Tuesday, 16 December 2008


The reason for my recent trip to the old country was that a younger colleague whose work I have closely followed defended her doctoral thesis. Now for cultural clashes: I have been a co-supervisor for a doctoral student at Worcester, and when she had her viva recently I was not invited. Nothing wrong wih me; in the UK students defend themselves, confronted on their own with two examiners. A student here at Cambridge has already asked me desperately whether she really will have to go through viva alone, without me holding her hand. Well, that's the way it is.

But I like the Swedish - or Scandinavian - system better because a doctoral defence is a show, a well-deserved catharsis after years of hard work. It is public and entertaining and almost always followed by a feast. In a way, it is more the opponent's task than the respondent, the latter already having done her share. Having experienced both positions, I know that opponents are more nervous. The audience is always on the respondent's side.

I remember my oldest son getting both upset and angry at my defence. He thought the opponent was nasty toward me. (In fact, she was exceptionally nice).

At best, a defence is a professional dialogue of the kind that seldom occur otherwise. This was definitely the case in Stockholm. The opponent was critical in a positive way and a pleasure to listen to. The respondent was alert and confident.

Champagne was served in the library while the examination committee convened, and there was a marvelous celebration in the evening.

Several of my former and present students from Åbo in Finland had come over, which gave me a foretaste of the next weekend and a defence at Åbo Akademi. This famous university has still more festive ceremonies than Stockholm. I have several times hinted that I would like an honorary degree because beside your doctor's hat you get a sword. Wouldn't I look gorgeous with a sword?

For the defence itself the chairperson (kustos) and the opponent must have hats, which they don't put on - just as you don't put on hoods with your academic dress in Cambridge - but carry in your left hand. Every step is minutely prescribed, and every sentence has to be correct. Thus: not "on half of..." but "on behalf of", which is easy to mix up when you are nervous. As a kustos, I was if possible more nervous than the opponent and the respondent together. I also had a bad cold and sounded like a mute swan. But I am good at pretending, so I guess nobody noticed. But nobody could fail to notice my gown. Yes, I did wear my Cambridge gown and sat there in front of the audience, basically having no other function than sit there and look academic. Someone told me afterwards that I looked impressive when I signalled the opponent and the respondent to stand up or sit down, waving my sleeves like vampire's wings.


Julia said...

I wish I could have seen that. Both gown and hat!

Ulla said...

Hej där! Jag har också varit på en disputation i Finland (men i Helsingfors) och jag var också genomförkyld! Min uppgift var dock en något annat: jag var taostmaster på karonkan efteråt!

bolibompa_ said...

фотки в студию!