My viva was like a vortex of academic inquiry!
And so the “Day of Judgement” finally came… Yesterday, I underwent my Viva Voce at the University of Leicester in the dark (actually, bright, but Brutalist) tower of the Attenborough Building. I felt like Childe Harold, or Frodo approaching Mount Doom, as I walked across the chilly park with my partner, Chantelle, who kindly drove me the 90 miles up the Fosseway for the big day (which meant I didn’t arrive on campus frozen to the bone and wiped out from a 2–3 hour ride on a freezing morning in late October). We went and had lunch and then I spent the final hour getting ‘into the zone’ (and trying to stay calm) in a quieter ‘break out’ space.
30 minutes before the Viva, I made my way to the 13th floor (!) and waited outside, playing a ‘lucky’ song, to give myself a final boost before going in. The sun broke through and the view across the city towards the first hills of the Pennines in the north was breathtaking. It was suitably vertiginous — I had come so far and here I was, at the ‘summit.’ This was akin to reaching Windy Gyle earlier in the summer, on the last day of the Pennine Way — the highest point of the 25-mile final slog. Having ‘walked it through’ in that way helped me to pace myself. This may be the summit, but it wasn’t necessarily going to be the end… but everything led to this moment.
Waiting to go in was intense — my fate awaited beyond those doors. I paced up and down in the corridor, trying to stay cool. Then, the panel arrived (they hadn’t been waiting behind the closed door as I’d thought), and I awkwardly shook their hands as they squeezed past. Then I was invited inside and offered a choice of seats. I went for a ‘comfy’ chair, as it faced the window. I was worried it would make me slouch, but I spent most of the session literally on the edge of my seat. The Chair, Professor Martin Stannard, got the proceedings underway by explaining how things were going to run. The last time I had visited him (my second supervisor), it was for a chat over wine and mince pies — different experience today! I was glad to have my water bottle (or rather my partner’s, as I’d left mine in the car), as my mouth kept going dry!
I wasn’t the only nervous one in the room though, and this showed in the initial questions — which rather than being easy ice-breakers and warm-ups, went straight for the jugular. I had to defend my thesis straight away, but fortunately I was prepared. All my hard work over the last couple of months had paid off. Critically, it was my plegian approach in the last few days that served me well — if I had been ‘fixed’ in my thinking and expectations about the viva, and the order and style of questioning, I might have been seriously thrown by those initial broadsides. But by adopting a playful attitude to the whole process — rendering my thesis as a Fantasy map, imagining it as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure or a Hero’s Journey — I had been able to gain a useful perspective on the thesis, seeing it as an artefact almost separate from myself, an artefact that could be discussed in a critical dialogue without it seeming like a personal attack.
Nonetheless, the level of questioning was intense pretty much throughout (although the Internal did provide some encouraging comments on the overall quality of the writing). I had to defend my thesis with everything I had. My External was actually a Grimdark author (he introduced himself as such), which I knew, having done my research — and it felt like he played the role of antagonist in a full-bloodied way, because he was coming from an ostensibly diametrically opposed position. Rather than seeing this as a problem, I saw it as a ‘fantastic’ opportunity for a vigorous critical debate. If two scholars with opposing ideas cannot engage in such a debate and see it as part of the healthy cut-and-thrust of academic enquiry, then ideas will remain unchallenged, or never develop. In many ways, the External was the ‘perfect’ person to interrogate my thesis of an ‘ethical aesthetics of Fantasy’: Goldendark. We locked horns, but it led to a lively discussion. I defended myself with everything I had — and if I hadn’t, my ‘minor’ revisions may have been ‘majors,’ so I have a lot to thank for the External’s unrelenting interrogation, something Montaigne put perfectly:
‘I will love the man who can pluck out my feathers — I mean by the perspicacity of his judgement and by his sheer ability to the force and beauty of the topics.’
It actually felt strangely good to be challenged this way by someone who had taken the time and effort to read my whole thesis (135,000 words). To have that level of critical scrutiny actually was edifying — I have put so much into my novel and commentary that to have two top academics read it closely and engage with me in such a thorough dialogue… felt reciprocal of some of that effort.
By standing my ground, it seemed I started to earn his grudging respect — as though he was some stern Samurai master toughening up his apprentice. And by acknowledging his points and actually conceding on some of them, it made the debate ‘porous.’ It is important not to go into the Viva with a ‘fixed’ mind, but a flexible one, able to dance in the vortex of academic enquiry — withstanding the intense energies by having a mercurial wit, unwavering confidence, and willingness to step back from one’s labour of love and scrutinise it from every angle while still believing in it.
By the end of the viva, it felt like we all had found common ground. There were things that needed modifying in the thesis, but most of these were ‘quick fixes’ — the odd sentence or paragraph here or there. It felt like I had wrestled the thesis back from something disastrous by a spirited defence.
After nearly two gruelling hours I was asked to give the panel fifteen minutes to discuss — and so I waited nearby. Those fifteen minutes were the longest and most stressful. I then knew what it felt like to be Schrödinger’s cat. I was neither ‘alive’ nor ‘dead,’ academically-speaking, but in some indeterminate state. I gazed out over the city and savoured the late afternoon sunlight catching the trees in the cemetery, and I thought this is Goldendark — the cusp between dystopia and utopia, between triumph and disaster, between immanence and annihilation: the ‘burning edge, the frazzle,’ as Gary Snyder called it.
Feeling frazzled, I went back inside and listened to the decision… I had passed with minors! I whooped with joy, and, after calming down a little, listened to the feedback from the Internal, who listed what I needed to do. It all sounded completely manageable — edits that could be done in a month or two. I had suddenly… a future. The next few months had not existed until that point. I had not been able to perceive beyond the event horizon of the Viva. My life had been in limbo. But now, I had a plan. The revisions would be written up and sent to me in the next few days. For now, all that was left to do was shake hands, be congratulated, and go and break the news to my patiently waiting partner. There was a lot of celebrating to do!
With enormous thanks to my fantastic supervisor, Dr Harry Whitehead; to Professor Martin Stannard, Dr Jonathan Taylor, and Dr Christopher Dows; to Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis, my ‘mock’ examiners; and most of all to Chantelle Smith, for her support.
P.S. I hope future PhD candidates find this blog useful.
Dr. Kevan Manwaring (@bardicacademic) is a Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.This story was published on October 30, 2018, on Dr. Manwaring’s blog, The Bardic Academic (available here), and has been republished here with his permission.