later. His wife, eavesdropping on the committee’s conversation from the next room, prepared to don a party hat.

Similarly, when Iwasaki’s presentation finished, he too faced a series of questions from his committee members before they withdrew to their own private breakout space (“grilling time,” Iwasaki called it jokingly, projecting a picture of a barbeque grill on screen). Waiting in the main Zoom room, Iwasaki used the time to thank his supporters directly. When he was finally pulled into the breakout room with his committee, his friends and family left cheery messages in the chat.

When they emerged from their breakout rooms, both Iwasaki and Kumar had been awarded doctorates for their work.

Reflecting on the experience afterwards, Iwasaki acknowledged that there were downsides to defending his dissertation remotely. “In the in-person setting, there is a connection to the audience, there's an energy in the room, and there is more of a ‘full body’ presentation…. There is a way that we can respond to the ‘room’ when it's in-person,” he explained. But, he said, there were benefits. “It is amazing that so many from around the world, from multiple time zones, can attend the defense when it is remote.”

Kumar, waiting to be pulled into the committee’s breakout room, expressed a similar sentiment. When a fellow doctoral student told him his presentation was “intimidating,” Kumar joked that, at a height of 5’6,” he didn’t see himself that way. “Yeah, but you’re 6’5” on Zoom,” his peer shot back. “Ahh, the true reason I prefer virtual defenses,” proclaimed Kumar with a smile.

Kentaro Iwasaki's capstone defense

Kentaro Iwasaki (top center) celebrates with friends and family after a successful defense of his Ed.L.D. capstone

Mehta, reflecting on Iwasaki’s capstone, echoed Iwasaki and Kumar’s praise of the virtual format. “I actually like the virtual defenses,” Mehta explained. “In particular, I like being able to bring together the student’s committee, their [residency] site, but also their family, friends, and networks from different stages of their lives. We have had as many as 80 people in virtual defenses, which is far more than we could have in an in-person defense.”

“We’ve all had our fair share of isolation this past year, so I think that the contrast that has been felt this defense season with the rooms filled and the chat flying has been really heart-warming and needed,” added Higgins. “And, while in the past, we have said that these were ’public’ defenses, this year, the public has truly been included — so [it has been] refreshing for us all!”

While the mode of next year’s dissertation defenses is still uncertain — will they be in person? online? — what is certain is that the remote format has not hindered HGSE’s scholars from delivering stunning performances. With the ability to broadcast their defenses around the world, HGSE’s degree candidates are coming one step closer to fulfilling HGSE’s mission of teaching to change the world — and they’re doing it in real time.


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