On having your dissertation defense live-tweeted

For the gift of their expertise, care, and time in live-tweeting my dissertation defense, I owe Valerie Holton and Lee Skallerup Bessette more than I can say.  This post is dedicated to them.

For me, the story starts with Bonnie Stewart‘s dissertation defense. She livestreamed it, and because I care about her, her research, and the principles of open digital scholarship, and because I could not exactly get up to Prince Edward Island, I thought the livestream was a great idea.  While Lee Skallerup Bessette live tweeted Bonnie’s defense from the live stream, I ended up watching it on a 30 minute delay.  Somehow watching it in not-quite-real-time made me less nervous on her behalf.

When my turn came, my dissertation chair, Jon Becker, asked me if I wanted to livestream my dissertation defense, since it seems to be the growing (and logical) trend among connected-open-networked scholars.  At the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education, dissertation defenses are public;  although I don’t think I’ve seen anyone here livestream their defense, it would not have been a policy problem I don’t think.  However, I said no. Instead, I opted to leverage my geographic privilege (I work in and live near hotbeds of digital scholarship) to invite friends into the physical room to live tweet.

As I wrote last week, engaging in this PhD program was never about the degree; it was about (re)discovering who I am and how I fit into the world.  Given that context, it should be no surprise to anyone that my dissertation was not a straightforward research project.  Instead, it was a curiously messy blend of observation and creation and a direct reflection of the way I think and prefer to work.

design project
Slide #2 from my dissertation defense slide deck.

The ways in which I engage in the digital world are messy too. The idea of broadcasting myself through a camera on a tripod, the simple solitary lens of technology, held no appeal for me.  I wanted my words directly translated through the lenses of a multitude of people, preferably ones who care about me.

To have Lee and Valerie (and I invited the entire room to join them) live tweet my defense is entirely consistent with my digital practice. Along with Simon Warren, I’ve written about how I see live tweeting as a form of bearing witness and showing care for scholars who have the courage to speak publicly about their work.  I started Twitter Journal Club, a live tweeting journal club, which follows in this tradition of celebrating scholarship and the scholars who create it. I tend to turn anything – from a class to reading a journal article – into some sort of event, so why not do the same for my dissertation defense?

I asked my followers to come up with a hashtag and @injenuity tweeted the winner, #gogodoc.  Even the hashtag naming was a heartwarming pre-event with some surprises; for example, an online programs office from another university got in on the action with some suggestions.  The same office checked in with me immediately prior to my defense to wish me luck.  I don’t know anyone at ODU, but I would like to and I would like to give whoever runs this account a giant hug.

Then Twitter friends and colleagues in the UK and Ireland scheduled an informal, virtual happy hour (it was scheduled for 5pm in the GMT) around my defense.  Furthermore, people from all over the world kept me company in those long morning hours leading up to my  12pm defense.  There were so many well wishes, meme-offerings, and gifs and generally calming small talk that I had no time to give in to my intense desire to hyperventilate.

During the actual defense, I was given 27 minutes to present my research.  I gave Lee a transcript and copy of my slides in advance, because I knew I was going to be moving through things quickly.  As a live tweeter, I know how frustrating it is to get half of a tweet done only to miss the second half of the point because the presenter has moved on to the next slide.  I didn’t want to do that to Lee, so I trusted her with the knowledge that I had written down every single word I planned to say, including the welcomes and preliminary thank yous.  It was slightly embarrassing to find out that she had shared that knowledge with all of you, too, but I got over it.  Yes, I scripted out every word. I was nervous.  I don’t always do it, but sometimes I do.  I bet you do too.

Somewhere along the way, Jon made the decision to keep the entire 1.5 hour question and answer period public, meaning Lee and Valerie could continue to live tweet the committee’s critique. That came completely unexpected to me – in other VCU-SOE defenses I’d attended, there was a general public question/answer period but the committee-driven critique was done in private.

It became very clear to me – smack dab in the middle of Alec Couros’ first question/critique – that I had set myself up to get raked over the coals  in front of an international audience, and not just a random international audience. I knew that the people who were checking on that hashtag were my professional colleagues, friends, mentors, heroes, potential future bosses and collaborators. I’d be lying if I told you that this realization was comfortable.

If you were in the room you might recall that it took me a moment to answer Alec’s first question.  Not all of that pause had to do with the question; rather,  I was considering what would happen if I were to ask Jon to clear the room before going on with the committee critique.  As I struggled with my own fear, I remembered something I had tweeted earlier that morning:

In that pause I remembered that my personal growth goal over the last four years had been to learn how to be comfortable and proud of who I am, regardless of my mistakes and the perceptions of others. Rather than asking Jon to clear the room, I made a very intentional decision to trust Valerie and Lee to be simultaneously honest and kind in their tweet-reporting.  In my opinion, this pause in which I said absolutely nothing to anyone else was the defining moment of my dissertation defense.

It is now two days later, and I am just now getting around to storifying and sifting through everything that was going on around the hashtag during the defense.  I’ve only just asked permission to publish the storify, so I’m not going to publish it here (I’ll probably add it later), but here is what I’m seeing, at least preliminarily.

I see that people all over the world were having a gloriously fun Twitter party during my defense, and I love you so much for that.   Valerie and Lee’s tweets look a lot like sports commentary. People were chiming in with their own opinions about some of the questions. It is also very clear that you wanted to help me and you cared about what was going on in the room.  You were all cheering for me, and, yes, I’m crying even as I write this.  I felt you while I was in that room.  I knew I wasn’t alone.

There were a group of people who wanted the physical scene set…my favorite set of responses was Lee’s pic from the back of the room and then Alec responding with a camera pic of what my defense looked like from his position at the front of the room (as a virtual attendee, he was watching from a google hangout).

Maha Bali and Suzan Koseoglu were getting all meta about the experience through writing their own blog posts WHILE THE EVENT WAS TAKING PLACE. This sets my pedagogical heart on fire.  I feel so excited to have triggered other blog posts.

Then there was this, which I wish I had known about and had had some sort of control over – I would have put my foot down and demanded time to answer a question from Twitter.

Finally, Jon decided to make up his own hashtag when I assessed one of his blog posts at the end of my presentation (the man writes a good blog post – and I’m not just saying that because he’s my advisor) and I love that – it’s a spin-off, yay!

I know I will write more about this over time.  I know that I am only beginning to understand what happened in (but more importantly outside) of that room on Friday.  But for now, please accept these as my thanks to you all.




5 Comments Add yours

  1. Now I feel like a big meanie! You handled the questions well, and it wouldn’t have been a defence without at least a little discomfort!

    Thank you for making the process open & transparent. I wish the tech would have existed in the same way when I had defended, although I would have likely felt similar anxiety. As well, I’ve always wondered about how the performance of externals and committee members is shaped by this added visibility – it’s something that I discussed at some point with Bon in her process of deciding her format.

    Congrats again! Take care doctor doctor.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Laura Gogia says:

      Thanks Alec!
      I blame Jon Becker by default, and in this case it was Jon (not you) who started committee questions, so you cannot claim “meanie” – it’s not true and I won’t allow it. Moreover, it’s hard to call Jon a meanie when all he did was believe in me and offer me the opportunity to be more than I thought I could be…so I think we can put any ideas of “meanies” to rest :). I, too, am curious about the power of “public” in terms of dissertation defenses, when it is taken to a digital scale. Why are dissertation defenses allowed to be “public” in the first place? Who does it protect and how? Who does it serve? How do institutions define public? How many people in that room really understood the implications of what was happening? What happens when more people begin to understand the implications and begin to object (or not)? I suspect that me announcing that it was being live tweeted had a different impact than if I had announced it was being livestreamed…and I would argue that the live tweet resulted in a qualitatively different public response than a live stream. It would be nice to tease all of this out as more dissertation defenders do different things with their rights to a (digitally) public defense.

      I thought long and hard about what I was doing and why I was doing it…this is somewhat ironic given the fact that I failed to check in with Jon AT ALL on how he ran a dissertation Q&A…oh well, it worked out for the best I think. I’ve said it in private but I’ll say it in public too – Thank you so much for your generosity, you time, and your kindness. You’re a great external committee member (and I’m really sorry if this means you get 50 requests tomorrow :)).




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