On the pleasure of a virtual dissertation defense
By Phillip Lopate
December 9, 2016
Last week I participated in a PhD dissertation defense for a graduate student in the University of São Paulo. This student, Daniel, had looked me up a year before, during his research semester at Columbia, to talk about the great English essayist William Hazlitt, upon whom he was writing his dissertation. He was familiar with several things I had written about Hazlitt, and considered me something of an expert on the personal essay. Not to bore you with the humility bit, I am. Always happy to encounter another Hazlitt enthusiast, I chatted amicably with him, and then he emailed me asking if I would serve on his dissertation committee. I said yes, hoping it would lead to a paid trip to Brazil, where I have never been, but he emailed back a few weeks later to report that sadly the university did not have the funds for my airfare. Would I still be willing to serve on his committee? Having semi-committed myself, already in too deep, I said yes, and kept my fingers crossed that his dissertation would be decent.
A copy of that document, which he had translated from Portuguese to English for my benefit, arrived in the mail. It turned out to be quite stimulating: Daniel had read all the original material and secondary sources, plus a good deal about 18th- and 19th-century periodical literature, Hazlitt’s literary forbears and contemporaries, and the political, religious, and philosophical debates and class structure of the time. If it lacked an overall argument, the prose itself was full of ideas, enthusiasm, and advocacy. (This would be the first dissertation on Hazlitt in Brazil.) In short, it came alive and was not academically sterile.
There were many preliminary emails back and forth about setting up the Skype exchange. I must admit I am very leery about Skype, mistrustful that it can possibly work and that, like characters in early science fiction, conversationalists can see each other from thousands of miles away. Although I have done it a few times in the past, I am never sure I can get it to work.
As it happened, the morning of the defense I came directly from a tennis lesson and had no time to shower or change out of a grungy, sweaty T-shirt before sitting down to my laptop. I felt bad that these professors would be subjected to my recently perspiring body—luckily, odor would not be transmitted along with my voice and image. I managed to get the Skype to work, and saw an empty classroom in Brazil, its window revealing a sunny day with students walking by on campus. Shortly afterward, the chair of the meeting came onscreen. I could see him clearly, big as life, while I was in a small box at the bottom of the screen, looking like a shrunken, sweaty homunculus. He could hear me fine but could not see me. They sent for a technician, who suggested the problem was on my end: I had failed to turn on the camera. I was unable to locate the camera icon, but my wife entered the room and showed me where it was. Now we were in business.
The chair addressed me graciously in English, saying how “honored” they were to have me there, how “distinguished” I was and so on and so forth, how much they wished they could have afforded to pay for my visit and taken me out to dinner after but perhaps sometime in the future … Not to bore you with the humility part, I found these flattering remarks completely appropriate. However, I now had to gear up and play the part of the Distinguished Authority, to mouth brilliantly learned remarks, hard to do at any time but even harder when wearing this grungy T-shirt advertising Florida sharks. Don’t ask me how I got it: I think my wife and daughter brought it back for me from vacation. In any case, I was warned that much of the discussion would take place in Portuguese, but they would try to translate after each speaker. Four respondents were to speak about Daniel’s dissertation for half an hour, and I was to go first. Half an hour?! I had expected to make a few impromptu remarks off the top of my head, in the informal manner of defenses I’d attended north of the border, and had by no means prepared a lengthy discourse. After all, I wasn’t getting paid for this … It was starting to resemble one of those nightmares where you are thrust onstage to sing a song whose lyrics you have mostly forgotten.
I began by apologizing that I was not strictly speaking a trained academic but a belletrist, and thus could not be expected to hew to that rigorous standard. Then I summarized my impressions of Daniel’s dissertation, while he sat facing me, taking notes, looking rather tense and nervous. He is a strikingly handsome, engaging young man in his early 30s, with a burning dark-eyed stare and a bushy black beard, rather like the actor Édgar Ramírez who played Carlos the Jackal in the Olivier Assayas biopic, and I began to wonder, as I was talking and looking at him, what circumstances had brought him to this point in his life—his family background, his romantic and intellectual history—to this meeting where he had to defend his passionate enthusiasm for the temperamental, combative William Hazlitt. What had possessed him to put all his eggs in the basket of this little-known (especially in Brazil) English essayist? Clearly he was the sort of brainy, restless intellectual type who spends a lifetime moving from subject to subject: he had already, it turned out, gotten degrees in philosophy and political science, before switching to critical theory.
Daniel responded deferentially to my critique—which didn’t turn out too badly, I might add, and was more appreciative than critical in any case. Then an ex-philosophy professor of his spoke in Portuguese (later translated for me), stressing connections between Hazlitt and the English-Scottish philosophers who had preceded him and were involved in concepts of sympathy and empathy. This was followed by a 20-minute break for coffee and snacks, during which I showered and put on a jacket and tie. Now I was more formally dressed than the others, and felt able to hold my own.
The discussion throughout the day continued on a very high level, and I was mostly in heaven, listening to all this intelligent chatter about the essay as a genre. I was transported back to the world of 19th-century English coffeehouses, where you could pick up a copy of London Magazine and read the latest essays by Hazlitt, Lamb, and Leigh Hunt, or a poem by Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Keats. How wonderful that all these Brazilian scholars were so conversant with English literature! I could not keep from indulging in that old, experience-resistant fantasy of academic life as a Community of Scholars, whose only interest is the advancement of knowledge. Suddenly there were no petty territorial squabbles, no careerist networking or mutual back-scratching, no stabs in the back over tenure. Fortunately I knew nothing about the internal academic politics of the University of São Paulo, and so I could freely admire the worldliness, nobility, good humor, and far-ranging intellect of these Brazilian professors, more so than I could the colleagues at my home university whose imperfections I knew too well.
Some of the respondents were harder on Daniel, one in particular legitimately questioning his diffuse profusion of topics. He thought that Daniel had wasted too much time defining the essay as a genre, when he would have been better off taking that for granted and concentrating more precisely on Hazlitt’s style. Yet his real reservation was that Daniel had only recently wandered into literary studies from other disciplines, and had not yet mastered the technique of close textual analysis. I found myself both overly identifying with Daniel and protective of him in the summation period. There was no need to worry: their approval of his dissertation was never in doubt. The day’s proceedings ended with a ceremonial reading of the committee’s brief statement of acceptance. Everyone clasped Daniel’s hand, and he broke out in a relieved smile, his body relaxing for the first time all day. I shut off my Skype function and with a tug of reluctance left Brazil. I was back in Brooklyn.
Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.