De-fense!

It’s been a long week, between answering tons of e-mail and doing road review duty all day Monday after the storm. But today, a treat. I get to drive to see a good friend defend her dissertation today, the culmination of years of rigorous, smart work.

One of my stories begins with a dissertation defense. This is what it feels like from inside.

Every test had been not merely met but exceeded. Which brought Kurt to this day in April, as he prepared to defend his dissertation, the moment in which he would walk into the arena defended only by the shield of his scholarship, to do battle with the aging lions of his discipline. Six years of work, courses high-passed and exams high-praised, publications and prizes, the final two years in the field and in the archives, all leading to his moment in the well of the lecture hall, alone in the face of three committee members and two outside readers who would, within this afternoon, decide his worth. There would be plenty of others in attendance: fellow doctoral students, stray faculty with nothing better to do, friends from other departments, maybe three dozen or more whose presence would make the room friendlier, make it seem more like an everyday classroom lecture. But only those five in the front row would have the power of jurors, to determine his verdict.

He had paid an individual visit to each of those five offices in the past two days, on the surface a courtesy call to thank them for their guidance to his research and writing, but really to sniff out hints of their pending judgment, to build a forecast of this afternoon’s weather. The climate models looked promising, all smiles and compliments. His girlfriend Megan had reminded him that defenses didn’t get scheduled unless the dissertation chair was satisfied with the work—and Jane Clendenon wouldn’t tolerate being embarrassed by her advisee’s performance. Jane’s permission to move forward had been the real hurdle, passed back in February; her words of reassurance yesterday served as her blessing and confirmation.

He’d run through his PowerPoint deck four times that morning, delivering his research talk to his empty office until it was burned into mind, not merely its content but its cadences, its natural points to pause, the places where an elegant turn of phrase could hang in the air for a moment’s appreciation. Like many introverts, Kurt had learned to perform, had learned how to command a room in ways that forestalled more unplanned interactions. His course lectures had a theatrical sensibility, an appreciation for what a friend had called “the rhetorical circumstance” of a lone performer standing before dozens or hundreds of people. His students would occasionally bring visiting friends and family to see the show, to see the heights to which a University of Michigan classroom could rise.

Now there was nothing left to prepare. He checked his lecturer’s toolkit—remote control, laser pointer, water bottle, pen and legal pad—one last time. Walked from his office to the bathroom, where he peed a tiny volume, the third time in an hour, just to have something to do. Then he washed his hands, combed his hair in the mirror, adjusted his tie unnecessarily, collected his kit, and walked out onto the stage.

I’ll look forward to bringing you all the good news tomorrow.