The night of my mock mock-viva
Last night I had what I call (with academic tongue-in-cheek) a ‘Mock-Mock’ with friends. This was in essence a warm-up for the mock-viva next week with my supervisor at the University of Leicester, but it was an invaluable experience in its own right. Until that point, I had been practising answering viva questions by myself, but that’s not quite the same thing. I found the process hard to engage with, and I must admit to doing it in a half-hearted way. It was on my daily ‘to-do’ prep-list but often got pushed to the bottom or left out entirely (I have found the writing of this blog more effective as a way of reflecting upon my viva journey and, in some cases, articulating responses to possible questions that may come up).
Lacking genuine schizophrenic (or actorly) tendencies, it was hard to roleplay both examiner and candidate by myself. I can picture the scenario: leaping between two chairs, pipe and frown in one, nervously sipping a bottle of water in the other… Then, of course, there would be the differences between the internal and external – involving a bifurcation of that role, and let’s not forget the Chair (played by a chair?). Although there is comic potential there (‘Monty PhDthon’ anyone?); it’s not really effective as a practise session. Nothing can replace the complex social dynamic and noetic field created by an erudite discussion between peers. And so, I asked my dear writer friends to help out.
They agreed and I sent them a list of possible questions, inviting them to customize them as they saw fit. A couple had read an early version of the novel, and one, my critical commentary. I didn’t expect them to re/read the whole thing, which weighs in at approx. 155,000 words – an 80,000-word thesis (20K of critical commentary; 60K of the novel) – and the rest of the novel in the appendices. The main thing for me was a chance to practise answering questions in a live situation. Not knowing the order of the questions, or their exact wording, kept me thinking on my feet. To thank them for giving up their Saturday night for me, I cooked them a meal. After we had broken bread, we settled down to business.
They started with a couple of icebreakers, which eased me into the process; and then we were off. I consciously made an effort to pause before answering, making some brief notes to help remind me of the question’s focus, and to buy myself some cogitating time. It was tempted just to plunge in, but it paid off to ‘Pause, Reflect, Analyse, Narrativize, and Acknowledge’ (my Viva acronym PRANA). I managed to do this often organically, but it was useful to have the mnemonic checklist at hand, when I phased out (it went on till 10 pm). Other things I needed to bear in mind emerged in the useful feedback session afterwards. Overall, it was a very productive, positive experience.
I feel a lot more confident about coping with the actual viva now. Of course, the practise session was amongst friends, but they role-played extremely well, rarely breaking character, and the level of questioning was rigorous. They threw in a few ‘nightmare questions’ and interrogated my answers. I certainly didn’t get the soft soap. This ‘tough love’ will serve me well in the real thing. I cannot recommend the value and effectiveness of such live practise sessions highly enough. It made the whole thing far more tangible and achievable.
Dr. Kevan Manwaring (@bardicacademic) is a Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.This story was published on October 14, 2018, on Dr. Manwaring’s blog, The Bardic Academic (available here), and has been republished here with his permission.