A Dissertation Defense

Last week, Mme Ilboudo had invited me to a dissertation defense at 9:00 a.m. Saturday morning. Good thing I had thought to put it in my Google Calendar, since I was up rather late Friday night, ending with a very nice phone call with my dear wife. Anyway, Google reminded me gently to get up at 7:00 this morning so I could go on down to the university. I put on my last clean shirt, a Hawaiian-style that is nice but a little old, and off I went. On the back of Djibi’s moto since the damn bike seat still doesn’t work.

Dissertation defenses at Hopkins take place in a conference room, with the committee and the candidate seated around the table and maybe a few friends and family members in the back row against the wall. I was on a committee once at Washington State University, and that defense also took place in a conference room with a few guests present. In both cases, the defenses usually last an hour or two at most – mine lasted two hours, and everybody commented on how long-winded some of the committee members had been – and the atmosphere is almost always congratulatory. In Africa, they do things very differently.

The defense takes place in a large classroom. The space is needed, because there are up to 100 people present:

Dissertation Defense 4

(Many of the seats are broken, so lots of people had to sit in the back on folding chairs. I didn’t count the house, but I estimate around 100, not all of whom stayed the whole time).

The candidate is in the hot seat, facing a jury of professors, in academic robes:

Dissertation Defense 3

This particular candidate, a Chadian man and apparently seeking to become only the second Chadian Ph.D. in Archaeology, has a bad case of PowerPoint-itis. That is to say, almost every word he said was on his PowerPoint slides and the transitions between slides were cool. Luckily, at least he had plenty of photographs and he did not have a laser pointer.

By the way, can you imagine sitting for four hours in a room with 80+ people on a 95-degree day in your academic robes? They make professors tough in Africa.

Anyway, his 45-minute or so presentation on the spread of ironworking technologies in central Chad was quite interesting even though marred by lousy PowerPoint technique. He had identified two waves of iron-workers who had come to his region several centuries apart, the second bringing a greatly improved technique and also engaging in some ethnic self-baptism in order to present themselves as heirs to an iron working tradition well-known in the larger region. It resonated with stuff I heard in Togo back in the ’80’s when Phil DeBarros was working with traditional iron workers in northern Togo in collaboration with the Université du Bénin there. When the presentation was ended, I expected a few questions from the jury and then handshakes all around.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. His director took the floor first. That’s Professor Bazemo, second from the right. A quite lively and funny guy, I’ve met him, and one would think he’d be the last guy who would want to make his own student look bad. But he started right in to grill the poor fellow. He went on for a solid hour about his infelicitous expression in French, his weak documentation of sources, his difficulty in explaining how he had chosen the villages where he did his fieldwork, and so on. I was sitting in the back with my jaw hanging down. If you thought this way about the paper, why did you let the guy defend?, I was asking myself. At least Bazemo said the work was well-conceived and the archaeological technique fine. Then, the next guy took the stage, the one second from the left. He is another archaeologist from here, who I hadn’t yet met. And once again, he was pretty brutal. He liked the French better, though he did take the time to point out a couple of expressions that he thought insufficiently formal. But as to the ideas, they were weak in a variety of ways. And he wasn’t very complimentary about the digging part – the student should have dug farther out from the targeted ancient iron furnaces in order to make sure they were the only ones, and also to see if he could find more iron artifacts discarded near the furnace. The remaining three made similar complaints. The guy on the left, an outside reader from Côte d’Ivoire, was quite scathing about the French, pointing out at least a dozen cases of bad grammar (citing page and line number each time). He also really didn’t like the way the guy used oral sources, which is something I actually know something about and I tend to agree with the critic that in 2015 there is no excuse for taking the uncritical approach the student appeared to have taken to the use of traditional oral sources in African history. Turns out that guy is a historian. By this point, I’m like “God, they’re going to flunk the guy. I’d probably flunk him too.” (I hadn’t read the thesis, of course, so I had no way of knowing what the thing was really like). I saw that they guy was taking voluminous notes, and I’m thinking maybe they’ll let him make revisions and come back later. But then, it occurs to me that two of the committee are from another country and I found out on my trip to Ghana how much air tickets cost. Are they going to be able to reassemble the committee in a couple of months after this guy has done this major rewrite?

Then, the president of the committee, the assistant dean fellow in the middle, took the floor. He also had some criticisms, but he let the cat out of the bag by saying that he generally thought the dissertation was “adequate”. So finally, after four solid hours of grilling without a break (I snuck out the back several times and spent the last hour standing in the doorway in the back of the room, not wanting to crawl over everybody’s legs again), the committee retired to consider its verdict. About 15 minutes later, they came back in. Everybody stood up, like in a courtroom:

Dissertation Defense 2

And they passed him. With mention “très honorable”. That means an A+. On the way out of the room, I talked to Professor Bazemo, and when I expressed surprise at the length of the meeting he said “oh, no, this was short. Sometimes they go all day if the committee members have a lot to say.” Then, we tooled over to the archaeology seminar room, where a nice meal was waiting for us, courtesy of the candidate’s family. The colleagues talked office politics – there is now apparently a criminology diploma, and they are all slightly scandalized. Apparently, quite a few History graduates have gone into the police and Gendarmerie, and now this upstart discipline they have never heard of is going to take away potential jobs from their graduates. I said this is sadly quite common in the US – History and the other liberal arts disciplines teach you to think, but more and more employers want universities to teach people techniques of working and to heck with thinking. I said often the only thing you can do is push to have classes from your discipline integrated into the curriculum of the “practical” diploma. At Clackamas Community College at one point – don’t know if this is still true – many of the students in the U.S. History classes were Law Enforcement majors because the class was required for their graduation. Which I found very interesting and positive. I had a number of really good students from that group too, people I feel comfortable with running around my community with guns and badges.

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