Early Thursday morning, I wrote that I was going to see a friend defend her dissertation. And did she ever. She just did a brilliant job, she made everyone in the room smarter. All five committee members said that the work was exciting, thorough, showed intellectual maturity. They were offering advice about making the dissertation into a book, always a good sign. The nearly two hours of conversation were a celebration of the very best things about academic life, the perfect example of why people become fascinated with small details of life that illuminate larger regions.
And then the ref blew the call.
This dissertation, this marvel of scholarship, was not passed, and the PhD was not conferred. The work was “accepted with revisions.” In my experience, that usually means that the work is mostly sound but there’s some big methodological or theoretical hole that needs to be patched before the ship sails free. It’s an indicator of a couple of months of remaining effort, which the committee believes you to be capable of but is concerned enough that they’re reserving judgment.
But in this case… typos. Inconsistent capitalization. Bring us back a clean copy in three weeks.
It’s like calling back a towering home run because one cleat of one of the batter’s shoes touched the chalk of the batter’s box. It’s like closing down a run of a Broadway show because one actor’s suit jacket had two buttons instead of the appropriate three. Inconsistency in trivia is part of every fast-moving document. We all know it, and we all prepare to do copy editing before we go to final publication. But the editors who review for acquisition discuss the work on its merits, knowing that the tuning will occur.
So what a decent human would have done in this case is to congratulate their student, shake her hand and welcome her to the doctoral community… and then privately, off-stage, say “Here’s a marked-up copy. You’re going to want to do a little proofreading before you send this in to the graduate school for the archive.”
But no. This guy, who’d already taken three or four opportunities to demean the assembled graduate students who’d come in support of their colleague, decided that inconsistent capitalization was sufficient to withhold his blessing. He had one last chance to be a decent person to those in his care, and he fucked it up.
If this were a stadium, there would be beer cups flying onto the field. The commentators would be showing replay from six different camera angles, all clearly demonstrating the umpire’s error, the success of the play. And the raucous cry would emerge from fifty thousand voices:
In the greater scheme of life, a blown call on the field or in the seminar room doesn’t really matter. My friend will have her PhD in three weeks, and the work will still be really smart. I’ll all be behind us. But this is the kind of petty exercise of power and status that academia is so deservedly mocked for. And it makes me grateful all over again to stand outside it.
(By the way… if you’re reading this and you’re wondering if it might be about you, if you’re the scholar who didn’t generously support the students whose careers literally depend on your judgment… then yes, it’s you. Even if you weren’t THIS guy in THIS room, take a moment to ask what you do, every day, to ease the lives of those who work tirelessly and intelligently to enter your community. Sometimes I think the opposite of “tyrant” is just “grown-up.” Be a grown-up, and don’t make things worse for the people around you.)