Saturday, July 01, 2006

What's My Line?

Sadly, in all lives a time comes when you must stop analyzing the dryer and do some real work. I was scheduled to give a talk at my sponsor university, Twente, about a two hour train ride from Amsterdam. Twente lies on the far outskirts of the Netherlands, only a few kilometres from the German border, in a small metropolis called Enschede.

Europe isn't all cutesy houses and snobby ├╝ber-trendy urbanites. Enschede, for example, has all of the village charm of a suburban office park. The university is nicer and the only campus-based university in the NL. In Europe, universities are generally just buildings in the middle of the city, and aren't so big on grass and such. Think NYU or Boston University. This university, Twente, has a reasonably pretty campus because it's just to the left of German hillbillies and was built in the 1960s instead of the 1260s.

This picture, here, is an expression of rural Dutch wit. It looks like a deep lake has somehow taken root around an old clocktower, but in fact it's just the top of a fake clocktower placed in the middle of a fetid, algae-ridden little pond. But the effect is quite charming.

I picked this week for my visit because I was promised a real, honest-to-goodness Dutch Ph.D. defense. I was practically begged to attend one and many promises were made as to its fascinating and obscure aspects. As a connoisseur of anything even slightly weird, I was in.

An American Ph.D. defense is pretty straight forward. You write a full draft of your dissertation, and your chair allows you to schedule an oral defense. It's technically public but no real people go unless your mom insists. You give a very brief presentation that annoyingly reviews things the committee already knows. The committee members then ask you a lot of penetrating, deeply disturbing questions that make you question why you thought you had the intellect to get a Ph.D. at all.

After a short recess to plumb your flaws, they greet you as Dr. So-and-So, shake your hand, and outline the six months of detailed revisions that must be completed before you can take the degree. Then you might go to dinner or something. Most people try to do something special afterwards on their own. I dragged my poor boyfriend to Hawaii without his violin, and then tried to kill him by driving over the Rockies during a blizzard. Good times.

In the NL, the oral defense is scheduled only after the dissertation has been fully completed and in fact published, in paperback. So the candidate is defending something that is already, quite literally, a book. The oral defense itself is limited to no more than one hour, and a university official keeps time to the second, loudly banging his stick on the floor when time has elapsed. And how can there be any revisions, when the dissertation has already been published? The whole thing is thus ceremony at its most transparent.

The audience consists of the entire department on the left, and the candidate's family and friends on the right, like a parody called Academic Wedding. The candidate is supported on stage by two pronyms, friends who stand on each side in case the candidate falters. The candidate gives a brief, content-free presentation to the audience, which the committee is not allowed to attend. With time to spare at the end, the candidate lets the audience know that hors d'oeuvres will be served beginning at 16:30.

The audience is ordered to stand as the committee enters. Consisting of two proponents (advisors) and four opponents (friendly outside reviewers unworthy of the word), the committee members are befrocked in their academic gowns and allowed to ask no more than one question each. They speak only when called upon by the moderator, who controls the microphones, each of which lights up in red when the member is allowed to speak.

The whole affair resembles nothing more than a medieval game show. The opponents ask long, byzantine questions, often more comment than question, and the candidate, knowing that time is short, filibusters until the moderator loses patience with the answer. The entire defense thus consists of exactly four endless questions and four endless answers. The official bangs the floor and it's over.

The committee retires to deliberate over a long foregone conclusion. After they return and present the degree, the proponents give long, wonderful speeches about the wit and persistence of the candidate, and how much he will be missed by the department. Then there is the brief reception with drinks and the promised hors d'oeuvres, where there are more speeches and gifts are presented.

The new Ph.D. is then expected to throw a rather elaborate party for the department at his own expense. The party can cost anywhere from 2000 euros to as much as 10,000 euros, which is over $12,000. There is eating and a lot of drinking and even more speeches from relatives standing on chairs. The department usually sings a song about the candidate with invented lyrics. This time it was to the music of "O Nederland!", a tune I knew by heart due to the endless TV commercials selling patriotic cell phone ring tones.

That was enough for me. I retreated to my hotel bathtub for a long soak and good old American TV. I enjoyed it so much that the two-hour immersion caused a charley horse that had me screaming in pain and then prevented me from getting out of the tub, "I've fallen... and I can't get up!" for a new millennium. But that's another story.


At 9:51 PM, Blogger Kris said...

I, for one, would like selectively to adopt some of these customs:

1. Committee wears academic gowns. With what they cost, you ought to get to wear them more than twice a year.

2. The university representative with the pounding stick. But I would like this person to attend faculty meetings as well as defenses, to pound "time's up."

3. The elaborate reception with singing of invented songs about the new PhD. I come from a family of parody-song writers and don't get to use this skill as much in faculty life as I did when I was in student affairs. Bring back the Ed School Follies, I say.

Thanks for sharing this glimpse into the NL PhD ritual - I'd love to hear others' stories of defense rituals, too.

At 7:41 PM, Blogger rocketgirl said...

I also found this blog through Frolic and Detour, and I'm glad I did!

I particularly enjoy your take on Netherlands academia, since I'm just starting out in grad school myself and I've always been interested in how people approach learning/teaching in different places.

As far as I know, the defense process is very similar (if not exactly the same) here in Canada as in the US. Although, it would be great if our committee could wear the academic regalia during the defense - I would be too busy laughing to worry about being nervous :)

At 10:40 PM, Anonymous ChloeandSam'smom said...

I love your reference to "Ive fallen and i can't get up!"
Netherlands sounds absolutely amazing! YOu lucky dog!
You still keep in touch with any of your friends from Connecticut AMERICA???


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