Fall 2009 course blogs

And here they are, the five Explorations course blogs:

The Ambiguous Falling Slinky

The Drama Queen's Apartment

Swipe, Show, and Smile


The Once and Future Philosophers Club

repsonding to question #1

My intention is to participate in the course blogging for Explorations, which means that I too need to post responses to 9 of the 12 or more questions thrown out by the professor over the course of the semester. (The fact that I'm responding to my own questions does not, I don't think, raise any particular challenges!)

An important and solemn occasion. Well, just before class on Tuesday I presided over the dissertation defense of one of my PhD students. A dissertation defense is an odd occasion, since in the American system you defend your dissertation in front of a committee of your advisers, which means that they've all had input all along and presumably will have made any of their most serious criticisms to you beforehand -- and strongly advised you to incorporate those criticisms into your dissertation and provide responses to them. Contrast this to the system in, for example, Finland, where an external examiner who has had no previous involvement with the dissertation project comes in and grills the candidate in front of an audience (it's a public event, very ceremonial, everyone wears formal academic dress and uses some specified verbal formulas -- I described such a defense here). What this means is that in the US, a doctoral candidate is fielding questions from people who have almost certainly asked her or him those very questions before; as such, the exercise is about providing good public responses, and not necessarily about convincing one's committee (since if you haven't convinced them before, you're not likely to do it now).

In such a situation, I think it's especially important to maintain a good front. The committee-members are a team communicating their investigation of the candidate; the candidate is a team of one, communicating her or his fitness to be accepted into the tribe of legitimate scholars; the committee-members and the candidate together perform for the audience (US dissertation defenses are generally public, but they're not as elaborate an occasion as they are in, say, Finland) and communicate intellectual seriousness. The audience itself is a team, naturally, and communicates its respect for the proceedings. When I chair dissertation defenses, I generally create a distinction between people in the room holding PhDs and people without PhDs (including doctoral candidates working on getting their PhDs); for example, I invite the PhD-holders to ask the first audience questions, and only then open the floor to anyone who would like to ask a question. I also invite such PhD-holders to remain in the room when the candidate and the rest of the audience withdraws so that the committee can begin its deliberation about whether the candidate has passed -- I don't include those PhD-holders in the actual deliberations, but I do invite them to give their input "in private," as it were, before withdrawing so that the committee can come to a decision. Obviously this privacy is itself a performance, and it's a performance with a purpose: to further establish the privileges associated with the possession of a PhD.

In one sense, all of this means that by the time a defense actually happens, there is a pretty good chance that the candidate is going to pass (because if there were serious doubts, she or he would never have been permitted to defend in the first place). It's not a guarantee, but it's likely. A dissertation defense is very much a performance, then -- and I don't think that knowing that detracts from its solemnity or seriousness at all. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that the function of a dissertation defense is to (re)establish the PhD/non-PhD line as socially significant, and to formally transition the candidate across it. Thinking of it as a performance simply clarifies the character of the experience.


Explorations question #1

Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, p. 101:

For example, during the showing of the body at a funeral home, usually the social setting and all participants, including both the bereaved team and the establishment's team, will be arranged so as to express their feelings for the deceased and their ties to him; he will be the center of the show and the dramatically dominant participant in it. However, since the bereaved are inexperienced and grief-laden, and since the star of the show must stay in character as someone who is in a deep sleep, the undertaker himself will direct the show, although he may all the while be self-effacing in the presence of the corpse or be in another room of the etsablishment getting ready for another showing.

There is admittedly something odd, I think, about treating a solemn event like a funeral as a performance. But this oddness might be revealing, so to speak, even though it might also be taken as disrespectful. So the question is: in this case, which is it? Is Goffman's treatment of this and other social occasions revealing, or disrespectful?

As a suggestion, consider reflecting on some important and solemn occasion in which you have participated, and applying Goffman's performance metaphor to it. Does that detract from the solemnity of the occasion?