I was quite surprised when a UAB doctoral student in the ‘Arts Escèniques’ programme run by the Catalan Department asked me to be the second internal examiner of a board that should meet at Warwick University. Surprised because a) I didn’t know her, b) I do not specialise in Theatre Studies (though I teach Theatre now and then), c) I didn’t know you could –as she has done– get simultaneously a British and a Spanish doctoral degree with the same dissertation.
Cleverly, she got Warwick and UAB to sign an agreement and I became technically UAB’s envoy to check that the proceedings met our regulations. I said yes considering I would never have again the chance to experience in person how a British viva works (why I never stopped to consider the hassle of reaching Coventry from Barcelona and viceversa is another matter). I realise now that I was a desperate choice as examiner, as more alert UAB doctors claimed not to know enough English. I, in contrast, took the bait hook, line and sinker. Silly me!
It’s been a peculiar experience. We –the 3 examiners and the chair or advisor– met two hours before the viva to agree on the list of questions we’d ask (7 for a 90 minute conversation, a long list I’m told). Forget, then, about the notes I’d prepared for my intervention, Spanish-style. This meeting took 1 hour, followed by a modest lunch with these 3 persons, plus the 2 co-supervisors (one Spanish, one British). Then came the viva itself.
The PhD candidate offers no presentation and I almost jump out of my chair when I heard the external examiner (who leads the viva) wonder where the candidate could sit so that she felt most at ease. There were finally 6 of us in a tiny room, a very high number as usually vivas, which are not public, involve just the candidate, the internal and the external. The supervisors attended because I explained that in Spain not attending the defensa of your own student is an offence. No audience, no families, though –which I did miss. The tone has been throughout kind and friendly and the conversation, for that’s what it is, rich and productive. The candidate was nervous but she soon relaxed (and so did I).
Spanish ‘defensas’ make me quite edgy as even when my intervention is short this lasts for at least 15 long minutes in which I feel exposed, as if I also were under examination. At UAB we have 3-member boards and the session lasts around 3 hours (plus paperwork) but one of my poor doctoral students had to endure a few years ago a 5-hour session with a 5-member board! In Britain, as I saw, the viva did take almost 5 hours, paperwork included, but time was allocated differently and the tension was much lower. I’m told this was a placid viva –it ended by the way with a pass with minor revisions, which means the new doctor will be awarded her degree once we’re satisfied that the typos, grammar mistakes and bibliography incorrections are gone. In worse cases, candidates may be asked to rewrite substantially and resubmit 6 months later, though I’m told this is not at all a dishonour.
Yet… I have missed our own ritual. In Britain candidates are not expected to invite the board to lunch, as we do here. This may seem a bit feudal but since a doctoral degree is the highest degree a human being can get anywhere in the world, I see the point of senior doctors celebrating the occassion with the new doctor. Also, since board members are not paid, this is a courtesy that the candidate extends to them for their efforts.
In my case, I did make the effort not only of reading a dense dissertation outside my field but also of taking quite a long journey to do both universities a favour. Yet, here I am: it’s 4 p.m., the viva is over, I can’t get back to Barcelona this evening and, except for a brief thanks from the candidate and her supervisors, no other courtesies have been extended to me. Nobody bothered to check if I arrived safely yesterday, nobody has bothered to ask me how I’m to spend the long evening nor how I’m going home tomorrow. From my university I expect no thanks, either –just a swift return of the 300 euros in expenses that I have advanced. Yes, silly me as I said.
In contrast, I have the fondest memories of the last tribunal I took part in, a year ago in Zaragoza, which ended with the most fabulous lunch I’ve ever had in my life… and, what matters most, with a fulfilling sense of having shared very good academic company and of having accomplished an important academic task. Different cultures, different views, of course…